Tony Sinclair and the Manchester United grounds team

The green, green grass of home

We speak to grounds manager Tony Sinclair about the work involved in preparing the Old Trafford turf – and the pitches at the Aon Training Complex – in advance of the 2019/20 season…

The football season may be over, but there is no respite for the Manchester United grounds team who will continue to work hard in maintaining the club’s various pitches during the summer break.

For the grounds manager Tony Sinclair and his staff, the hard graft isn’t just for the hallowed turf at Old Trafford; the surfaces at the Aon Training Complex, Littleton Road and The Cliff also need expert attention throughout the year, including the next six weeks before the players return for pre-season training in July.

Speaking to ManUtd.com, Sinclair talked through the work he and his team undertake during the summer, explaining why this can be the most difficult period of the year for keeping the pitches in immaculate condition.

The Old Trafford pitch, as it looked before the final match of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Pitch perfect - how the playing surface looked before our final match of the season.

“From the training ground to the stadium, we have 23 natural pitches and five synthetic pitches to look after,” said Sinclair. 

“They all need to be renovated and prepared for 1 July and pre-season training, and then we have the stadium pitch itself to work on for the first match in August. It never stops. If anything, the constant challenge we have, to make sure the pitches are right, gets harder during the summer.”

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE PITCH


This season, United’s first team have played at Old Trafford 26 times across the Premier League, two domestic cups and the UEFA Champions League, and the pitch has also been used for Champions League training sessions and three Under-23 matches. Tony provided an insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes to ensure the turf remains in good nick during these long campaigns.

“I know supporters will come on a match day and they’ll see the bright white lines and the shaded patterns and the chequerboard effect, but to make the pitch look like that takes a lot of hard work and a lot of it is a science.

“Our pitch at Old Trafford is a Desso hybrid, so there are basically 20 million pieces of stitched-like nylon material, 20cm deep, 1.5cm apart and 2cm from the surface. So this stitching makes up 3 per cent of the pitch. Samples are taken away every week, so we can check if we are low in nutrients and micro-nutrients. If we are, then we have to decide how to amend those elements. We use artificial grow lights which kid the plant into thinking that the conditions are adequate to grow.”

AWARD WINNERS

Tony Sinclair and his team have won the Premier League’s Grounds Team of the Year accolade for 2019, which is judged by referees and match delegates awarding marks during the season on the usage of the pitch and the environmental conditions, as well as an end-of-season quality assessment by independent agronomists.

Sinclair spoke of how the Old Trafford playing surface has come on leaps and bounds in recent times and how his team can be immensely proud of their accomplishment.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said, “it’s something we are immensely proud of as a team.

“The condition of the pitch in the last four, five, six years, has come on tremendously. It’s a great achievement for the team of staff. That’s first and foremost. I always make sure I acknowledge the staff we have because you need a good team behind you. I have definitely got that.”

The Premier League Grounds Team of the Season trophy on the pitch at Old Trafford.
The Premier League Grounds Team of the Season trophy on the pitch at Old Trafford.

A PITCH FOR ALL OCCASIONS

Sinclair and co have numerous challenges to overcome during the season to make sure that the pitch remains in peak condition.

With rugby league's Grand Final held at Old Trafford – plus a couple of high-profile concerts to contend with in the last year – precautions are taken to make sure that the turf can return to serving its main purpose within a couple of days.

“The rugby has been something that we have done for many, many years, so we have processes in place. The final is played in October and we can play a football match within a week and there’s very little evidence of a rugby match having been played.

“With concerts, we use the very best pitch covering that is out there in the world that can take the weight off the surface underneath and protect it in the best possible way.”

Fireworks go off on the Old Trafford pitch before the Rugby League Grand Final.
Old Trafford has staged rugby league's Grand Final every year since 1998.

THE SMELL OF GARLIC

Walk around Old Trafford during the week and sometimes your nostrils are hit with the strong aroma of garlic. More often than not the source is coming from the pitch, with garlic being used to ward off potentially harmful parasites.

“There are millions of different species and if you get the wrong sort they can be detrimental to the outside and inside of the plant,” Tony clarified.

“So, what we have to do is apply garlic, we have samples taken away, and as and when eggs are about to hatch we apply this liquid garlic. Everybody working at or walking around the ground certainly knows when we’ve applied it!”

Old Trafford pitch on a rainy day.
The Old Trafford surface is designed to self-drain after heavy rain.

READY FOR THE ELEMENTS

With the local region renowned for its fair share of rain during the year, pitches like Old Trafford need to have sufficient drainage to ensure that games can always be played. Tony elaborated on the infiltration rate of the playing surface at the Theatre of Dreams and how long it would take for the pitch to soak up a substantial shower.

“A Desso pitch can withstand three to four inches of rain an hour. Don’t get me wrong, if three to four inches fell, the water would be lying on the surface there and then.

“If we had a heavy deluge of rain at the start of a game, within three quarters of an hour to an hour you’d expect to see all that disperse from the surface.

“These pitches are designed to be self-draining in order to cope with the elements, so it's a surface that fits well with the Manchester weather.”

So, the next time you visit Old Trafford or switch on a TV to watch United play a home game, spare a thought for the incredible work that is done 52 weeks a year in order to get that turf ready for action.

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