Our club has had some shaky moments in recent memory. Times when supporters faith has been rocked and the future aims of Arsenal have been unclear.
In times of uncertainty, allegiances seek a constant to cling to, a port in the storm if you will. When there was no silverware on the horizon, when our club was changing ownership, there was always a star in the inky black sky that we could rely on.
Whatever happened, supporters always knew that the pitch at our home ground would be glacier-smooth. Comparable to a bowling green, which only serves to help our artisans clad in the Arsenal jersey to ply their trade far more effectively. It aids our play and our team.
Who do we have to thank for this masterful turf? The Head Groundsman of course – Reece Watson. He and his team work tirelessly to keep the pitch exactly as our team require it. I was lucky enough to be able to quiz him a little and get some valuable insight into what is required to keep the grass at The Emirates so smooth and refined.
Q – Hi Reece, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Firstly, how did you find yourself in this prestigious role? What are the requirements for the position?
Reece – I started at the club in 2006 with the move over to the Emirates from Highbury. I joined as an Assistant Groundsperson working up to being Head Groundsperson, a position I have held for the last two years. I have an NVQ level 2 and 3 and also a Foundation Degree in Sports Turf, which is around 6 years of studying. I think you also need the obsession for perfection too. There is a great deal of pressure which comes with the job, people expect the surface to be perfect, even in very difficult conditions. We aim to give the players the best possible surface to reach their capabilities, week in, week out.
Q – The job is a large undertaking. Who do you have on your team and what do they do?
Reece – My team consist of Sion, Alan and Tom and we are permanently based at the Emirates. We are overseen by Paul Ashcroft who is the Grounds Manager at the Stadium and Hale End Academy.
We take great pride in the job we do, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve the surface. Our industry itself has taken great strides in the last decade. When you see the pitches of 10-15 years ago; you can really see how far we’ve come. Science plays a major role, you have the physics of the soil structure, the chemistry of how products are reacting in the soil and the biology of what is happening in the soil. You are dealing with a living plant, things change very quickly. There will be one of us on the pitch every day of the year.
Growing grass in a stadium environment is very tricky. The lack of air movement creates a humid, stagnant micro climate which is favourable for turf diseases. Our job is to repair and prepare the plant for the next fixture.
Q – Could you give me a brief rundown of a typical day as Head Groundsman?
Reece – Our work schedule changes around events. At the moment we spend most of our time repairing divots after games, after each game we spend 2 days solid repairing the damage. We then concentrate on the health of the plant, as it gets stressed and bruised from matches. We make sure our fertiliser programme gives the plant what it needs to recover. We are then working with our light units to position them where the plant needs it most. This is all in conjunction with the mowing, watering and performance testing we do on the pitch. We are then working towards the presentation, to try and give the fans the ‘wow’ factor when they arrive.
Q – I can assure you that the wow factor is present! After the season ends, your job dynamics must change. Is it a harder time for you and if so, why?
Reece – The summer is a very difficult time for us. People believe we have the summer off, but far from it. We start straight after the final game with corporate events, this period can last for up to a month with games from 9am to 9pm every day. This then leads to the concert period where we cover the pitch and have concerts like Coldplay and Muse. We remove all the grass every year and relieve all the compaction from the concerts and events and freshen up the soil with a light dressing of sand. We then seed and cover, and within 6 days we are mowing again. We have 7 weeks to get the plant strong enough for the Emirates Cup tournament which is 4 games in 2 days, which is very harsh for such a young plant. This leaves little room for error, and also the weather can go against you, so it makes it a pretty stressful period.
Q – Do you have much liaising with other departments at the club? Is it Arsene Wenger who decides the optimum length of the pitch, or when to water the turf?
Reece – We do liaise with a lot of the departments, the club involve us in all decisions regarding the pitch and the events held on it, football and commercial. We have built up a relationship with Arsene that he respects the work we do, and he knows we will do all we can to ensure the surface is in the condition it needs to be for the football we want to play. We know Arsene wants the pitch to play as quickly as possible with the same consistency throughout the whole season.
Q – You work in close contact to the club and its inner workings and you call The Emirates your place of work. It is a dream to Gooners everywhere, are there any other benefits to your position? Match tickets? Meeting and chatting to the players?
Reece – Being a football fan and also an Arsenal fan helps, but it is a profession, you have to love what you do more than who you are doing it for, especially with the hours we do.
Any conversations we have with the players are professional, they have a job to do and so do we, it’s usually for where they should warm up and then any feedback they have on the pitch; they are usually very respectful for the job we do.
Working for a football club is like nowhere else, if we win on the Saturday, it’s a completely different place to if we lose. We are very lucky that so many staff give their lives for the club, people who deeply love the club, I don’t think you would get that anywhere else
Q – Reece, you’ve been fantastic and have given us Gooners a great look behind the veil! Finally though, has there been any moments in the job that have been truly unforgettable, that as a fan have been more than you could ever dream of? Presuming you are a fan of course!
Reece -I am an Arsenal fan from a big Arsenal family. I am very lucky to have the position I hold. There have been many great moments working here, I think the Barcelona game where Arshavin scored the winner springs to mind (forgetting the second leg), but just the spectacle of the game was amazing to be a part of. I was also lucky enough to ride in the leading car for the FA Cup parade, seeing all the fans that day, really brings home what a great club we are all a part of, and why we really do what we do.
Reece needs to come to Seattle and replace that grey turf the Sounders play on!