Real Madrid, PSG and Atletico: How British groundsmen are making a splash at Europe's biggest clubs and beyond

Some of the world's biggest clubs now lean on British turf experts

Robert Kidd
Monday 12 March 2018 15:08 GMT
Brit Jonathan Calderwood oversees Paris Saint-Germain's facilities
Brit Jonathan Calderwood oversees Paris Saint-Germain's facilities

Amid the spending spree since Qatar Sports Investments bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, the signing of a 35-year-old Northern Irishman might not have made many headlines but he arrived to huge promises from the club's owners.

Jonathan Calderwood arrived in Paris in June 2013, headhunted on the advice of former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier. Immediately Calderwood was told he would play a key role in the new owners’ vision to make PSG one of the biggest clubs in the world.

“It was a big decision for me. It’s a huge challenge but a unique opportunity,” Calderwood tells The Independent.

As head grounds manager, Ballymena native Calderwood is responsible for PSG’s pitches being among the world’s best. When the club’s new training complex is complete, he will lead a staff of 55 groundsmen overseeing 32 pitches, including the Parc des Princes.

The reputation that brought PSG calling was earned in 12 award-winning years as Aston Villa’s groundsman. Since his arrival, PSG have complemented their domestic dominance by winning Ligue 1’s best pitch for four consecutive seasons.

While players from the British Isles have historically struggled outside their own lands, Calderwood is one of a flurry of home-grown groundsmen cutting it abroad.

On the other side of Paris, Yorkshireman Tony Stones is in charge of ensuring the turf at the Stade de France is perfect for the French national football and rugby sides. Formerly head groundsman at Wembley, Stones got his start looking after bowling greens and golf and cricket pitches in Barnsley.

At Real Madrid, Galactico groundsman Paul Burgess is another Brit considered one of the best grass masters in the world. He has spent nearly nine years overseeing Real’s pitches, including the Bernabeu stadium, after leaving Arsenal where he played a big part in the design of the Emirates Stadium to ensure optimal grass-growing conditions. In October, he was joined in the Spanish capital by Anglo-Spanish groundsman Dan Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who had been in charge of the turf at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, was poached to become head groundsman at Atletico Madrid’s new ground, the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.

Paul Burgess, now at Real Madrid, is considered one of the world's best

From preparing penalty spots for Ronaldo and Neymar to cultivating pitches to suit the demands of coaches, the achievements of groundsmen are often unsung. With manicured surfaces the expectation in modern football, groundsmen, like referees, aren’t noticed until there’s a problem.

“Nobody wants to see a consultant when the pitch is perfect. It’s like seeing the dentist,” says Richard Hayden, an Irish grass consultant who once drove a tractor on a golf course and now advises on World Cup final pitches.

Sometimes called when the pitch equivalent of root canal is required, Hayden knows the pressure groundsmen face – from critical coaches to players looking accusingly at the grass after missing a sitter.

“It can be a very thankless job because if the pitch is perfect nobody really hears about it and nobody wants to talk about,” he says.

Wembley's pitch has to be in pristine condition

“I can’t watch the games. I sat in the World Cup final in 2010 and other finals and I couldn’t even take in the score during the game. My entire focus is on the turf and how it’s performing and interacting with the player.”

Calderwood says groundsmen take on a dual responsibility – ensuring the risk of injury, and a bad pitch bobble, is minimal.

“We have gone from basically cutting grass, to protecting the club’s investments. It’s almost an insurance role now,” he says.

“People talk about the Championship play-off final being the £100 million game. If the ball rolls across the six-yard area and there’s a bad bounce off the pitch so the striker misses, that can cost the club £100 million.”

Embracing technology like undersoil heating and heat lamps have helped British groundsmen stay ahead

Since the days of “England’s greatest gardener” Capability Brown, the British Isles has had a reputation for producing green-fingered talent. But Geoff Webb, from the Institute of Groundsmanship, says the willingness of UK and Irish groundsmen to embrace advances in technology is one reason “the rest of the world plays catch up”.

Technology has outdated the image of a groundsman as an amateur gardener casually pushing a mower around. Modern turf managers must consider everything from pesticide and fertilizer legislation, to often unpredictable stadium microclimates.

The international popularity of the Premier League – and the perfect pitches the teams play on – has also been a great advert for groundsmen.

“I have no doubt that the impact of live sport on television, for example with Sky TV, has helped raise awareness and made the UK groundsman attractive worldwide,” Webb says.

Brit Phil Sharples is now in charge of Azerbaijan's turf

Azerbaijan-based Phil Sharples is one of those fulfilling the demand to emulate the Premier League’s pristine pitches from further afield. When he arrived in the country in 2010 there was one professional-standard pitch – a synthetic one – but the development has been such that Sharples is currently setting up Azerbaijan’s first formal qualifications to train a new generation of local groundsmen.

“Sport is developing and the demand for quality, strong, resilient and very presentable playing surfaces is high,” Sharples, whose first grass job was on a golf course in hometown Watford, says.

Dean Gilasbey, from Llanelli in Wales, has overseen the past two Champions League and Europa League final pitches and also works with Fifa to train aspiring groundsmen in countries including Iran, Macedonia and Ghana. Last year, he was in charge of pitches at the Under-17 World Cup in India.

“The Premier League is always on TVs across the world, the guys in India for example watch the matches and they want pitches as good as that,” he says.

Indian Super League pitches were of an almost uniformly high standard

“I have seen six out of the 10 pitches in India that would compete with Premier League standards nowadays and lots (more) across the globe.

“Slowly but surely, the rest of the world is catching up.”

Away from the British Isles’ unpredictable but relatively tame climate (notwithstanding the recent Beast from the East), challenges can be as extreme as the weather.

Overseeing pitches at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Richard Hayden developed a world-first pitch-cooling system for the Arena Corinthians, to cope with the 40-degree days in São Paulo’s rainy season. He was also tasked with recreating the surface at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium for Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv in Ukraine – while ensuring it was hardy enough to withstand minus 30-degree temperatures.

Unusually for a groundsman, Calderwood has found himself a mini-celebrity since moving to Paris. In France, where, like other European countries, it is still common for stadiums to be owned and managed by the local government, Calderwood’s signing was reported like that of a star player. Former PSG boss Laurent Blanc publicly thanked him after winning the title. And striker Zlatan Ibrahimović joked he was jealous of the attention the Northern Irishman – dubbed ‘L'Anglais Jardinier’ (‘The English Gardener’) by the media – was getting.

Calderwood readies the Parc des Princes pitch for another game

He has also been “pleasantly surprised” by how appreciative PSG’s superstar players are.

“These guys are world-class and when they are at that level the pitch is a weapon for them,” Calderwood says.

“It’s like a snooker player’s cue or a tennis player’s racquet. They know that to be able to perform at the highest level, the pitch is so important.”

But while he appreciates the attention on his work, Calderwood knows groundsmen are ultimately judged on the performance of their pitch.

“In football they say to a player ‘you’re only as good as your last game’,” Calderwood says.

“I’ve always said ‘you’re only as good as your last pitch’.”

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