The pitch at Emirates Stadium, the new home of Arsenal Football Club from August this year, will be one of the most technically advanced in the world.
Designed, and currently being constructed by John Hewitt of Leicester-based Hewitt Sportsturf, the pitch will include the latest technology, above and below ground, to ensure a superb playing surface all year round.
John has worked with Arsenal for 17 years, acting as consultant and contractor at Highbury as well as at the Shenley training ground.
The current pitch at Highbury, undoubtedly one of the best in the Europe, was originally laid down in 1989. One of the oldest in the Premiership, its longevity has been put down to the quality of the original construction, and the efforts of the top class grounds team - under the leadership firstly of Steve Braddock, and for the past seven years, Paul Burgess.
Grass growth at Highbury has also been helped by the open corners of the stadium which allow good circulation of air, and the fact the stands do not cast a huge amount of shadow over the pitch. This, together with a rigorous maintenance programme that pays great attention to detail, has kept the pitch going far beyond its expected lifetime.
In 2000, John was asked to design the pitch for the Club's new stadium.
Emirates Stadium is much more enclosed, however the panelled roof is angled inwards to try to reduce shading and there are gaps between the top of the seating area and roof to allow air through.
"Emirates Stadium will create a very different environment to Highbury," John admits. "Paul Burgess, the Highbury groundsman, and I worked together with the architects in the early stages to make sure they understood what grass needs to grow well. And being a completely new build has allowed us to incorporate all the latest technology. This will help Paul and his team maintain the pitch in tip-top condition."
Construction of Emirates Stadium started in February 2004 by contractors Sir Robert McAlpine. A year later, John was able to start work on the initial pipe installation for the under soil heating and the Forced Air Ventilation and Vacuum System (FAVVS).
This system, developed over many years, is a ducted vacuum and air pressure system which can carry out two operations. Firstly, cool, fresh air can be blown into the pitch, supplying additional oxygen to the crucial area around the roots of the grass plants. This provides aerobic conditions in which the grass can thrive, and reduces the risk of a black layer forming. In the vacuum phase, any excess water can be drawn down away from the surface to reduce the risk of waterlogging during heavy rainfall.
The under soil heating is hot water gas fired, and uses flue gases from the air system, which makes the closed system 100 per cent energy efficient.
There will also be a pop-up irrigation system, a dedicated running track and fully retractable advertising boards around the playing area.
During the spring the base of the pitch and pipework will be covered with fill material and the whole pitch sealed to eliminate pressure leakage from the air system.
Layers of drainage material will then be laid, before the specially designed lower and upper root zones are constructed, using yet another John Hewitt invention, Fytozone. This incorporates synthetic loose fibres within the upper root zone material which gives added stability. The surface will then be stitched with Desso fibres, before overseeding with Advanta's MM60 seed mixture.
"This will be the Rolls Royce of pitches," says John. "Everything will be in place to ensure Arsenal always have a top quality surface to play on all year round." says John.
"Paul is already using SGL lighting rigs at Highbury to maintain grass coverage at summer levels during the winter months, and will be taking them to the new stadium. With all this new technology in place, we are confident that Arsenal will benefit from playing on one of the best pitches in the world."
With thanks to Football and Sports Arena Magazine.
Paul Burgess comments...
"I have been totally involved in the new development from day one, and have had a great deal of input into how things are being done regarding the playing surface. The good thing is that everything has been done correctly - and that is really important if we are to produce the very high quality we set out to achieve. The Emirates pitch will be very different to Highbury and will need managing differently. We have a lot to learn. For instance how to use the new FAVVS system to optimise conditions within the root zone, and how to use this in conjunction with the lights. If you have 60,000 people sitting around the pitch, it will never be ideal growing conditions for grass. What the technology gives us is the ability to supply light, air and water artificially to mimic natural conditions. This is a really exciting time for the Club and I am really looking forward to the big move. I am confident that the playing surface at the new stadium will be even better than that at Highbury."