SALTEX 2021: “We’re ready to go!”

SALTEX 2021: “We’re ready to go!”: After the government’s recent announcement, it appears that the grounds management industry can finally start looking forward to celebrating SALTEX’s 75th anniversary, which takes place on 3 and 4 November at the NEC, Birmingham.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has revealed the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown, and it is good news for the grounds management industry’s premier show. Most restrictions on events taking place could be lifted by 21 June and some may even be permitted to go ahead with restricted capacities from 17 May.

SALTEX 2021: “We’re ready to go!”

SALTEX 2021: “We’re ready to go!”

“We are very excited about the outlook for the show in November,” said GMA CEO Geoff Webb. “As Boris said, there is indeed light ahead, and with many suffering from ‘Zoom’ and online fatigue, there is more than ever, a real appetite for human interaction.”

The Prime Minister’s announcement certainly seems to have raised spirits in the industry. Since the roadmap was revealed the GMA has reported an influx of new business and enquiries from companies eager to have a presence at SALTEX and several stand upgrades from existing exhibitors.

“It is very encouraging and we’re ready to go,” continued Geoff. “The support from the industry has been overwhelming and I’d like to thank our exhibitors for their patience and for sticking by us as we transferred from 2020 to 2021.

“We are an industry which loathes to stand still, and I think the restrictions have shown that we are missing meeting people; that businesses are keen to see their customers in person again and that they are missing that trade and general conversation. Ultimately, it has amplified the power and the benefits of live events.

“There could be more twists and turns to come and we will remain diligent and prepared. The safety of everyone attending is our main priority, so we will continue to follow the guidance and implement the necessary procedures, if needed in November.”

Spirits are also riding high after the hugely successful #GroundsWeek united every corner of the grounds management industry. The GMA’s campaign was the first-ever celebratory week which highlighted the vital role of grounds staff, volunteers, and the role that the broader turf-care sector plays in making sport possible and keeping green spaces accessible. The #GroundsWeek campaign saw a veritable social media blitz for seven days straight as manufacturers, workers, media and high-profile sports clubs, stadia and sports persons publicly showed their support for the initiative.

The positivity is set to continue over the coming months, as the SALTEX team announces more details about what is in store for the 75th anniversary. From exhibitors, products, speakers, demonstrations, the Innovation of the Year Award, new features, prizes and much, much more.

“We’re putting absolutely everything into the show, and we can’t wait to celebrate this landmark occasion with you all.

“I am sure that SALTEX 2021 will show us at our finest. SALTEX promises to showcase the talent in our industry and the changes and the new directions that we can anticipate,” concluded Geoff.

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Later Wimbledon a no go

Later Wimbledon a no go: Wimbledon head groundsman Neil Stubley says “it’s not possible” to host The Championships later in the summer or in autumn as the daily window for play would be too short.

Wimbledon last week became the highest-profile tennis tournament to be cancelled due to the coronavirus with the All England Lawn Tennis Club confirming the 134th Championships will now be staged from 28 June to 11 July 2021.

Later Wimbledon a no go

Later Wimbledon a no go

There was initially talk that Wimbledon could be rescheduled to later in the year, but Stubley says it wasn’t really an option.

“In late summer the sun gets lower in the sky,” he told The Telegraph. “Then the dew point on the grass arrives earlier, and the courts get slippery. The window for play becomes shorter at both ends. As much as it would be lovely to be able to play in late summer and autumn, it’s not possible.

“It’s true that we have staged Davis Cup matches in September. But play would start at 11.30am or noon and finish by 5pm. Whereas, at The Championships, you’re going from 11am until 9pm every day. To get through 670 matches over 13 days is a challenge in the height of summer, let alone at other times of the year.”

Stubley admits he will miss the “adrenalin rush” he gets on the first day of Wimbledon.

“One of the beauties about my job is that I get to showcase my work to the world every year,” he said. “When the eyes of the world are looking to how Centre Court is for that first day of The Championships, it’s always a nervous moment. It will be a funny feeling, through June and July, not to have that adrenalin rush.”

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EGO urge gardeners to go green

EGO urge gardeners to go green: Calling for a change to make battery-powered equipment the preferred choice over tools that emit noxious fumes and damaging noise pollution by 2025, EGO has launched a hard-hitting manifesto which highlights the dangers of petrol gardening equipment.

As one of the world’s biggest outdoor power tool manufacturers, EGO is no stranger to the demands of the gardening and outdoor tools market. Pitting petrol against battery-powered tools, the company’s Challenge 2025 manifesto tackles the issues head-on in a bid to educate users to move away from petrol, issuing a rallying cry for like-minded organisations to join them and bring the issue in front of parliament.

EGO urge gardeners to go green

EGO urge gardeners to go green

Steve Roskell, Marketing Director EMEA at EGO explains “There’s a baffling irony in the fact that the majority of the tools created to beautify our gardens are actually destroying our environment. Air pollution, noise pollution and sustainability are all clearly huge issues in today’s society. People are waking up to the dangers posed by petrol-guzzling cars. Yet, when it comes to gardening and landscaping equipment, the momentum for change simply doesn’t seem to be gathering pace in the same way. Petrol tools are known for being incredibly noisy, worryingly dirty and downright dangerous to our health – we’re keen to educate users that there is a viable, strong, powerful and cheaper long-term alternative.”

In years gone by, petrol was the only option for gardeners looking for cordless garden tools. EGO’s commitment to research and development has helped to change that. The company is now able to produce garden tools which challenge preconceptions about battery life, power and charging time which might previously have put people off making the switch. EGO’s ARC Lithium battery offers unrivalled charging time and power, and exceptional weight to energy ratio, making it among the top-performing portable batteries on the market and an ideal alternative to petrol equipment in the garden.

Roskell continues, “Cities up and down the country are making moves to reduce and discourage car usage. Yet while councils are doing their utmost to hit new emissions targets and car manufacturers are evolving to help meet the demand for eco-friendly alternatives, the nation is busy pumping pollutants into our green spaces. Research suggests that operating a commercial leaf-blower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving a 2.5-litre passenger car around 1100 miles! Something has to change – and we’re happy to lead that change by urging like-minded businesses to join us in our quest.”

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Thunderbirds are go!

Thunderbirds are go!: Ask Darren Baldwin about some of the technical innovation contained within the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and his answer brings a smile to the face of many of a certain age.

“It’s very much Thunderbirds stuff, if I’m honest,” explained the man who has seen it all during his 23 years as Head of Playing Surfaces and Estates at the club.

Thunderbirds are go!

Those of us who can remember the booming countdown voice of the Thunderbirds narrator not to mention the wobbly puppetry, will immediately know where he is coming from. Floors sliding open to release International Rescue vehicles from the Tracy Island headquarters, each piloted by a member of the Tracy family.

I’m not sure if Darren sees himself as any one member of the cast, but given what he has to deal with in terms of the above and below the pitch technology, he could quite easily stand in for Brains, but minus the big glasses!

To replace the Tarkett PlayMaster surface, which Spurs play their matches on, with the artificial Turf Nation pitch for the NFL matches, which will be regular features at the 62,062 capacity stadium, the natural pitch is split into sections, slides out and parked in what is otherwise a car park under the stadium, where the LED grow lights, fans and irrigation ensures it thrives in its unfamiliar temporary environment.

The NFL pitch is therefore revealed to create a perfect theatre for a sport which is becoming increasingly popular on this side of the pond.

The NFL pitch is six feet lower than its natural turf brother, meaning those in the first few rows of the stadium can see the play over the plethora of six foot five tight ends and line backers, coaches, physios etc who spend so much of their time on the touchline.

Thunderbirds are go!

That is just an example of what goes on at what must be currently the most talked about stadium in the world of sport, never mind the UK.

Talking to Darren, as we stood level with the halfway line, mid-way up one of the fabulous and imposing stands, you can feel the pride and sense of achievement which he, along with everyone involved in Spurs, feels.

The initial vision for a replacement for the old White Hart Lane, with its capacity of 36,284, came with the arrival of the new Chairman, Daniel Levy, way back in 2001.

“He had a vision that we needed to improve facilities, both for the fans and the players, so he looked at everything from the stadium to the training ground. We also needed to increase capacity to be in the 60,000 plus bracket alongside other top European clubs,” recalled Darren.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have been here that long so I have also lived that dream from day one, following it through to where we are today.”

It’s fair to say that any vision, no matter how “Blue Sky” would not have come close to living up to reality of what the stadium eventually became.

“It started out as a 60,000 seater bowl and progressed with options and revised visions before it became a multitude of different challenges to overcome. The word that was never to be used in any environment whether that be in the Board Room or on the construction site was ‘No’. What was always said was ‘How can we make it happen?’.”

With Darren’s focus on the playing surfaces, that positive approach was never tested more than the day when a Concert Consultant explained that to put on a full scale concert he would need the venue for 10 days, meaning that Darren’s pitch would have to be parked up under the stadium for all that time. At that time even the best case scenario was that a pitch could only survive under those circumstances for a maximum of three days.

Thunderbirds are go!

“After picking me up off the floor we went back to work to find a way of parking the pitch for 10 days and now, having done extensive testing, and thanks to our friends at SGL lighting, we can park the pitch in the Pitch Pocket for 14 to 15 days,” explained Darren, who worked closely with Julian Franklin, Head of Horticulture and Controlled Environments, at Rothamsted Research, on maintaining turf in the dark.

As a man who grew up looking after turf, being heavily involved in the concrete and steel of a major stadium meant that Darren was well out of his comfort zone.

“To be honest, I’d be in some of the meetings looking at plans and talking to senior engineers and all I’d want to know is what button to push to make it work. It was mind blowing science.

But it has given me a great insight into what goes on in an engineer’s world, as well as the groundsman’s world. It was also important that they knew and understood what we wanted from a turf maintenance perspective and how we wanted things to work.”

The air systems, vacuum systems, undersoil heating were all areas in which Darren could make sure what he and his team would be working with over the next few seasons was the best it could be and that any potential issues were ironed out before they had a chance to become a problem.

“What we have with the natural pitch is a series of trays containing 500mm of pitch build suspended three feet off the ground. We did a lot of vibration testing because what we couldn’t have was a situation where we had seven or eight players jump at a corner, all land at the same time and have the pitch vibrate. We’d be known as the Wobbly Pitch!”

The work done with SGL has been equally state-of-the-art and seen grow lighting taken to a new level at the stadium.

“A lot of design went into the wheeled rigs and, based on the experiences we had with lighting rigs we worked on the things which we felt could be improved. For example, lugging cables back and forward and having cables lying or suspended above the grass. Our system now has about five metres of cable which connects to the main power supply on the perimeter wall and that’s it. No part of the six trusses we have touch the grass – they span the width of the playing surface and operate on tracks to move up and down the pitch. We wanted the option to raise them so we could work underneath the lights while we also wanted the ability to irrigate from above them.

“In the past we’d have occasions when the lights were operating, and the irrigation has come on. Sodium bulbs don’t like the eight bar pressure of a sprinkler hitting them and they tend to shatter. So now we have an irrigation system built into the top of the trusses,” said Darren, of the trusses which are stored under the pitch when not in use.

Truly Thunderbirds indeed! Darren also ensured that the stadium had sufficient space for the machinery and equipment required to maintain the pitch.

Thunderbirds are go!

“With the new stadium we had one chance to be the kid in the sweet shop and get what we wanted and although there wasn’t a bottomless pit of money, by any stretch, we did look at what we wanted and have the machinery to carry out the job. We’ve got a mix between electric and petrol mowers – ATT on electric and Dennis Premiers for the petrol. We use the electric ones most of the week and the petrol for the last cut before a game to get the defining pattern, with that little more weight, for the finish.

“We also have storage space for the SGL lights, the fans and the mists, which we needed last summer when when it was 42 degrees pitch side. It was absolutely scorching and rye grass doesn’t like it that hot.”

The desire, and “can do” attitude at Spurs, does come with a downside, however, and that came in delays and a mind-boggling final bill for the stadium – it is probably currently the most expensive stadium in the world – a reported figure in excess of an eyewatering £1 billion is not denied.

“It took three and a half years to build and we ended up eight months late on our target date. That was frustrating for everyone, none more so than those of us at the sharp end. But it was important that we got it right.”

During that period the team played their home games at Wembley, so the team didn’t have the rush or routine of match day preparation.

“I worked at Wembley on match days for the first year and also sent two guys to Wembley full time to work with the maintenance team there. It was a bit different for Karl (Stanley) and his team as they were having to deal with us as well as the international teams.”

The big day came on April 3rd with the first match – against Crystal Palace.

“I’ve been asked many times about my emotions on that first match day, and indeed, the whole project and I say ‘Give me an emotion – I’ve had it’. Excitement, nervousness, stress, worry, lack of sleep. I’ve had them all.”

On that first matchday, with the opening ceremony and the fireworks, it was a fabulous launch to the new Spurs era but Darren remembers one particular element of the day.

“We had a hail storm an hour before kick-off and the whole pitch was white – on April 3rd! I told the guys that we were going to need blowers and snow brushes, but we didn’t know where they were stored,” smiled Darren, as he recalled the bizarre situation.

As we stood in the most modernistic stadium in the world it was a good time to find out what brought Darren, a two-time Groundsman of the Year, to the industry in the first place.

Thunderbirds are go!

“I started out as a three year-old on my dad’s lap ‘steering’ a Land Rover and trailing three sets of gang mowers at Buckhurst Hill Football Club in the mid 70s. About 10 years’ later, like most groundsmen at some stage or another, my dad got the hump when the team started training in the goal area. He threw down the keys and walked off. I picked them up and, at the age of 13, carried on looking after the pitch from then on.

“In October 1988 Steve Braddock gave me the chance to do three weeks’ work experience at Arsenal and he then took me on full time in 1990. I owe everything to Steve and I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He gave me six great years before I got the phone call and asked if I’d be interested in coming here – one of the less publicised transfers between the two north London clubs!”

Without wishing to make him sound like a reality show contestant, it has been a “journey” for Darren and one which he has embraced since he arrived in 1996.

“Back then the club had just opened the training ground at Chigwell and it was regarded as a state-of-the-art training ground although there was no lights or running water in the grounds maintenance facility. Now we have our fantastic new training ground at Enfield with aspirations to expand it to take on Tottenham Hotspur Women, who have turned full time professional this season.

“What really scares me, given how far we have come in 23 years, is what the industry will look like in 23 years from now.”

Who knows what life will be like for ground staff, or anyone else for that matter, in 2042. Safe to say Thunderbirds will remain a fond memory for a diminishing few.

Watch Scott’s interview with Darren on the Turf Matters YouTube channel