A KILKENNYMAN is playing his part as the Green Army prepare to march on European football’s biggest stage.
For Graignamanagh native Richard Hayden the European Championships, the biggest football tournament on the global calendar for 2012, will see the eyes of the sporting world locked on his handiwork in Ukraine and Poland.
Hayden works for the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), a company who are busy working the pitches that Trap’s men and 15 other countries will take to this Summer.
As you can expect it hasn’t been an overnight task, but the length of time dedicated to the tournament is a bit of an eye-opener.
“We’ve been working on the European Championships since 2008, that’s when I went out to Ukraine for the first time,” he said. “We won three projects out there initially. Our focus has been on the stadia in Ukraine, but we are expecting to win a contract in Poland which will increase our workload again.
“The main work we’ve done has included the main stadium in Kiev, where we’ve installed the pitch,” said Richard. “We have also worked on the FC Metalist pitch in Kharkiv and the Donbass Arena, the home of Shakhtar Donetsk.”
Much like the stadia in South Africa, the project has involved some extensive work.
“The level of work we’ve had to do has been huge,” he said. “The logistical operation has been phenomenal alone; crossing the border is a job in itself when you’re taking in six lorry-loads of diggers and dumpers and then trying to get them back out again. It’s been a full-time job; even sourcing local materials and putting things in place. We’ve had two guys based out there full-time for the last while (Paul Flanagan from Offaly and Mark Galvin from Kinsale). They’ve been there all Winter, when the weather has dropped to -30°C and -40°C.
“It’s been tough Winter, but we got through it,” he said. “Now we’re well geared for the championship. The job is finished in Ukraine; the next stop is Poland.”
Having focused their attentions on Ukraine, the Polish side of the job was an unexpected one for the STRI team.
“We haven’t had much to do with the Polish stadia so far, but I’m expecting that we’ll have to returf some of them, as well as staff training,” he said. “It’s a bit last-minute, but we’ll get there.
“That’s how these things work,” he said with a smile. “They give us 100 days’ notice for a World Cup and 70 days for the Euros!”
Much like South Africa, weather has played a big part in pitch work. Ukraine has some of the world’s most extreme weather conditions, with pitches needing to withstand a climate which includes frost, snow, heavy rainfall and temperatures which can fall as low as -30°C in the Winter and rise above 45°C in the Summer.
“While working at the World Cup we developed a system called ISASS (the In-Situ Air Sparging System) which allows us to circulate hot air through the base of the pitch,” he said. “It keeps the grass alive when the temperatures get as low as -30°C, as they did at times in Africa, so when you rip off the cover you have lush green grass underneath.
“We’ve tweaked that technology and used that at FC Metalist. That has worked pretty well, especially as we had a cold Winter there and they play a lot of games in February in Ukraine.”
The job at FC Metalist saw the STRI team start from scratch. Their brief was simple: give us the best.
“We won the FC Metalist contract with Oleksandr Yaroslavsky,” said Richard. “The chairman of the club he is one Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs (Yaroslavsky is believed to be worth $3.5 billion). His brief to me was to recreate Arsenal’s Emirates pitch in Ukraine.
“That was our goal and that’s what we did,” he said. “The work on the pitch has gone well to date. Now it’s a maintenance issue to make sure everything is up to speed for the first match there between Holland and Denmark on June 9.”
That’s not to say that STRI team can sit back and take it easy.
Job never finished
“The thing with this industry is that you’re never fully there when it comes to completing a job,” he said. “The grass can turn at any moment because of the micro-climate we’re growing these pitches in. None of the pitches want to be there - when you install any of them in these modern iconic stadia the pitch is looking to die from the moment it goes down. That makes things challenging. We have a bit of work to do now in Poland in April and May.”
And it won’t just be match venues that will keep Hayden and his team busy - they have been working with Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni to ensure that the Republic of Ireland squad hit the ground running when the tournament comes around.
“We’ve already been working with the Irish team on their training camp in Montecatini in Italy and their camp in Gdynia in Poland also.
I’m hoping there won’t be a repeat of the Saipan incident,” he added. “It certainly won’t be because of the pitches!”
So what goes into providing teams with top class training facilities?
“The training ground depends on the location,” he said. “Some countries have chosen bases in Poland, others Ukraine. The key issue will be to provide teams with a firm, stable surface which is well presented. That will be our focus - we have three truck-loads of equipment ready to go out for renovation work on the training bases. From this month the trucks will go on a little roadshow covering the training pitches, starting in the north of Poland and working our way down.
“After two weeks of that we’ll be overseeding and with a bit of luck on our side in terms of the weather - luck is always a fairly major part of the job - everything will be fine.
“The teams will want to train on their pitches twice a day,” he added. “They’ll have goalkeeper and drill training, all of which takes its toll on a training pitch. We’re conscious of that, having had the experience in South Africa, so we’ll have to make sure the training pitches come on form. You’d like to start all these jobs earlier, but it’s the nature of the job.”
World Cup feedback
Hayden admits that the STRI team will be going into the Euros on a high, having received great feedback from players and teams for the work they did at the World Cup in South Africa.
“We had a couple of problem pitches (Port Elizabeth and Durban) but the rest were fine,” he said. “In general the teams were pretty happy - I think they got surfaces which were a lot better than they had expected, so on that basis the World Cup was a great success there.
And that success has led to another World Cup win for the Graig man and his colleagues.
“We won the contract for Brazil 2014 on the back of our work in South Africa,” he said. “I’ve been out in Brazil once every six weeks for the last year planning that tournament and visiting all the stadia they’ll use.”
It’s all part of the neverending cycle, with the business of sports turf taking Hayden from jobs in London to Brazil and Singapore, where they are working on another stadium project.
“It’s a truly global business,” he agreed. “Singapore is our first breakthrough into Asia. We’re employing several Irish people at the minute, a figure I hope to increase. It’s a success story which has come through a lot of hard work and, a bit of luck.”
The London project is a little closer to home, but not without its share of challenges. Hayden and his colleagues have constructed a cross-country course in Greenwich Park which will be used for the equestrian events at this Summer’s Olympic Games.
“It has a pretty spectacular backdrop, “ he said. “The park’s hillside location looks across to Canary Wharf and central London. It’s going to be one of the more spectacular events, looking out over the city and its skyscrapers, but the location came with massive constraints.
“Greenwich Park is a special area of conservation and a World Heritage site, so you can’t put a shovel in the ground,” he said. “We had to retrofit around everything that was there, which means an awful lot of science has gone into the work there - it’s probably the only place where you’ll find the four tractor drivers involved have Masters degrees! You have to be a scientist as well as a tractor driver to do that job!”
For now the focus is on the European Championships. The jewel in the STRI crown at present, the ISASS system is attracting huge interest from Russia, Canada and Iceland. Perfecting it, and making it work in Ukraine, was the hardest part of the Euro 2012 contract but has led to more rewards.
“UEFA have been on to us to look at systems which will prevent the problems that happen each year in Eastern Europe in terms of pitch quality,” he said. “We’ve been working on the ISASS system for some years now, but it’s been a great success. The next big challenge for us now is to see if we can create it in reverse - can we get an air-conditioned pitch to grow grass in places like Qatar. That’s what we’re working on now for (the World Cup) 2022.”
The company aren’t forgetting the World Cup in 2018 either.
“The World Cup calendar is 2014 for Brazil, 2018 for Russia and 2022 for Qatar,” he said. “Our experience in Poland and Ukraine will be beneficial for Russia, but I’ve been out to Qatar a few times this year already as we look ahead. There have been plenty of air miles clocked up!”
Qatar might be 10 years away, but the scale of the job means that the spadework has to be done well in advance.
“The World Cup is developed by the host nation so it’s not FIFA but the local authorities who develop the facilities,” he said. “I try to lead and direct from an early stage, but it’s quite difficult as it can almost be as much as politics as the technical side of things at the early stage.”
And it’s not just countries who demand the best.
“Managers and players, not to mention fans and the media, have gotten a lot more education on pitches than they had years ago,” said Richard. “They are far more vocal about it; their expectations are higher. That expectation is perfection.”
Here is one avenue where Hayden believes Ireland are well-equipped.
“We’re very lucky to have two great venues in Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium which have great surfaces,” he said. “The Irish team are used to playing on pitches like these, so it’s our job to try and make sure that will be the case for the European Championships. In Ukraine the job is done. We have a bit of work to do on Poland, but it won’t be long before we get on the road there.”
But what about the football? Having put all the hard work into getting venues ready, is there a chance to sit back and watch the full 90 minutes unfold?
“Generally you’d stay for the first hour, hour and half on the build-up to the game,” he said. “If you can make the match then it’s great, but how it worked in the World Cup was that you’d stay for the first 30 minutes. If there were no problems you’d get into your car to beat the traffic and it’s off to the next venue.”
There won’t be as much driving this time, as they will have two teams involved.
“The hosts are two very separate countries so we’ll have a team in Poland and another in Ukraine,” he said. “We’ll have about eight or 10 men per crew in each country and see how we go from there. It’ll be a busy Summer, but fingers crossed it will go well.”