John Coogan, the groundsman at Nowlan Park
Nowlan Park has been acclaimed as a top class hurling venue with a unique ability to generate a throbbing atmosphere on big match days.
The venue comes alive when the sound of clashing ash rips through the air and fans roar on their favourites. There is something about the homely venue that few other grounds in the country can match.
The County Board appreciates it has a gem, and the efforts to make the place better go on and on…..new facilities, seating, toilets, additional entry and exit points and so on. And now the playing area itself is receiving a major make over.
The pitch, which is slightly bigger than Croke Park, was looking slightly the worse for wear around this time last year when sods ripped up during matches, especially following heavy rain.
It was no one’s fault, more a casualty of a hectic schedule of matches and training sessions for county teams which meant the pitch rarely got time to recover when given a bit of TLC.
Now ‘Operation Pitch’ has swung into action in earnest, and the County Board is determined that the Nowlan Park pitch will compare to the best around.
Leading ‘Operation Pitch’ is groundsman, John Coogan, a former greenkeeper in Castlecomer and the K Club golf clubs and head greenkeeper in Callan golf club during the time it was developed from a 12 to 18 hole course.
Four years ago Mr Coogan helped develop the training pitches at the County Board’s MW Hire centre in Dunmore. Around this time last year his role was extended and he became groundsman at Nowlan Park.
Now 12 months on he lifted the lid on progress with the pitch following the application of around 750 kgs of ryegrass, tons of fertilizer and thousands of gallons of water to help the recovery process.
“At the moment we are about 40% towards where we want to be,” John explained. “Basically Nowlan Park is a meadow grass area. There will always be meadow grass on it so you have to work with it.
“We are trying to incorporate ryegrass with it; stitching the ryegrass into the meadow grass which should produce a top class playing surface.
“We are going in the right direction, but it is a slow process. It won’t happen over night. Nature will have a say in how things progress.”
The rehabilitation work has to be done without interrupting the availability of the pitch for matches, squad training and so on.
The County Board are determined to avoid disruption, to keep the show on the road. County Board chairman, Ned Quinn, Pat Henderson (Management Committee), Jimmy Walsh (secretary) and Barry Hickey (treasurer) work closely with Mr Coogan, as do grounds caretaker, Kevin McGarry and long time volunteer, Mick O’Neill.
“They are making a huge contribution,” John insisted. “They look after the whole stadium. It is a team effort. We will get it the way we want it, no doubt about that.”
Ned Quinn said the ’Board was very happy with the pitch at the moment.
“This is an on going project, and will be,” he insisted. “Pitches are of such a high quality nowadays that they need continuous, expert maintenance and redevelopment.”
One of the pitches in the Dunmore training centre is closed for maintenance, but it should be available again before very long.
“Structurally Nowlan Park is in a good place,” Mr Quinn added. “Now we are putting a lot of work into improving the pitch.”
The ’Board examined the idea of closing the ’Park in order to lay a new pitch, but that wasn’t an option because of the pressure of games, local and others.
“We decided to do the work in stages so the grounds could be kept open all the time,” he explained. “In an ideal world we would have closed it for maybe six months and done the job all in one go.
“We don’t have an alternative venue to stage big games, so closing it wasn’t an option. The work will be done on a phased basis. John is leading the efforts to get the pitch to be as good as we can get it.”
The first 250 kgs application of ryegrass went in last November. There was a decent seed strike on that application despite the low temperatures. The next applications followed in March and May and there will be a fourth 250 kgs application this month.
“What we are aiming for is to be ready for the Winter months when the tale will be told,” John explained. “Grass is grass. You don’t just stitch in the grass and walk away from it. This is a process you have to keep repeating.”
Helping the process is a plentiful supply of water from the ’Board’s own well, plus a new irrigation system at the ’Park.
“We are about a year or so from where we want to be,” John suggested. “We knew it would take a while because the pitch was 100% meadow grass. Trying to get ryegrass into a well worn pitch is a far more difficult operation than working on a green field site.
“In that case you could just seed the pitch and away you go, the rooting system would be there. But when you are trying to get something into something that is already there then that grass is fighting against what you are putting it. It is battle.”
Now instead of the pitch being 100% meadow grass, as it was before, it is now about 40% ryegrass.
The final goal
“I want to have the pitch 60/70% ryegrass and bring it back to maybe 40%, at most, meadow grass,” John added. “That is the final goal. There will always be a mix. Meadow grass is the sort of grass that is everywhere.”
Even in his previous life as a caretaker on golf courses he had to deal with meadow grass on greens. Battling nature is never easy.
The rooting system was the real problem with the pitch, John said.
It was not deep enough and was not able to hold when the cogs of boots stuck in the ground when players twisted and turned. Hence the sods peeled away.
A deeper rooting grass will be able to take more wear and tear without the sods moving.
“I suppose the story now is that there is a lot done, but a lot remains to be done,” the head groundsman explained.
“We are on the right road. The County Board are leaving no stone unturned in the bid to get the pitch right.
“Anything I suggested they have gone along with, and we are making steady progress,” he assured.
Soil samples are taken a few times a year and are sent to a laboratory in England for testing. The report is then acted upon.
“When nature is involved, you have to be patient,” John smiled. “Things are coming along nicely and in the end we will get the result we want.”
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