Kilkenny's Richard Hayden (left) has made grass his life
Bono might never play in the World Cup, but his performance helped catapult a Kilkennyman on to the sporting global stage.
For Graignamanagh’s Richard Hayden, the 2018 World Cup wasn’t about the match ratings of the star players who graced the pitch - but the performance of the pitch itself!
Hayden’s World Cup goal was to make sure that the pitch at the St Petersburg Stadium stood up to the task and delivered a surface for the top stars of the game to give their best.
For the seasoned professional - Hayden has worked at three World Cups and two European Championships - it was a task he readily accepted. But how he got there was the real story.
A Summer job at Mount Juliet was Hayden’s first involvement in the sports turf world. College and university followed, before his spell with STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) brought him to Croke Park.
“Croke Park was the start of the big work for me,” said Hayden. “In 2007 we worked with Peter McKenna and his team to help with some problems the Croke Park pitch faced through turfcare and routines. We followed on to returf the pitch after the U2 concerts in 2008, a huge task in itself.
“Some of the videos taken of that work went viral in our industry,” he added. “One of those videos was sent by Croke Park to the organising committee, which got me into the 2010 World Cup.”
The introduction to South Africa got the ball rolling, and it hasn’t stopped since.
Backed by technological advancements, he has been busy delivering different pitches to suit all conditions.
“Technology in sports pitches has moved on hugely in the last 10 years,” he said. “Technology and reinforcement of pitches and how they are presented has moved on. We can suck pitches dry using huge aeration fans, we can heat them up - we have a pitch in Russia which is functional at up to -30 degrees and one in Brazil that can be functional at up to +37 degrees!
“Technology and semi-synthetic pitches are the latest thing,” he said. “We use a hybrid pitch which has an element of synthetic turf and natural turf. We combine it in the pitch to give us the performance we require.”
And that work has brought Hayden to many different parts of the world.
“I’ve worked in 52 countries,” he said. “The passport is well-worn at this point!
“I’ve worked all over South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and Poland. I’m working on a project in Mauritius and another in Croatia as well as Riga in Latvia.”
North America is the only place Hayden hasn’t worked yet but, with the 2026 World Cup to be held there that could all change. Even then, he may be able to offer advice from a venue a lot closer to home rather than having to hop on a plane and jet out there.
“Technology has made a huge difference,” he said. “You could be talking to someone on FaceTime about a pitch on the other side of the world and it’s like you’re right there beside them.”
While technology and new systems for growing grass are ever-changing it’s vital to keep out in front, especially with newer, more elaborate ways of housing pitches.
“Stadiums are getting more challenging,” he said. “They are getting taller, darker and it’s a huge challenge to grow grass in these structures.
“The temperature can be vastly different from place to place too,” he added.
“The climate is very different from Brazil to London so you’re using different grasses and different. There was even a mosquito infestation at this year’s World Cup so you experience situations you might not get at home.”
And it’s not just the climate that can be challenging - the demands of stadium owners have to be factored into all that Richard and his Hayden Turfcare company do.
“Modern stadiums want to be able to close their roof and turn it into a multi-use venue,” he added. “They want an environment where people can feel comfortable, but that comes as a cost when you want to grow grass. It’s not a natural environment - you might as well be trying to grow grass in the corner of your sitting-room.”
Hayden has plenty of experience with the Russian climate. He was commissioned by UEFA to help with pitches for the Champions League during the 2008/09 season.
Since then he has been employed as an official consultant by Zenit St Petersburg, one of Russia’s most successful clubs.
His remit for this year’s World Cup was to make sure a new pitch was laid during the Winter break of the 2017/18 Russian domestic season in time for the Europa League game between Zenit and Celtic that February.
“It has been a huge challenge,” he said. “There is zero sunlight in the stadium, even in middle of Summer, so in September we put together a plan for a new pitch of hybrid turf.
“Things were complicated by the fact that the only window we had was during the Christmas period in December through January.
“We grew the new pitch in Odense in Denmark,” he said. “After removing the old pitch in January we transported the new pitch from Denmark to Russia, a distance of 3,000km, in climate-controlled trucks in the space of 72 hours.”
The long trek and subsequent work paid off, as the St Petersburg pitch drew strong praise for its performances in the tournament.
As well as four group games (Morocco v Iran, Russia v Egypt, Brazil v Costa Rica and Nigeria v Argentina) St Petersburg hosted the round of 16 game between Sweden and Switzerland.
However, the highlight of the stadium’s fixtures was the semi-final between France and Belgium. St Petersburg also hosted the third place playoff between Belgium and England.
“The pitch has performed excellently and is a new milestone in our quest for better pitches in tournaments,” said a happy Hayden.
“In the world’s most extreme grass growing environment, one of the best
pitches of the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia has been the St Petersburg stadium,” he added. “This is down to teamwork and dedication.”
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.