Wexford Man Ben Turner Keeping Croke Park Pitch Pristine

We spoke to Ben Turner who works as a groundsman in Croke Park about how he ended up in the job, his day-to-day work, and he offered some useful advice for clubs when it comes to managing pitches.

How did you end up in the job?

Groundsmen or Greenkeepers are similar trades, we work with grass and understand grass. This is known to us as the Turfgrass Industry. To get to the higher end of the trade you do need qualifications. Like most young lads doing the Leaving Cert, I was at a crossroads with what I was wanting to do in terms of my career. I always loved golf and watching golf, and was amazed how the golf courses on the TV were absolutely pristine all the time so I kind of thought I would love to learn more about that.

I choose an Agricultural Science related degree in UCD, based around Sportsturf Management. This was a 4 year degree, where I met some knowledgeable people. In 3rd year as part of a Professional Work Experience module, I went looking for work over in America on a few golf courses out there and ended getting a job in Louisville, Kentucky on a course called Valhalla Golf Club. Jack Nicklaus designed course. McIlroy won the 2014 PGA Championship there and the course has held Ryder Cups.

Upon returning from America I completed my final year exams and thesis, and went about looking for work in Ireland. In April 2018 a position in Croke Park was brought to my attention on a website. I got in touch with the main man there Stuart Wilson, who is Pitch Manager. We arranged a meeting in the stadium, had a good chat, walked the pitch a couple of times and I was offered the job. I am now over two years there, taking pride in the work and learning every day from colleagues. I consider myself lucky to have got the job, and I work hard to do things to the highest standards. Stuart has been brilliant to me, and I am very grateful for that.

In Croke Park itself there are 5 full time staff members working on the pitch. The attention to detail taken is obsessive and it has to be, given the high volume of matches and other activity on it every year. There can be up 80 events on it, most of them adult matches. Early in the year is usually a tough time. Between start of the league and all Ireland club championship games, along with generally poorer weather, low air and soil temperatures makes this a heavy time on the pitch. Photosynthetic levels in the plant are low due lack of substantial sunlight due to how shaded the pitch is with the high stands around. There are months of the year where we never get light on the pitch. This is where technology such as Stadium Grow Lights (SGL’s) come into use usually from October to March. They are taken off two days before matches so the pitch can be prepared. Luckily these days the pitch is getting plenty of Sunlight.

What we do is a science, you need to know a bit about the grass species, plant biology and soil science, plant nutrition and so on. Croke Park is real grass with 60% Poa Protensis and 40% Perennial Ryegrass which we find works really well given the usage the pitch goes through. 

What do you do on a daily basis?

It can vary depending on different things. Cutting the pitch is the basis of daily work. During normal weeks the pitch is cut 5/6 times a week in the height of growing season and then in the week of a match it can be more than 10 times, usually cut twice in the morning of match and once in the evening or nighttime after the match. This depends on our schedule and if we need a quick turn around before the next lot of matches. Pitches can never be cut too much if done correctly. We hand mow the pitch, it’s done with walk behind mowers, both cylinder cut and rotary cut depending on conditions and purpose. We would have a strict nutrient program for the pitch so that it is never lacking in plant nutrition and I can’t stress enough how important it is for a pitch to be spiked. This promotes the roots to grow deeper and deeper, meaning the grass is tougher and more difficult to dislodge during matches, along with better plant health. Aeration involves Spiking or Verti draining the pitch. This helps what’s below the pitch, provides a good clean root zone, less soil compaction for infiltration of water and of course air.

Other jobs like topdressing of sand will be done when it is due. These jobs all happen at different times; one week there will be a spray or two, the next week we may be spiking. Various jobs around the pitch all are done to keep it as tidy and well-presented as possible. We do a lot of pitch testing for surface hardness, ball bounce and record every last detail of what the pitch goes through. Soil temperatures, outside temperatures at various times, Shade in the stadium bowl, Rainfall, sunshine hours and so on. This all comes into the job. It is extremely important to take good care of all our machines, mowers and tractors. I have always enjoyed working outside, and being active, so my job is very enjoyable in that sense.

Our job is all done for the pitch to perform well and at a consistently high level for every single game played. It is satisfying to see a ball coming in low to a corner forward and he has confidence in coming out full-paced to get it and turning at top speed, without the fear of slipping, or the fear of a ball taking a bad bounce. Trust in the pitch is important to players.

What pieces of technology are used in the preparing of the pitch?

We are blessed with technology to help us along the way. Pitch sensors below the ground will tell us the temperature, soil moisture from the office or at home. If moisture is low on the pitch after a warm day we can turn on water that night from home if needed. 

Under soil heating pipes can be used in the cold weather. If a morning of frost is expected we can turn on the heating to try battle the frost. This is very important, as when a pitch is frozen you cannot cut it or use it for anything, or it may burn. 

If it’s too wet we have underground fans which will act as a suction to take the water out of the pitch by blowing air up into the soil.

All of those pieces of technology help us battle the difference in climates which we are faced with throughout our playing seasons here in Ireland. 

Has your work changed due to COVID-19?

We have to keep going, our attention to detail remains the same. The grass doesn’t stop growing just because the country stopped. So we have to keep the pitch in the best shape for whenever matches do return. 

There have been no games on it since March 1st, All Ireland Club Camogie. The break was badly needed after an extremely busy winter period. Some important work was done to help the pitch recover, an overseed goes a long way to bring grass back so that was a great help.

Favourite Croke Park Moment?

A favourite hurling moment in there would have to be Wexford winning the Leinster Hurling Championship. That was a serious buzz and Hill 16 was bouncing. I had to stick around to work late that evening but in fairness to the boss, Stuart, he understood days like that don’t happen too often and let me go early. I managed to get down to Wexford Town in record time to get a few drinks. A great day all in all. In terms of Football matches up there, I love watching Dublin play, they set a good standard of professionalism. 

Have you any pieces of advice for clubs and club groundsmen?

I’d encourage all those looking after club or county pitches to keep the pitches cut consistently. Every 3 days if possible. Why? By just nipping it, taking the dust of it, this encourages density, meaning the grass will grow at different angles. Local pitches should be looking at getting work into their pitches now before the winter comes if they are needed, it will benefit them going forward. Overseed, topdressing and spiking the pitch would be important. 

I see people using the likes of 10-10-20 on pitches and unfortunately they just don’t work. They need to be using actual Turfgrass products that are put on the market specifically for pitches. If not, pitches won’t be in good shape during a wet spell and you’ll end up with games postponed at important times. If a pitch is looked after correctly, it will be ready when you want it, even if it has been wet for the week before.  

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