INTERVIEW: Top Grounds Team

The 20/21 season has been a unique experience for football clubs up and down the country, but one thing that has not wavered is the quality of the Home Park playing surface.

The exceptional quality of the pitch at the Theatre of Greens is often remarked upon by visiting teams, and the hard work of the club’s grounds team, led by Estates Manager Chris Ralph, was acknowledged on Wednesday by the EFL, awarding the club ‘Highly Commended’ status for Sky Bet League One.

On hearing the news, Chris said: “All of the team are more than happy for the recognition - it shows we’re doing the right processes, and it’s nice that our work has been recognised outside of the club.”

Ralph and his team know the importance of maintaining an excellent playing surface to assist Ryan Lowe’s side with their preferred style of play, but additional pressure was heaped onto the grounds team this year due to the condensed fixture schedule.

Chris said: “The biggest hurdle for us during the game changes due to the pandemic was the lessened recovery time for the pitch in between games. The intensity for the turnaround is high, we’ve got to do everything we can as quick as we can to get the pitch in the best condition possible for the next fixture for Ryan and the boys.”

Such is the importance of the playing surface at Home Park, the club’s Board of Directors approved the purchase of lighting rigs to improve recovery in troublesome areas of the surface through the winter months – with the touchline on the Mayflower Grandstand side of the pitch not seeing quite enough sunlight to recuperate quickly during the winter months.

“It was a long process,” said Chris. “We had to make sure the investment in lighting rigs was a good decision and warranted. We looked into every avenue, seeking advice from agronomists [experts in soil management] to make sure we were doing the right things. It’s been a fantastic investment and we’ve seen massive improvements in the grass coverage.”

With all age groups at the club, from first team down to the youngest Academy teams, now adopting the same style of play, the grounds team are acutely aware of the importance of producing top-quality playing surfaces, whether they be at Home Park, the club’s training ground, or the Manadon Sports Hub.

“Obviously the lads have to do their thing on a match day, and the same with us - we’ve all got to do our bit. It’s crucial to get the playing field performing as quickly and smoothly as we can without causing any detrimental effects. Our aim is to remove any possible hinderances on grass coverage for our players’ abilities - everything we do is to help earn those three points during a game.

Chris admits that much of the ground work was laid this season by taking the calculated risk of proceeding with a pitch renovation during the coronavirus-enforced break at the end of the 19/20 campaign. Argyle were one of few clubs in the EFL, particularly below the Championship, to commit to relaying the pitch while decisions about the 20/21 campaign had not been made.

He said: “We weren’t 100% sure if we would have time to get a complete overhaul - but we took an educated gamble with the backing of Zac [Newton, Club Secretary] and Andrew [Parkinson, CEO], and the fact we were able to complete this when money was tight, was a definite factor for us being able to maintain a good playing surface.

“Throughout the worst weather, our ryegrass pitch has allowed us to create the best environment for Ryan and the team. It’s massively paid off.”