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Slippery Wembley pitch blamed on stadium roof

A leading turf specialist this week blamed the design of Wembley stadium for problems faced by footballers playing on its pitch.

Total Turf Solutions, which has worked on rugby and cricket stadiums said that the roof did not allow enough light and air to circulate in the stadium. As a result grass cannot take hold in the turf, resulting in a poor playing surface.

The quality of the Wembley pitch came in for heavy criticism after players slipped during the two recent FA Cup semi-finals and the Carling Cup final at the stadium. Wembley hosts the FA Cup final on Saturday.

Operator Wembley National Stadium Limited (WNSL) has defended the stadium’s design but has had to relay the pitch for an 11th time ahead of the final. The stadium has a semi-retractable roof designed specifically to open up so light and fresh air can reach the pitch.

WNSL said the recurring problems were due to the fact that the venue is frequently used for nonfootballing events like concerts and motor racing. For these, the pitch has to be covered.

“Lack of sunlight and air movement will stress the plant and leads to poor binding and tensile strength which leads to poor traction.”

Andrew McLeod

But turf expert Total Turf Solutions (TTS) rejected claims that problems were down to non-football events staged at the stadium. It said pitches do not usually need relaying because of overuse. Pitches usually have to be relaid at venues whose designs create poor grass growing conditions.

“Sunlight and air movement are the two critical factors for plant growth,” said TTS technical consultant Andrew McLeod. “Lack of sunlight and air movement will stress the plant and leads to poor binding and tensile strength which leads to poor traction and as a result players slipping on the surface,” he said.

He said similar sized arenas, such as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Manchester City’s Eastlands Stadium and Manchester United’s Old Trafford, are also multi-use stadiums but do not regularly relay their pitches.

He admitted that good growing conditions are notoriously difficult to achieve in large stadiums, but said that solutions can be found.

Wembley Stadium’s website says that the retractable roof was incorporated into the design specifically to encourage grass growth.

The new Wembley Stadium by night

The new Wembley Stadium by night

“One of the key challenges of the design team was to keep the famously high standard of the Wembley pitch while, at the same time, designing a stadium with stands that are higher and closer to the pitch than the original stadium and give better uninterrupted views,” says the website.

“Many new stadia have suffered from poor pitches as the stands can leave large sections of the pitch in almost permanent shadow. Grass demands direct sunlight to grow effectively.

“For this reason, the sliding roof remains an integral part of the design for the new Wembley,” says the website.
WNSL ruled out putting the pitch on removable pallets which could be taken away during nonfootball events. Such a system was abandoned as a failure at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

Regularly relaying the pitch was also rejected as “inappropriate” for Wembley, says the website. Instead, computer models were made of air movement and sunlight on the original pitch and the moving roof designed for the new stadium, it says.

Following recent criticism WNSL sought advice from the Sports Turf Research Institute and it recommended that the stadium owner implement a pitch replacement strategy.

WNSL now believes that a costly pitch relaying operation is its best strategy. “We clearly can’t play international football on a pitch that has just had a concert on it,” said a WNSL spokesman. “Given our current calendar, we would have to returf regardless of the stadium design.

“There is a unique challenge with the surface at Wembley and we are working with expert pitch consultants to get it right,” it said in a press release last month.

“The sliding roof remains an integral part of the design for the new Wembley.”

Wembley Stadium website

“Wembley Stadium is a multipurpose venue and we have to hold other events as part of the business plan, which means regular pitch replacements each year,” the statement said.

“We will continue to review, monitor and work with industry experts to deliver a football pitch to the quality everyone in the country wants.”

Structural engineer for the stadium was Motts Stadium Consortium, comprising Mott MacDonald, Connell Wagner, Sinclair Knight Merz and Weidlinger Associates.

In a statement Mott MacDonald said it was the engineer for the roof and that the client “employed specialists for the specification and construction of the pitch”.

It declined to comment on the roof’s effect on the ability of grass to grow on the pitch.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Dear Sir

    I refer to the comment that the Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium system was a was rated as a failure so no further experiments appear to have been carried out in the UK.

    However there are stadia around the world including that at the Sapporo Dome which was opened in 2001 and has 41,580 seats.

    The Sapporo Dome is a stadium located in Toyohira-ku, Sapporo, Japan, and is primarily used for baseball and football. It is the home field of the baseball team Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the football club Consadole Sapporo.

    The Dome is interesting in that it switches between two entirely different surfaces. Baseball games are played on an artificial turf field, while football games are held on a grass pitch that slides into and out of the stadium as needed. Some other stadiums that feature sliding pitches include the Gelredome in the Netherlands, Veltins-Arena in Germany and University of Phoenix Stadium in the United States; however, unlike these three facilities, the Sapporo Dome has a fixed roof.

    Conferences have been held in the Dome including, in 2002, the World Road Association’s (PIARC) XIth’s International Winter Road Conference maintenance conference at which the British Government’s representative gave a presentation.

    Allan Carter

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