Making a pitch for a worldwide business

Fri, Apr 13, 2012, 01:00

WILD GEESE: Richard Hayden Operations Director, Sports Turf Research Institute, Yorkshire

FOR RICHARD HAYDEN, the faraway hills were green. Emigrating to England in 2005, he is operations director of a sports turf consultancy and the man behind the playing surfaces from Croke Park to Ascot and from Twickenham to Kiev.

His journey started on a rainy day in Kilkenny. Working for a local farmer before starting his agricultural science degree in UCD, he figured those tending the fairways of the nearby Mount Juliet golf course had a better deal.

“I thought, ‘That looks like a handy number. It’s a nice clean place to work and you still get paid on wet days’,” he recalls. He started work there the next day. Mentored by the course superintendent, Hayden bagged a trip to a golf course trade show in the US before his UCD finals.

Armed with home-made business cards on which he awarded himself his degree in advance, the visit proved pivotal.

“It was a Eureka moment for me,” says Hayden. “It clicked for me that this was a global industry. My final exams should have been on my mind, but instead I was thinking, ‘There is a world out here for the taking’.”

But after a master’s degree specialising in soil engineering, Hayden says opportunities in his sector at home were few. “Although the country was booming, agriculture was in a poor state,” he recalls.

Accepting a job with the Yorkshire-based Sports Turf Research Institute, Hayden says the move to England was difficult for him.

“I was initially quite upset about the whole thing. When you emigrate [at a time] when everyone else is staying, it’s nearly harder. At the time, there was almost a sense of failure. It was like, ‘Everyone else can get a job here, why can’t you?’”

But go he did, becoming a junior consultant with the company. One of his first big jobs – the reconstruction of the RDS arena to host showjumping, concerts and rugby – brought him back home.

“When I look back on it now, the whole project was complete madness in terms of the timelines,” he recalls. “We started in September and they had four concerts booked for April and then the horse show.”

Then in his mid-20s, Hayden managed to pull it off. His next big gig was also on home turf – this time an overhaul of the surface at the newly revamped Croke Park. The second biggest stadium in Europe at the time, Hayden says pitch problems are common to many new venues.

“When you grow grass in a new stadium, it’s always very difficult. The grass is constantly trying to die no matter what you do with it,” he says.

“Modern iconic stadiums are not nice places to grow grass. The lack of sunlight is like trying to grow grass under a tree, but it’s 10 times worse because there is a lack of air movement as well.”

Persuading the powers at Croker by letter and email to give him a look at the ground, he spent the subsequent months babysitting the grass.

“I basically stayed in the place for three months. I based myself in Croke Park and would fly back to see my other clients. I just explained to my CEO, if this goes wrong, I can’t go for a pint in Kilkenny every again. That’s the long and the short of it. We have to close the risk.”

Turning the surface around in time for the summer, Hayden says the project taught him a lot. “It was a huge lesson for me, particularly in politics and how to carry yourself in a heavily political situation,” he says.

He was back in Croke Park again in 2009, this time to ensure that it wasn’t just U2 but players in the All-Ireland championships who could perform there.

“I remember looking at the stage on a piece of paper and saying, ‘Lads, the pitch is going to die’,” he recalls. The only solution was to dig it out mid-season, replacing it two weeks later in time for the matches. But the controversy didn’t end there.

“The big point of discussion at the time was that we were bringing in English turf,” says Hayden. “It was hard for me because I’m as Irish as they come and yet there was quite a lot of nasty stuff in the press . . . the fact of the matter was the product wasn’t available in Ireland.

“I’m a scientist, not a politician. I’ll go for the best product. Basically that’s what we did, and we were proven correct.

Alongside other projects at Ascot, Leopardstown and Fairyhouse – “horse work is the most delicate work you will do” – Hayden has spent most of the past year in Ukraine, developing Euro 2012 stadium pitches at Kiev, Donetsk and Kharkiv.

“It’s a world stage,” he says proudly. “We’re expecting to be appointed to do some of the ones in Poland in the coming weeks.”

With the Sports Turf Research Institute appointed official consultants to Fifa, work on pitches for the 2014 World Cup has Hayden in Brazil every six weeks.

Using technology that enables grass to grow at minus 40 degrees and semi-synthetic surfaces to prevent divots, he says the expectation of managers, player and punters is “perfection for every game”.

But the job has its downsides. “I can’t watch a football game any more to be honest,” he says. “I went to the World Cup in South Africa, I had probably one of the best seats and I couldn’t tell you what the score was because every time a player turned, I was holding my breath.”

Hayden says the move to England has given him scope for growth. Though he’s regularly back in Ireland for work, he says with more than 250 worldwide flights a year, he’s “a professional gypsy”.

He says while starting wages in the UK are below those of Ireland, the economy there “wants smart people who can do the job”.

“England has been very good to me, and I’d like to think that I’ve been very good to England as well.”