All hands to the pump to prepare Wembley pitch for Spurs v City
Groundstaff have just 30.5 hours between Sunday’s NFL and Premier League clash
A view of the Wembley surface ahead of the Premier League game between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters
If Wembley’s ground staff are feeling sorry for themselves at the prospect of turning a pitch prepared for the NFL match between Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday into a surface perfect for the Premier League match between Tottenham and Manchester City on Monday night in less than a day, they can seek some solace in the fact that some of their predecessors had it very much worse.
The Spurs game will kick off 30.5 hours after the NFL match, but in 1991 Wembley had to cope with a game between the London Monarchs and Orlando Thunder that started at 8pm on a Saturday night, with Crystal Palace playing Everton in the Full Members’ Cup final, then known as the Zenith Data Systems Cup, only 19 hours later on Sunday afternoon.
“The Monarchs game finished about 10pm, and we worked right the way through till 1pm on Sunday,” says Steve Tingley, then Wembley’s head groundsman. “By the time we got rid of all the lines and numbers it was about 4am before we could get a mower out there, and mow it in a football pattern.”
In the 1990s the process of removing the lines was painstaking and laborious, essentially amounting to physically brushing the grass clean. “Now they have removable paint, but when I worked at Wembley we had to scrub it off,” Tingley says. “So they’re far more successful these days at removing the white lines than we ever were. However it’s only removable on the leaf of the grass and unfortunately at Wembley at the moment, because of the boxing [Anthony Joshua’s world title fight at the stadium last month], they don’t have a lot of grass in the middle of the pitch, and the paint sticks to the soil.”
This is not the only problem the current groundstaff will encounter as they attempt to give Wembley a 24-hour transformation. Like many Premier League teams the pitch is strengthened with a Desso system, which knits the grass with polypropylene fibres. This makes it much less likely to cut up, but also reduces options when there is wear.
“We had a normal playing surface based on sand and soil and it would divot,” says Tingley. “American football was an awful sport to play on our pitch because it used to cut up so bad. Obviously in American football they make a play, go back to the same place, make another play and go back to the same place, and it’s all through the middle of the field. So the centre of your field gets absolutely trashed.
“These days they have Desso which stops it from doing that. They’re far luckier than we were. We spent hours that night just putting divots back. But in my opinion Desso isn’t perfect for Wembley, because it doesn’t allow you to right the wrongs of American football, concerts and whatever else. It’s very hard to recreate the playing surface between games. Some other products allow you to take worn areas away and replace them with perfect turf again.
“In 1992 we had seven or eight Monarchs games, and it absolutely destroyed the centre of the pitch. So we commissioned a company to make a machine that would cut turf in one-metre-squared sections, two inches thick, so we could swap them out. In the week leading up to the FA Cup final we replaced the entire centre of the pitch, and nobody could have noticed there had been American football on.
“I did enjoy the challenge, and I’m sure the guys at Wembley will be in a similar mode now. One time the stadium manager came to me and asked if we could do rugby league on a Saturday and football on a Sunday, and we did it. And then I realised what we’d done: we’d opened the door for them to do more. Then the Monarchs came along, or the Nelson Mandela tribute concert three weeks before a Cup final. You do things you’ve never done before.”