Wembley Stadium is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious stadiums in world football, having hosted the UEFA Champions League final and the FA Cup final amongst other big games. Fans across the world love watching the game but not many spare a thought for what goes into preparing a pitch, making the smooth and slick surface on which the game’s icons strut their stuff. In this edition of The Talking Game, editor Aditya Balaram catches up with Tony Stones, Grounds Manager at Wembley Stadium.
Aditya Balaram: Fans of the sport aren’t too well versed with how a groundsman’s day goes so could you give us a quick run through of what your team does ahead of a match?
Tony Stones: The pitch will be double cut 6 days prior to the game as we do for all big events. On the event day itself the pitch will be double cut then double marked to ensure it looks the best it possibly can before the players walk out.
Q: Unlike most other stadiums Wembley doesn’t host too many games in a season. How different does this make the preparation of the pitch? Is it easier this way?
Stones: The stadium has more play than the average Premier League pitch. Our average use was 152 hours for last year. We have a set operations model that we follow for every event as they are all treated in the same manner.
Q: The Wembley pitch received some criticism in the past. Do you think this was justified? What has changed since then?
Stones: This criticism was several years ago and before my time at the Stadium. Since I have been the Head Groundsman there has been very little negative feedback on the quality or playing standards relating to the pitch preparation.
Q: What has changed since the demolition of Old Wembley and the construction of the new Wembley in terms of soil structure, heating etc?
Stones: The new surface is a Desso system that was installed three years ago. The pitch has under soil heating and sub air system and there is also 24 sprinklers around the pitch which help with its upkeep.
Q: We’ve heard so much about pitches being prepared to ensure that some sides cannot play their natural game. Do you believe that a pitch can really be altered so much and can affect the game of some of the best players in the world?
Stones: This is hard to answer given my experiences at Wembley Stadium where we prepare the pitch exactly the same for all teams and with the same consistency no matter the match or the teams.
Q: What was it that made you become a groundsman? How does one get into the profession?
Stones: From a young age I was always interested in working with plants and grass. When I left school I did a horticultural college course and as part of that I got the chance to undertake a placement at a high quality golf club for two years. Whilst working at the course I realized that I wanted to work in the industry that deals specifically with turf. It is a very competitive industry, however, there are good opportunities to learn and further your career by looking at the Institute of Groundsmen website.
Q: How many people do you have on your team taking care of the pitch at Wembley?
Stones: There are four full time people working on the pitch, including myself and on event days we bring in extra personnel and this can see our workforce rise up to as many as 20.
Q: How long does it normally take to get a pitch ready ahead of a big game like the Champions League final?
Stones: Irrespective of the event it takes around six days to prepare the pitch for big events. The grounds team here at Wembley work seven days a week for eleven months of the year (one month is for music concerts, where the pitch is covered) monitoring, maintaining and generally tending the most famous turf in world sport. The team here at Wembley have a series of planned activities to prepare the pitch for a big game that have been specially tailored for the turf, the micro-climate in the stadium and the forthcoming match.
Q: In your opinion, which has been the best game that has taken place at Wembley?
Stones: Every event is unique and I try to ensure that the pitch is prepared to the highest standard. There have been many great matches over the years here including play off finals, cup finals and England matches that all have produced high quality play, spectacular goals and we’re proud that many legends have graced the Wembley turf.
Q: Prior to being a groundsman at Wembley, where else have you taken care of pitches? How hard was it to build a reputation and move up the ranks?
Stones: I worked at Barnsley Football Club for eight years and was the Head Groundsman for the last year of those eight years before moving to Wembley Stadium. I have been here for four years. I think that a successful groundsman has to be extremely diligent in their approach, have high levels of commitment, a willingness to learn, exacting standards and to be very protective over their pitch. If you possess these attributes along with a strong character it should enable a groundsman to build a good reputation in the market.
TheHardTackle would like to thank Tony Stones for answering our questions and Thomas Rowland, Wembley Communications Manager, for helping us conduct this interview