Volgograd, perhaps better known to many as Stalingrad has been subject to some of the most devastating battles during the course of its history.
However, this modern, bustling city is now host to a World-Class stadium to be used for four World Cup matches, most importantly of which is England first game against Tunisia.
In 1998 Labosport PSD designed and managed the installation of their first stitched hybrid (DESSO Grassmaster) pitch in the UK at QPR Loftus Road. This started a revolution in pitch construction which has resulted in British ground keeping industry becoming a respected world leader. In 2007 PSD managed and monitored the installation of the same system at Wembley Stadium and subsequently at St Georges Park.
A decision was made that all stadia pitches for Russia 2018 would be stitched hybrid forms of pitch construction. In 2015 Russian sports surface Contractor Michael Puchkov of Sports Technology contacted, PSD Managing Director, Charles Henderson. Michael and I spent four days touring hybrid pitch constructions and renovations at Man City CFA, Stoke City Training Grounds, Debry County Pride Park Stadium and Brentford FC Stadium and training grounds. Following a review of company skill sets, a partnership bid was formed for two stadia constructions in Russia for the World Cup.
In January 2017 our joint bid for Volgograd Stadium was awarded. Deliverables for this contract included:
- Installation of a gravel carpet suspended water table pitch construction.
- Incorporation of subair ventilation and subgrade drainage system.
- Pitch undersoil heating system.
- Pitch irrigation system.
- Stitched hybrid reinforcement.
- Synthetic lighting solution.
- Accompanying surrounds drainage, infrastructure and conduits and synthetic surfaces.
A review process was undertaken for the above supply requirements and Sports Technology selected the following project delivery supply chain for Volgograd:
- DESSO Grassmaster reinforcement systems
- SGL lighting systems
- Sub-air ventilation system
- Oleg Bow and Rehau undersoil heating system and pipe works.
Just as important as the commercial supply chains are the construction materials. As a country without an established sports turf industry and vast geographical spread, the supply of manufactured graded material doesn’t exist. Further Russian Geology is such it produces some of the most uniform single size grades of sand in the world which are not inherently ideal for football pitch construction.
European Turfgrass Laboratories (ETL) undertook detailed Material testing trials on a number of gravels, lower and upper rootzones, tests included:
- Particle size analysis to allow PSD to determine the materials most suitable for use to make up, underlying gravel layer, both upper (0-100mm deep) and Lower (100-300mm) deep rootzones.
- Particle shape analysis to allow PSD to determine the level of inherent stability.
- Bridging factor to review the capacity of lower rootzone to sit over the gravel without migration into the underlying gravel.
- In addition, ETL also tested for total, air-filled and water-filled porosity of the rootzones, saturated hydraulic conductivity, organic matter content, CEC and inherest nutrient status.
Only through a combination of the all this data were PSD able to make an informed decision on material selection which would achieve conformation to PSD standards similar to pitches installed in the Premier League which were identified as a benchmark by our Russian partners, Sports Technology.
Russia is subject to a series of industry standards and norms with rigid approvals process. The selected materials and systems were submitted to Sports Engineering (the overseeing body for the construction project in Russia). All submitted designs, plans, materials and systems were approved May 2017 with construction of Volgograd due to start August 2017.
On approval PSD and Sport Technology commenced planning for the installation of the pitch at Volgograd, this was first of a number of enjoyable trips to Russia, although not without there challenges.
Timing of works and climate – From the outset of this project, climate and especially low temperature have dictated the project timing and approach in order to contain risk. From an English perspective the winter temperatures would be considered unconceivable, however, comparable to our other pitch project in Nihzny Novogorod (England second fixture against Panama) temperatures remained warmer for longer so stadium construction and subsequently pitch installation was pushed back to later in 2018.
Pitch Installation Timeline
Sports Technology were delayed entering the site by around two weeks to facilitate completion of the stadia roof installation. Despite this the pitch was delivered and seeded within the critical path. This was imperative to allow as much time as feasible, to establish sufficiently strong turf cover through winter to maximise winter turf survival during the prevailing -10 0C temperature.
October – November Grow-in
Due to the stadium roof installation timing and cranes on the pitch platform, grow-in was always going to have to take place during late summer. The decision to seed, despite knowing a full establishment couldn’t be achieved was taken as it would facilitate an initial consolidation period for better stability in 2018. Complete establishment from seed in 2018 was considered too high risk and some winter kill in spring was more tolerable.
Turfgrass Winter Kill
From the outset the highest identified risk to the successful delivery of a perfect pitch for England V’s Tunisia was a turf condition widely experienced in Russia called ‘Winter Kill’.
Winter Kill affects different species of turf in different ways with environmental factors a major factor. A combination of factors can lead to the term Winter Kill which include:
- Crown hydration.
- Low temperatures.
- Ice sheets.
- Snow mould disease.
Crown Hydration, identified as moderate-high risk to Volgograd, the plant as soon as it emerges from dormancy begins taking up water ready for growth. The plant and the water absorbed is then susceptible to rapid freeze, generally encouraged by large ‘day–night’ temperature swings. The water in the cells then rapidly expands on freezing shattering the turf plant cells.
Desiccation, identified as low risk to Volgograd can occur on exposed pitches when the plant is either dormant or semi-dormant and is dried out by the wind. Another cause is when surface runoff is significant. Desiccation was not considered a factor in the stadium due to the closed nature of the stadium and the free draining pitch profile.
Low-temperature Kill, identified as moderate risk to Volgograd – Formation of ice crystals when freezing temperatures prevail can kill the plant. The issue is most prevalent when soil temperatures are low due to the presence of the crown of the plant within the soil. Research has shown that Perennial Ryegrass is highly susceptible to low-temperature kill. Use of the undersoil heating and pitch covers has prevented low-temperature kill becoming an issue within the stadium.
Ice Sheets, don’t cause damage to turf and research has shown that plants can withstand 150 days without significant injury. Damage seen after the ice melts can be attributed to crown hydration in low areas or areas where water stands for significant periods. Any damage seen under ice is likely to be caused by a build-up of toxic gases. This was a factor which could be controlled at Volgograd.
Snow Mould, a potential significant risk at Volgograd, can occur if the turf is left covered for significant periods or if other environmental factors are present which are often heightened within a stadium environment. Use of preventable fungicides on a regular basis helped to regulate against any issues with disease.
Volgograd experienced light damage coming out of winter, with what is known as a ‘forced melt’ using the undersoil heating system. All snow is removed from the surface and ice built up prevented during the course of winter. The key risk in the period was crown hydration and this was experienced in February 2018 leading to some turf cover loss at Volgograd and other stadiums.
Spring Over-seeding and Recovery
The possibility of turf cover loss through winter was always a potential risk for most venues. Volgograd didn’t escape this but compared to other venues turf cover loss through winter was only sporadic across the pitch. Light Winter-Kill was accompanied by one of the country’s coldest February and March months. This left the seemingly impossible task of recovering turf cover through February and March for warm up fixtures in April.
Temperatures through this period were extreme with huge swings from night to day. Night low temperatures were -7-80C on average and day time high 8-10 degrees centigrade. Despite these temperatures turf cover was increased from 50-60% up to 90% cover in preparation for the warm up games.
This involved strategic use of undersoil pitch heating, pitch covers and lighting rigs. The daily routine started with removal of lighting rigs from the pitch, removal of pitch covers and replacement of light rigs to increase light exposure. Throughout this period undersoil heating was set at 14 degrees. The use of covers and lighting rigs enables soil temperatures to be maintained at 10-12 degrees despite atmospheric temperatures being -5 degrees. It was only through this intensive regime that turf establishment and growth could be achieved through such cold weather. This improvement didn’t come without knock-on effect which had to be managed in turf.
Through this early growth strategy, it facilitated the development of full turf cover through May gradually reducing dependence on covers, heating and supplementary lighting.
With full turf cover achieved and two positive test matches and domestic cup final hosted the focus turned to fine tuning the pitch quality. PSD and Sports Technology entered into periodic testing programme covering both surface performance characteristics and agronomic trends. This has facilitated appropriate maintenance operations leading into the World Cup and the stadiums first World Cup Fixture.
Meaningful and Lasting Russian Football Legacy
The focus of any World Cup is to provide the host country with a lasting and meaningful legacy which helps the country take on and improve the sport of football for the years after the World Cup is hosted.
The obvious legacies are the stadia and training pitches that are built within the host country. However, the more subtle and meaningful legacies are the skills and knowledge to continue building world class pitches without being dependent on foreign expertise.
In Russia the sports turf industry is alive and well but is still developing, the World Cup has presented an opportunity to install new infrastructure and better-quality pitches, but it also presented an opportunity to leave behind skills and knowledge to continue this after the World Cup and Sports Technology can certainly do this.
What did I learn during this project?
- Russians are kind and hospitable people despite what the media may suggest at times. I have visited the country on numerous occasions during these projects, each time I have made some very hospitable friends.
- Russia is a big country and is very cold in winter.
- With use of the latest technology, committed and knowledgeable staff you can overcome seemingly impossible temperatures to grow-in and establish pitches from seed.
- Having an in depth understanding of materials is essential, you will not find ‘off the shelf’ supply chains like the UK. You will have to review combinations of materials and additives to achieve the desired final mixes from onsite, this takes real technical knowledge.
- Extremely high pitch and turf standards have been achieved without many of the products available in the UK. Never lose focus on the core factors which effect turf growth and development.
- Not to allow pressure and people to affect technical decision making. On numerous occasions in the delivery of these pitches, due to the climate and circumstance, those without technical understanding challenged our path and encouraged ‘short term quick fixes’. At all stages PSD and Sports Technology held the planned path and produced the highest quality pitch for Russia 2018.
- Maintain relationships with project partners throughout a scheme and display loyalty.
- Sports Technology and PSD is not only a one off strategic partnership, but a lasting and meaningful friendship that will lead to future partner projects in Russia and further afield.
Charles Henderson, Managing Director (PSD), & Director (European Turfgrass Laboratories, Professional Sportsturf Design (NW) Ltd.