Marching on together at Leeds United Training Ground

Leeds United’s Training Ground is located on the outskirts of the village of Thorp Arch, near Wetherby and just thirty minutes’ drive from the club’s Elland Road Stadium. David Mears visited recently to meet Head Groundsman, Stefan Jones and learn more about the facilities and new developments; in particular the construction of the new first team pitch 7.

I could not have arranged our meeting on a better day, as things turned out! The visit had been planned for a while and after a few suggestions, Monday 23rd May was finally selected. This meant going the day after Leeds United’s final game of the season and not knowing if they would be relegated or stay in the Premier League. As luck would have it, Leeds made it; so, it was smiling faces all round! The article title (one of the supporters’ songs) seemed appropriate as it will be “marching on together”; the players and the training ground staff; The training ground is a crucial element in the club’s fortunes.

The site covers 12.1 hectares and was the brainchild of Howard Wilkinson, Leeds manager from 1988 to 1996. He realised that the club needed a purpose-built training facility to succeed. (There were two, by today’s standards, mediocre pitches at Elland Road in those days). The Thorp Arch location was found and several pitches were laid followed by the building of the Grange, completed in 1994, to house changing rooms, offices and accommodation for the academy players.

In 2000, work commenced on a much larger facility (the Barn). This £5 million state-of-the art establishment included much needed training equipment, an indoor pitch, reception, changing rooms and more was opened in 2002. Facilities have grown and improved over the years and an additional academy building built.

Left: Stefan Jones Right: Pitch 7 digging out

I met a very cheerful Stefan outside the machine storage part of the Barn and it was decided to tour the outdoors area first as rain was possible later. The idea of meeting on the date we did was to see and learn about the special pitch 7 before it was stripped; end of season! However, such was the work load for the contractors, Chappelow’s and regularly used by Leeds United, that they had decided to strip on Saturday after all training had finished. By the time I had arrived, stripping and much more had already been done and Ed Chappelow was driving a tractor up and down carrying out GPS controlled seeding! Not to worry, as good library images were available! This pitch is the one many are talking about as it features a fairly novel undersoil heating system.

Undersoil heating and hybrid are not new, so what was so novel about this pitch? During Covid-19 restrictions, Leeds United decided to modernise their pitches at Elland Road Stadium and at Thorp Arch Training Ground. In May of last year, work commenced on the pitch 7 project at Thorp Arch to construct a top-quality hybrid pitch with undersoil heating. Chappelow’s were the contractors selected to carry out the work, with the undersoil heating the responsibility of Pitch Heating Ltd. Based in Hull, Pitch Heating was founded by Ken Pryor in 1979. Prior to this, Ken had worked on projects laying underfloor water-based heating in giant greenhouses to maintain a steady temperature.

The idea came about that the same principle could be used on pitches. The concept was put to the test on a pitch and the results proved better than the electric cable systems in use at the time, which baked soil-based pitches. This niche idea inspired Ken to form Pitch Heating, developing the right skills and creativity. The company has grown and installed their system on many pitches in the UK and Europe, including a number of the well-known football clubs. The full reconstruction of the new pitch came with the brief to replicate the Elland Road stadium pitch and conditions. This was to ensure that the Leeds players trained on a pitch with familiarity; the same surface, size and dimensions of the stadium pitch.

Renovations get underway

Ed Chappelow commented that professional pitch construction has developed significantly since the days of simple soil pitches. The new pitch at Leeds Training Ground has the following specification: 125mm of gravel to drain water, topped with 200mm of sand, a 100mm sand/soil mix and a hybrid turf consisting of stitched synthetic fibres, interwoven at every 2cms and combined with organic grass. This provides ideal playing conditions and helps maintain the grass in top condition.

The work was carried out as follows: Chappelow’s came with two large diggers and dug out to the required depth and size. Then came the gravel and drainage which was followed by the sand. Stefan says that Mansfield sand is the sand of choice and the best in his estimation! Ken Pryor and his team then came and installed 36,500 metres of MDE piping over the pitch at 250mm centres throughout.

This layout was calculated to provide around 140,000 litres of warm water around the pitch. The piping was connected to a self-contained and purpose-built boiler house which contained the circulation pumps and control equipment. Kerosene fuel was chosen and supplied to the boiler from a 10,000 litre bunded tank supplied by Tuffa Tanks. Controls are set to maintain a constant pitch temperature of 10°C as this also ensures fertilisers will work efficiently. When the pipework and heating had been tested, the pipes were covered, then rootzone and seeding. Stefan said that three weeks grow-in was allowed before stitching the 9,000sq. mtrs. which took around four weeks.

Regular cutting and maintenance followed in due course and Stefan is justifiably proud of the new pitch!

Undersoil heating pipework
Pitch 6 three weeks growth

Following our inspection of pitch 7, the rest of the facility was viewed and photographed, including the boiler house, controls and irrigation system. We returned to the Barn and, after looking at the new academy building, went inside the main building and provided with an extensive tour of the facilities which included a café, rest rooms, sleeping quarters, hi-tech gym and equipment and a relaxation area including a log burner (one of Marcelo Bielsa’s ideas to create a relaxing ambience). We sat in this area to talk about Stefan and his work at Thorp Arch.

Stefan, aged 45, has now been at Thorp Arch Training Ground for eight years. He lived near a golf course and, with a love of the outdoors, always wanted to play golf. He attended Fulford School and went to the greenkeeping department at Fulford Golf Club for his two-week work experience. The head greenkeeper, Mark Mennell took an interest in his development and provided the inspiration for Stefan to pursue a greenkeeping career. He went to Askham Bryan College where he studied Amenity Horticulture and achieved a City & Guilds level 2 qualification. He enjoyed his time there but had to play a waiting game, as he tried work in landscape and horticulture, until a greenkeeping opportunity came along.

His chance came when he saw a vacancy at Fulford Golf Club for an apprentice; he jumped at this chance, applied and got the position! He spent five years at Fulford where he said he learnt so much from Mark, especially a good work ethic! This gave him the necessary skills to be able to broaden his career. He left Fulford Golf Club in 1999 and took a year out, returning to Pike Hills Golf Club for a while and then on to working for a contractor looking after local authority schools as well as carrying out renovations on cricket squares and winter sport pitches.

He followed this with some time at Drax Golf Club. The greenkeeping experience taught Stefan much, but groundsmanship seemed to beckon. He finally secured the position of Head Groundsman at St Peters School, York and spent three years there, honing his skills, before the big opportunity came and he attended for interview at Leeds United in 2014 for running the training ground. He secured the position of Head Groundsman Leeds United Thorp Arch Training Ground. Stefan prepares and presents his budget requests for kit and consumables to Kiel Barrett, Overall Grounds Manager for approval.

At present there are five members in the grounds team, including Stefan. The others being: Oliver Brown – longest serving member with ten years’ service, Ryan Healey – four years’ service, Liam Davies – two years’ service, Phil Norman – was in catering at Elland Road Stadium but wanted a change! Now, one year at Thorp Arch. Stefan expects to add two more to the team soon and advertising is already out.

Ryan and Phil are the nominated and trained first-aiders. A Health and Safety officer is based at Elland Road.

The soil profile, apart from the main pitch 7, has two pitches sand based and others are clay, gravel, rootzone, etc. Cutting of pitches is to professional standards and Premier League compliant. Additional equipment includes, undersoil heating (see above), drainage, irrigation, lighting rigs and frost covers. Pitches are not hired out. Flooding was an issue some time ago but, with recent renovations, including updated drainage, there is none. Frost is not so much of an issue either, neither is light or shade in the open environment.

New Academy Building

There are eight grassed pitches/areas, two SIS hybrid areas (pitch 7 is one and the second is the goalkeeping warm up area). The main training pitch, to the same standard as Elland Road Stadium, is all weather, all seasons playable.

Maintenance regimes are pretty straightforward and grass, weather permitting, is cut nearly every day. Artificial surfaces are brushed up to three times a week. Pitch marking is carried out every week. Every two to three weeks, liquid fertiliser is applied. Frequency and amounts are dependent on usage and training levels. Each month, deep aeration is carried out using a tractor mounted Verti-Drain and a Toro walk behind ProCore is also used providing varying heights and spacing. These machines can be fitted with a variety of tines.

Most of the work is carried out by the team and each member is able to carry out all regular tasks. All have received training and necessary certification where required (e.g spraying). All have attended or are undertaking college courses. Compliance with current legislation is ensured for staff and working practices and all necessary PPE is supplied. Presentation is of prime importance and above everything else. Accuracy is also most important too (cutting, spraying and, of course, line marking). Stefan is currently looking at GPS equipment for spraying and line marking which will speed things up and ensure even greater accuracy. Sharp, dead straight, clear white lines certainly enhance presentation!

At the end of the season, pitches are stripped (usually 10 -15mm off the surface) and then prepared for the new season.

The Barn

This was already underway by Chappelow’s when I visited. Around 80 -100 tonnes of Mansfield sand would be applied to each pitch. Seeding follows, then vertidraining and, after much watering, the first cut will be made. Stefan and his team used to carry this work out, but using their contractor is more effective and efficient. Renovations are affected by budget and Leeds United’s league position; staying in the Premiership this year will undoubtedly help! New projects will be discussed at a meeting between himself, Kiel Barrett and Mark Broadley (operations manager) in January each year. A plan of action will then be drawn up to include the projects agreed, e.g., updating drainage.

Stefan felt that current weather patterns generally seem to be kinder and do help, as it’s warmer. Pitch soils are monitored daily with readings taken for pitch firmness and moisture content. These should be comparable with the Elland Road stadium pitch.

Machinery is safely stored in a dedicated area of the main building and close to the pitches. (See What’s in the Shed). Local dealer Russells, based at Eggborough is their main supplier of machinery and used for servicing/parts too. Campey Turfcare also supply. There is no overall loyalty to one brand but Toro, Dennis and John Deere are preferred. Russells and Campey carry out servicing and Reel Sharp carry out sharpening on the cylinder mowers.

One piece of kit that has proved popular and has helped improve playing surfaces is a SISIS Litamina, a tractor mounted rotary brush. These compact sweepers are designed for efficient collection of unwanted debris from sand filled or rubber crumb synthetic surfaces This, Stefan said, cleans out the surface very well after training and reforms it, standing up the pile.

Pests and diseases are not a major issue at Thorp Arch. Normal weed control is carried out and, where worms are a problem, brushing and boxing off maintains control. Leeds United have an environmental policy in place and care is taken to conform with current legislation and prevent pollution etc. They have a dedicated wash area for their machinery with a central sump to take washwater to two large separators before water passes to foul sewer. The separators are inspected and pumped out each year. Oil storage is fully bunded and compliant too.

To round off, we talked about the state of our industry. Stefan’s opinion was that the team at Thorp Arch are not as undervalued as many others in grounds maintenance. He said that managers he had experienced during his time at the training ground, particularly in recent years, helped with their professional attitude to Stefan and his team. This gave the groundsmen a sense of worth. One thing though, was that the hours can be long! Stefan also felt that not so many these days wanted to enter the profession of Grounds Maintenance. He thinks it will be difficult to get people to come into the industry and wondered how they might be attracted. Stefan, however is committed, loves the job and all that it entails, but realises that maybe he needs to get a bit more downtime and switch off; something he says he struggles with!

What’s in the shed

TYM 503 55hp tractor
TYM compact tractor
3100 Toro ride-on mowers x 5
Dennis 860 cassette mowers x 2
LawnFlite rotary mowers x 6
Pro Core 648 pedestrian aerator
John Deere 4066 tractor
SISIS Litamina brush collector
Charterhouse Vertidrain
Toro pro Vertidrain
Toro Workman Utility Vehicle
Tractor mounted sprayer
Handheld equipment

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