Hallowed Wembley turf dubbed national disgrace

LONDON - The once-hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, scene of England's greatest football success and centrepiece of the country's 2018 World Cup bid, looks more like a national embarrassment now.

The woeful state of the current pitch was under scrutiny on Monday, the 86th anniversary of England's first match at the old national stadium, after FA Cup semi-final controversy at the weekend.

Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp dubbed it "an absolute disgrace" after the slippery surface played a big part in Sunday's shock 2-0 defeat to newly relegated Portsmouth.

His words echoed the condemnation of Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill, whose team had lost 3-0 to Chelsea on Saturday.

England manager Fabio Capello and Manchester United's Alex Ferguson have also been highly critical of a pitch that has been relaid 10 times since the new 750 million pound stadium opened in 2007.

While the FA declined to comment, the problem is painful for a country that prides itself on being the birthplace of the sport as well as having some of the finest pitches in the world.

"It's a national embarrassment for our industry and the turf trade in general," David Saltman, former head groundsman at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and founder of the pitchcare.com website, told Reuters.

"They have had various experts in there and followed a direction in terms of the original construction of the pitch...it clearly wasn't the right way to go.

"Bear in mind this pitch was only laid four or five weeks ago...essentially this is virtually a new pitch so you've got to look at why it's so hard and people are describing it like an ice rink."


Saltman suggested one problem was that the 'goalposts' had been moved since the stadium was built, with the pitch construction suitable for a facility hosting fewer events than is now the case.

Wembley, owned by the FA, has considerable debts to service and a calendar of events ranging from rugby to rock concerts that require the pitch to be removed or covered over.

There is a rugby game between Saracens and Harlequins coming up on Saturday and six matches scheduled between May 15 and 30, including the England v Mexico friendly on May 24.

Further ahead, the stadium is due to host next year's Champions League final.

"There is definitely a fix, Wembley can definitely be a lot better," said Saltman, who has worked with a string of Premier League clubs since he oversaw Queens' Park Rangers' removal of their plastic pitch in 1988.

"I would think that Wembley needs to find a window of opportunity to excavate out the old system and replace it with new material to carry on with a regular turfing operation."

The main problem, he said, appeared to be the sand and fibre mix beneath the turf compacting and affecting the drainage as well as causing stability issues when new turf was laid on top.

Saltman estimated it would cost around 350,000 pounds to replace the main construction of the pitch plus a further 100,000 pounds for each re-turfing, but said that would be a drop in the ocean compared to revenues coming in.

"On an average year at the Millennium Stadium, with all the re-turfs and pitch moves in and out, I would have spent around a million to 1.2 million pounds," said Saltman, who was at Cardiff when that venue was used as a stand-in for Wembley during construction.

While the Millennium Stadium also had to cater for Welsh rugby, the pitch could be moved out of the way for other events whereas that is not an option at Wembley.

"I don't think Wembley have got it right yet, they are still going through a learning curve," said Saltman.

"I was re-turfing the Millennium stadium up to five or six times a year. Certainly Wembley will have to look at going to more re-turfs in the future to try and provide a good surface on top," he said.

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