Grass masters

While a site devoted to the football itself may be the best new discovery, Ian Plenderleith finds himself strangely drawn to the world of groundsmen by memories of a difficult career choice

It’s often been said that 90 per cent of the internet is a load of balls, but the “site of the month” award goes to a domain that has taken this to new and detailed extremes. Soccer Ball World is a football anorak’s long wet dream of history, stats and specifications centred around just one spherical object.

Just as humans for millennia have believed that Earth is the centre of the universe, so the ball is seen as the focal point of all meaningful existence by football fans. It’s such a simple object and yet it’s one we take for granted, surrounded as it is by all the colour, character and razzmatazz of the game. Ultimately, of course, it’s all you need.

But there’s so much more to know: from Charles Goodyear’s first vulcanised rubber ball in 1855 (held together by glue); through early 20th-century bladders covered by stitched-together leather panels; up to the synthetic leather balls that were first manufactured in the 1960s and which are now so technically complex you may need a degree in physics and/or chemistry to understand fully the production process.

“The forces on a spinning ball that is flying through the air are generally divided into two types: a lift force and a drag force,” the site says while explaining why a ball curves. There’s plenty more, if you’re interested, including the exact reasons why Roberto Carlos’s famous free-kick at the 1997 Tournoi de France took the path it did, although it’s the actual pictures of the changing designs that will most likely retain the interest of the casual reader.

Piqued by this glance into the past, I searched long and hard for a website devoted to the history of the shinpad or the corner flag. These gaps in the football online market are still ready and waiting for the historical cyber-hobbyist, but at Into The Net you can access many of the contents of the National Football Museum and the FIFA Museum Collection. Enjoy, for example, a view of early shinpads, made from leather with metal buckles, which were worn outside the sock in the 1890s and probably weighed more than latter-day cricket pads.

You can also see leather wickerwork boots, said to be more than 90 years old, “uncomfortable to wear, and smelly”; a selection of moth-eaten caps (it’s a wonder that the FA haven’t yet tried to reintroduce these – think of all that extra space for sponsors’ logos); a dangerous-looking bladder extractor; a brass pump (perhaps used on cold days at Eton to chivvy up shivering, reluctant schoolboys); and various old studs, socks, shirts and trainers’ bags, although many of the links to see blow-ups of the pictures weren’t working.

It’s not, strictly speaking, equipment, but ever since I was offered a job on Turf Management magazine several years ago, I’ve been vaguely interested in pitch maintenance, and have now found a website to answer all my questions about the art of laying stadium grass. Pitchcare , “the only site ‘by groundsmen, for groundsmen’ in the world”, will probably give you more information than you need, but even if you’re not a groundsman, you can appreciate the delicate science necessary to ensure a smooth playing surface.

“For those of you that aren’t aware,” says an article by Pitchcare’s managing director, David Saltman, “the pitch at the Millennium Stadium comprises 7,388 high-density plastic modules (or giant plant trays), filled with a drainage layer and growing medium of fibre root zone that rises above the module by approximately 75mm. The module depth is approximately 200mm.” These may seem like dry facts until you realise the writer is charged with the task of removing and storing all 7,388 modules by 8am the day after the spring’s final game, with heavy rain at the rail terminal meaning “the poor guys on the forklifts were working in atrocious conditions”.

Never let it be said that the world of turf management is not a dramatic one. I’m serious. After a speedway meet and two rock concerts, the turf team returns the surface for the Charity Shield, removes it again, encounters “squareness” problems upon reinstalling against an impossible deadline… and that’s just one article out of hundreds. You can vote on whether or not groundsmen are being asked to work too much overtime (one possible answer: “Life’s a pitch – but we love it”), peruse the used machinery (get yourself a “Blotter” water removal unit for just £4,850), or mosey over to the message board for some lively chat on the causes of bumps and dips (“Mr Anonymous with the ‘typical contractor’s answer’, what planet are you on?”

You may only need a ball to play football, but these men are the unsung heroes who go a long way to ensuring that it always rolls in the right direction.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month