Croke Park pitch manager Stuart Wilson has revealed one positive from the break in GAA activity, a revitalised and reinvigorated pitch at GAA headquarters.
And Wilson, who has previously worked at the Aviva Stadium and Arsenal’’s Emirates Stadium, has insisted that club and country grounds nationwide can similarly benefit.
"I think you'd be disappointed to see any bad pitches this year because there’’s going to be lots of time without activity on them and if people are doing the right work, then it should be a very good year for GAA pitches," said Wilson, who confirmed that Croke Park is currently thriving.
That is partly down to the absence of games since the All-Ireland club camogie finals on March 1 and partly to an overseeding process undertaken immediately after those games which was complemented by the use of germination sheets.
"The pitch has just got better and better week by week and to be honest with you I've never seen the Croke Park pitch look as good in April," said Wilson.
That may sound like a waste given the likelihood of a total wipe-out of the summer schedule, due to the COVID-19 crisis, but there’’s still the possibility of the ground hosting games later in the year.
As such, plans to install a new Croke Park pitch in autumn have been put on hold.
"Obviously now work like that is going to be totally put on hold," said Wilson. "We just don't know what’’s going to happen. There still could be matches played later on in the year. It hadn't been actually finalised but there was a potential pitch replacement at the back end of the year, at the end of the Championships. We obviously can't go ahead with anything like that now because there’’s the potential for matches to be played throughout October, November and even December. I haven't heard anything on it because I think there’’s obviously more important things going on but things like that will probably be postponed, yes."
What it all means is a likely clear run of inactivity throughout most of 2020 for Croke Park and the rest of the GAA’’s club and county grounds.
While unexpected, Wilson said the break is badly needed after a ’’shockingly wet winter’’ that left many pitches around the country ’’badly beaten up’’ following heavy usage.
"I often compare the situation to a player, let’’s say a player is asked to play four or five matches a week with another training session or two thrown in, that player is going to be fatigued and won't be able to continuously perform, they'll simply need a rest," he said. "Pitches are the exact same.
"You’’re dealing with something that’’s living, a grass plant is living, if you’ ’re constantly using it and beating it, eventually it’’s going to die."
That’’s why most club grounds and plenty of county grounds too have sandy goalmouths or artificial surfaces in front of the goaline. Now after just weeks of inactivity, goalmouths are green again around the country.
Wilson's advice to those who tend pitches is to mow them two to three times a week, to a height of ’’anything between 30mm and 50mm’’. For the record, Croke Park is cut to a 30mm height all year round. That much alone, he says, will be a big help.
"By doing that you’re promoting the density of the pitch because the grass will thicken up. Instead of growing up, it will start to grow sideways too, filling in all of those gaps. The problem is when people leave their pitches long and then go in and cut it and absolutely hack the grass down, that’’s really, really stressing a pitch. If you’’re cutting it consistently, just nipping it, just taking the top off, you will see an improvement in the quality of the pitch without a doubt."
When restrictions ease, Wilson suggests broader renovation plans for club and county grounds that might include: over-seeding with 100 per cent ryegrass, an application of top-dressing, fertilising with a control release fertiliser, aeration works like tining, slitting or linear aeration ’’to open up the soil and let it breathe and let the roots go down’’, and weed control.
"From listening to John Horan, I think it’’s going to be a good while before GAA pitches see any activity," said Wilson. "So I do believe that people will be able to work on pitches, once the current restriction on only essential maintenance is loosened obviously. I think the key is that people are ready to go, that they've got a plan in place to renovate their pitches."
Back at Croke Park, Wilson and his three full-time staff are splitting their shifts and ghosting through the stadium.
"I don't know how to describe it, it’’s bizarre to be honest with you," said Wilson. "We’re fortunate that the pitch is in fantastic shape and whenever action starts back, we'll be ready and raring to go."