Laying Foundations for Elite Women’s Football: An Industry Steps Up
by Charles Henderson
Managing Director at PSD & TGMS
In 2019, we were approached by a Hannah Buckley of The FA, who handles the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship Infrastructure. Pitches were one of Hannah’s immediate concerns because the league was experiencing a lot of cancellations and poor player feedback. The condition of pitches was impacting negatively on the profile of the competition and quality of football that could be played.
At PSD, we don’t chase clients, nor do we especially prioritise them; we treat each client as important as the other. Consequently, I didn’t realise the astonishing journey the next three years would bring. The clarity of vision that Hannah brought to our appointment has enabled PSD to support The FA in its vision to raise the profile of the Women’s game.
Sat viewing England in the Euro semi-final with my 5-month-old daughter, satisfaction washed over me, realising PSD had bolstered what has been an acceleration in the standard and profile around the world of Women’s football. Over three years and continuing, it has been a pleasure watching our grounds industry step-up to provide elite women’s football with pitches that have enabled the world’s best footballers. This has been achieved through consecutive years of careful planning and implementation.
Understanding what you have and quantifying it
With the WSL and WC on the rise, early TV rights deals were increasing in demand. The EPL and its ground staff have set the global standard for pitches, and during the 2019/2020 season, the neighbouring WSL was having an alternative experience. Thanks to the foresight of The FA, PSD had already begun the detailed measurement of pitch standards within the league using a system called Scoreplay. This system enabled The FA to identify where their pitches stood not solely in comparison with each other in the league but against established norms across other leagues such as some English Premier League clubs, where PSD conducts hundreds of tests every year.
(Above: Examples of pitch conditions caused by poor lower grade pitch infrastructure in 2019/2020.)
The FA were able to understand quickly; while early season and end of season quality showed more uniform and desirable playing conditions, critical winter periods from December to March were seeing pitch quality across the league become inconsistent, with several pitches falling below desirable standards. This was having an impact on cancellations, the visual profile of the game and free flowing, attractive football. It was not enhancing the profile of the WSL.
(Above: ScorePlay data processed into comparable overall quality ratings.)
(Above: ScorePlay data tracking pitch quality overtime.)
(Above: Measurement of surface drainage enabled pitches with limitations to be clearly identified and further investigations targeted.)
Determining the origins of inconsistent pitch quality during winter
Through implementation of objective assessments across the WSL and championship pitches, pitches with inherent limitations were to be identified for further investigations. Switching service provision from Pitch Quality testing, PSD implemented a series of objective feasibility studies to identify the existing pitch profiles and rootzones in place. This was achieved by initiating a series of sample excavations and collecting materials testing through European Turfgrass Laboratories. From this, The FA could identify limitations on specific pitches that required improvements in infrastructure and an additional maintenance approach to raise standards, which would make the WSL pitch standards more uniform.
Building a technical and business a case for works needed
Contrary to general perception, the global benchmark in pitch standards set by the EPL requires tremendous levels of investment and operational cost to sustain. The level of investment required to address limitations identified though earlier processes was significant and beyond what some club’s business models could facilitate. Support was going to be required for The FA to support WSL clubs and WSL itself in raising the profile of the league as a world leader.
The FA, working through its project delivery team The Football Foundation (FF), set off to facilitate a series of pitch upgrades that would target earlier identified limitations and provide long-term home grounds to clubs with pitches that sustain desirable standards year round. In some situations, this also meant being able to benefit men’s teams via upgrading ground share scenarios.
The FA, working with PSD, reviewed all pitch options available along with costs, not only looking at each venue, but looking at the maximum impact across the leagues. With standard pitch profiles at EPL grounds costing over £1.2m, The FA could not foresee an ability to achieve the widespread benefit to the WSL through generic implementation of such construction. PSD reviewed what the WSL needed to achieve from pitch improvement and the numbers of pitch improvements required to make a significant difference. From this, PSD brought forward newer technology options with alternative pitch profile constructions that enabled the WSL to make improvements by utilising as much of existing profiles as possible. This has made pitch works more accessible and reduced the comparable carbon footprint of such works across the league.
The Football Foundation has now delivered 4 pitch improvement projects working through PSD and several industry suppliers. With such positive traction achieved, it was also pleasing to observe some clubs add further funds to investment to optimise pitch installations.
(Above: Improvements works at Kingsmeadow for Chelsea.)
(Above: Improvement works at Dagenham and Redbridge for West Ham.)
During 2021, The FA and Football Foundation supported the upgraded pitches during what were challenging COVID-19 periods. The football pitch construction industry stepped up during this time, dealing with quick turnaround times and high levels of lead time uncertainty to get pitches constructed during tight summer windows. Through effective cooperation, it was a pleasure for PSD to take oversight of these projects, helping to realise improvements needed and showcasing the industry’s ability. Most rewarding was the opportunity to welcome new or young grounds staff into roles with more responsibility.
Looking back, looking forward
All the England Women’s squad ply their trade in the WSL now. Three years ago, pitch quality was not good enough, and it was hindering the potential of the league and its players. Three years on, The FA has, through careful assessment and implementation, along with effective engagement of capital, achieved an observed and measured improvement in pitch quality. The British grounds profession and application of multiple disciplines within it, has played a huge role in helping The FA deliver its vision for the Women’s Football. We are proud to be part of this.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this journey is that it doesn’t stop. The FA is fast establishing the WSL as the standard of Women’s football. Women and girls now have established figureheads and new aspirations. The FA does, however, recognise that without grassroots and effective tiered football; the benefits are not realised by a nation. Focus is now shifting to pitches across more tiers of the national women’s game to identify standards and ways to improve these pitches year round.
PSD continues its work with the Women’s game supporting FIFA and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) in India with the U17’s Women’s World Cup and the LOC in Australia & New Zealand for the Women’s World Cup working with sister organisations Labosport Australia and New Zealand Sportsturf Institute (NZSTI).