Head groundsman Trevor Wilkin admits he will have to nurse the Ewood Park pitch back to a healthier state over the coming weeks, as he explains the reasons behind Rovers’ postponed fixture against Swansea City.
The game against Steve Cooper’s side, which was due to take place on Tuesday night, was called off by referee Michael Salisbury, who deemed the pitch unplayable earlier in the day, as Storm Christoph brought significant rainfall and widespread flooding to areas across the North West.
It is only the third time in the last 15 years that Rovers have been forced to call off a home fixture due to the weather.
Wilkin, who has worked for the club since the summer of 1982, knew that this season would present unprecedented challenges – brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic – with the wet and wintry conditions over the Christmas period compounding the problem.
Outlining the issues he has faced over recent months, Wilkin said: “After the 2019-20 season finished in late July, we had just a four-week turnaround before the 2020-21 season kicked off with the game against Doncaster Rovers in the Carabao Cup in August.
“With just a small window of opportunity to complete the necessary close season renovation work, we fraise mowed the pitch, before seeding it, but we always knew that as the season wore on, the pitch would become harder to maintain and withstand the intensity of the fixture schedule due to the lack of growing time in the summer.
“Following the Boxing Day fixture against Sheffield Wednesday, the weather took a turn for the worse and changed from being quite mild and wet to sub-zero temperatures, with heavy snow. The weather had also taken its toll on the training ground, with all the pitches frozen, even though they had been covered with the frost sheets.
“Ultimately, the first team needed to train, so Ewood, which has undersoil heating, was used as a training facility for two days in the lead up to the FA Cup tie against Doncaster. The downside to the undersoil heating is that although it keeps the pitch frost free, it also dries out the profile of the pitch, leaving it unstable and loose. We also had to keep the heating running for a full week because temperatures never really rose above freezing, day and night.
“The pitch cut up more than usual against Doncaster, as the heating had dried out the surface, before the weather changed full circle again, from minus temperatures to very wet and windy conditions, with the pitch mostly underwater in the week leading up to the game against Stoke, as a result of the torrential rain.
“We were forced to hand fork a substantial amount of water from the surface to get the game on, which we achieved. The stadium is void of any natural sunlight at this time of year, so whilst the pitch was playable, with no surface water and the ball running freely, the pitch cut up a lot more than usual and became quite boggy in areas, for obvious reasons.
“Tuesday’s fixture against Swansea was always going to be a major challenge, with the surface already saturated from the weekend. With the Met Office forecasting further torrential rain from Monday evening right through until Thursday, we knew that the pitch was going to struggle and, ultimately, the referee had no choice but to call the game off.
“Whilst it is always disappointing to have to cancel a fixture – the last time being on Boxing Day 2015 – it really was unavoidable on this occasion, as there would not have been enough time for the pitch to drain into the River Darwen, whose levels were already extremely high.
“The pitch is nearly 30 years old now and obviously ready to go to the next level, but that comes at a significant cost. However, I feel that if we can just nurse it through February, we can eventually turn the pitch around again, giving the team a reasonable playing surface for the season run-in.”
Chief Executive Steve Waggott says Rovers are not alone in having an under par pitch this season, which is something that will be addressed in the summer.
“Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on all lives and routines over the last 11 months,” he said.
“With the suspension of football last March, followed by ‘Project Restart’ that saw us play our last nine games of the 2019-20 season in June and July, the whole football calendar was turned upside.
“As Trevor has stated, the very short turnaround time afforded to him and his staff – just over a month rather than the usual 10 weeks – to prepare the Ewood pitch for this season meant they were unable to carry out the normal full renovation of the pitch due to circumstances out of our control.
“We all knew that this could possibly result in a sub-standard pitch for the current season compared to previous years. The combination of extreme weather, a more intense fixture schedule, plus the first team having to train on it due the Senior Training Centre pitches being frozen, has culminated in the pitch not being at the level we would all like.
“It is worth noting that we are not alone in encountering pitch problems, with other clubs at all levels experiencing the same issues due to the lack of preparation time last summer.
“Like everyone connected with the club, we are desperately hoping that we see some sort of normality return to our lives and football over the coming months that will see supporters return to Ewood Park and the pitch being fully renovated this summer to get it back to where we need it to be.”