WITH the end of the season approaching, Wanderers’ head groundsman Richard Norton is preparing to sow yet more seeds for success.

The summer months represent the busiest time of the year for the near two-decade veteran, who has masterminded playing surfaces at both the Reebok and Burnden Park in a long association with the club.

Few are better placed than he is to gauge the progress made by the Whites in the Premier League era – and just one glance at the complex scientific principles involved in constructing a modern day pitch say much about how the game has moved on since he started in the business.

“The difference between the two grounds cannot be measured,” he said with a wry smile. “Burnden was an old soil-constructed pitch with next to no drains in it at all. It was very heavy and got wet quickly, then would never dry out.

“Nowadays the pitch has a synthetic element to it. We have actually got two per cent artificial material in there with the grass. They are green nylon threads sewn about eight inches in, with about an inch sticking out, which is obviously the bit we play on.

“The rest of it acts as a stabiliser, and because it is predominantly sand it stops that from shifting and helps the drainage in the pitch.

“If you were to strip all the grass off our pitch you would see a huge green plastic mat, quite similar to the third generation artificial pitch they have at the academy at Lostock. As the plant grows, the roots wrap around the plastic and that makes the pitch very stable.

“It is a completely different world but the game has moved on so much, the Premier League demands the very best and you have to pay for it.

“It is very, very expensive. For example, a bag of grass seed costs £70 and we throw one of those on before every match.”

Norton’s background is anything but horticultural. An ex-RAF officer, he went to the renowned Myerscough College in Lancashire to study groundsmanship and green-keeping and worked for Hull City Council before landing a role at Manchester Rugby Club.

It is by no means a one-man operation. With surfaces to maintain at the club’s training ground at Euxton and the academy at Lostock, seven other groundsmen are under Norton’s charge.

“I oversee things and try to jump between sites,” he said. “I go where I am needed. If the gaffer thinks there is a problem at Euxton, I’ll head over there, but usually I try to spend a couple of hours at each site to make sure things are ticking over.”

During the season, Norton and his team spend endless hours cutting, rolling and maintaining the pitch to keep it in pristine condition.

If he speaks passionately about the surface at the Reebok, it is because the operation really is his ‘baby’, having been involved from the start when the club moved over from Burnden Park more than a decade ago.

The new ground has not been without its problems, but since the club took a bold decision to install the latest turf technology two years ago, Norton admits they have been fewer and further between.

“When we came over the Reebok there was an ideal opportunity to put down a pitch that could really perform,” he recalled. “But you have to realise that 10 years ago the technology was nowhere near what it is now. Things like the Grassmaster – which is what we use here – hadn’t even been invented.

“The first pitch here was a fibre-sand pitch with nylon to stabilise it. It played okay but we never got the results we really wanted and it could cut up badly.

“Then when we started staging other events here – like the Oasis concert – we got into re-turfing once or twice a year. We literally grew a pitch elsewhere, at Grantham, and brought it here bit by bit.

“We still couldn’t produce the kind of Premier League surface the manager wanted at the time so two years ago we decided to move to this, more hard-wearing pitch. It’s a good surface to play on now.”

Light levels are so low at the Reebok that the actual job of growing grass is a difficult one. Artificial light – pioneered in Holland to grow tulips – is used to promote growth 24 hours a day and the four giant white rigs are a permanent fixture between matches.

“The area underneath the North Stand has really benefited,” Norton added. “That area has really been a problem in years gone by because as the sun goes over, it quite quickly goes into shade. But the lights have really helped.”