‘Born in Scotland, made at Portman Road’ - Ferguson’s pitch perfect journey from Ipswich to the World Cup Final
PUBLISHED: 14:54 11 July 2018
Ex-Ipswich Town groundsman Alan Ferguson is in charge of the showpiece surface at the World Cup in Russia. Stuart Watson spoke to the Scotsman.
“There’s an advert on the TV at the moment that says ‘Born in Carlisle; made in the Royal Navy’. Well I was born in Scotland but made at Portman Road.”
Alan Ferguson may now have reached the pinnacle of his profession, currently maintaining the pitch at the World Cup’s showpiece stadium, but he will never forget where his career started.
The 58-year-old joined Ipswich Town from Scottish giants Rangers in 1996 and, over the next 15 years, built a reputation as one of the best in the business. On seven occasions he was named Groundsman of the Year.
In 2011, he joined former Blues chairman Sheepshanks at The FA. First he worked on the pitches at St George’s Park, then, in 2015, he took on the playing surface at Wembley too.
Last June a second major restructuring by the association saw him made redundant. As one big door closed, several other massive ones opened.
UEFA had Ferguson working on projects in Turkey, Dubai, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo, with his wife Carol booking flights and hotels from the family home at Mendlesham Green near Stowmarket,
Then SIS Pitches were awarded the World Cup contract by FIFA and they asked Ferguson to be their head consultant groundsman.
“I have been coming to Russia for one week per month since September last year,” explained the Scotsman, whose own company is called Premier Sports Turf Maintenance.
“I’ve been in charge of preparing six of the 12 World Cup pitches - Kaliningrad, Spartak, Luzhniki, Samara, Rostok and Saransk – plus a seventh stadium in Krasnodar that didn’t end up getting picked for the tournament.
“It’s been a punishing schedule; I was taking eight flights a week back and forth across Russia. And the winter was brutal – I’ve never worked in such cold conditions.
“The temperatures in January, February and March were down at minus 15/16 degrees. The Luzhniki Stadium hosted a Putin election rally on March 3 and there was 23cm of snow!
“We just about managed to limit the damage. In the end we were left with just six weeks of decent growing weather, so with all that in mind – and how bureaucratic everything is over here – I am absolutely delighted with how the pitches have been. We left the grass a little bit longer for the first few games so that they would wear well later in the tournament.”
Ferguson has been based at the 81,000 capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow during the tournament, a venue that has changed dramatically since Ipswich played Torpedo Moscow there during their UEFA Cup campaign of 2001/02.
So far it has hosted Russia 5 Saudia Arabia 0, Germany 0 Mexico 1, Portugal 1 Morocco 0, Denmark 0 France 0, as well as Russia’s penalty shoot-out win against Spain in the last 16, with tonight’s England v Croatia semi-final and Sunday’s final to come.
“The pitch has had 58 hours of use over 22 days at the time of us speaking,” explained Ferguson. “It will be 85 hours of use by the time we reach the final – and that’s exceptionally high.
“I’ve worked in big stadiums and at big tournaments, but the size and scale of the commercialism surrounding a World Cup is something I’ve never experienced before. The closest thing I’ve seen to it is the NFL games at Wembley.
“There were 20 hours of activity on the pitch before the opening game and 16 hours of those were rehearsals for the Robbie Williams concert. The other day Adidas had the pitch for six hours filming an advert for the new ball that they started using from the knock-out stages. There are two hour rehearsals just for the bit you see before the game when the flags are brought out onto the pitch.
“Everything is based around global TV. There are people with stopwatches everywhere. It’s a military operation. There’s a reason the Luzhniki didn’t host a quarter-final and that’s because we needed those nine days to add the extra media facilities needed for the semi and final – there’s a third of one stand devoted to that.”
He continued: “Teams are entitled to a one-hour training session before playing at a stadium. They are there to familiarise themselves, not do a full-on training session so it’s frustrating when you see a lot of unnecessary damage occur. Denmark were the worst for that.
“I’m pitch side for all the games, usually somewhere just to the right of the tunnel. I’m making a very detailed log of what happens to the surface – where people have slipped, how the ball is bouncing etc. An hour and a half after the game there is then a debrief where we get feedback from the teams and if they had any issues.
“Everything on the field of play is my team’s duty. We have to practice swapping the goals – the target is five minutes, but we did it in two minutes and 38 seconds the other day!”
Looking ahead to Sunday, Ferguson said: “I never thought for one minute that I’d ever do the pitch for a World Cup Final. Without trying to sound big-headed, I knew I was good at my job – but I didn’t know I was that good. This is the pinnacle. It’s incredible.”
And the journey doesn’t end here either. From the sub-zero conditions of Russia’s winter, he will soon be getting his head around the challenges presented by scorching heat in Qatar.
“From September 1st this year I will become the first senior pitch management manager in-house at FIFA,” he explained.
“The organisation has undergone a huge transformation in the last two years with FIFA Congress and advisors recommending that pitch management comes in-house.
“My role will be to oversee all the pitch-building activity for pitches to be used in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and 2026 in USA, Canada and Mexico. I will also support all other FIFA World Cups – the Under-17s, the women’s tournament etc.
“I will relocate to Zurich but will be on the road for much of the year.”
And yet Ipswich Town will never be far from his thoughts.
“I owe David Sheepshanks and Town a huge debt of gratitude,” said Ferguson. “They gave me my first opportunity and, for that, I will always be there to help the club in any way possible.”