AZ: new LED technology complementing down-to-earth sustainable grass care management in Alkmaar

Longtime colleagues Matthieu and Jan place trust in their own abilities, experiences and research.

AZ Alkmaar - LED440 - pitch

AZ Alkmaar, known for innovation and a blend of Dutch practicality, embraces new LED technology for sustainable grass care at the Afas Stadium. Groundsman Matthieu van Borkulo, with his colleague Jan, shares insights into their journey.

The introduction of SGL technology at AZ, initiated by coach Van Gaal years ago, marked the beginning of a shift in grass care in Alkmaar. Since then, the grounds team has gradually, but steadily further developed and professionalised their procedures. Matthieu highlights the new LED system‘s impact on faster plant recovery, reducing ‘downtime’ from 48 to 24 hours.

“I think that the overall grass quality is quite similar. But you can actually see the plant recover more quickly. This means we’re up and running faster.”, he explains.

Matthieu and Jan’s collaboration dates back to their early days at a freesia grower. Their shared history led them to AZ when the club was recruiting a grounds team. The duo’s commitment at the Afas Stadium spans sixteen years, marked by resilience during challenging times, including former chairman Scheringa’s departure and a stadium roof collapse in 2019.

Data-driven decision making

Data plays a crucial role in pitch maintenance, aligning with AZ’s statistical approach influenced by baseball strategist Billy Beane. Matthieu emphasises the club’s dedication to meticulous data collection using the SGL Portal, aiding in historical oversight.

“We have grown into it, to be honest, but now we are pretty strict with our data collection and monitoring too”, he says. “We record and fill in all the numbers in the SGL Portal. We check the SGL disease forecast regularly. It mainly serves as a database of oversights for ourselves – we can look back in time and check what might be happening during the time of year.”

The unexpected roof breakdown, while a potential disaster for the club at the time, unintentionally benefited the grounds team. Improved air circulation allowed the grass to recover faster. After the reconstruction, new challenges emerged, leading AZ to adopt a fully sustainable approach, abandoning chemical use in favor of a UVC180 for pitch treatment.

Leading up to LED

The transition to LED lighting reflects AZ’s commitment to innovation. Matthieu acknowledges initial scepticism but praises the SGL units. While current weather conditions pose challenges, the grounds team plans to optimise lighting schedules, anticipating future expansion.

“Because we had great lights, we were a bit sceptical at the beginning. SGL was also trialling light recipes, and a couple of different companies were in the mix as well. As everything progressed, it became apparent that we just really wanted SGL here and the financials became apparent too. At the moment, we need the infrared heating, but in the foreseeable future we can switch them off again and that shows on the operating result.”, he summarises.

Foreseeing financial challenges for smaller clubs

Looking ahead, Matthieu foresees financial challenges for smaller football clubs. He stresses the importance of investing in pitch quality to elevate standards collectively.

“That’s why I’m advocating a dedicated grant for grounds managers here in the Netherlands. Of course, we have the pitch rankings, and we have periodic check-ups, for which the club can earn some money. But where does that sum go? In any case, it should go to the grounds teams and the pitches. Only then can we up the level of all the fields together.”

Despite being a small team, Matthieu and Jan actively seek improvement, participating in events like the SGL Masterclass. Their openness to learning from others exemplifies AZ’s ethos of continuous improvement. Facing unexpected setbacks, he explains, are just part of the job. Matthieu and Jan maintain a pragmatic approach, mirroring the club’s Northern roots.