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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 18 November, 2019

An Irishman abroad! The World Cup final will be played on grass installed by a Sligo businessman's firm

Sligo man George Mullan is the CEO of SIS Pitches, which has installed six of the 12 pitches at the World Cup.

AN IRISH-OWNED company initially targeted a contract to install pitches at the World Cup in Russia over five years ago.

George Mullan, Ilyas Kobal MD SIS EE, Alan Ferguson Consultant for SIS, Maxim Radomsky Head Groundsman Luzhniki stadium. (1) George Mullan (far left) at Luzhniki Stadium along with other members of the SIS Pitches team. Source: Martha Kearns (Story Lab)

SIS Pitches felt their product was strong enough to earn the pitch-installation duties of at least two if not three stadiums, and their high-profile client portfolio which boasted names like Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid was a useful bargaining tool for them to help justify their selection.

Their World Cup mission began in Moscow, where they employed some Russians and as the Sligo-born CEO George Mullan explains, ‘knocked on doors,’ to maximise their chances of getting the nod for the job.

They subsequently secured the rights to install pitches at Spartak Moscow’s home ground Otkritie Arena, as well as Luzhniki Stadium where the World Cup final will be played.

Their efforts yielded six out of the 12 World Cup stadiums in total, an outcome that far exceeded SIS Pitches’ expectations.

Along with Luzhniki stadium and Otkritie Arena, the grounds which SIS Pitches have been assigned also include Rostov Arena, Kaliningrad Stadium, Samara Arena and Saransk Arena.

And unlike many of their competitors in this industry, their unique selling point is that they design, build and maintain pitches for their clients.

“Spartak Moscow played really well and obviously the big one was winning Luzhniki because that’s sort of the crème de la crème,” Mullan tells The42 during the opening week of the World Cup tournament.

“That again was a really useful calling card because we were in cities like Rostov and Kaliningrad. When you’re able to walk in there and you’ve got a portfolio of some of the biggest clubs in Europe plus you’re already signed up to the World Cup Final stadium that made it a lot easier for us.”

Laying the surface at Luzhniki was undoubtedly the grand prize of this project, but it also presents some logistical complications for Mullan and his team.

The venue has the hosting duties for the opening ceremony, the opening game — in which Russia thumped Saudi Arabia 5-0 — one of the semi-finals, and of course the final. The closing ceremony will also be staged at Luzhniki Stadium.

Mullan always had a natural interest in sport and comes from a background in which he sampled everything from rugby to tennis to basketball and GAA.

But with all the ongoing activity that’s happening on the main pitch for this tournament, the Sligo man and his colleagues don’t have many opportunities to sit back and soak up the action in the games.

I think for the first round of games, I’m looking at the pitches non-stop because we need to see how they perform and they’ve done really well [so far].

“Most of the time you can enjoy it a little bit but Luzhniki is the one that’s obviously got the World Cup final, it’s got the most games on it because it has 12 hours of rehearsals so that’s the pitch that takes up most of our focus because it’s the real showpiece.

“We’re there permanently. We have 12 staff based there the whole time because we also have three training pitches at Luzhniki so we’re hosting other countries there.

Preparation for Opening Ceremony at Luzhniki Stadium Preparation for Opening Ceremony at Luzhniki Stadium. Source: Martha Kearns (Story Lab)

“It’s great to have the World Cup Final but the downside is you’ve got the opening ceremony, rehearsals and closing ceremonies. And you’ve got the most [amount of] games so it’s actually the stadium that comes with the biggest pressure.”

Mullan first linked up with SIS Pitches in 2001 after discovering the company through his PA’s husband in Amsterdam. It was a small firm at the time that was experiencing some financial difficulties and purchasing it required Mullan to take a 98% pay-cut.

It was certainly a risky move for him on a personal level, but it was always his ambition to run his own business and this enterprise gave him the platform to pursue that.

He was confident that this level of investment would be worthwhile in the end, although he still had some harsh lessons to learn about business.

“When you do turnarounds, you’re using the multinationals’ money,” he explains, “and I had this strange idea that to become this turaround expert, you would have to one with your own money. I can tell you 18 years on that that’s a realy stupid idea. Always use somebody else’s money.”

In the early days, SIS Pitches’ surfaces consisted of 100% natural grass but the company has since evolved and now provides artificial grass for pitches too.

(SP)RUSSIA-MOSCOW-2018 WORLD CUP-OPENING MATCH-RUSSIA VS SAUDI ARABIA Image from the opening World Cup clash between host nation Russia and Saudi Arabia. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The work they have completed in preparing the stadiums at the World Cup involves a combination of the two products in a groundbreaking move for the sport.

“Any time you get finals is great,” Mullan remarks.

We’ve done World Cups before but we’re bringing in innovation. It’s been around quite a bit but it’s the first time the World Cup final will be played on a hybrid pitch so that’s 95% natural grass and five percent artificial. It means that the surface has got better protection.”

A landmark achievement for SIS Pitches arrived in 2010 when they installed pitches at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.

But this was more than just a standard pitch-installing gig. The country was still healing from a long Civil War at the time, which brought certain complications for Mullan and SIS Pitches.

“I think it was one that nobody else would take on the project of building 15 pitches in a country that was about seven or eight years after a 35-year Civil War,” Mullan recalls.

“There was no infrastructure in the place at all but that was a huge challenge and by pulling that off and sort of getting the tournament delivered, it opened us up to the likes of Fifa and people saw that we could do it.

It took its toll, I got malaria and so did a few other people but the people down there were magnificent and it put us on a global stage.”

Three years later, workers at SIS Pitches were covering the Gulf Cup of Nations in Basra, Iraq where Mullan’s crew had to take extreme security and protection measures to ensure they could conduct their work in a safe environment.

That time we went to Basra airport and we had security and guns in the car. But what surprised us was that the sophisticated X-Ray machines didn’t pick up the guns. But that’s sort of par for the course. 99% of our work is schools, Universities and football clubs. It’s perfectly safe, it’s not an issue.

Indeed, there have been some hairy moment over the years and while he stresses that the bulk of his work is safe, Mullan has experienced these kind of volatile conditions on previous occasions in his business career.

George Mullan with Maxim Radomsky our headgroundsman at Luzhniki (2) George Mullan with groundsman Maxim Radomsky.

Prior to his involvement with SIS Pitches, he specialised in turnaround operations for a US multinational company called American Home Products.

On one occasion, he was in Bogota, Colombia to fire an employee who was involved in fraudulent activity when Mullan was effectively bundled into the back of a car at the airport by some muscle men after the employee in question was warned about his intention to relieve them of their duties.

It seemed as though there was a considerable threat to his life in that moment, and while Mullan says that he was nervous at the time, there’s a relaxed tone in voice as he recalls the incident all these years later.

“That was 25 years ago and everyone has heard the story a million times. It just happened and I had to have a little ride around Bogota for a few hours but that’s just an example of being naive in a different country.

“We thought that because we were one company all the employees worked together and discovered that in certain countries, they look after their own employees before headquarters. We Irish get on well with people, we mix a lot better than other nations.

“At the time I was pretty nervous. I was young and I was working around South America, these sort of things happen and you just sort of get on with it. It was fine, it was no big deal.”

Mullan will be making regular commutes between Ireland and Russia throughout the World Cup to ensure SIS Pitches operations are running smoothly.

He’s often on the move as part of his job and prefers to work out of his home in Sligo as he doesn’t like working in office spaces.

“Our job is out on sites and pitches, it’s not in offices,” he summarises.

Landing such a mammoth project at the World Cup is a notable achievement for the company, and since Martin O’Neill’s charges failed to qualify for the tournament, Mullan is one of the few Irish men who will participating at this prestigious football event.

But there’s not much time for his team to savour their accomplishments at Russia as further jobs in 2018 come quickly into view.

UPI 20171112 Source: UPI/PA Images

Their first job in the US is coming up next month in which they will be doing work for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. They then have to prepare for work at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, which will be their third project in that country.

As for their efforts at this World Cup, Mullan says his firm can be satisfied with their tournament if nothing is said about the condition of the pitches.

I think if we hear no comments on the pitches that’s a great plus for us. As long as I don’t hear anything that’s fine.

“So far the one we’re maintaining which is the one we can control in Luzhniki. I suppose we can’t really control what happens on the other pitches but the feedback from the Mexico v Germany game [last weekend] on the Luzhniki pitch was really good.

“The German coach [Joachim Löw] was really delighted, probably not with the result but for me, if there’s no comments that’s a success.”

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