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The Big Interview: Operations Director on new pitch, incredible stadium plans, Bodymoor innovation and Villa Park as a concert venue

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The Big Interview: Operations Director on new pitch, incredible stadium plans, Bodymoor innovation and Villa Park as a concert venue
  • New pitch to be put in this summer
  • Installation of latest live video technology at Bodymoor Heath
  • HS2 discussions “in final stages”
  • Villa Park set to become regular summer concert venue
  • Future stadium plans "unbelievable"

Ian Dimmock makes no secret as to why he loves working at Aston Villa Football Club.

Along with simple enhancements he’s planning, our Operations Director is also driving big change in B6 – and he finds it immensely fulfilling, insisting: “I really enjoy the fact that I can help shape the future of Aston Villa – that is a phenomenal feeling.”  

His No.1 current project is the installation this summer of a new pitch at the stadium – given sign-off this week from the Board of Directors, headed up by owner Dr Tony Xia.

The current pitch was last constructed in 2006 and was not a complete rebuild, which left certain issues below the surface as time progressed - the main issue being the drainage system, which was installed back in 1968. 

The work will also see a change in the surface camber and a new drainage and irrigation system.

Is it vital we do it? Absolutely. To maintain it to a high standard is what everyone wants and it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Ian Dimmock on pitch
Dimmock was keen to hail the efforts of club grounds staff in working relentlessly to make the pitch playable week after week.

But he stressed the importance of investment in the playing surface.

“Not only will we be getting a state of the art desso pitch, we are also putting in a new irrigation system. That means we can get more water on the pitch when we need to. You may have seen that only two sprinklers are used at any one time. We don’t have enough pressure to have more but we need more water on the pitch to maintain it. 

“The new irrigation system also uses very sophisticated UV, which kills bacteria before it gets to the pitch. If you have ever experienced a strong smell around Villa Park that’s because currently we have to spray garlic on to the surface to fight bacteria that’s in the pitch. 

“Another thing we’re changing with the pitch is the camber. It’s currently 250ml. 

“Standing at the dugout you pretty much can’t actually see past halfway.

“We’re reducing it down to 100ml. That falls in line with the best stadiums in the world and gives the coach the ability to see the full playing surface perfectly. 

“That’s all been approved. We’re just waiting now for the end of the season – to see when that ends. 

“The final league position determines whether we have a 10 week build time or a 15 week build time. 

“Is it vital we do it? Absolutely. It’s 12 years old and past the end of its 10-year natural life cycle. To maintain it to a high standard is what everyone wants and it’s becoming increasingly difficult with the current pitch. 

“I think this was the only option. The grounds team do an incredible job. To get that pitch to what it looks like on matchday from what it’s left like after a matchday is unbelievable. The turnaround is astonishing.”

DimmockWeb2Enthusiastic Dimmock arrived at Villa Park from Wembley Stadium where he worked at the FA for 15 years.

He knows all about the difficulties of integrating innovative technology in football arenas, aided also by his immense background in IT– and he says it’s especially challenging here in B6.

“Having worked in some of the very best stadiums in sport, I have to say there’s something very special about Villa Park. I am not simply saying that because I work here. It has a majesty, a heritage, a character.

“But the challenge we have here is that, putting it simply, we are four separate buildings. Each stand is its own building. 

“Each is done in its own period. Each has its own technology and systems in place. 

“It’s like we have four different houses and we have to make them all operate as one.”

We are trying to get the other mobile operators to the table to have a serious discussion about upgrading the capacity Ian Dimmock on mobile connectivity
Dimmock is taking a pragmatic approach to the underlying issues – and this is typified best by his view on improving mobile phone connectivity within the stadium.

He could spend multi millions on a new Wi-Fi solution that “may or may not work”.

Instead, he’s calling on providers like O2, EE and 3 to come to the table for talks regarding uplifting the signal.

“One of the big questions I get asked is ‘why can’t I get Wi-Fi at my seat?’ 

“In layman’s terms, imagine for a moment that a Wi-Fi cell can support 100 people. We would need in the region of 500 of them across the stadium itself.

“The outlay for that in my opinion in terms of infrastructure simply doesn’t justify the end result. 

“It’s very difficult to manage a high-density Wi-Fi installation. A lot of companies say they can do it and a lot of stadiums say they’ve got one - but the reality is they are very, very limited. 

“I am not planning a full deployment out to the stands. So what are we doing? 

“At Villa Park we have a state of the art DAS system – that stands for distributed antenna system. 

“This allows the mobile operators to come to Villa Park and install some of their equipment which boosts the signal to your mobile phone. 

“Vodafone are currently the only operator that’s utilising the infrastructure in the stadium. All of our Vodafone fans should have good service on matchday. 

“What you will notice with other carriers like O2, EE and 3, some of our fans will get texts once they have left the stadium but in reality they should have been delivered hours before. 

“We are trying to get the other mobile operators to the table to have a serious discussion about upgrading the capacity and joining our 4G DAS system. It’s their customers who are coming to our venue ultimately. I won’t deny that it has a real impact on matchday. 

“We are trying to attack it from that angle rather than spending millions and millions on Wi-Fi. 

“In terms of the other solution, we did a variety of pilot schemes at Wembley and none were successful.”

DimmockWeb1Dimmock’s whole ‘raison d’etre’ as Operations Director is a fan-first philosophy as evidenced by his desperate need for improvements in connectivity within the stadium.

But that’s not all. He sees quick wins for his industrious team – and is looking to bring them to fruition. 

He’s putting potential plans together to see a refresh of the look and feel across the inside of the stadium – hopefully in line with the artistically fresh reimagining of A Block within Trinity Road Upper.

He's brought in digital menu boards in some kiosks on the concourses around the stadium to produce a clear menu system.

The next step would be for the menus to be integrated in to the epos system to ensure supporters know exactly what stock is running low at each kiosk.

As he says: “Time is precious and I want fans to have information to hand at vital times. 

“I don’t want a wasted 15 minutes where you get to the front of the queue and you’re told ‘ever so sorry, we’re sold out on that’. I want to use digital technology to improve the matchday experience. We want to innovate – but we must get the basics right first.”

Dimmock is also looking at improvements for families as he looks to create space within concourses for children to eat in a comfortable environment.

Simple measures – but vitally important to Dimmock.

When I saw the plans for the first time, I was genuinely speechless. I thought ‘wow, this is absolutely incredible’. Ian Dimmock on stadium plans
While Dimmock’s pain points currently revolve around the limitations of our magnificent old stadium, he admits Dr Tony Xia’s ambitious plans for redevelopment would alleviate many of the issues he currently faces.

Those blueprints are understandably a closely guarded secret but Dimmock did offer his views on the vision.

“When I saw the plans for the first time, I was genuinely speechless. I thought ‘wow, this is absolutely incredible’. That showed to me the level of commitment our chairman has for Aston Villa. 

“It will be awesome. Villa Park, as a modern venue, would be a shining light in terms of stadia within the UK.”

If big B6 changes are expected within an overarching future modernisation of Villa Park, Bodymoor Heath is a very different model.

Dimmock remembers his first visit to the Training Ground where he was wowed by the facility – putting it on a par with the highly impressive St George’s Park.

But, after looking under the hood, he realised his ‘technology-first’ approach could aid the claret and blue superstars of the present.

“I was absolutely amazed when I went to Bodymoor Heath for the first time. I could see the synergy with St George’s Park. Bodymoor Heath is really up there. 

“In terms of facilities, it has that wow factor. I was impressed by the overall aesthetic but when you scratched the surface you saw opportunities.

“I think technology is driving football forward. I was surprised the technology wasn’t there – but it is now. Big credit goes to Steve Round, who has come to Aston Villa with an innovative approach, a real appreciation for technology and he certainly matched my views in terms of its positive implications. 

“Information is a key driver in any organisation. The faster we can process things, the faster we can act. I believe technology can deliver the next performance enhancement that we need here at Aston Villa. 

“We assessed the technology we had down at the Training Ground and we identified some key areas we felt we needed to improve on. 

Big credit goes to Steve Round, who has come to Aston Villa with an innovative approach and a real appreciation for technology. Dimmock on DOF Round
“Phase 1 was the creation of a Performance Lounge. Phase 2 saw the installation of HD cameras pitchside including high-speed fibre links and touchscreen technology. 

“Something we needed to improve quickly was the inability to capture and analyse training sessions in real-time. 

“What we have done now is put in a system that captures the training sessions in real-time and that gets fed back into a newly-created Performance Lounge – and, more importantly, into the video analysts. 

“They can edit that data by the time the players have come back in from training. That information is then ready for the coaches who can sit with the players and discuss the session. 

“At that point, the data is there on the screen and it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. That’s one of the differences we have there now. 

“Let’s just say James Chester has scored a fantastic goal in training – he can now watch it the moment he comes in. The difference there is amazing.”

DimmockWeb4This ‘technology-first’ approach has also seen improved nutritional information access for players within the First Team Dining Room. 

“We have remodelled that area for the senior team – again with an eye on technology. 

“When the boys go in now, they get their daily dietary information on a digital menu screen – the kind of foods they need for that moment dependent on where they are at with their fitness – and also if it’s a recovery day, a pre-match day or a post-game day.”

Change is clearly happening at Bodymoor Heath – with more high-profile alterations seemingly coming soon with the advance of HS2. 

The club’s training complex is on the proposed route of the £24.7b high-speed Birmingham to London rail link.

The club have been in discussions with senior HS2 executives and Dimmock admits talks are now in the final stages as we look for a positive outcome. 

He also revealed that a senior project team, made up of key officials, will be created in-house just to deal with the impact of HS2.

But what of other future projects?

Dimmock, a former event manager at Wembley Stadium who oversaw huge concerts for the likes of Kasabian and Oasis, is hoping to hit the right notes on the music scene in the near future.

He says that the absence of Villa Park on the ‘world tour’ calendar of huge stadium acts like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay has been a source of frustration for him.

But he’s keen to tackle that head-on.

We'd pretty much have a concert period over a three-week window for multiple gigs. These would be big acts! Watch this space! Ian Dimmock on music venue
He added: “I believe we have some special things coming to Villa Park. 

“Because we are working on a new pitch at the end of this season, that rules out Villa Park as a concert venue for this year, unfortunately. 

“But we are currently talking to promoters about what is possible for next year. 

“I am very keen to get Aston Villa back on that circuit. 

“When big bands do the huge stadium tours they often skip out of Birmingham – and certainly Villa Park rarely makes an appearance. 

“I am confident you will now start seeing us included. 

“In terms of specifics, we’d pretty much have a concert period over a three-week window for multiple gigs. These would be big acts! Watch this space!”

With the depth of initiatives you’re working on Ian, we certainty will. 

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Paul Brown
By @paulbrownavfc 23rd March 2018