Messi and Neymar hail NI man's pitch at PSG

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Calderwood pitch-perfect for PSG

It was just minutes before kick-off, and that's when it happened.

Paris Saint-Germain's £50 million defender David Luiz waved across the Parc des Princes pitch and then gestured with a thumbs up. Beaming with a bright smile I waved back immediately, then embarrassment set in.

I realised the recognition wasn't for me, it was for another Ballymena man standing just to my left, the head groundsman at PSG.

I was immensely proud for Jonathan Calderwood. A man raised just 'up the road' from me in Clough, County Antrim. This is a matchday ritual for Jonathan, receiving accolades from some of the world's most expensive footballers.

"When we played Barcelona, I was told that Messi and Neymar both said it was the best pitch they've ever played on, when we played Real Madrid in September I got the same feedback from them," he said.

It all started at east Belfast club Glentoran, where Jonathan cut his teeth (and grass) at the Oval.

Next stop was the old Wembley Stadium in London, which coincided with his studies at Myrescough College, where he gained a National Diploma in Turf Science.

PSG defender David Luiz tackles Barcelona's Lionel Messi during the Champions League clash at the Parc des Princes last year
PSG defender David Luiz tackles Barcelona's Lionel Messi during the Champions League clash at the Parc des Princes last year

Jonathan worked his way through the ranks, ending up as deputy head groundsman at Wembley.

Calderwood went on to become head groundsman at Wolverhampton Wanderers before a move to Aston Villa.

During 15 successful years at Villa Park he picked up multiple turf related awards including two Premier League Groundsman of the Year trophies. At Villa he met Gerard Houillier, one of the game's most respected managers.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel a group of investors from Qatar made PSG one of Europe's richest football clubs. They wanted the very best of everything, including the blades of grass on the Parc des Princes pitch.

On the advice of Houllier that meant a groundsman from Clough. He told PSG that Jonathan was the best groundsman in the world and Carlo Ancelotti, their manager at that time, agreed.

Jonathan and his family moved to a new life in Paris and he made an immediate impact, becoming French Groundman of the Year in his first season.

He added: "When you hear someone saying 'the guy just cuts grass' it's a little bit hurtful because I know what skills are involved, what dedication, what hours, what knowledge and experience goes into having a pitch like what we have at PSG.

Jonathan Calderwood has brought his expertise to the Parc des Princes in Paris
Jonathan Calderwood has brought his expertise to the Parc des Princes in Paris

"Modern day football pitches are so complex and so complicated. I spent three years full-time at university and I would say 90% of my time was spent in the laboratory doing soil analysis, weeds, pesticides, disease management, wind, water, sunshine, fertiliser programmes and aeration - there is so much to it.'

Jonathan's story doesn't end there, for his pitch will host Northern Ireland's game against Germany in Euro 2016.

"If you're a groundsman like me, you want to work at the very top and it doesn't come much bigger than the European Championships," he said.

"For me to move to Paris and for Northern Ireland to end up playing Germany in Paris on my pitch it doesn't get any better than that - it's like a dream come true."

So Jonathan has already had recognition from some of the best players in the world - come 21 June he'll be hoping for a thumbs up from the likes of Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and manager Michael O'Neill.

Who knows, that could be after a win over the world champions!