Building the perfect beast at Ford Sports & Social Club

Blair Fergusonin Multi-sports venues

Please note: This article was written before the COVID-19 restrictions came into force. During the ongoing crisis, we will continue to provide articles that represent facilities in their 'normal' environment, whilst appreciating that everything is far from normal in our industry at the moment!

Ford Sport and Social Club run two sites in Essex - at Basildon and Ilford. Blair Ferguson went to meet Dan James, the Head Groundsman at Ilford, to discover how he has been coping with just one additional staff member on such a large site, and how his 'Frankenstein' skills are being put to good use!

Many skills make a good groundsman, and one that is common among the best in the industry is pride. Having that desire to make a positive difference every day you turn up to work is as crucial as the machines you use and the budget you wield. Across the United Kingdom, Ireland and Europe there will be countless examples of those who are thinking outside the box and working extra hours so, at the end of the day, they can feel pride in their work.

In Ilford east London, Dan James, Head Groundsman at Ford Sport and Social Club, is a prime example. For thirty-five years his dad worked on the pitches, bowling green and cricket squares he now maintains and, from the age of four, he and his brother spent numerous weekends at the sports club with his dad Mark, before finally being drawn in.

When he was halfway through sixth form, one of the groundsmen left and he took up the role part-time before leaving education to pursue it on a full-time basis and is now into his thirteenth year. At the time, there were six groundsmen across the two sites and now there is only Dan and Dave Wilks at Ilford and Terry and Dave McCoy at Basildon.

The club was originally set up by the Ford Motor Company as a place for their staff to play sport and socialise, but is now open to the public through associate memberships.

To provide quality surfaces for the five Saturday, eight Sunday football teams, East London & Essex Junior Football League, floodlit midweek league and cater for the six cricket games per weekend in season and a bowls team takes a lot of work. Dan relishes the challenge, but the pride he now has in his work hasn't always been there.

He explains: "It's weird to think back to the first few years I worked here. The passion I have now wasn't really there. Now everything is so important to me, it's hard to think back to a time when it wasn't."

"My dad and Terry used to look after the bowling green, then Terry got moved down to Basildon and, unfortunately, my dad injured his back, so the bowling green was kind of left to me with my dad's guidance. That was when I really got a taste for it. Once I started getting positive reviews, I found that pride in my work."

"The bowls team have county competitions, whoever gets into the knockout rounds votes for what neutral green they want to play on. We got the quarter-finals one year, and then the quarters and the semi-finals, so we had that two years in a row, but now we've lost it again because the bank on the edge of the green is sloping in places. It's a lot of hours and manpower to do which we don't really have because it's only myself and Dave and obviously it's a massive site."

The bowling green is what sparked Dan's interest and where the majority of his learning took place. Whilst he explains the process he went through, and the varied approach he took, you start to grasp that he is forward-thinking and isn't afraid to do things differently in an attempt to make them better.

"Working with the bowling green, and why I got hooked on it, is that anything you do makes a difference. It might be negative, it might be positive, or something as simple as brushing or dragmatting before a cut makes," Dan explains.

"We used to topdress at the end of the season like everyone else. But what I found was I'd put all the material down - soil and seed - and then, by the time the start of the season comes around, we've got worms, moss and fusarium - so we're raking out moss or repairing bits, and we've got no material. So what I started doing was scarifying it all out at the end of the season, putting down a bit of fertiliser, seeding some places if it needed it and I started using the topdressing at the start of the season."

"So, when all that moss, fusarium and worm damage is there, I'll scarify it all out again and then topdress it. Because we've got the water system it's not like we're at the mercy of the weather, I know it can be cold or warm, but at the start of the season, it would be like repairing it again. I've been doing it that way for four or five years, and it's since then that we've had the quarters and semi-finals and a lot of them say it's one of the best greens in the county. The final is always in the same place, so we will never get the final, so the semi-final is the best we can get; it's definitely worked out well."

"Our budget is the main issue really because our hands are tied. Our verti-drain recently broke down again. Last time, we had it welded up. It's the oldest thing you'll ever see, but now there's no scope to get another one, so it's one thing we don't have now. I don't know how many other places do it, but we slit every week, so the soil is pretty good and it drains pretty well. Ideally, we want to verti-drain, but there's not a lot I can do about it."

"We made a brush for the wormcasts on the football pitches, and we started making a little push dimple seeder as well to get a better strike rate with the seed on the green and cricket squares. I just enjoy things like that. I think that's the sort of thing you enjoy when you don't have much to work with, so you can still produce something really good."

"Because of the budget and machinery we have, I have to think outside the box. I love it. We've got a GreenTek Double-Quick, so it has the slits on the bottom and, on the top, it has a hollow coring reel. With the kids pitches and topdressing, we normally use one hundred tonnes of soil maximum, but if someone gave me three or four hundred I'd use all of it!"

"What I did was hollow core and, instead of clearing up all the cores, I got the seeder, put a dragmat on the back of it and went over the cores and crushed them all, so it's like free topdressing. That's worked well, but I don't want to do it this year. I'm not sure if this happens or not, but I imagine holes forming if I do it too often, so I'm going to leave it this season. I've done it for the past two or three, and that seems to work well, and it's good for aeration and soil exchange."

Dan's maintenance approach has included building a rapport with the bowls, cricket and football teams, using their feedback, good or bad, to improve the playing surfaces to ensure they feel listened to and are always happy with the end result. Using this approach, he has not only had great work satisfaction but, through common interests, has been able to build lasting friendships, making his working day all the more enjoyable and increasing the reputation of the club in the process.

Addressing issues with practical solutions has been part of improving other turf areas at the club as well. The left side of the field was prone to holding water and caused issues throughout the winter, heavily compromising the quality of the pitches. To combat this, four years ago Dan decided to start the season with the pitches to the extreme left and move them to the extreme right in the winter to the drier area of the site. Doing this has made a massive difference and has been especially helpful through what has been a very difficult time for most with record amounts of rainfall.

"I think the pitches have done alright this year and we've played in conditions where we would normally have called games off. Normally, if you've had a season where you're not calling many weekends off, you can occasionally say 'it's going to ruin the pitch today, so we're calling it off'. A couple of weekends ago, I let a game go ahead, which I'd never have allowed in conditions like that, but you've just got to do it. People want to play"

"You can see that the pitches don't look too bad and, when you're on the pitch, it isn't too worn. The goalmouths always used to open up, but that doesn't happen anymore. So I feel the work we have done has made a difference and, when we seed after hollow coring, the seed sits quite far down, but what you see when the seed starts to come through is the actual plant base is below so it can't be kicked out, and I think that helps as well. I definitely think we're better all-round than we were six or seven years ago."

Progress is what Dan is after and it continues into cricket. As we sit talking in mid-March, the cricket season isn't too far away and a plan for recovering the outfield from the ELE League and the damage caused by parents is ready to be executed, but will have to be done at the same time as seven pitch renovations and bowls maintenance.

"The biggest square out there is fourteen strips across, and the outfield is surrounded by the junior pitches, so it's awful at the moment," Dan began. "The first thing I'll have to do is get that going because it's a lovely cricket square, but there's no point having a beautiful cricket strip when the outfield is a bombsite. We've got to get onto it as soon as possible, get some seed sown and get things levelled because of the traffic and the goalmouths and where the parents walk through the middle of the pitches - it's like they dig holes, I don't know what they're wearing on their feet!"

"But there isn't much we can do about that during the season, apart from the 'keep off the pitch' signs and the cricket square having a fence around it, because the goalmouths back up to it. If you've got a football constantly going on there, with the kids running on to get it, and all you've got is a rope, what can you do? And the parents just moved it out the way and walked across it."

"After you've just renovated it with the loam being a bit sticky, you don't want kids walking through it. I've even seen someone setting up cones on there for the kids to train. So we've now put up a Heras fence which has definitely kept them off because it's set-up as a dog-leg, so no balls are going on there. The downside is it's a fence with concrete feet, so there are dead spots where they are. But once we take it down, I scarify it a couple of times and seed it, and then irrigate those areas, so we normally get those bits back pretty quickly."

"Dave does really good work on the cricket squares and I renovate the surrounding areas and pitches. It's literally non-stop. I'll still be renovating things when the season comes around again if certain areas don't come back or whatever."

"The winter months are generally pretty chilled; it's been difficult with the weather, but it's the summer that is hectic. For example, even if I'm supposed to be finishing at 1.00pm, I'll stay until 6.00pm to get something finished; sometimes I just have to do it. Especially if I look at the forecast and there's rain coming. Then I'll want to get as much done as possible, so it all gets washed in. So, a typical week like this one, I'll be here until 6.00pm on a Monday and Tuesday, at 1.30pm on a Thursday and then 6.00pm on a Friday. Sometimes, I'll stay until six every day just to get as much done as possible. It all depends on what's going on and what the weather is doing. I just try to be as flexible as I can and do as much as I can."

The attitude Dan has is reflected in his results. By rights, there shouldn't be much more than seven sparsely grassed pitches outside because of the amount they are used and the weather. Instead, hard work has kept sport on for hundreds of players and, importantly, kept the income flowing for the club.

Whilst learning on the job and using his own thought process has worked well for Dan, getting a job as a member of Tottenham Hotspur's matchday ground staff pushed his thinking further. The idea to apply was given to him by his dad, and the role has greatly increased his communication with other groundsmen and also ignited a desire to progress within the industry.

"I've been working at Tottenham since the new stadium opened and I've learned a lot," he explained. "I feel like we've always been sort of secluded; my dad knew people in the industry, but I didn't know anyone and, since I've been speaking to other groundsmen, I've learnt a lot more. The floodlit pitch was good before I started working at Tottenham, but it wasn't as good as it is now. Obviously, we can't spend as much money as they do, but, as soon as I saw the levels of detail they go to and their methods, I took what I could and applied what I can here. I divot the pitch after every game and use the brush we made to stand the grass up before I cut. I've used double, maybe even triple, the amount of seed and the pitch has worn so much better. Usually, around this time of year, the goalmouths and the middles are all open, but now they are not."

"I've got three kids, so being at home can be stressful at times. I couldn't imagine having stress at work as well. I love being at home with my girlfriend and the kids, but it can be a hyper environment. When I come here, I reset; I listen to audiobooks and podcasts all day and I'm chilled out. When I'm here it's so relaxed and I enjoy pretty much every day. I think that has been such a good balance in my life"

Dan's relaxed, yet highly efficient and creative approach comes across in the way he talks and the ideas he has. Our quick tour around what he refers to as 'the museum' reveals the dimple seeder project, which is being constructed like Frankenstein's monster, with a handle from an old piece of equipment, wheels from another etc.

We also speak about proposed cutbacks that he faces and the ways in which he'll have to deal with it, but his enthusiasm never drops, prompting the question if it ever has.

"You can get disheartened," he stated. "For example, at the start of the season when Romford first team were training here, I hadn't marked the floodlit pitch out yet, the grass looked incredible, and I was so impressed with it. They were training on a pitch further down the field, but came back onto the main pitch and did a load of shuttle runs; they thought they were off the pitch. In moments like that, you think you've done all that work over the summer for nothing, even though it was only the corner of the pitch. With things like that you can be discouraged, but I still look forward to getting to work every day."

"Some days I wake up and can't wait to get here, I got here at 6.00am this morning, and I don't have to start until 8.00am, but I want to do as much as I can, and I enjoy that challenge. Some weeks they'll say you've got three cricket games this weekend, and this football starting and that football starting and I've got to mark out a whole football pitch from scratch and do a cricket strip, but I love having full days, and I look back and see what I've achieved that week, and that's probably the biggest satisfaction; when you've got a whole week's work to do and you get it done to a high standard. Working with grass, if you put the work in then you get the results, it's as simple as that."