Eastern promise ...

Tom Jamesin Football

ColinJames3As I drive alongside the vast Olympic park site, it's clear to see the benefit that money and new infrastructure will bring to an area for long one of the most impoverished in the country.

The district of Leyton lies a stone's throw from the Olympic Stadium and has, in no time at all, changed dramatically, with new local services, leisure provision and housing underpinning its 21st century renaissance.

Yet, tucked amid the High Street and characterful terraced streets is the home of one of the city's oldest football clubs - Leyton Orient Football Club - now at the centre of a row over the future use of the 2012 stadium and its legacy for the area long term.

On arrival at Brisbane Road (now more commonly known as the Matchroom Stadium), you'd never have guessed that the club was one fearing for its future. The stadium's intimacy had grown of late by the construction of attractive apartment blocks at each corner of the ground.

I was warmly greeted by Head Groundsman, Colin James, smartly attired in branded corporate wear, who welcomed me into the cosily attractive confines of the stadium, where the first team squad were finishing off a final training session ahead of Orient's away tie against fellow promotion chasers Exeter City.

Sporting the initialled team tracksuit, Colin is very much part of the new breed of football groundsmen, led by the likes of Tottenham Hotspur FC's Darren Baldwin - who Colin names as one of his "go-to guys" for advice - who are fast dispelling many of the tired old myths about groundsmanship and its subservient place in the game's substructure.

Yet, unlike Darren, whose budget allows a big staff base and a fleet of advanced turf machinery, Colin operates alone, as the only member of the League One side's groundsmanship 'team' - a one-man show that has seen him drawing heavily on his own experience and success in non-league football to make the most of what is, arguably, one of the best surfaces in the division.

"Having learned the ropes with Welling United, I'd been trained in how to achieve the best results with what you have, without the most expensive seed or the top machines at your disposal," explains Colin.

"This kind of grounding is crucial in this industry and allows you to make the most of where I'm at now, with a club that has sound financial backing and is willing to spend money where necessary."

Experience is one thing, of course, but results are the true test of success, today's management argues and Colin is a man who came to the Orient with accolades to display.

LeytonOrient StadiumIn 2004, he took the title of Groundsman of the Year for the Southern Leagues, progressing to the nationwide Groundsman of the Year finals, where he emerged victorious again and ready to progress to the heights of the Football League.

Colin joined Orient in 2007, aged 37, a move into professional football after spending eighteen years at Welling United, the Blue Square Conference South side, rising from apprentice to head groundsman in his time there.

It was, in part, Orient's 'never say die' attitude - one that they will be drawing on more than ever now with the latest moves regarding the Olympic Stadium - that attracted him to the role, along with his industry ambitions.

"I was content at Welling and had become part of the furniture there and was happy to continue. Yet, as with any career, you have to make the most of opportunities when they come your way, so I leapt at the chance to join the O's, a club with a great history and a strong local following."

It is exactly this core support that has led to the recent issues with the 2012 venue, and the subsequent legal bid launched by Orient in April over West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium after the Games. It's an issue that raises passions throughout the club, and Colin is no exception.

The owners of the club, led by chairman and renowned sports promoter, Barry Hearn, have applied for a judicial review into the decision to grant West Ham the stadium as its 'home', on the grounds that the Hammers' move to the venue, only a pinch away from the Matchroom Stadium, would have a devastating effect on Orient's fan base.

It was in March that West Ham defeated Spurs in the bid for post-Games use, largely because West Ham would be committed to retaining the athletics track, whereas Spurs asserted that a track would not prove a workable option for successfully viewing football.
LeytonOrient Training
Orient's appeal has taken a two-pronged approach. First, to ask the High Court to examine the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) decision to award the stadium to West Ham, and second, to launch an application for a judicial review that calls into question the legality of the loan that had been arranged by Newham Council to finance West Ham's bid for the location.

The move came only a day after Spurs launched its own judicial review, claiming the £40m loan from the Council to West Ham was 'improper'.

"The biggest gripe the club have with the West Ham move is the fact that it's encroaching on our traditional fan base," explains Colin. "When West Ham set out their bid for the stadium, they promised to offer heavily discounted tickets to ensure they fill the stadium.

"A club like Leyton Orient cannot compete with this, and our directors feared that younger supporters would choose to support a bigger Premier League club with a brand new stadium with cheaper tickets than a small club like us," he adds.

It will be a bitter pill to swallow for the O's if the West Ham plans come to fruition, not only because they'll be stepping on the toes of the club, but because Orient has worked tirelessly to strengthen links with the community. It has established a new core fan base in the area, based on grass-roots and youth football, spearheaded by its Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme, which, since establishment eight years ago as an independent charity, has provided sports and educational initiatives for young people across North-east London.

The recent turmoil is all in a day's work for Colin, however, who insists that his only concern is to deliver the pitch to the highest possible standard and meet the demands of players and the board.
LeytonOrient WestStand
This season alone, Colin has been put through his paces in no uncertain manner, with a host of televised league, cup and international (England v USA ladies) matches, including the climax of the club's impressive FA Cup run, which saw them reach the 5th round - facing Arsenal at home in front of a sell-out crowd.
The fixture, which saw the hosts grab a late goal and earn a lucrative away tie at the Emirates, typified the kind of work that Colin is expected to undertake at Orient.
"Sometimes it's not always a matter of delivering the perfect pitch for the occasion, I can be called on to create an environment that helps our players out, or makes it harder for opponents - the Arsenal game was a case in point," Colin recalls.

"The management, knowing how good Arsenal were at playing the ball around, wanted me to make it a bit rough for them, so I was tasked with doing something you rarely have to think of in this industry. The plan paid off though, and it demonstrated perfectly the intricacies and high expectations of professional groundsmanship now - it's as much a results game for us as it is the players."

Passion for the job is what drives Colin day to day and, as a 'sole practitioner', that quality can see you through a schedule that can be arduous, especially during the long winter days working alone.

The combination of an antiquated and inefficient drainage system and a pitch that sees precious little, if any, daylight, with the exception of the goal by the family end, made his arrival an eventful one, he says.

"Until last year, when the club invested in new drainage, the winter months would be particularly bad to drain and to achieve decent growth on the pitch. With three-quarters of the pitch in shade and without the luxury of grow lights that Premier League sides can afford, it's sometimes been a struggle to get the best from the surface."

ColinJames2The bitter winter that brought the UK to a standstill in December had left its mark at Brisbane Road - fixture cancellations aside, the aftermath of the blanket of snow that damaged the pitch was still evident months later, as Colin showed me the most affected areas.

"The freeze really hit us hard," he says. "For three weeks over November and December we had the frost covers out on almost a permanent basis. Even then, they can only do so much, and for the sort of temperatures we were seeing - below minus 4OC - they ceased to be of use and the effect of the snow mould we suffered were evident once the snow had cleared."

The blackened algae-like areas on the turf were more apparent in the areas most deprived of sunlight and helped highlight, for him, one of the growing pressures in the games - ensuring that fixtures are played, even through dreadfully poor weather.

"From my point of view it can be stressful, especially working alone, to ensure cancellations are a rarity," stresses Colin. "A club like us can lose as much as £10,000 if a game has to be postponed and rescheduled for the middle of the week, a loss that will increase if it's a big crowd or a derby, so heavy pressure is placed on groundsmen to ensure games are played," he continues.

"This desire to fulfil fixtures is finely balanced with the long-term damage it can inflict on the playing surface, which can ultimately affect performance over time, so the decision on my part has to be a reasoned and forward-thinking one that looks at financial costs for the club and the pitch."

The effects of last winter's snow produced some of the most severe turf damage he had ever seen in over twenty years in the industry, made worst by the need to continue playing, allowing little time for grass to recover. "I did what I could to help the situation, yet the Chipco Green and liquid iron that I applied had little effect, as what was really needed was sunlight and time to recover - a luxury not afforded in professional football now. Good growth is hard enough at the best of times here - the cold and wet only add to the problems."

It was a stroke of luck for Colin that the severe weather didn't descend a year earlier, as the club's existing drainage network was more than twenty years old and was highly inefficient for the modern game, he says. Thankfully that wasn't the case, and 2010 saw the installation of the much-needed drainage, combined with laying of a new Fibresand pitch.

"Flooding was common here prior to our new system. We would get pooling at the far corner in the area that also gets the least sunlight, so we were hit with a double whammy," Colin reveals. "This season, we've had none of those problems and the Fibresand makes drainage that bit quicker as well."

Whilst solving the drainage issues has greatly helped Colin in producing a surface worthy of his talents, it has since heralded another headache - one with a less straightforward solution - foxes.

The drainage pipes, laid at 5m centres, have proved too tempting for the local foxes, who revel in digging down into the sand-filled channels and, as such, wreak havoc on the pitch on an almost daily basis.

ColinJames BaldPatch"I can't remember a day when I haven't turned up to work to find deep holes in the ground," explains Colin. "They're a real nuisance, but we're limited with what we can do, as we're in a residential area and, even if you do move them along, another family will soon take their place."

I'd seen a similar problem at fellow Londoners Crystal Palace, which used an electric fence to ward off the troublesome animals. For Colin though, other than using a cage to try and catch them, he's resigned to just deal with their work and accept that they are part and parcel of an inner-city club.

The move from purely natural to Fibresand not only signalled the beginning of Colin's experience of the hybrid surface but also marked the start of the club's partnership with Premier Pitches - a firm that supply some 50% of all Premier League surfaces - and who carry out the annual pitch renovation work at Brisbane Lane, now looming large.

"The work will begin three weeks after the end of the season, once the corporate commitments have been met," says Colin. While many might grumble about the pitch being used after the season, and that it eats into the time they need to renovate it, he is more accepting and understands the financial needs of clubs like Orient.

"Since Barry Hearn took over, the financial footing has been very solid and he's always looking for ways to increase revenue - the inclusion of a polyclinic medical centre in the third tier of the main West stand is a good example - so it has to be applauded. On the other hand, he understands that the football comes first, so we have ample time to prepare for the start of the new season."

The renovation kicks off with full koroing off to clean up the surface and rid it of any debris built up over the season. Colin recycles the top layer, this year it will be used at Orient's new training ground in Chigwell. Some 60 tonnes of the sand/soil Fibresand mixture, supplied by Mansfield Sands, is then laid, followed by a secondary cultivation, consolidation and production of the seed bed. Finally, the new pitch is oversown with a Limagrain MM60 mix at 40g/5m2 using a Blec Turf Maker and dimple seeder, after which Premier Pitches hand back responsibility to Colin in time for the new season.

"For me, consistency is important, so if I know a product works, or a company always delivers the goods, I'll stick with them. I know I can leave Premier Pitches to do their job without looking over their shoulder, leaving me to do mine."

The move to the new surface also brought with it new challenges for Colin, who had to make adjustments to his normal programme to accommodate the faster draining pitch construction.

"Fibresand pitches leech fertiliser faster than purely grass, so more nutrient supplements are needed, especially as we suffer from low light levels anyway," Colin explains.

"We're using more liquid feeds now, alongside Rigby Taylor's Mascot Delta Range and Scotts granular fertilisers. I've always found that no one brand ever does it all, so I like to always be on the lookout for products that suit our changing environment."

"The only product I consistently use is a granular feed in the early season, which always goes down well, promotes strong root growth and delivers the colour and healthy look I want for the new season."

Controversy over the Olympic Stadium and doubts over the long-term future of the club may, on the face of it, look like a troubled road ahead. Yet, the reality is, in fact, quite the contrary, as the club continues to push for promotion to the Championship and is set to unveil some additions and plans to extend their home ground further.

The beginning of the 2011-12 season will see the club move to their newly acquired training ground at Chigwell School, which will give them more pitch space and allow Colin to lay good foundations for a training ground that will match the home pitch in quality, and allow him to strengthen his ties with Darren's Spurs team who are now based only a kick away.

For the club, plans laid to replace the oldest stand with a new double-tier development, increasing capacity and, hopefully, building on the fan base will continue, despite any potential threats posed by West Ham.

ColinJames MowingWhat's in the shed?
Dennis G860 - daily cutting, used with interchangable cassettes
Honda HRH 536 rotary mower - cleaning up after games - "can't be used every day as it takes too long by hand, yet produces fantastic results"
Kubota tractor - second-hand farm model, used daily
Vertidrain with 8 inch tines - used as often as possible
SISIS Javelin - used every 6-8 weeks depending on weather and games schedule

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