Finborough School - Better Never Stops

Blair Fergusonin Schools & Colleges

One year and eight months ago Finborough School Head Groundsman, Rory Ferguson, drove down the Suffolk independent establishment's driveway for the first time, getting a glimpse of the 40-acre site that would soon be under his control.

At its heart sits the 18th century Finborough Hall, one of Suffolk's best examples of Georgian architecture and a building that has served a number of purposes since being built, including acting as an army hospital during the second world war.

Now it houses up to 100 boarders - out of a total of 450 pupils - ranging from preparatory children to senior students as well as containing several classrooms, but with the school year ending four days before my visit, the impressive structure sat waiting for September to arrive as work went on elsewhere.

Every visible blade of grass that sits under the baking July sun from the sports field, ornamental gardens, surrounds and driveway are kept solely by Rory who has the cumulative time of one day and three hours of additional part-time help every week.

Being the only full-time groundsman on site is a challenge for Rory, but his enthusiasm for the ambitious plans held by the school is what motivates him day to day and was the catalyst that drew him away from London and professional football and back to the county where he grew up.

"When I came for my first interview at the school with the owner, James Sinclair, I got a sense of his passion for sport and a real desire to put a long-term project in place to transform the pitches," he explained.

"I saw this as a chance to help a site realise its potential and, in doing that, there will be a lot of creative challenges, which I'm looking forward to taking on. During that initial meeting, we talked about what I had done in my career and he elaborated on their plans for the school as a whole. The main plan was to upgrade the education facilities with a new classroom block in the next year and then look at building new pitches. But, in the time before we build the first new pitch, he wanted to improve the standard of the existing surfaces."

"The vision for the site was a collaboration and our visions were aligned from the start, which was very helpful. I could see the potential for the site to be amazing and it's not too far away from that just now. But it's just a question of how much money we need and how long it's going to take to get us there."

"The ambition to improve the surfaces, kit and maintenance facilities is shared by myself and the school and I hope, in the next five to ten years, we can be one of the premier independent sports centres in Suffolk."

"Ultimately, we want to bring the pitches up to an elite standard, but that's part of a process that has to stick to the budget we have. In the next year or two, we're looking to develop a piece of land at the back of our site into a new dual-use rugby and football pitch with a synthetic practice grid to the back of it for hockey and athletics, and we're currently putting together the tender specifications for that."

"The choice on the synthetic pitch will depend on where we are as an industry at the time. There's a lot of debate going on about rubber crumb and the link to possible cancer risks and there are institutions looking into this now. I look forward to reading their findings and being able to make a much more informed decision because, for us, the safety of the pupils is paramount."

The desire to work on a long-term project that makes elite pitches out of currently usable surfaces stems from Rory's career history and what has been achieved at the sites he has previously worked at. His exposure to groundsmanship came early in life through his dad, Alan Ferguson, who turned Ipswich Town's Portman Road into a multi-award-winning treasure in the old Division One and Premier League, whilst also contributing to the expansion of their Playford Road training ground.

Valuable lessons on budgets, time management and presentation were also learnt at Ransomes Jacobsen, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham Football Club and, as we walk around the sports field, there are plenty of examples to pick from where the fine details have been transferred to his own work.

"I got involved in this industry because of my dad, Alan. He's been a groundsman for many years now starting in Scotland before making his way down to England and he's moving to Switzerland to work for FIFA."

"Being a groundsman wasn't the first job I wanted to do. Originally, I looked at being a teacher but, after working at Ipswich with my dad as a summer a job, I realised how much I enjoyed working outside. Then with getting to use the machinery and learn a bit about the techniques, I got to see how much goes into the job and that really sparked my interest."

"From Ipswich Town, I moved to Ransomes to work on what they now affectionately call the 'RJ National Golf Course' at their factory in Ipswich. They used to do a scholarship programme at golf courses, but decided to bring it in-house to combine the education and demonstration aspects for new customers and I was approached by them to go in for an interview and ended up there for two and a half years."

"When I started at Ransomes I didn't have much golf experience, but going from football to golf has really helped me here at Finborough because this a multi-sport site. Working with a reduced budget with less fertiliser and water inputs was definitely a big plus because we don't have an irrigation system or sustained fertiliser programme at the school yet, but knowing when to do certain things and when to hold back is something I learnt at Ransomes."

"The complete opposite of that was working at Tottenham; that taught me what can be achieved when you have everything you want. We were resourceful because we didn't want to waste money, so even though we had a bigger budget and had everything we needed in the shed, we were also exploring ways to do things in-house before looking to bring in a new machine."

"Paul Jones, Nick Phillips and Wayne Billing were the site managers when I was there and working with different people who had different approaches to looking after grass gives you a better overall perspective of how it can be done, and also shows you that there isn't just one way."

"We all rotated between the managers, so it helped us see the ultra-fine detail in the first-team pitches and then a more pragmatic approach working on the youth team pitches that were getting hammered because maintaining them had to be constantly assessed to make the surfaces even better. So, having that experience of seeing how to use what you've got for the best results really helped and that was crucial at Fulham during the building we did."

"All of those jobs really impressed upon me the importance of presentation, especially in professional sport. For me, it's all about making the best first impression possible when someone looks at your pitch, and it's also important for the school because it is the first thing you see when you turn off the road onto the driveway. We stripe the driveway on both sides and make sure it's joined up, so you have the light stripes following you as you go in and following you as you go out, that's something that I picked up from Tottenham and it helps to give a bit of a wow factor when you first arrive."

Our walk from the far end of the sports field back towards the main buildings brings us to a structure that perfectly captures the importance of sport to the school in the form of a £5.5 million sports centre. The striking building dominates the view from the sports field and contains a gym, changing rooms, the main sports hall and a PE classroom in the sub-levels, with the Sky Hall above the surface which is hired out for events and also used as a dance studio.

Whilst touring the impressive facility, we meet Finborough School's Strength and Conditioning Coach, Matt Stagg. The addition of Matt to the team in 2015 demonstrated the desire to improve the school's sporting performance and is a plan that has already come to fruition in the results.

Between them, Rory and Matt demonstrate a passion for what they do and, more importantly, a mutual understanding of the role they both play in each other's success, perfectly confirmed by their conversation.

"They look at a student as a whole, not academic vs physical," Rory began. "The school motto is 'Better Never Stops' and that drives everything we do here. We're always looking to do better and this year we've achieved a lot with our rugby teams, and we did really well at the Independent Schools Association athletics meeting, and the level from two or three years ago in terms of sporting achievement has gone up."

Matt interjects with a similar understanding of Rory's role and the difference he has already made: "Our numbers have really increased over the last few years, so more students means more teams and more fixtures. Having good surfaces has been key to ensuring we have had the consistency of training time to continue to develop our programmes and our athletes."

"We are very fortunate to have some fantastic young athletes coming through our system. We have students competing in academies in rugby, football, netball and cricket across many age groups, so ensuring there is continuity around their development between these organisations and the school is important to us as it puts our students in the best possible position to pursue their sporting goals."

The clear message so far is a collective ambition for sporting improvements and a sense of everyone, from sports specific staff to teachers, pulling in the same direction. But, as we venture out of the Sky Hall towards the machinery storage containers, Rory explains the challenges he initially faced.

"I've been at the school for just over a year now and I can see improvements in the pitches, we have more grass coverage and the school have been able to use them more than in previous years," Rory explained. "It's also been good that when I stop them playing on the pitches I get support, whereas before I think they'd go out and batter the living daylights out of them and expect them to be back in good condition the next day."

"A difference from working at a football club with professional sportsmen to preparing pitches for seven-year-olds is getting them to realise the pitches aren't just areas of grass they run around on."

"I got the staff on board because they saw that, if they helped me, I could give them the pitches they wanted, and once they started explaining to the kids that if they walk diagonally across the pitches every day before they go out that there will be tramlines and it won't play right, they started buying into it as well."

"When I first arrived, parents would park their cars on the pitches because that was just how it was, but they want the school to be the best it can be, so they now understand not to park on that side of the driveway with the pitches and instead park in the designated area."

"Now we're at the point where the parents will stop other people parking in the wrong place and that's a victory in itself. Having that understanding with everyone at the school makes the job a lot easier because I can concentrate on making things better rather than fixing problems."

Being able to make significant improvements to the sports field in a short space of time meant making basic but necessary machinery changes. Originally a John Deere tractor with a 72-inch rotary cutting deck was used, but it has been replaced by a Ransomes TR3 three-unit cylinder mower to improve the quality of cut, and a PTO driven wide area rotary Greentech, operated on a new Iseki TG 3370 tractor, is sometimes used due to time constraints.

These additions along with a Wiedenmann Terra Spike to alleviate flooding on some problem areas are contributing to the short-term improvements expected by the school, but it's down to Rory to raise the standards whilst maintaining the extensive usage.

"Everyone from nursery to the senior school uses the pitches every day throughout the school year," he said. "The prep school have sports on a Monday and a Wednesday with senior pupils using the fields on a Tuesday and a Thursday, which is also our main matchday when we play against other schools."

"Norwich City Academy use our site as a satellite centre. During the winter they'll use our indoor sports hall but, during half-terms and summer, they'll use the pitches extensively. During summer holiday, we also have a company on site called Xplore who are an activities group and they use the field throughout the summer for football, cricket, rounders and any other sports they want."

"Because of that, we don't actually have a shutdown time for renovations. School ended on July 5th for us this year and Xplore arrived two days later and they'll use the site from now until the second week of August, so our renovation will be done in a phased plan."

"We're currently outsourcing renovation because, at this point, I wouldn't be able to do it all myself and we don't have people on site to help just now but, in the next four or five years, I'd like for us to bring that back in-house to give us more control over the schedule given the tight deadlines we have."

"The renovation currently consists of scarifying, aerating with the Terra Spike and topdressing one pitch with a Raycam Speedresser, which belongs to our contractor RST Sports Turf and we'll use a seed mix that has one less tetraploid than the seed we used last year, but it doesn't compromise on the quality and, by cutting back on our seed budget, we're able to invest in other areas."

One of the other areas Rory refers to is a drainage project being carried out by Ground Water Dynamics who are the next stop on our tour. Whilst the addition of the Terra Spike has gone some way to improving aeration in some problem areas, there are still those that need additional help.

Previous experience with the EGRP system which is being installed gives Rory confidence that it will work, but restraints to his budget mean the work will be completed in two phases, however, a benefit of the system is that it can be laid in sections then added to over time.

The second phase of work is contingent on the first-year proof of concept and will be joined by new maintenance facilities that will centralise the containers on site into one location beside a hard-standing area.

As the early July sun beats down on us at the site of the drainage work, the sense of irony isn't lost on Rory who is briefly watching pipes being installed into an area that hasn't seen any rainfall in weeks.

He said: "We don't have an irrigation system on site, so we are limited to the one pipe that we can use with sprinklers which reaches the top half of the pitches, so it's better than nothing in this extremely hot and dry weather."

"The heat has hit us quite hard, we are still green in some areas and the grass has browned in others, but the site tends to recover quite well and, once we get some rain, I'd expect to see that recovery."

"In the meantime, I'm encouraging people to stay off the surface and cutting as late into the evening as I can so it's cooler and the grass isn't in too much stress, as well as watering where we can early in the morning and late in the evening."

The main aim at Finborough is to build on the progress they've already made. The initial pitch improvements are set to be bolstered by the addition of further equipment as the machinery list goes from phase one to two, and a completed tender document for the new natural and synthetic pitches will signal the beginning of the most ambitious project to date.

Rory knows, through previous experience, that the industry has a lot to offer Finborough in terms of products and machinery and he hopes that they will eventually experience the full benefit of what is on offer.

"We want to get to a place where we can utilise everything within the industry, so growth regulators like Primo Maxx, wetting agents, bio-stimulants and other products like that," he explained. "Right now, I don't think we'd get the maximum effect from using them and the budget needs to be concentrated elsewhere like the drainage project and other machines."

"In the future, when the new pitches are built, we're looking to take on an apprentice because that will take it to a point where I don't have enough hours in my day to complete the work, but we'd hope that would lead to that person becoming a permanent member of staff."

"I've always been a big believer in education and giving back to the industry. I'm lucky enough to have had a very good start given that my dad was already a groundsman so, wherever I can, I like to give back and show younger people what a great industry this can be to work in."

What's in the shed?

Ransomed Jacobson TR3 three unit cylinder mower with grass collection

Iseki SXG 326 - rotary collect machine

Wiedenmann GSI6 aerator

Green Tech mower PTO mounted

Iseki TG 6370 Tractor

Marshall trailer

Hayter self-propelled rotary mower used for cutting the banks

Trilo VCU 150

John Deere tractor with a 72-inch rotary cutting deck

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