Good things come to those who wait at Queens Park Rangers

Blair Fergusonin Football

The Championship club has been trying to create a new training ground for over a decade, and though a planning application was granted on a site not so far away, the club's plans were scuppered by long drawn-out processes of appeals and legal reviews. Blair Ferguson caught up with Grounds Manager, Malcolm Gardner, to find out about the new site.

When a new site became available and with all the necessary planning processes in place QPR are finally building their home in Heston.

The 27-acre QPR recently acquired training ground site has already undergone some serious redevelopment, and in the first year of a five-year project the site is already looking transformed from a site, at the time of purchase, that was dated and suffering from a serious lack of investment. The steel frame of the new main building has created the silhouette of what will be the finished structure, and as it stands in July 2022, three new Desso hybrid grass pitches have been completed and ready for training to commence with a further two just completed in early July and undergoing a period of growing in. The complete project will see seven Desso pitches and two 3G pitches, one of which will be indoor under a constructed dome. The interesting part of the construction is that with future sustainability in mind, just one of the features will be a water storage area under the 3G pitches that will enable the club to capture and control the water that would otherwise be sent straight down the drain.

Grounds Manager, Malcolm Gardner, is the man closely monitoring the construction and growing in of the pitches, managing the transition from soil-based pitches to sand-based hybrid grass pitches. These first team and academy pitches come fully complete with Rain Bird irrigation and one with undersoil heating, which is rare at any training ground, never mind one outside the Premier League.

Grounds Manager, Malcolm Gardner

This is just one example of the philosophy behind this build. The mission is to bring the club together under one roof and give the players and management at all levels the best chance of success. As a reported £20 million project, no stone has been left unturned to achieve this aim, and in Malcolm, the club has an experienced head who is relishing the chance to work on a once in a career build.

"I think if you compared the build here to the old ground, the difference is chalk and cheese between the two," Malcolm explains. "The project here is quite an extensive and exciting one, and I think it is pretty awe-inspiring if you look at it in terms of its significance."

"For me, it's one of those projects that doesn't come along very often, and I feel very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time here to oversee something like this. It's pretty much a dream come true."

"It is an aspirational thing for the club with the academy being on the same site as the first team. Particularly as academy players have an opportunity to observe the first team training and strive to be part of it. It's good to have something in place where you can aspire to train on the first team elite pitches. So, if you're training down on the lower field academy pitches, it gives you something to push for."

"There is a lot of history to this site which, during the second world war, was a RAF airfield and, if you look hard enough, you can still see some vestiges of the old hangers now part of a separate industrial estate."

Trilo in action

"The land belonged to British Airways and many will remember it as being the Concorde club. Times change however, and British Airways sold the site to Imperial College who, at the time of purchase, wished to do more with the site, but following a review and five years hence decided to sell it and concentrate all their students' activities on the ground we previously leased and trained on."

"Because of the academy's long-standing presence here, it was a quick and easy decision for QPR to purchase the ground once the site became available just over two years ago with a view to developing the site into their very own training ground."

"Of course, a lot of careful planning went into the project and we were not alone, as nationally with the situation with COVID, it was inevitable that the initial steps of the project were pretty much pushed into a soft start."

"The stadium pitch is Desso and of course we were keen to provide continuity between stadium and the training ground, and very quickly partnered with White Horse Contractors, who work and have experience with the Desso Grassmaster system. I think Desso was keen for an opportunity to be involved in a project they can point to, so it is a partnership between themselves, White Horse and QPR."

Undersoil heating installation

"Things pretty much kicked in, stepping up several gears since last October, when White Horse arrived on site and started stripping away some of the old features of the ground, such as the disused bowls green and grass tennis courts, and creating the formation layer that would eventually become hybrid pitches for the elite team. At the time, planning for the new building that will become our new home and workspace, which will be better suited to the needs of both the teams and staff, was still in the final stages of getting the finer details passed by planning consent. But currently as it stands today, with the main structure through all the planning stages and in place, it is going to become a fantastic focal point for the ground."

Considering the start date of October, the pitch project and White Horse partnering alongside Desso Grassmaster, having completed three Desso hybrid grass pitches which were handed over at the beginning of July, with a further two currently finished and likely to be ready late September/early October following a growing in period, it is an outstanding feat.

"From next year, we hope to complete another hybrid pitch. We don't think we'll be quite ready to do two pitches, but once the new building is complete and we're able to demolish the rest of the old buildings, that will give us the necessary room to complete the final build Desso hybrid grass pitch."

"Into the fourth/fifth year, we'll be looking to put the artificial pitches in, and I think the indoor artificial will probably be the last year. The associated hard and soft landscaping and car parking will start to take shape from next year, but that is going to be quite an ongoing thing."

"I don't doubt that there will be some minor tweaks throughout the project, as there are with all projects. But, by and large, all the basics are in place here now."

Malcolm has worked on the Heston site for fifteen years and has gone through the transitions of British Airways and Imperial College. Transforming the land he knows so well is an exciting prospect, and welcoming the first team for pre-season in mid-June has proved a significant milestone in bringing the club together.

Getting things right from the start has been a focal point for him, and working closely with White Horse Contractors has brought the quality he is after.

"Getting the right contractor for a project like this is massively important. With White Horse, we became comfortable very quickly with the relationship. They've always been very open and upfront with processes they've undertaken, and it's been a good relationship and we are looking forward to continuing into the next phases of the pitch building program that will see us with seven hybrid grass pitches and two 3G pitches."

Academy pitches under construction

"Pitch One, which will be the main first team pitch, also has undersoil heating and floodlights, and I don't think there are many clubs that could boast that amount of hybrid grass pitches, so it's a phenomenal project to be involved with."

"It is a significant investment from the club, but it's a decision that will benefit the players at every level. It will also help attract new players to our club because training facilities are a massive part of what a football club can offer."

"I think the level of investment has always been about the surfaces we can offer, and I think if you have the best facilities, you're going to attract the best players, and that is the top and bottom of the philosophy. It is also a massive part of what any football club can provide and offer."

"Traditionally, ground maintenance at the QPR stadium and training ground has always been undertaken through a contractor, and though the club have been vastly happy with the previously used contractors, now owning their own site allowed them to take a fresh outlook on having an in-house team and to explore the flexibility that might bring them."

Attracting new recruits isn't limited to the first team and academy players, with Malcolm aiming to grow his team of three to nine in the coming year. "Of course, the labour market is quite a difficult thing at the moment and finding suitable staff at this point in time can be quite hard and challenging. It will be a long process, but I'm sure we will get there in the end, and it will be worth it."

Left: Stitching on elite pitches Right: New Grundfoss pumps

He accepts that this will be a somewhat difficult task given today's challenging recruitment market, where even the most iconic names are also finding things difficult. But it is still ultimately a rewarding profession to be in and one where maintaining and providing excellent surfaces for the elite and academy teams to play on is very much an important part of their success.

"Building a grounds maintenance team is one thing, but managing a successful team is another and is one where each team member no matter what role they fulfil, is able to understand and feel that they are very much an important cog in the team."

One thing the new recruits will become accustomed to is Malcolm's focus on soil biology. Clearly, he cares about his job, but his passion intensifies when we get onto this topic, and his vision for the future becomes clear.

"I come from a background where I strongly believe in feeding the soil rather than the plant. I'm very strong on soil biology, and I think it's something that has developed from my time when I first got here with British Airways some eighteen years ago."

"When I arrived and looking after their bowling green, we were almost spraying fungicide two or three times a year, and the cost of fungicide products are quite high. So always conscious of costs, it was something that I didn't enjoy the idea of doing. This sent me down the road of exploring different ways how I could move away from a reliance on fungicides, knowing how much damage they can have on soil biology. Eventually, I started exploring alternative cultural practices to ease the swards susceptibility to fungal diseases, even when those within the industry at the time said that I should just accept that it was part of how a bowls green should be managed."

"And then I chanced upon a couple of articles on soil biology and got quite interested. Soon after, and a lot more research, I started to develop my strategies over the next few years, but importantly after the first three years of working with a few different people and suppliers, we were able to give up using fungicides completely and as a result haven't used a fungicide on this site for some fourteen years."

"My philosophy moving forward here will be to carry that forward, particularly with the sand-based pitches. So, we'll be basing our maintenance and feeding programmes around looking after the soil management as much as the grass management, with the use of compost teas and low salt index products."

"Of course, on a sand-based build all the materials brought in are sterile, so getting the soil biology correct and established is going to be quite tricky, but with the right strategy and programmes it builds in time and doing everything that you can to promote that rather than damage it will bring with it returns. It will be an ongoing process."

"I think people are coming to be a little more open minded about it and understanding the importance of it has grown quite substantially in the last few years."

"The key thing is understanding good soil biology affects grass growth, rooting and also helps to control thatch, helping the grass plants through a number of the stresses. Once you understand that symbiosis, you can tailor your maintenance towards it. It's one of those things that you can produce excellent quality from the outset if you have that understanding."

"The feeding programme between our current soil-based pitches and our new sand-based pitches are very different. As part of a balanced programme, we apply around120kgs of nitrogen a year on our soil-based pitches because we are on a silty, clay sand-based soil, with the grass clippings often returned to the soil. On some of the more extensively used soil-based pitches, that will increase to around 180kgs per hectare."

For a hybrid pitch, where the nutrients are more easily lost through leaching and volatilization etc. and where grass clippings are always collected, annual applications of nitrogen can be anything up to 400/500kgs, sometimes more. But I think the importance there is understanding the nitrogen cycle and the important part that soil microbes play in making applied nitrogen into an available form for grass plants to use.

"We're tailoring that to try and keep our inputs as low as possible, striking a balance between too much and too little, ensuring it is steadily available within the soil profile. There will be a learning curve with it, but it's getting to understand how things react within the two different soil profiles. It is almost like moving to a new site and getting to know the soils and environment all over again."

As part of the project, new machinery will be bought in, including Dennis G860s, Dennis Pro 34s, new fairway mowers for summer cutting and a couple of tractors and tractor mounted equipment. The new Rain Bird irrigation system, which was designed and installed by White Horse Contactors, will be another vital addition and, certainly, I will not miss popping in regularly in the evenings to move hoses around.

"As part of the overall project, we will be getting a new maintenance building, and that is for me and my team an exciting prospect," Malcolm said. "Being able to design a building from the ground up and have something that's purpose-built to your own specification doesn't happen that often. The new maintenance facility will be built much more central between the upper and lower end of the training ground, giving us better more efficient access to the field."

"The current maintenance building we are in was probably great in its day when it was first built. It was probably the top spec at the time, but times move on, machinery has moved on, and there are different requirements for storing and maintaining it, and the new building will be centred on that."

"I've been fairly involved with most of the internal layout. But certainly, when it came to working with the designers on specific storage areas like seed sheds and pesticide stores and outside recycled water washdown areas etc., it has been very satisfying influencing the design of these key areas, ensuring the building will be useful and current for a long time."

The legacy aspect of this project isn't lost on Malcolm. He is looking forward to the site becoming elevated through the landscaping plans, which will begin as the new main building is completed.

"For me, the landscaping adds to a site like this. If you arrive at a site and there is nothing there, and it's just a green field, then it is just a green field. But, when you start to add elements to it, whether it's cleverly designed car parking, verges or planting, you give the site character."

We've purposefully come up with planting plans using native species. One of our first thoughts on landscaping was that we would try and contain everything that would be native and that we should be ecologically sensitive as to how we manage the site.

"It will be exciting adding this aspect back into my job, being no stranger to managing sensitively planted environments, because the majority of my working life as a groundsman (36 years) has mainly been managing grounds in private education, where the outside spaces are an important part of the environment, and it's something that I'm looking forward to managing and developing again."

"I will be absolutely ecstatic when it's done, but I think experience will say for me it will never be quite done as there will always be some enhancements you can make to any site. I am sure that Year on year, there will be things that can be improved on that will make things work in ways that you would want it to."

That, along with the project milestones that will be hit regularly over the next four and a half years, will bring excitement to the job. But, experienced as he is, Malcolm knows the projects won't stop once the opening ribbon is cut.

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