Grassroots Sport: Clubs' investment in volunteers improves grass pitch quality

BBC Sportin General Interest

As autumn takes hold, community playing fields and pitches have seen cricket make way for the likes of football and rugby union.

Recreational cricket was allowed to return in mid-July when coronavirus restrictions eased

The fact many facilities are ready to switch use and are prepared for the worst the winter elements may throw at them can largely be put down to the commitment and determination of club volunteers.

As coronavirus lockdown was enforced in March, grassroots sport also went into hibernation and with it, to a large extent, the regular maintenance of grass pitches.

But many clubs and community groups can now say that enforced pause presented a chance to better invest in their volunteers, educating them in how to protect and enhance their pitches.

John Thornton, a retired police officer and football-obsessed father-of-three from Leeds, is one such example.

Farsley Celtic FC not only have a men's senior side playing in National League North, but a raft of women's, academy, disability, youth and junior sides for boys and girls right down to under-7s.

As one of their youth coaches, John, 45, wanted to be able to help the club's grass pitches stay ready for football's return when lockdown eased.

He took advantage of a host of previously classroom-based courses in pitch preparation and maintenance being moved online.

"A few of us who coach youth sides got talking about how we could help ensure pitches would stay looked after in lockdown and not just for the first team," he told BBC Sport.

John Thornton's newly-acquired skills have been put into practice at Farsley Celtic

"With some help from the West Riding FA, we'd already had someone visit us to share some basic expertise and ideas over good practice, so it was really a case of formalising that so more of us gained qualifications."

John got studying and reading from home, taking a course run by the Grounds Management Association (GMA), a not-for-profit organisation that supports grounds volunteers and professionals.

"There were probably around 30 hours of actual course-based learning to do, but some additional reading around the qualification too," said John.

"The results of a few of us gaining those qualifications have been tremendous. We were able to put the training into practice immediately and while lockdown was still in full force.

"The work is now more manageable and achievable with restrictions easing. I'm comfortable with the processes and procedures and prioritising what needs the most attention."

John's regular efforts on the mower or marking the pitches has also benefitted from some tips from inside the trade, including the ground staff at Leeds United, who are among those to like and respond to what he shares on social media.

"Being able to get out in the fresh air and do something that's enjoyable have been the main benefits of taking this on," he added. "It's massively rewarding to help young people and one of my life passions."

"I've suffered with mental health issues in the past during my time in the police and I know the value of exercise and sport in helping address that."

Caring for the future

Another volunteer who has also engaged his passion for supporting grassroots sport through lockdown is Andy Kirkland.

The 57-year-old from Staffordshire also acquired new skills through GMA-led courses to help support a newly-developed cricket and football facility in Abbots Bromley, near Uttoxeter.

This winter is the first full football season for the venue where a newly-established cricket square is also set for a full season next summer.

"Two of us from the village's sports association wanted to increase our knowledge and expertise so we could hand it down to other volunteers," Andy told BBC Sport.

Abbots Bromley Sports Association has benefitted from a £350,000 grant-funded initiative to develop two football pitches on the site - one junior, one senior.

"Those pitches have been developed and curated to FA standards," said Andy. "We want to ensure after the initial maintenance contract ends, we have people who can keep up that quality and care for the future."

"Going on these types of courses means we know how to use the right equipment and make it sustainable."

"From my own experience of playing and being involved in grassroots cricket and football especially, volunteers are increasingly difficult to recruit and retain."

"You need as wide as range of people as possible who can spend an hour on a mower for instance, understand how to mark out a football pitch or know what kinds of maintenance and pitch repair jobs need doing when and for how long."

Andy Kirkland (left) and other volunteers have helped establish new grass pitches in their community

'Harness volunteers'

The decision by the GMA to make more of their training available online was not only driven by lockdown but also by a report they released in May.

Data gathered through national Playing Pitch Strategies, the Grounds and Natural Turf Investment Programme and the responses of 4,000 people highlighted how many children could potentially lose access to quality grass pitches.

If clubs did nothing to improve the pitch maintenance skills of their volunteers, it warned the next decade could see one in five football and rugby players, and half of cricket players left without access to pitches fit to host weekly fixtures.

That equates to over half a million players a week, and 170,000 players during a cricket season.

"As soon as lockdown began, we changed tact as an organisation to encourage members to think how they could get facilities ready for coming out of it," GMA chief executive Geoff Webb told BBC Sport.

"It was about taking people through the journey of what the most important tasks were, keeping facilities maintained and then ensuring they were ready to return to use as quickly as possible."

The GMA's report also claimed as many as 1.4m more children could play football and rugby each week on existing grass pitches in England post-lockdown if volunteers were given the chance to educate themselves in grounds maintenance.

"That was one of the success stories really of the summer," said Geoff. "When lockdown restrictions were eased and cricket for instance was given the green light to resume, clubs had pitches fit for immediate use."

"Moving a lot of our courses online certainly helped clubs realise the importance of handing more knowledge and understanding to their volunteers."

"Quite simply, the more you invest passionate and committed people who want to see community clubs thrive, the better chance you have of improving the quality of the playing surface."

Geoff admits a potential second national lockdown brought on by continued rises in coronavirus infections could well see grassroots sport go into hibernation again. But he hopes lessons learned during the spring and summer months have highlighted the importance community sport plays in people's health and wellbeing.

"It's difficult to predict the full impact of a second wave," he said. "But the work and information-sharing that's already taken place has put some strong foundations in place."

"Hopefully recent months have shown both sports governing bodies and local authorities how vital grassroots sport is in the bigger picture."

"I hope that's going to lead to some really constructive conversations about how to harness and protect that community spirit volunteering fosters."

"The way grassroots sports managed to sensibly and efficiently restart over the summer have in my mind, shown what an asset it is in this country and that it needs to be treasured and protected."

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