Hammers going west?

Tom Jamesin Football

WestHam MainLondon's East End has suffered its fair share of trials and tribulations over the years, from Jack the Ripper notoriety to wartime bombing. Long seen as the capital's poor relation, the area has always prided itself on a fiercely strong sense of community spirit and engagement and, at its focal point over the generations, has been football.

Every team's following can claim to be devoutly passionate - for some fans their very reason to exist it seems - but East End clubs, arguably none more so than West Ham United FC, epitomised the tradition and standing of the national game in the lives of the locals.

Now, big changes are afoot. The region is in the throes of dramatic rebirth. The granting of the Olympic Games to London in 2012, and the decision to create their sporting hub in East London, is ending the decades of under-development and under-investment as billions are ploughed into infrastructure, residential and business developments, transport links and a brand new stadium.

To many at West Ham, that stadium has the club's name on it already because, with the Games legacy so great a part of the 'green Olympics' mission, functionality after the last medal has been won is as important as the performance of Team GB itself.
WestHam UptonPark2
The club is vying to become one of the key beneficiaries of the Olympic build programme, with plans to make the Olympic stadium their new home once the flame of competition is extinguished.

The move would mark a return for the club to its ancestral home in West Ham, where it believes it can, once more, become the community focus - albeit one out of all recognition from humbler origins.

After a short spell in the Championship, the Hammers are back on an even footing in the top flight, albeit rather precariously, and under new ownership. The next two years are set to be an exciting time for a host of reasons, among them the construction of the club's new £4m training ground, in Rush Green, Dagenham, Essex - planned to break ground in the new year.

With much for the fans to look ahead to, 'business as usual' are the watchwords meanwhile for players and staff, who, when I visited the club's Chadwell Heath, Essex, training complex, were busy preparing for another, no doubt, dramatic Premiership campaign.

Survival would appear to be the word on everyone's lips right now though.

It was here that Head Groundsman, Dougie Robertson, greeted me for a tour of what, he admits, is a training centre designed for the needs of an earlier footballing era. WestHam DougieRobertson3

As someone who has, and continues, to work through what are challenging times for the Hammers on the pitch, Dougie knows that turfcare standards cannot be allowed to slip, either at the Upton Park stadium or West Ham's two training sites.

Early summer can be an inspiring time to view football pitches - freed, as they are, of the trauma of weekly, even daily, battering. Chadwell Heath was no exception.

Dougie, still a sprightly 33-year-old, joined the club thirteen years ago as assistant to his predecessor, Ian Jackson, donning the head groundsman's hat from 2002.

Since 2006, his responsibilities have grown, taking on additional duties after the untimely death of Ian that year, who had overseen the bulk of work at Chadwell Heath.

Dougie is now in charge of this site, the second training ground at Little Heath two miles away and home to the club's football academy, and the Upton Park stadium pitch in Upton Park, so, like his Premier League colleagues, he is kept busy year-round on a whole range of tasks.

Entering the industry straight from school, Dougie took his first job at Gogarburn Golf Club in Edinburgh, where he completed his YTS training in 1993. After a short spell in golf, he moved to the Scottish Rugby Union in 1994, winning an assistant's position at Murrayfield.

WestHam UptonPark5He recalls fond memories of his time in the sport, but ambition bit at his heels and he felt that, to fulfil his potential, he needed to move further afield, and it was the South-east where he saw his future.

"We had a strong team at Murrayfield, but I felt I had to move on if I was to further my career and gain a head groundman's position," he says. "So, I took the chance and moved down south when the opportunity presented itself."

"As much as I loved working in rugby, football has always been my sport and I was more than happy to move away when I gained the assistant's post at Upton Park. But, from the off, the scope was there for me to move up and improve my skills still further here."

The first team and reserves are based six days a week at Chadwell Heath, I'm surprised to learn. "People forget that Upton Park only sees play once or twice a fortnight," Dougie explains, "whereas the training grounds are where the real work takes place, so it's as important to maintain these to as high a standard as the stadium pitch."

He shares his time between all three sites, allocating only about fifteen hours a week to Upton Park's playing surface, while devoting much of his efforts to the fifteen acre Chadwell Heath site, laid to three Fibresand and one and a half synthetic pitches, all installed in 2008 when the club invested in upgrading its training provision.

WestHam Training2Bought back in the 1960s, the former cricket club is well suited for football but is not short of its difficulties, largely due to its location. "Our biggest challenge here is drainage. We sit on very low-lying ground, like a bowl with housing sitting around us," Dougie continues.

"Our water table also sits high, and we've had to contend with the constant risk of flooding and have to resort to aerating at key times in the season to control the water level, as well as vertidraining regularly with different gauge tines. We'll then hollow core or vertidrain to disperse any water that has pooled."

Witnessing the lush green, recently overseeded Fibresand surfaces, free of any boot marks and divots, I find it hard to imagine such nagging difficulties.

But, not all pitch marks are due to play. "Just there is where the new owners land their helicopter," Dougie reveals in less than reverent tone as he calls to mind the time and trouble he and the turfcare team take to produce a premier surface.

Despite the weather worries, and the Sports Turf Research Institute likening the site to a local authority pitch in terms of the volume of use it withstands, the pitches remain in superb condition and, claims Dougie, will show few signs of wear until December.

His key to achieving this degree of sustainable surface is a rigorously regular and efficient end of season maintenance programme which, he insists, is even more crucial for Upton Park's Desso pitch. "A complete clean-out at the end of each playing year is essential. We use a specialised raking machine supplied by contractors John Hewitt, who designed and built the machine himself specifically for the Desso surface."

WestHam Lights"The rest is a matter of undertaking the basic renovation work well, planned around the central focus of the raking, which helps to clear the surface completely, removing all the debris built up over the season."

Raking allows the surface's synthetic strands to blow freely, ready for the pitch to be reseeded, Dougie adds. Failing to rid the debris fully can lead to organic build-up and big headaches to come, he says.

"After raking, we simply continue the normal programme of topdressing, vertidraining and reseeding, followed by a minimal fertiliser application in preparation for the new season.

"We reseed with a Limagrain MM60 ryegrass four-cultivar mix, which gives us a good wear tolerance and resistance - a must for the rigours of Premier League football."

Desso pitches have come in for their fair share of criticism, mainly as a result of reports that they have a shorter lifespan than other pitch constructions, yet Dougie would have "nothing else" and believes them to be the best on the market.

"Desso is a trickier surface to maintain long term and requires more thorough maintenance practices," he insists. "There's also much better machinery available for their maintenance since they first hit the market, so there's no reason why, subject to good management, they should not last twenty years or more."

The demands on Chadwell Heath present Dougie and his team a different challenge. The first team and reserves utilise the grass surfaces six days a week, while Academy players put the synthetics through their paces. It's often a tall order to keep everything in pristine condition throughout the season, Dougie admits. WestHam Boxing

The site's residential setting also serves up problems with fox damage, as does Upton Park itself. "We had to remove more than twenty foxes from the stadium last season. That's more than one for every home game. They're a real menace for clubs now," he rails.

Having remedied the issue on the main ground, Dougie says foxes still present a lingering concern at the training sites, despite welcome news last season. "It's become far better in the last year, we think due mainly to the fact that the local council has introduced wheelie bins to the surrounding area, which means less intrusion by foxes onto our site. There is really no effective way of keeping their numbers down though; they're a real problem."

Pest control aside, Dougie believes the root of successful turfcare at West Ham rests with teamwork and the strength of the working relationship with club bosses.

Dougie manages a ten-strong team, covering all three sites. Jody Hawkes runs Chadwell Heath full time, joined by Ross Shorey and the youngest member of the team, apprentice Harley Nobbs who, at only sixteen, is already showing a real flair and enthusiasm for the job, Dougie enthuses, bucking a trend often talked about in the industry.

"The club has been proactive at building good relationships with local schools and community groups, which has given us the opportunity to offer apprentice schemes," he explains.

"Shane O'Brien and Asa Perry are full-time at the stadium, Paul Gatland and Darren Lacey take care of the Academy side and a general maintenance team of three - Peter Savage, Steve Jones and Andy Moret - work at both Chadwell and Little Heath.

"I can't stress strongly enough how important the whole team is to the running of things. Groundsmanship is about teamwork, not one man giving orders. This principle has also been applied to me by the directors and my line manager, Operations Director, Ben Illingworth, with whom I enjoy an excellent working relationship."

WestHam DougieRobertsonStretched between three sites, Dougie, like other Premier League grounds managers, must allot his time accordingly. Taking on board his earlier words about teamwork, the need for strong, sustainable management skills will continue to grow in importance, particularly as the profile of the profession among the media intensifies.

"You need to be able to listen to your staff and take on board their suggestions. That's a role that groundsmen at this level will have to accommodate more and more - one we should relish," he insists.

Dougie is an active member of the Premier League Groundsman's Group, which meets twice a year. Under the growing glare of the media spotlight, turfcare managers are seeking ways to become more 'savvy' - and moves are afoot to explore opportunities for media training.

The shape of modern football has evolved out of all recognition from its earlier incarnations, both off and on the pitch, as pressure to push back vital end-of-season renovation work intensifies to squeeze in the packed programme of external engagements once the season has climaxed.

"This year, we couldn't start work until 14th June," bemoans Dougie, "as the previous day, Upton Park was hosting a Christian festival - the Global Day of Prayer - an event that involved bringing steel trackway and articulated lorries on to the pitch."

"This extra work, and adjustment to our schedule, is part and parcel of professional football now as such events provide lucrative income for clubs. However, we do like to agree a start and finish date in advance, to ensure the club can complete its commitments and our work is not affected too much by the shortened timescale."

Events at Wembley stadium, culminating in the contensious removal of the head groundsman, served to highlight the stark reality of the pressures at top level. They have sparked the belief that some form of job protection is overdue to safeguard positions.

Yet Dougie - not a union man himself - insists that the responsibilities in top jobs bring with them added pressure and that's to be expected. He is rather more concerned about the plight of those working in lower positions and in the lower leagues. "Groundsmen at my level are well looked after, despite the workload," he states, "whereas those in the lower leagues can be very poorly paid, and staff are often expected to work long hours and prepare a good surface without all the tools to do so. and without the financial benefits."

After West Ham were relegated in 2004, and spent two years in the Championship, Dougie knows how groundsmen in lower leagues can struggle trying to make budgets stretch far enough. "Ours was slashed after we were relegated, but the expectation to bounce back into the Premier League the next season was enormous. Every team wants to beat you, there's extra games and extra pressure, yet you're expected to prepare the pitch to the same Premier League standard with limited resources - it was extremely tough," he reveals.

"Most people fail to appreciate how much work goes in to preparing a match pitch, especially supporters, yet I'm fortunate that the club caters for us very well - we have all the tools we need to deliver what's required."

Machines provision is something Dougie and his team have little to worry about and, as a self-confessed 'Toro man', it's easy to grasp the reasons why, as West Ham enters its eleventh year running a full fleet of Toro machines.

The club embarked on a major machinery refurbishment in 1999, wanting to consolidate from a mix of makes to just one, so signed a corporate agreement. "It came at a time when the club wanted us to become more professional, and part of that was to improve our machinery," Dougie recalls.

"In my opinion, Toro make the best machines on the market, with a far superior aftersales support, and we enjoy an excellent relationship and maintenance agreement with our local dealer, Grasshoppers of Chelmsford."

Dougie is clearly a man content with his role at the club - albeit a highly challenging one - and, after moving through several sports, he believes that he has settled in the footballing domain with West Ham - the club where he'll be happy to end his career. Still in his early thirties, Dougie has plenty of time left to reflect on that contentment after realising, early on in life, the key career moves he had to make - and that's an enviable attribute for anyone in work - turfcare or otherwise.

In his words: "As long as you're in the Premier League you're all the same size. I have no need, or desire, to move on, and I still have much to achieve here, especially with the new training ground developments and proposed move to the Olympic stadium."

Work on the new training ground at Rush Green, bought from the Ford Motor company earlier this year, is set to begin soon and will run to seven new pitches, six Fibresand and one Desso for the first and reserve teams, while the youth team, Academy and under-18s will remain at Chadwell Heath. The Dagenham move will coincide with the migration back to West Ham's origins. The move to West from East Ham has proved long in coming for fans and staff alike, who feel the club has outgrown Upton Park, and its surrounding area, and no longer best serves its supporter base.

"Our core fans are having to travel further than they should to see their local team," argues Dougie. "We need a home that sits in the heart of their community; the Olympic stadium site will do just that."

The Hammers emblem is already looming large over 2012.

The West Ham fleet

WestHam Toro2Two Toro 5510 Reelmaster for cutting duties at Chadwell Heath and Little Heath training sites
Toro Workman
Toro Workman ambulance Medbed - "especially made for us and the first model in the UK", claims Dougie
Toro Sidewinder
Toro 4100 with rotary deck
Toro slitter
Toro Procore shallow spiker
Toro 3000D Groundsmaster
Six Toro hand mowers
Charterhouse Vertigroom
Charterhouse Vertitop
Charterhouse slitter
Two Sisis Quadraplay with four attachments
Five TYM tractors - three based at Chadwell Heath, one at Upton Park, the other at Little Heath
Vertidrain - moves from site to site
BLEC multiseeder
Rotomec flail
Scag flail pedestrian mower
Three Honda pros - stadium-based
Two Dennis G860 mowers with interchangeable cassettes
One Iseki rotary mower
Fully automatic Hunter irrigation system

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