Hatters’ uplifting future

Neville Johnsonin Football

Head groundsman Richard Bird spoke to us during the World Cup break about the pitch ups and downs during his thirty years at Kenilworth Road. Few clubs in the Football League have had the rollercoaster ride the Bedfordshire club has had.

This most traditional of grounds was constructed in 1905, just before Luton Town took up residence as tenants. It bought the ground in 1933 and 56 years later sold it to the town's Borough Council. Since then, the club has had use of it on a rolling 7-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

Redeveloping this famous old ground is well nigh impossible because of its limited site. For the best of reasons its life is drawing to a close because the club's directors recently confirmed that a move to a brand new home just a mile away is very much on. Plans for a 17,500-seater, state-of-the-art stadium at Luton's town centre Power Court are approved and should become reality in a couple of years.

There is an air of optimism on and off the pitch. Anticipation is mounting and it's very evident when talking to the man who's in charge of pitch matters, Richard Bird, who not surprisingly is known as Dickie to all at Kenilworth Road.

On the 22nd March this year, he will have been Luton Town's head groundsman for thirty years. It was 1993 and he had been working as a greenkeeper at a local golf club. One winter Saturday, he was at a Luton home game with his father-in-law, whose company had a couple of executive seats, and his career changed direction.

In a half-time conversation that day about the poor state of the pitch with one of the then Luton directors, Richard mentioned that a bit of verti-draining would help matters considerably. This and other professional observations impressed, and semi-seriously he was asked if he would like to come and work at the club. He thought no more about it until a couple of weeks later he saw in the local paper an advertisement for a job as Luton Town head groundsman. He couldn't resist it, and after a couple of interviews the position was his. A fan who gets paid to see every match: it's a job for life.

The time when Richard took over was just 18 months after the club's six year brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, plastic pitch 'marriage' had been brought to an end. A re-instated grass pitch was coming to the end of its second season with four home fixtures left. In truth it was a fairly awful surface, Richard recalls.

Looking back to 1985, the club's move to follow the lead of Queens Park Rangers four years earlier in introducing artificial surfacing to top class football was a bold one, and at considerable expense. Kenilworth Road adopted a pitch material produced by French manufacturer En-Tout-Cas called Sporturf Professional. Unfortunately, it was soon unpopular with both players and fans and with some derision became referred to as 'the plastic pitch'. Preston North End and Oldham Athletic also turned to this type of pitch. Eventually, in 1991, artificial surfaces were outlawed by the Football League and natural grass officially became the rule.

Part of Luton's Brache training complex

Richard's early years at Kenilworth Road were testing to say the least. When he first took over, the pitch was far from satisfactory.

"Black layer was rife," he recalls.

"Since the days of the artificial pitch, there had been a drainage issue. A crushed brick base used for it, about 10 inches below the surface, had been left after its removal beneath the reinstated grass surface. It caused a long lasting problem."

At the time, the club was even then planning to move to a new stadium and it was envisaged that the pitch would only need to last two or three years. The trucks and equipment used in the pitch swap created what effectively was a compounded sub-surface saucer, a recipe for water retention. That ambition to move did not materialise and the drainage issue persisted and worsened.

Annual renovation thereafter relied principally on brought in hollow tining, then core removal, sanding and reseeding by Richard and a couple of apprentices. Any spoil - just like sand deliveries - had to be piled up in the road close to the stadium's single entrance, such was its limited surroundings.

"The 'luxury' of the new stadium will be such a joy," says Richard.

For years, manual aeration and regular verti-draining kept things in check, but waterlogging remained a thorn in Richard's side until 2009 when he called in specialist contractor Pugh Lewis to install a system of 3-metre spaced drains and a main drain exiting to a storm drain in one corner of the stadium.

Further slits have since been added. The system does a good job and the drainage issue is now pretty much resolved, even in the wettest of conditions.

Richard, however, always knew that more was needed to get a pitch in keeping with the club's Championship status and further ambition.

A couple of years ago, he knew he was taking a chance, but in putting forward proposals and budget for off-season reinstatement, he asked for £10,000 to introduce hybrid surfacing to the penalty areas and each end. He admits he was surprised and delighted when the directors asked him to get quotes for a complete hybrid pitch installation. He did just that and Kenilworth Road had a full hybrid pitch installed in August 2021 by specialists SIS.

Richard recalls the build up to this transformation and the actual installation.

"We had the usual summer renovation carried out, taking off all of the top surface to reveal the drain lines, then sanded and reseeded with Rigby Taylor R140 ryegrass mix."

"We had played our 1st home game on the Saturday against Peterborough, and then on the Sunday SIS arrived with their stitching machines and completed about 85 per cent of the pitch over the next two weeks, two operatives working 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts. It was fascinating to watch. We had to pull them off site though in order to play our next home game, but they returned the day after to finish the job.

Richard reckons the biggest asset of the new pitch is speed of recovery. Re-growth is very impressive. He cuts it to 28mm over the winter months and down to 23mm during the summer.

"The pitch has performed immaculately ever since. No more divots. The improvement has been phenomenal. Post match we just go over it with rotary mowers to gather up whatever loose debris there might be."

Left: Richard's number two Jamie Marshall, right: Assistant Archie Murdoch

Richard and his two full-time assistants, Jamie Marshall and Archie Murdoch, also look after the club's training centre at the Brache, a nearby 17-acre facility. A two-phase makeover of facilities begins there in March with half the pitches 'taking turns' for a full refurbishment, ensuring that there are always sufficient first class grass surfaces available for training.

Access to Kenilworth Road has always been a problem, on match days and for getting equipment in and out. Machinery has to be tractor-towed along adjacent streets, entering the ground through a single access point.

Since 2021, annual renovation at Kenilworth Road has been conducted by contractor White Horse, who back in 2016 Richard had engaged to lay the pitches at the Brache and will also carry out the first phase of refurbishment there this spring.

"They do a splendid job for us," says Richard.

That new Luton Town stadium is not too far away, so Richard is looking forward to smoother ins and outs for all concerned.

When it comes, the move will be both sad and exciting. Richard says he has many good memories of life at Kenilworth Road from the day when his mum and dad bought him his first season ticket to 'prepping' the first Luton match on its hybrid pitch.

As well as serving the club for nearly 30 years, he truly is a lifelong supporter. His happiest pre-groundsman day was when the Hatters triumphed 3-2 over Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup final, then called the Littlewoods Cup.

The club has had probably more ups and downs literally than pretty well any other in the Football League - too many to list here. It is a yo-yo club par excellence, and one that has bounced back a number of times from enforced hardships that would have sunk many a club, including a record 30-point deduction in 2007. From top division to non-league, and back again, well nearly, Richard has seen it all.

The best of times: the worst of times - a tale of one Town. But the real best for the Hatters may be just around the corner, at the Power Court Stadium.

Article by Neville Johnson.

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