It’s a challenge at Oxford United FC

Lee Williamsin Football

At the time of writing, Oxford United lie seventh in the League One table, with ambitions of gaining promotion to the Championship. The club recently moved into their new dedicated training facility in Cowley, a few miles south-east of the city and a stone's throw from BMW's Mini factory. Lee Williams met with Scott Humphries, the training ground's twenty-five-year-old head groundsman.

Scott Humphries has been interested in grass from a young age which, he says, "is very strange!" Being an Oxford United fan, and with the club's old training ground in Milton the next village to where he lived with his parents, he took it upon himself to meet up with Nick Baldwin, the club's then head groundsman, and asked if he could help out.

"I was thirteen years old at that time, and I was lucky enough to be allowed to help the groundstaff at the stadium on match days. I did this for a few seasons until Nick left the club to join Brentford Football Club. Then, nine years ago and out of the blue, I got a phone call from Nick offering me an apprenticeship, and I jumped at the chance. Whilst at Brentford, I did my NVQ Level 2 in Sports Turf and also my spraying certificates."

"After three and a half seasons working at Brentford, there were a few issues with the stadium pitch and the club brought in contractors. We were then transferred over to Sportsturf, who looked after numerous clubs in our area at the time. I worked with them for twelve months, but I wasn't based at Brentford anymore. I was travelling all over doing work and, with having a new baby, it just wasn't ideal. A job came up at a Cokethorpe school back in Oxfordshire, so I ended up working there for two-years. Through the old chairman at Oxford United, I knew they were looking at building a new training facility. So, in July 2017, I was offered a job at the old training ground before moving to the new site. I have been here for the last two and half years."

Working for the club he loves again was Scott's dream, but sometimes it didn't feel like that. "The first year back was difficult. The old site, which is just across the road from the new one, had one pitch for the first team and four for the academy. I was told that, in the previous season, the first team training pitch had been so bad they had to train off site for most of the season, so there was my first challenge. With the help of the management team, some tough love and some clever movement of the training drills, we managed to keep them on the pitch all season, but it was a struggle, I can tell you. We have now moved to the new site and it has numerous problems which challenge me every day."

When the new site was built, it was going to be a community hub with football, cricket and softball, until Oxford United bought the whole site and made it into their training facility.

The new training ground used to be an allotment and is built on clay with an inch of sand on the top; this brings lots of problems and challenges for Scott to work around. "When constructing the pitches, they used what materials were on site and, in my opinion, it was poor. We have drainage that was put in every five metres, but that doesn't really work because of the volume of clay. We have drainage that was put in every five metres, but that doesn't really work because of the volume of clay. The water does not get through and sits in the top three to four inches, even though we spike every week to try and keep it open. Ideally, I would dig them all out and start again; it's just a nightmare."

Construction of the site in July 2018

"We don't have any irrigation here, which is a bugger in the summer months. We have two water points on the cricket square, which we won't have access to much longer with no cricket coming here. Ideally, the manager would like us to water the pitch before training, but it's not possible. When we koroed off the pitches in May, we hired in a temporary 10,000-litre water bowser from a local farmer. Then, Rob Green Irrigation came in and managed to wire up a system on a timer, with forty-eight sprinkler heads giving us twenty-four per pitch. The bowser was fed from the mains hydrant on the road, which we gained permission for from the water board. We set the sprinklers on a timed programme, but we had to move them every other day or they would kill the grass. It was a seven-day operation once the grass came through, with so much time spent moving the hoses and sprinklers off just so we could cut the pitch - and then we had to put them all back on again. It was a relentless task. And we also had the academy pitches to think about. If we had pop-up irrigation, the time and money saved in working hours and the hiring of the equipment would have seen the club well on the way to getting their money back by now. It's a no brainer."

Scott, alongside his apprentice and two part-time staff working sixteen hours per week, must maintain two old cricket outfields (which are used for warm-ups), five full-sized pitches, two smaller 9 v 9 and 7 v 7 pitches. The club is also looking to extend the site by installing three more full-size pitches in the next twelve months. "We have already got the land, and the chairman's vision is to put a state of the art pitch in where one of the cricket outfields is situated so that they can play under-23 games."

So how will the new pitches be constructed? "That's the argument we are having now. We are looking at Desso, SIS, Hero and a few other options but, in the end, it all comes down to money. If you don't spend it, you don't get the pitch. I believe if we don't get it right at the beginning, it will just come back and bite us. If we can't afford to do it right this year, save the money for next year. Do it once and do it right."

Left: Head Groundsman, Scott Humphries. Right: Apprentice Toby (18) with Alan (63) who works part-time

There are no frost covers available to Scott, but it is rare that training won't go ahead on a frosty morning. "We are pretty lucky here, to be honest. It's not very often the frost will stay in the ground; most of the time it is gone by ten o'clock."

Scott took the brave step to carry out a substantial renovation on the first team pitches this season to try and alleviate some of the problems they were having. "We brought in an outside contractor who took the first inch of the two pitches with the Koro. They then applied sixty tonnes of sand, forty tonnes of rootzone and then ten tonnes of zeolite per pitch. This was all turned over to break up the clay and help a little bit with the drainage. It was then relevelled, overseeded with a disc seeder four ways - using nineteen bags of a ryegrass mix per pitch - and then we applied an 8:12:8 pre-seed fertiliser."

"On the academy pitches, we used our tractor-mounted Browns spring tine rake three ways per pitch. We picked up the debris with our Kubota 48-inch cut and collect, spread and brushed in forty tonnes of medium sand per pitch, overseeded and applied pre-seed fertiliser. I would like to have done more but, without the water, it is just not feasible. We were fortunate to get the top pitches re-established with the water we did have. Still, in all honesty, I would not like to try and risk it again as the summers seem to be getting hotter and hotter."

With limited staff, resources and machinery, all pitches are not treated equally when it comes to their weekly maintenance. "The two first-team pitches are very similar to the stadium pitch, as we mirror the height of cut at 25mm, and the bays are the same size. The manager is very particular about this as he has a good eye for detail. We rent the stadium pitch for matchdays from the previous owner of the club, and a contractor is responsible for the upkeep of the pitch. Luckily, I have a good relationship with the head groundsman there, Mark Walker, who has been there for eighteen months now. We are in regular contact and sometimes, on a match day, I will go and give him a hand. There have been numerous times when he has lent me equipment for here, and it's a nice relationship to have."

"We cut the pitches using our Baroness LM2700 fairway machine, and we let the grass fly, I would like to box off, but I don't have enough staff. But we do vacuum up the pitches a few times a week with the Kubota G21, so the way I look at it is the majority of grass clippings will get picked up. We also rake it regularly with the spring tine rake which helps keep the surface clean. We will divot the first team pitches when we get the chance."

"I aerate the first team pitches every ten days with our Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain using 18mm tines at varying depths between four and ten inches. The academy pitches are spiked every six weeks, but they do drain better than the first team pitches for some reason."

Scott doesn't have the biggest of budgets for his fertiliser programme so, like his maintenance regime, the first team pitches take priority. "We use a couple of applications of a 3-4 month slow-release polymer-coated fertiliser with three applications of a liquid feed on the academy pitches per season to give them a boost. I have not yet had any soil samples taken from the first-team pitches or any other tests for that matter, as I have nowhere to store my records not having a groundsman's shed. Most of my paperwork is done in the car or at home, which is not fair on the family. There is only so much I can store in my car. Hopefully, this will all change in the next twelve months as there is talk of building a dedicated groundsman's shed with a brew room and office; fingers crossed. It would be nice to have somewhere we can call base."

"I tell my fertiliser rep each season what budget I have available for the first team pitches and ask him to put the best programme possible together. This will generally consist of four applications of a slow-release polymer-coated granular, topped up each month with a liquid feed consisting of carbohydrates, seaweed, amino acids, fulvic acids and a bit of nitrogen."

Machinery is on a five-year deal with local dealer George Browns Machinery Specialists, most of which are kept outside as Scott does not have anywhere to store them, although he was recently given a large shipping container, so at least some of his equipment can be stored safely.

Does Scott have a wish list? "I would love a Dennis G860, the versatility of the different cassette options is great, and it is reliable. If I'm being cheeky, I would also like a Dennis PRO 34R for cleaning up the pitches after training. If I could have one of each it would be like winning the lottery."

Scott feels groundsmen are majorly undervalued and are taken for granted, especially in the lower leagues where the budgets are a lot tighter. "People see pictures on the television of top clubs, and then look at pitches in the lower leagues and grassroots level and don't understand why they are not in the same condition, especially in winter when, for example, a League Two game is being played on a mud pitch and the game in the Premier League is being played on beautiful grass. I think, as an industry, there has to be more transparency on the financial differences between clubs. I also feel clubs and fans can be too quick to blame the groundsman and use them as a scapegoat when, unfortunately, it is not down to the skill of the groundsman but the lack of funds."

"I don't know how we do it, but it would be nice if people didn't see us as grasscutters; that is just a small part of the job. What you do between cutting is the vital part. As soon as people realise it's not just sitting on your jacksie on a ride-on mower, and that it is a profession which involves a lot of thought, planning and skill, we will all be better off. As groundsmen, we all have a passion for the job and are very proud of what we do. We all want to achieve the best standards we possibly can with what we have available to us."

What's not in the shed

Baroness LM 2700 fairway mower
Kubota G21 ride-on-mower
Hayter Harrier 56
Kubota LM 242 tractor
Browns rake
Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain
Gambetti 400 litre sprayer
SISIS Flexi brush
Trimax Procut
ICL SR2000 spreader
Transfer wheel linemarker