Meet Phoebe Taylorson, Middlesbrough's first-ever female apprentice grounds person

Craig Johnsin Football

Phoebe Taylorson is helping to prove that age, disability or gender is no barrier to working in football

When you think of a typical football grounds person there is an obvious stereotype. In fact, that stereotype makes that first sentence redundant because the reality is the majority of us will immediately think 'groundsman' and likely picture a middle-aged male.

There's a reason that is a common perception and it's because it's a reality. Over 40% of the current employees in the sector are men over the age of 50. And with no influx of new recruits, there is a concern at the GMA (Grounds Management Association) - the not-for-profit organisation which represents sports grounds staff from across the UK - that it could result in a significant employment gap within the next five to ten years, which could have a hugely detrimental impact on the sport we love.

The GMA are taking steps to encourage both younger applicants and more diverse applicants to consider a profession in grounds management, and Middlesbrough have responded, offering 17-year-old Phoebe Taylorson an apprenticeship that she started last June.

She is Boro's first-ever female grounds person. But as well as being a female in a male-dominated profession, Phoebe also has a hearing disability, and yet has refused to late age, gender or disability be a barrier to doing a job that she loves.

"I must admit, before getting the job I did think that if it came down to two candidates who were equal, one male and one female, the male would get picked because people would assume the male would be naturally stronger," she tells Teesside Live as she sits down in a Riverside suite to take a hard-earned break from the day's treatment of the pitch.

"But my attitude was, give it a go and do the best I can, and if they say no for that reason, that's not my fault that's them missing out. But I did get the job and everyone I work with is great. It's a real family spirit amongst us. It never feels like anyone treats me differently, I just feel like I'm one of the team."

The role was perfect for Phoebe. She's a lifelong Boro fan who had a season card and attended matches with her Dad for many years before landing the role at the club. A keen footballer herself and very much an active and outdoors person, her stint in sixth form studying Law, Spanish and Politics, while proof of the incredible intelligence she has, just wasn't for her.

"I was in sixth form and I just found it boring," she admits with a smile. "I was a bit lost really and didn't know what I wanted to do. So I was looking for a way out and football has been something I've always loved. I wanted to do something hands-on and preferably outdoors too. So when you put the two together, this role was the perfect solution to the problem!

"I was speaking with tutors at the sixth form and they were pushing me in the direction of football. So I just searched online for careers in football and grounds person came up. Around the time I'd been looking at things like horticulture and National Trust parks and things like that anyway because I'd always wanted to work outdoors.

"I first applied for a job at St George's Park [England's base in the Midlands] and they said I was a good applicant, but they didn't want me moving that far away. Then this came up and thankfully I made it through and got the role.

"It was the perfect opportunity and it's been really good so far. It's been hard, but I was expecting that. It's a good kind of challenging, as opposed to, 'I hate this, and I want to leave'."

You might find yourself asking why does it matter? Is it really that important to protect the future of the profession? "If you take the grounds people away from the club, you ultimately won't have a pitch to perform on," is Phoebe's rather to-the-point rebuttal.

Think back to those stereotypes and you probably just see the grounds people on match days walking around the pitch with their forks, digging into the pitch before and half-time of a game. What you don't see, and might not appreciate, is just how much work, thought and forward-planning goes into the role of making that pitch as perfect as possible.

"The biggest part of the job is cutting the grass, which is what we mostly do day-to-day, to keep it in good condition," she explained. "After the match, it's all about the work we have to do to get it back to perfect condition. So immediately after a game we'll divot the pitch and then on a Monday, we brush it and clean it all in order to get it ready for the next match. It is hard work.

"There's a lot of science involved in it as well. When fertilising the pitch, for example, you need to make sure you've got the right chemical blends of what you're using. There are certain different types of feed for different times of the year as well.

"I didn't know what to expect coming into it, so everything was brand new. It's a lot more in-depth than meets the eye; there's definitely a lot more to the job than a lot of people think."

In some ways that shouldn't be a surprise. The condition of the pitch is ultimately conducive to performance on it. The instant memory in my mind is Neil Warnock's displeasure with the Riverside pitch a couple of seasons ago when Marcus Tavernier slipped during his run-up for a penalty which ultimately cost Boro two points. They ended up drawing a game that penalty would have won.

Think of all the millions invested into success at the club, and on the players who grace that pitch. The better the condition of it, the easier for those players to perform at maximum level on it.

Injury prevention is key too. The level of detail comes down to making the pitch the exact level of resistance. Too hard and the impact on players when running on it will cause problems. Equally, too soft and there are potential risks for twisting as feet get planted/stuck in the turf. Injuries impact team selection, and potentially results. Results impact revenue. It's no wonder Boro take it so seriously.

It's something most elite professional clubs are aware of in the modern game and place significant importance in. Boro employ nine grounds people in total now, with three at the stadium and six at the training ground on a normal week, with all hands on deck at the Riverside on a match day.

Phoebe will be there, every home game, with the rest of the Boro grounds people, doing all they can to make that pitch the best it possibly can be to aid Michael Carrick's side in their bid for Premier League promotion.

And there is one more stereotype we had to touch on. If you've been around football clubs and games most of your life then chances are you've probably either been in trouble with a grounds person, or seen someone who has. Protective over their pitch, you might consider them the most grumpy employees of any football club!

Phoebe is trying to avoid that stereotype but admits she can understand why it's a thing. "I try to relax and not worry too much about the pitch when watching, but that isn't always easy," she admits with a smile. "I do love watching the football.

"It's obviously great being on the pitch before, after and at half-time as well. You're seeing all the players and the manager up close which is really fun. I try not to be the stereotypical grumpy grounds person, but I do understand why people can get very stressed when you're watching people ripping up your pitch every week, after all the hard work and dedication you put into it!"

Hard work and dedication is the key. As football fans, we tend to hero-worship the players out on that pitch who ultimately carry the pressure of trying to bring joy to us as supporters by winning games. But every football club has so many more unseen people behind the scenes whose work is invaluable in ensuring there is a club, and a pitch, for those players to perform and for us to love.

Phoebe is one of many great people at Middlesbrough Football Club who fits that mould. That she's helping to diversify and protect the future of such a crucial profession is absolutely fantastic and should be appreciated every bit as much as Chuba Akpom's goals!

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