No Bull at Hereford

Laurence Gale MScin Football

HerefordMain.jpgThe Hereford United pitch will always be remembered for the 1971/72 third round FA Cup replay against Newcastle United when both teams played in a sea of mud in a much postponed replay. Ronnie Radford's 35 yard 'screamer' and an extra time winner by Ricky George secured a famous 2-1 victory, the first time a non-league club had beaten a first division side in over 30 years. In the same season, Hereford United gained promotion to the football league for the first time in their history. Since then their fortunes have ebbed and flowed.

Hereford United Football Club was formed by the amalgamation of two local sides, St Martins and RAOC in June 1924. The club's home has always been Edgar Street which, back then, was owned by the Hereford Athletic Ground Co. The newly formed club played its first ever competitive fixture on August 30th 1924, losing 2-3 to Atherstone Town in the Birmingham Combination League.

In June 1931, the city council bought the Edgar Street ground for £3,000 from the Hereford Athletic Ground Co. and rented it back to United. After the war, they set the rent at just over £100. In March 1952 the council granted United a 14-year lease at a 'peppercorn' rate of £1 per season. From 1966 onwards the council set a revised and realistic rent each year.

In 1972 the club fulfilled its dream by being elected to the Football League. Mixed fortunes followed with the club gaining promotion within the space of three years, but also suffered the ignominy of finishing bottom of the league on three separate occasions and had to apply for re-election.

With Hereford's supporters hopeful of an assault on Third Division promotion, the 1996/97 season could not have been more different and remains the darkest time in the club's history. Severe financial problems forced the manager, Graham Turner, to part with his best players. He had no money available to strengthen the squad and United struggled throughout the campaign.HerefordTeam.jpg

A mid-season slump of thirteen games without a win saw them sink to ninety-first place in the Football League and then fell at the last hurdle when they lost to bottom club, Brighton & Hove Albion, and were relegated from the league.

It took nine years before Graham Turner, the Football League's longest serving manager, finally got them back into the league. They are currently riding high in Division 2.

The pitch management has gone through almost as many changes in recent times. From having its own groundsman based at the club, to the local authority being in charge to the present day with a local contractor undertaking the work.

The contractor, Highground Maintenance, was started up in 2000 by Gareth Jenkins along with Mike Lewis and Desmond Parry. Gareth and Mike began their association over twenty years ago maintaining cricket pitches at Talgarth Cricket Club.

Following on from this they began offering a service to local clubs and schools around the Welsh Marches bordering with Herefordshire and, from somewhat humble beginnings, they have grown to hold contracts at a number of sports grounds, including Abergavenny Cricket Club, a 12-hole golf course at Hay-on-Wye and well over forty school grounds. The company is still fairly small, with just six dedicated, full-time staff, topped up with a variety of seasonal workers and helpers.

The company have a policy of reinvesting any small profits into buying quality equipment, their most recent purchase being a Beamrider laser guided linemarking system, a substantial investment for them at over £5,000. This is used for initial marking out of all pitches and tracks at the secondary schools, and regularly at Luctonians RFC and Hereford United FC, which is the company's most high profile venue.

The Edgar Street pitch takes just under an hour to mark out, with the 5" lines being laser-straight even in the worst conditions. Gareth and Mike are looking forward to the day when the mowers will also be laser-guided as the mowing with an Allett Buffalo, cut at 25mm during the playing season, takes a good one and a half hours, and even longer during the growing months with the arisings collected.

HerefordLine2.jpgThe pitch itself is soil based, with the usual twmpath (Welsh for hump. Ed), thanks to decades of sand dressings to assist drainage. When the company first got involved, the only machines in the shed were a rather old and heavy 36" Allett Regal mower and a Kombi marker. The Regal was retired and part exchanged for a 34" Allett Buffalo, and this machine, together with their own overworked, but reliable 27" Buffalo does all the season's mowing.
A schedule of aeration and chemical treatments was drawn up, within the limitations of a tight budget and, as with every suggestion made, was met with whole-hearted support from the then Conference club.

After each game the pitch is repaired in time-honoured fashion by John Lawley, one of their helpers, and his trusty fork. Once a week, weather and fixtures allowing, one of the full-time staff will transport a tractor from their base at Hay-on-Wye with either an Aer-aid or Vertidrain attached. Other mechanical operations, such as roto-brushing, dragmatting and slitting, are also carried out on a regular basis.

Likewise, chemical treatments are carried out when conditions suit. A light fertilising is undertaken monthly, using a combination of British Seed Houses BSH9 (12:2:9) and Mascot 5:5:10, which is recorded on a spreadsheet, as they do with all the other sports grounds, to give an annual total of around 120:14:70 (kg/pitch). Additions of whatever iron solutions are on offer are interspersed, usually to give a boost to colour.

Experiments have been carried out with PrimoMaxx to limit grass growth with some success, and this will be continued to get the optimum concentrations and time-spacing; an offshoot of this has been the use of the growth restrictor on the school running tracks and cricket squares.

Spearhead is used to control weeds very successfully, and an alternation of carbendazim and thiophanate-methyl, with and without wetting agents, has been used over the years to minimise the perennial worm problem. However, this year seems to have been a good one - for the worms throughout the Marches and the sellers of worm suppressants!

Unfortunately, time limits the amount of monitoring done, but root growth, and consequently grass coverage, is steadily improving under this regime, and penetrometer readings reveal an impressive reduction in compaction throughout the diamond.

Last May the company arranged for the pitch to be fraise mown taking off the top 15-20mm of vegetation using the Koro. It was then vertidrained and overseeded with the top-rated BSH A20 seed mix. This was followed with 60 tonnes of 80/20-rootzone dressing from Banks Amenity.

There is always the problem of getting 60 tonnes of topdressing into an Edwardian city centre ground where the only access is via 8 foot wide gates fronting onto a very busy narrow market road! The wet summer months were ideal, thankfully, as the watering system is very primitive. Germination and growth was excellent.

Whilst visiting the ground I met up with Graham Turner and he had nothing but praise for the standard of work the grounds team were achieving. He said the players have no excuses for playing poorly on what is one of the best pitches in their league.

Gareth and Mike put it down to having well-paid staff, trying to use the right equipment at the right time, learning from others in the profession and taking advantage of the huge amount of information available on the internet. The current condition of the Hereford pitch is a shining example of what can be achieved by a club with a total annual grounds maintenance budget of under £20,000.

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