Sprint finishing school

Neville Johnsonin Schools & Colleges

Caterham6It started as a casual summer job thirty years ago: it became a lasting and fulfilling career for a promising sportsman whose ambitions had been dashed by serious injury.

Bert Trautmann was not the only sportsman to break his neck in an on the sportsfield collision, and not know about it at the time. It happened to twenty-one year old John Dodwell on the rugby field, at a time when his sporting ambitions were high and he was looking for a place at Loughborough and a subsequent future as a PE teacher.

John was not only a talented winger for Rosslyn Park, he was an accomplished sprinter, having represented Surrey, the South East of England, and competed twice at the All England Championships. The injury was catastrophic and put paid to any ideas he had of active sport being a career path. Its true extent was not realised until days after the match. In fact, John didn't even think it was bad at all at the time, and carried on playing for the full eighty minutes. A numb feeling in the bar afterwards, as he put it, told him there was something wrong. It was a life-changing calamity. One thing it didn't do was stop him from going back to school.

He already had connections with Caterham School. His two brothers were pupils there, though he himself had been to another independent school, Trinity in Croydon. More significant as it turned out was that he knew Caterham's then Head Groundsman, Steve Moore, as a patron of his local pub. He had started helping him over the summer when he was nineteen. At this time of turmoil and decision making for the young John Dodwell, Steve proved to be an immensely significant contact, offering him regular work on the pitches at the 200-year old school whilst he was assessing his future.

Caterham5John now admits that then, like so many young sportsmen, he took groundsmen, and what they do, for granted, but doing jobs for Steve, he says, fired a real passion. He'd tried to get the adrenalin flowing again after he knew for sure that his sporting life had reached a full stop.

A flirtation with sea fishing didn't really do it, but the professional care of sporting surfaces somehow did. The casual job became a full-time one and, with the school's support and encouragement, he embarked on acquiring formal qualifications via day release at South East London Technical College (SELTEC). It was here that he fell under the life-long influence of one of groundcare's foremost role models, Dave Bracey, who was one of the lecturers.

John says that it was Dave that inspired him to pursue a career in groundsmanship.

"He instilled in me that a groundsman should always have an enquiring mind - about all the jobs he has to do. You can't always get it right: it's a moving target, one that needs constant analysis. Dave made me realise that it is anything but a prescriptive job where just doing as you're told gets you by. He taught me always to be self-critical and always ready to adapt. Thanks to him I came to know it is always challenging, frequently rewarding, and there's plenty of fun to be had too."
It was a beautifully sunny early summer term morning when I visited the school tucked away in leafy tranquility, yet inside the M25 ring. Sport was so obviously going to spring forth that afternoon. You could sense it. Everything was in tip-top shape. John was like a player before a match; a runner before a race. You could bet he was like it every single day. All those years ago, a SELTEC lecturer had made him see that groundsmanship could actually be just like sport itself, and this suited him down to the ground. I could tell that the Dave Bracey effect had well and truly rubbed-off.

By the time he was twenty-six, John was the school's Head Groundsman, Steve Moore having left to start up a contracting business. His predecessor also left him with an indelible mindset that he has appreciated ever since.

"What I remember most about my time working with Steve is that it taught me an important truth about grassed sports surfaces, and that is the supreme value of appearance. If it looks really good before use, then the pressure is off, and everyone is concentrating on a fine sporting contest. Certainly, as far as sport at school is concerned, we groundsmen can definitely create a feel-good factor."

As we stood watching final morning work on the school's cricket pitch, ahead of an under-15 match that afternoon, this was overwhelmingly apparent with the biscuit-coloured pitch strip, the perfect white crease markings, the neatly mown outfield, and the screens in place ready for action. What youngster wouldn't want to play cricket seeing all this?

Caterham3Caterham is both a senior and preparatory school. Since 1995 it has been co-educational. It offers a wide choice of grass surface sports: rugby, football, hockey, lacrosse, cricket and athletics. Its seventy-six acre grounds, nestling in the North Downs, provide a perfect setting for them all, but chalky ground conditions and ever broadening pressure on facilities put John and his team to the test daily.

"It's like a home," said John. "We've got the same number of rooms, but the family's got bigger. I spend a lot of my time dovetailing pitch preparation. Fifteen years ago, I didn't have lacrosse and rounders to think about."

John has an assistant head groundsman and three skilled groundsmen, plus a gardener and an all-rounder in his department. He says he'd love to have all the games scheduling notified in advance by the school's PE department, so they could pre-plan work scheduling days ahead - have it all neatly laid out on a whiteboard, so everybody knows, at all times, where they're supposed to be and what they have to do there. "It doesn't quite work out like that," he says.

"What we do is micro-manage. It isn't ideal, but it gets us through the mess. By about three o'clock on day one, I work out what I think we need to do on days two, three, four and five based on what the PE department tell me. At the end of each day the whole of the team - all seven of us - have a half hour tea-break and discuss the day ahead and, of course, any hiccups from that day's work. This works pretty well and everyone at least knows what's expected of them tomorrow, though, often as not, it's a moveable feast."

The day I was at the school there were district athletics and A level practical exams, not to mention the under-15 cricket match, overlapping on the same grass. This is a pressure unique to schools pitch work. It all looked amazingly immaculate. Take a bow Caterham School Groundstaff Department.

CaterhamRugbyJohn is still a rugby man through and through but, this time of year, it's cricket that is his passion. It's a game that's grown on him over the years. Now, it is quite a big part of his professional life. He is Chairman of the Surrey Cricket Groundsmen Association and also the ECB's county pitch advisor for Surrey, getting called out regularly to carry out pitch inspections at clubs and schools across the county.

"My cricket pitch inspection duties are time consuming, but very enjoyable," he says. "I love having 'out of school' pitch responsibilities. I would relish still more but, this year, I'm having to throttle back just a little because it is the school's bi-centenary year and the extra duties here, because of this, come first.
John never hides his sporting instinct. "To succeed as a groundsman you need adrenalin, you need drive and, above all, you need a competitive edge," he says. "To be successful and enjoy sport to the maximum, you need to pit yourself against top opposition on the best conditions possible. Surface preparation is a huge part of the whole sporting excellence thing, and where better than at school to be put to the test."

In his 'kit bag' John can call on three tractors, a triple mower, two 36-inch outfield mowers, a Dennis FT510 pedestrian mower with cassette attachments for cricket square work and the like, a set of gang mowers, tractor-mounted slitter with spiker, and a tractor-mounted Graden scarifier he describes as awesome. He will hire in limited period specialist equipment, like the heavy roller in action on this particular day, whenever necessary.

CaterhamSitePlan copyBeing in a valley, the main pitch area is prone to flooding from the surrounding Downs, so heavy-duty water pumps are sometimes called into play. There's only a maximum of four inches of topsoil on the main pitch area. It's very alkaline - somewhere around 7.8-8.0 pH - and it gets very compacted. The school also has what is known as 'Hill Fields', 120 feet higher up, but here there is a foot and a half of topsoil and it is more clay-based. In all, the school 'footprint' is seventy-six acres, though this does include surrounding woodland.

Top of his wish list is a most laudable aim driven, not surprisingly, by his own sporting passion. He'd love to see support from the government - or any funding source for that matter - given to private sector schools to help them make it possible to share their sporting facilities with schools in the state sector.

"We have a senior state school and three primary schools within easy reach of our grounds, each of them in need of extra outdoor sports space," says John. "We couldn't afford to let them use our grounds for nothing: they couldn't afford to pay us the going rate, but there has to be a way of sharing these facilities at cost."
"Up and down the country, there must be countless state schools within a stone's throw of better facilitated private schools. The Sport for All slogan banded about by politicians is a joke, as school playing fields continue to shrink and pass into the hands of developers. Wouldn't it be marvellous if funding could be found to see that school pitch sharing was a viable proposition. I'm sure there must be a way of setting this in motion."

He genuinely believes that, if there is a will, this would really work. It's a bold idea, one of a competitive sporting mind. He who dares wins. He's still enthusing about it as we walk across the perfectly marked athletics track on to the cricket outfield.
This year, for the first time, over the Easter holidays, John overseeded the school's pitches with a 50% rhizomatous tall fescue and 50% ryegrass mix. It is somewhat experimental, but John reckons it should thrive on the thin topsoil and reduce irrigation needs in time.

Last summer, he conducted another experiment on the main pitch area, currently in cricket and athletics mode, but home to the rugby first XV over the previous two terms. A just visible slight washboard effect was the legacy, but he hopes for a positive long-term effect. He explains: "We can't afford to plane the surface off, put new topsoil down and re-seed. It would cost too much and take too long. I'd seen a Blec Sandmaster in operation, and I persuaded a local contractor to use it to in-dress topsoil rather than sand into the surface. It could be an answer to grounds like ours with thin topsoil. We shall see."

He reckons every groundsman should have a corer. "It's the single most important tool in the armoury, " he says. "It's like the lifting of the bonnet to a car mechanic. Without it, you've no idea what's really going on and what you need to do. It tells you, pretty accurately, all you need to know about the rootzone, so you can be on the ball about fertiliser and nitrogen requirements and, in terms of cricket, usage of the roller. It's such a valuable time and money saver."

He proceeds with his to show me a profile of the outfield surface. It's been a rugby pitch hosting 100 matches up to Christmas and fifty lacrosse matches in the spring term, so it takes a real battering. The surface is normally a little greener than this, but it's early in the summer term and it still looks pretty good, despite the unusually prolonged dry conditions. The RTF seems to be taking root and well set for the long haul. There's cricket on it every day now until the second week of July, plus five daily athletics lessons and at least one match a week until the end of term, so the hammering continues unabated.

Caterham4The school has three cricket squares all told, for use by its prep and senior school pupils. In simple terms, it means each of them is in constant use by three age groups. The principal one has twelve playing strips; the centre five reserved for first XI use. Regardless of weather conditions, cricket pitch work is a pressure job at Caterham School, no question of that. I have to say I've seen many a county ground with squares no better than this.

I watch as a group of senior boys make their way to the nets. They circumvent the whole of the outfield, taking a longer path route rather than a short cut across it and the 400 metre running track. If ever there was a demonstration of respect for the privileged sporting facilities at their disposal, this was it. It was, of course, an unspoken compliment to the work of John Dodwell and his department too.

The 400 metre running track looks immaculate. The grass is at 35mm for early season use but, when it's cut down to 18 or 19mm for races in June and July, the good youngsters can turn in really impressive times," says John. The sprinter turned groundsman in him remarks; " Who needs a tartan track?"

The track is always mown before it is marked out to full international standards, and this is done once a week by transfer wheel marker. It takes two of us forty-five minutes to an hour to complete the job, then a further forty minutes or so to dry completely. It is always a matter of looking for a 'window of opportunity' that fits into the sporting curriculum, he says. "Early in the day is often the best time, but many's the time I do it solo after school hours - the bane or bonus of living on site, depending on which way you look at it."

I suspect John wouldn't live anywhere else.

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