The Shay Stadium - It takes two to tango - in Halifax

Jake Barrowin Football

Dual-use, council-run stadium 'The Shay' sits in the famous Calderdale Valley, and the quirks of its turfcare requirements derive from an oddly varied history. The ground upon which it lies has, at times, been a speedway track, a landfill site, a man-made hill to support a road, and the starting point of an unfinished First World War railway tunnel. Jake Barrow reports.

The Shay Stadium, Halifax from Maxwell Amenity on Vimeo.

Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council recently spent £19 million on a local landmark, the half-mile-away and 300-year-old Piece Hall. The hall is one of the grandest buildings one could expect to see in this country. It is one of those, as exist in Durham or Lincoln for example, which would probably be world-famous, had they been built in a major world city.

To fail the duty of its maintenance, then, would have been a misstep. But the decision-makers came through with perhaps the town's most important investment of recent times.

And the council has also been forward-thinking enough, and willing enough to invest, to take on the running of The Shay, and save it from potential ownership limbo on at least three occasions.

The last of these was in 2008, meaning the stadium is approaching the decennial of its current ownership. It is operated instead by The Shay Stadium Trust, a not-for-profit organisation which was founded to run the venue on the council's behalf.

Head Groundsman Graham 'Ozzy' Osbourne, however, has been around since long before this current tenancy.

In fact, the 52-year-old first arrived at The Shay during its first council-run stretch, in 1989. The tender was then taken by a private company and many others took over during Ozzy's first twenty years throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

He began working as a casual, night-only employee, and was appointed Stadium Supervisor after six months in the maintenance role, which also entailed management of the ground's five-a-side artificial surface, as well as painting and other routine maintenance work.

Whilst in charge of these other activities, he recalled, he was "thrown in at the deep end" with turf maintenance and, in 2000, was appointed Head Groundsman. He has now been in this role for seventeen years.

Of training and personal development, he said: "I've had all the minor certificates that you need to do the job safely, but I'm not what you'd call a formally trained groundsman. I don't have NVQs or City & Guilds, or anything like that."

"However, I think you see a lot of people with all the bells and whistles who just know the same things as the people without them."

"With me, it's about application and really caring about what I do. Some well-qualified guys turn up at 9.00am and leave at 4.00pm. I work for the local authority, so I put the extra effort in. I've got experience, which is helpful, and I stay as long as the work needs me to."

As with many groundsmen who are contracted to work at one venue, ownership circumstances have not forced Ozzy to move around and find new work, as he has simply been passed between the organisations in charge.

Since his arrival at the stadium, the rugby league club has joined the fray which, like at other dual-use venues, has occasionally caused friction.

This was in 1998, and naturally Ozzy has since had to accommodate both sets of fans, which has at times been challenging.

However, he told us he is often able to communicate with the managers of both clubs simultaneously, and they are comfortable with similar cutting lengths.

Halifax RLFC is one of the most ancient clubs in rugby league, and has been successful in its heydays, being formed in 1873 and winning both the seventh and eighth Challenge Cups in 1903 and 1904.

Relatively, Halifax Town FC are currently the lower-placed of the two clubs, but the defunct club from which they sprung (which was notably in 2008, the same year the council retook control of The Shay) was once third-place finishers in the third tier of English football.

Again, one of the few commonalities throughout these changes has been Ozzy, even whilst the staff around him has been ebbing and flowing.

By upbringing and his own nature, he is more a fan of 'FC' than 'RLFC', but he and the stadium emphasise that this has no effect on his preparations, and he is adamant he holds no preference, professionally speaking:

"I got into this work originally because I'm a huge Halifax Town fan, I love The Shay as a venue and I remember always wanting to work here. I always did."

"I wasn't born into rugby league, and that has the potential to present difficulties. Sometimes there are times we have to turn down requests from the rugby league team to train on the pitch."

"Understandably, some people's response to that can be: 'Well, you're a football fan. You'd let them on.' And I can honestly tell them: 'No, I won't. It's not about that. The pitch just needs a break from everyone for the next few days.'"

"They didn't arrive here until 1998, you see. Like the dual-use pitches at Huddersfield and Wigan, it becomes like a local derby as much as you get within the same sport."

Whilst social media can pit fans of the two clubs against each other, the stadium workers and I are very successful at staying neutral

"I once uploaded a picture of a waterlogged pitch, and the council asked me not to do so again - and that's about the most involved any of us have ever got."

He remembers a time when there were three full-timers at the stadium who were all, in some way, part of the grounds team.

Now, there is only him, but with some casual help from time-to-time. And when we arrived at The Shay's front entrance, he was on the reception desk, covering an illness.

Such is the state of things within every local authority these days - when cuts are necessary, they can't be made to job roles which only have one staff member fulfilling them. The double-ups go first.

And, whilst it's difficult for one man to manage two sports, this isn't the strangest combination there has been at The Shay.

For parts of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Halifax Dukes speedway team were one of the tenants, which meant a reduction in the pitch size by a few yards at each edge.

What this means now is that Ozzy's job of discerning exact depths of potential rootzone and aeration operations is difficult, because the speedway track didn't line up perfectly with the current football/rugby surface.

It is also part of a rich history of unusual plans for location. In 2000, work began on a new stand, which was mostly completed eight years later at a total cost approaching £2 million.

Since then, however, funds have been spent on other things, and one corner of the stadium has stood as a strange, albeit airflow-aiding, tower of beams and potential.

Behind the oldest stand, the west or 'Skircoat' Stand, there are two other unique features, one of which is responsible for a great deal of Ozzy's workload.

The first, immediately backing onto his shed, is an arch built into the hill, which was constructed during the First World War to transport useful resources. This was never completed, and it remains another surreal memento of unfulfilled plans.

The other is the hill itself. Looming over the Skircoat stand is a line of trees, which are so elevated from the pitch they seem to each be several hundred feet tall.

This hill is not a natural part of the famous 'dale' or valley. Rather, it was built for the exact opposite purpose to the tunnel. That is: for whatever reason, it was more practical to construct a main road on higher ground, that cars might pass right over the town.

Again, this has a direct effect on Ozzy's work. When the leaves fall, the stand provides little protection, because the trees are so much higher up.

Naturally too, they are a source of shade. And, where the shade from the trees meets the shade from the south stand, there is a serious deficit of natural light.

This isn't helped by the topological situation to which the stadium is constrained. Whilst there are few places around as naturally beautiful as the Yorkshire dales, the nooks that its settlements tend to lie within are shielded from a large portion of helpful UV rays.

He said: "In a couple of weeks [late October], the shadow will approach the halfway line from the southern end, and won't budge until March, maybe February."

"This is total shade, and it won't get a bit of sun for all of that time. Sometimes it can look quite green and lush at the other end, whilst, over here, it's frozen, rock-hard."

And, in the southwest corner near Ozzy's shed, this shade issue is at its worst. It is compounded by the old speedway track being so close to the surface, and everything above that being clay-based.

These issues have led Ozzy to pursue unique aeration solutions. He recently acquired two machines which perform similar functions to the old Earthquake and the newer Air2G2.

The GP Air by Greenearth NZ Ltd. is a New Zealand machine which breaks up the ground by brute force of injected compressed air, built as a giant syringe. The other is a Robin Dagger, another typical air injection machine, though more portable than the GP Air.

"They help so much, because sometimes these clay-based areas can get waterlogged. You see the results of using these machines almost immediately."

"One year when we had a Boxing Day game, I came in here on Christmas Day when the pitch was holding water and the game might have been called off."

"I got Christmas dinner sorted, and told my wife I was just going for a walk, but came here instead. I used these syringe machines to make loads of holes in the wet areas and filled them with sand."

"That's how good these two bits of kit are when you're not playing on Desso or Fibresand, or whatever."

Ozzy also has access to a Sisis Javelin, rear-mounted on a New Holland Boomer. This, with its short tines, is useful on pitches such as The Shay's, where aerating too deeply is risky.

"This used to be a tip before it was levelled to make a football field. To prevent the methane from escaping from disused tips, they cover them in clay. That's why we've got that strong presence in the soil."

Every two years, we try to Koro the top off, then topdress and seed. This year, it'll be the same process, but with scarifying instead of the Koro

Asked whether such things are problematic for them financially, Ozzy said: "We don't do too bad for budgeting. If I need anything, they generally get it for me. That's: sprays, fertilisers and the like."

"What we do need, though, is to give both the clubs good notice of work we're undertaking. If we decide we need some real work doing to the turf, we can't just take it up straight away, because the clubs will have fixtures set and can't move them."

"This means we have to plan well in advance. We had a sprinkler system put in about two years ago, so we used that opportunity to get drainage work done at the same time. We had to close the pitch down fully for six weeks, and you can't just spring that upon two clubs at once."

"What we went for were new drains every four metres. That's: north-to-south, plastic lateral pipes. That gave us what I'd call the 'major arteries' of a strong drainage system."

"A year later, we could then try to use a Koro Top Drain to 'top-off' and re-sward, which it needs doing roughly every two years to lower the clay content. Then we could get the sprinkler system put in with everything as it should be."

"We were waiting for a grant to pay for that, and one of the guys from the football club won that for us - two weeks before the work was due to start!"

"So, we knew whether we could achieve our renovations two weeks prior to the contract taking place, and we were either going to have a renovation that cost £10,000, or one that cost £95,000. He must have done a good job making the case."

He talked about how useful purchases tend to be, relative to their costs: "People think that when you've spent that money, however, that your problems should be solved for the rest of the season."

"Then, they're surprised when I tell them that £50,000 of that went on the sprinkler system alone, so less than half was spent on drainage and other crucial work."

"The sprinkler system has been a godsend though. I used to have to carry a huge pipe out and go section-by-section from three hydrants. It took all day."

"Now, from this spot, [he showed me the control centre, which is in metal housing like an electricity substation] I can water the whole pitch in an hour."

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