For the past 100 years, ask anyone about football on the Fylde coast and 99.9% of discussions would end in talk about Blackpool FC. However, after several relegations, The Seasiders have been replaced as West Lancashire's top club by Fleetwood Town, and now there's another coming up on the blind side. With five promotions in nine years, and a new stadium, AFC Fylde are making a charge for the EFL, and integral to their success is 33 year old, Head Groundsman, Daniel Bunce
It's a dry and crisp Friday in October and I'm waiting for Daniel Bunce in the impressive sports bar; housed in the main stand at Mill Farm. Sports memorabilia adorns the walls and multiple big screens show sport channels.
After a brief introduction, we head down the players' tunnel to a stunning sight; a manicured green carpet of a pitch, shaded on several sides due to the early evening sunset. The irrigation is on a light watering cycle and Daniel has just mowed the pitch. As I turn around, I view a huge, modern, cantilever roofed stand with corporate boxes, a large clock and the words AFC FYLDE emblazoned on it. On the far side and to the right are stands and, to the left, an undeveloped standing area (but operational on match days). In non-league terms; this is heaven.
Daniel started working for the club in 2012 assisting the then Head Groundsman, Nick Regan, starting off with duties like divoting, installing goals and fertilising, before building up to mowing and marking the pitch. He had no previous groundmanship experience but, as a football fan, wanted to be involved in the match day activities beyond pies and pints. Ironically, Daniel was previously on the club's books (when the club was known as Kirkham and Wesham) as a young goalkeeper when he was eighteen.
Within twelve months, Nick had moved on and Daniel was now Head Groundsman. The club were playing at their old ground, Kellamergh Park (now used as the training ground) just a few miles away; a more traditional non-league ground you could say. The pitch was a field adapted to play football (short grass, regular maintenance, no irrigation) and the stadium housed small tin stands; all very cosy and homely. However, the vision of the Chairman, local businessman David Haythornthwaite, was one of a more ramped up progression.
Plans were already in place for the development of Mill Farm, which would include retail outlets on the site. The club had already headhunted current 1st team Manager Dave Challinor in 2011 from a club two leagues above and they were signing quality players that would propel them to the current (October 2016) leaders of National Conference League North; just two leagues below League Two. So, for the past thirty-six months, as the club continued to play at the old ground, Mill Farm was being built; new stands, new pitch and new facilities getting the team future proofed for life in top non-league/ League Two.
The stadium move and the challenge of maintaining a specifically constructed football pitch for Daniel was one of excitement with a few nerves. Daniel now has nearly four years of groundsmanship duties under his belt, but he has undertaken these whilst still holding a full time job. Oh, did I not mention this?
AFC Fylde is not his full time job. He works the night shift at the Royal Mail Sorting Office in nearby Preston. A remarkable achievement to work forty hours, then up to another forty at the ground; every week! He explained that he has a very supporting wife in Jemma who understands that this turf role has become a passion and hobby, and one that is giving him notoriety and prominence, which is well deserved looking at the pitches he produces. For the past three seasons, he has been shortlisted in the non-league categories at the FA Groundsman of the Year awards. This season, who knows? Perhaps he will scoop 1st place?
Long hours aside, I asked Daniel about the pitch construction as I assisted him in stringing the pitch out for white lining as the sunlight faded. He explained that the pitch was constructed (starting in 2015) by local sports ground contractors Danvic. The profile is quite standard with a herring bone drainage layer under a stone carpet, then a blinding layer, before the 100mm rootzone was graded. Finally, the pitch was overseeded with 100% perennial ryegrass (the same as used at Wembley Stadium). Supporting the construction at 3 metre intervals length ways are sand slit drainage channels. The end result is an exceptional pitch, one of a healthy sward, disease free and beautifully striped in a chess board pattern.
Danvic handed over the reins of the maintenance on 1st August 2016 and the first game was the open season fixture versus Brackley Town a couple of weeks later; an exciting start of an era for the club and Daniel.
Throughout the summer, he would regularly visit the stadium as the grass matured. Gone were the days of four hours of hand watering or setting up the mobile cable irrigation on his way to and from the mail sorting office. A twenty-four head Toro sprinkler system is now at his disposal, but so is the extra pressure of knowing that the expectation to produce a great surface has increased. It's a challenge he has taken head on and regularly speaks to other groundsmen at all levels for advice and opinions.
Daniel constantly wants to learn; it's one of his skill strengths, and that can only benefit Fylde. Naturally, Daniel treats the pitch like a new born baby and analyses every area to keep up the standard and improve. He is constantly looking at areas that are in shade for longer and areas of constant wear (goalmouths, linesmen's runs). A dozen or so games into this pitch, things seem to be going okay, but he's never content and has an extensive wish list:
- Ultra violet grow lamps - Daniel acquired several siezed hydroponics from Lancashire Police. Although a bit crude compared to lamps seen in the Premier League, Daniel is keen to use these until more professional units become available to him. The stadium has appropriate electric ports ready for the power needed
- Tractor with implements - vertidrain, Shockwave, overseeder etc. All this work is currently contracted out and getting the equipment would allow Daniel to have more control over these tasks. Part of the site development plans involve the future installation of 3G pitches, and the tractor would be utilised on the grass and synthetic surfaces
- Liquid fertiliser sprayer - as a favour, he has borrowed one from a local golf course. It requires some repairs to become functional. Currently, Daniel uses granular fertiliser, but the option to spray a liquid feed would be an advantage.
Having said all this, the club's management are very supporting. From the ambitious Chairman, who will always chat to Daniel when they meet, to the new Chief Executive, Neil Joy (who recently joined from League One Oldham Athletic). Meeting up with Neil on my visit, he told me that he's been impressed with Daniel's approach and enthusiasm and, ultimately, the quality of the playing surface.
Fylde's teamwork is best demonstrated by a story Daniel relayed to me: "We had a game on a Tuesday night and I had cut the pitch at the usual 25mm the Thursday prior. Then, for four consecutive days, it rained so heavy I couldn't work on the pitch, aside from forking puddles. The rain didn't stop, but the grass obviously kept growing. The grass length meant that I had to lift the mowing height to 30mm. I didn't want to damage the turf by taking too much off in one cut, but time was running out as I still needed to mark out for the game. When the manager (Dave Challinor) saw the grass length, he said it was too long but, instead of kicking up a fuss, he suggested that he assisted me in finishing the pitch preparation. The manager was famed for his long throws during his playing career. Now he can add groundsmanship to his skills."
This is a truly unique occurrence, but one that shows the large amount of respect and appreciation for Daniel's work. So, as we were on the subject of mowing, I asked him what maintenance work he does to prepare for the games.
"My shed contents are small and I'm always chancing the Chairman for new kit. I have a Dennis G860 36" cylinder mower with verti-cutting unit. In the growing season I will mow at least every second day, in peak season (or if time allows me) every day and ease off the use of this machine as the weather gets colder and wetter. Then, I will use my Honda rotary mower to lessen the pitch compaction. The lines are marked using a spray linemarker. After games, I will brush the pitch and rotary mow as well as repair divots."
He added: "One big difference between this pitch and the old one is the amount of games played. This season, the club has a ladies team for the first time that uses the stadium for home games. This adds extra wear and use on the pitch and requires more preparation, but with less recovery time. Organising the contractors to aerate the pitch and leave the surface open is something that is challenging." You still have to remember that Daniel undertakes this role in his spare time.
What about turf nutrition? Daniel continued: "The majority of the fertiliser I use is ICL. I favour their slow release options, retaining the nutrients whilst I still adjust to the sand construction we have. I was not satisfied with the colour of the turf for the first game and I was caught out by how quickly the nutrients would leach with the regular fertiliser. Coupled with the pitch irrigation, this is new territory for me. However, I quickly got to grips and, so far, the results are good and the turf is healthy."
Daniel is keen to tell me that the club is not a mini Manchester City. It's not a throw money at all costs project, and the budget available and the equipment and materials he can purchase have to run concurrent with the club's business plan and team progression. Therefore, he sees the long term vision and, at the moment, is happy with how things are progressing. There's large respect and admiration from management, players and fans. Something I witnessed when I returned the following day for the match versus Nuneaton Town FC.
"The pitch is looking superb"; "You're doing a great job Danny boy" were just two opinions from fans on match day. Daniel is extremely popular with the supporters, chatting to them in the stadium or even on the way to the ground. He's a local lad and is very honoured to be a part of this local revolution.
As I arrived on the Saturday morning, Daniel was just finishing mowing the pitch with the Dennis before we sat in the stand with a coffee and chatted further. I asked him what gives him the greatest pleasure working at Fylde.
"Definitely job satisfaction. I know it's not my full time job, but I see this role as important as my postal work. The club relies on me to produce a pitch that not only looks good, but supports the style of play that the manager favours. At 3 o'clock, I can sit back and look at the pitch and see how good it looks. That makes me proud."
It's pretty clear how good the facilities are when the Nuneaton team arrived and they are in awe. This is a superb non-league set up and they know it. Whilst some of the players take selfies, others inspect the lush turf. Their respect for the place, especially the pitch, is later emphasised when Daniel has a quiet word with the goalkeepers about warm-up etiquette and using the practice goals. The rules are obediently observed by both sides. Daniel is satisfied as the final pre-match task is complete when the warm up goals are removed. The match commences and a crowd in excess of 1,600 see Fylde retain their four point lead with a 2-1 win.
Come 5.00pm everyone in Fylde colours is happy, but Daniel knows that a groundsman's work is never complete as his thoughts start thinking about the next home game the following Saturday; but first he has a three day deserved break with his wife in Barcelona to look forward to.
So what does the future for Daniel Bunce hold? "Who knows? I suppose it depends on how well the team does. At the moment, I am loving it and learning all the time and the hours are achievable for me, my family life, my job and it suits the club. The progression on and off the pitch has been incredible. I really appreciate the opportunity to work in a great stadium with a great pitch."
One thing is quite clear, the way things are progressing, the footballing world will hear more about AFC Fylde, and the turf world will hear more about Daniel Bunce. Best of luck to him and The Coasters.
About the author
Stephen Bowes is a forty year old Lancastrian who's been in the turf industry for over twenty years, having worked at professional sports grounds (including head groundsman at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester) and a local authority.
He is currently Technical Sales Manager for Bristol based line marking company, Pitchmark. He is a supporter of Blackpool FC and a keen mud obstacle runner, having taken part in over twenty-five events.
Follow on Twitter @ste_bowes