It doesn't take much working out that one hundred and fifty-two goalmouths are quite a lot for any team to maintain. Kerry Haywood met with Grounds Maintenance Officers; Andy Plant, David Wharrier and Karl Smith at Derby City Council to discuss how they manage the vast number of sites and the challenges they face.
It's no secret that lower league and grassroots football have suffered this year at the hands of the pandemic and I was interested to find out how my local council have coped under such adversity. Service Manager, Charles Edwards was really enthusiastic to tell me about the team and the amazing work they do.
"Councils across the country are delivering good quality football (all sports) pitches, but here at Derby City Council we have some very talented leaders and operatives who respond to a variety of pressing needs from the public. Budgets are tight with the total cost of annual maintenance at approximately £145,000, which works out at an average of £1,800 per pitch per year!"
"Over the past nine months, the team have coped incredibly well and have been willing to adapt to new ways of working, amended maintenance regimes and remained positive throughout - which is testament to each and every one of the thirty strong team. Their commitment and hard work mean we're in a good position to move forward."
To tell me more, I sat down with Andy, David and Karl who, between them, have over one hundred years' experience and service within a council environment and have worked their way through qualifications and ranks to where they are today - which is to manage seventy-six pitches in total and ten park sites. To put this into context, the team cover 28,000 metres of linemarking every week, for about thirty-three weeks of the year … that's 560 miles of linemarking!
Left: Karl Smith (left) with Andy Plant
It is no mean feat in terms of challenges the team face. David commented: "Obviously, the vast number of our sites are open access and, therefore, accessible to the public twenty-four hours a day. You can just imagine the kind of challenges this poses. On the pitches there is a lot of non-regulated play; you put up a set of goal posts and people will play in them - which, in a way is good, as more than ever we want the public to enjoy open spaces, but obviously that means the pitches are getting far more wear than we budget for. There is a lot to cope with to be able to bring them to a playable standard and we have to deal with a vast amount of dog fouling, littering and even cars driving over the surfaces too."
Karl added: "Another big problem we face is that many of the parks were established decades ago and football wouldn't have been a consideration at that time. This means they haven't had proper construction, no drainage and are mostly a clay-based profile, so we really are battling against the ground conditions all year round."
"To top it all off," Andy interjected, "our budgets have gradually been cut over the years, which means we have to spread funds very thinly over all the sites. It's crazy that big clubs have a budget for one pitch, similar to what we have to maintain seventy-six pitches!"
"It's hard to deal with the pressure from players and coaches who expect a higher level of presentation these days. They watch TV and can see how Premier League clubs look, but it's a different ball game - excuse the pun! We don't have drainage or endless budgets and we come up against quite a lot of criticism on a regular basis. Teams get very protective of their pitch and expect us to maintain it beyond our means and some of it is outside of our control. For instance, if I see recreational play, I have approached players to ask if they could play across the pitch, rather than using the goalmouths, but understandably I guess, they want to shoot at the goal."
I was interested to know if Covid-19 will play a positive role in recognising that these outdoor spaces are more important than ever. Andy commented: "Nationally, we currently face the issue that grassroots football hasn't got the value it deserves. It needs funding injected from above to be able to improve all these pitches around the country, in which thousands of youngsters play on each week - which, in turn, helps obesity, mental health, etc."
"Not only that, but we saw a huge increase in the general public using our open spaces. Throughout the year, we went from emptying bins on a weekly basis to daily, but this has a knock-on effect from taking staff away from maintaining the pitches - so something has to be done!"
"As time went on throughout the pandemic, we had to fight to start mowing the pitches and sites again. We could see the ground was dry underneath, the grass was getting beyond control and it could have caused a fire hazard. Also, when elderly people are utilising the parks for exercise, long grass isn't good if they are a little unstable underfoot and people with dogs tend not to pick up the poo when grass is longer."
David continued: "In previous years, pitches were cut once fortnightly using the Trimax Pegasus rotary gang mower - which is our workhorse. However, this year, due to having so many complaints about the length of grass on the pitches, we have stopped mowing certain areas to be able to cut once per week. We would love to use cylinder mowers, but these wouldn't be suitable for the general park areas."
"We can't afford to put drainage into any of the pitches, so we are trying to improve the surfaces by undertaking deep tine aeration work and we are looking to purchase our own machine in the near future. We're hoping that moving to a new machine will reduce the process time from three hours to two hours per pitch, which will further enhance our resources. This will also help free up a tractor for more time, as we only have four across the whole city to perform all procedures. From September onwards, one of those will be out hedgecutting, so that's one tractor and operator tied up, two guys out mowing which leaves one tractor to perform all the other duties."
"We often get asked what cultivars we use to overseed" Karl continued. "That's irrelevant to us as there is so much footfall and usage that, without irrigation (we have a 1000 litre bowser), it's impossible to get any establishment. Having said that, we have to be realistic in terms of what we are trying to achieve. We are in a municipal environment, therefore budgets and the nature of the setting means they are never going to be stadium pitches."
"The other issue we have is that the season break window is becoming increasingly shorter. We are expected to take down the goalposts at the end of the season but, by the time we have got around to all the sites, they want them back up for friendlies. We designed a goalpost handler in conjunction with a local firm, Kilworth machinery, which has been very beneficial to us and reduced manual handling issues."
"At the end of the season, we reinstate the goalmouths and overseed all pitches with three different types of ryegrass. Then, the goals are put back in and we start linemarking with a transfer wheel. Due to the number of pitches we have, this process would usually start four weeks before season kick off, to have any hope of getting an initial mark on all sites, followed by weekly mowing and overmarking."
Markeaton Park lake
"We're currently looking to explore how robotics can help us work more efficiently. The amount of time a robotic linemarker will save would be incredible; tasks which would take two staff a day and a half to complete, would take the robotic machine two hours. Not only that, but the cost savings on paint would also be enormous and it would greatly improve our resources."
"We are in a fortunate position that we won't always have the cheapest machinery, but more so what's best for each operation. Value has to come into that, but we can take time to research all options and go for what performs across our sites."
"Five years ago, we did a big exercise to determine what tractors were on the market. This was important to ensure that our carrying capacities are correct at all times, as we are obviously out on public highways a lot."
Andy added: "Selection of the correct machinery plant is crucial - second only to the correct selection of staff. We're only as good as the workforce we work alongside and it's becoming increasingly difficult to recruit the right staff, not only in our industry but across many sectors."
"The RHS would argue that more people are getting into horticulture than ever before, which is brilliant for National Trust sites etc. However, as a grounds maintenance facility, we require a multi-skilled workforce; general grounds, sports fields and horticulture skills, right through to emptying bins etc. and there are most definitely fewer people with the broad skills of knowledge and expertise coming into the industry."
Karl continued: "No team members were furloughed throughout the pandemic and they have all been very understanding and helpful to assist wherever they were needed. Right at the beginning, mowing grinded to a halt for a period of six weeks, so the team were even sent out to help with refuse collections. Then, as grass cutting was approved again, we started bringing them back one by one with newly adjusted social distancing measures (where possible). They are all trained to carry out every aspect of daily tasks and maintenance, but some are more trained in certain areas than others. We're just looking to start an apprenticeship scheme which will be beneficial to new starters and provide training across all areas."
"Servicing of machines is conducted in-house in the dedicated grounds maintenance workshop. The charge-hand, Antony and his colleague Ashley, have done extremely well in very difficult circumstances to cope with everything. As our garage is currently under-staffed, and we would have been in a very different place if he hadn't been there to service and fix machines when we haven't been able to get spare parts throughout the pandemic. The repair shop is the vital link in the chain; if it moves it will break, and they keep us on the road."
"We have an arboriculture department within the grounds team, who look after all the trees around the City, but everything else is handled by the us," Andy concluded. "We have seventeen staff covering mowing, pitch maintenance, floral feature maintenance, shrubbery works, hedgecutting, bin emptying, etc. across all highways verges, a cemetery, social services and parks and private sites."
It was at this point, I drove to Darley fields with eleven senior football pitches, to see a few of the team in action; Louise, Jack and Steve. I spoke to chargehand Louise who has been with the council for nearly twenty-five years. Along the way, she has qualified in Tree Management and Turf Culture and, according to the team, can achieve the straightest lines of anyone with the transfer wheel marker. She said: "I really like initial marking out as you get to really use your brain and then I enjoy the overmarking aspect too. The challenge of straight lines is always something that needs concentration but, coming from a fine turf background, I have a lot of experience."
Trimax Pegasus - known as the workhorse
It was great to see first-hand how dedicated and committed the team are to their work and, as I'm driving round my home City in the future, I'm sure I will look at the planted areas and green spaces with a smile - knowing just how much work is involved.
What's in the shed
Valtra tractors x 4
New Holland compact tractor
Trimax rotary gang mowers (3 decks) x 2
Toro 7-gang hydraulic cylinder mower
Shelbourne Reynolds 6m side-arm flail
Bomford 3m side-arm flail
Ramsomes Commander 5-cylinder mower
Roberine triple flail ride on mowers x 6
John Deere front flail ride-on mowers x 2
Dennis fine turf mowers
Ferris zero turn rotary mower
Blec ground breaker
Sovema power harrow and overseeder
Kilworth compact power harrow
Kilworth compact stone burier
Browns Grassland renovator
DW Tomlin chain harrows
Kilworth goalpost handler
Indespension goalpost trailer
Vicon fertiliser spreader
Watson trailed roller
Hardi tractor mounted sprayer
6 tonne Foster tractor tipping trailers x 2
R L cut & collect rotary mowers x 2
Husqvarna, Etesia, Stihl - handheld equipment
and pedestrian mowers