"It was useful to take formal qualifications but, for me, nothing I've learned has proved a substitute for the knowledge gained from colleagues I've worked with"
The last nine months have seen a full-blooded renaissance for professional football in the South-East of England. Rural Sussex has enjoyed few successes throughout the history of sport, with only Brighton & Hove Albion fighting to retain the county's footballing pride.
Until recently, it looked like Sussex would lose even that representative, as Brighton battled for survival in England's lowest professional division.
Times change though and the 2010/11 season has signalled a new era for Sussex clubs as, for the first time ever, thanks to a double promotion, the county will now have two teams battling it out in the Football League.
The recent successes of Brighton are well documented, thanks to a move to a cutting edge new stadium in the heart of the South Downs at Falmer, the managerial skills of former Chelsea favourite, Gus Poyet, and a healthy budget all playing a role in their promotion from nPower League 1.
Yet, some thirty miles away up the A23 in the county's second largest urban centre, Crawley, the town's football club - the once lowly Crawley Town FC - catapulted itself spectacularly into the Football League, with a runaway title win in the Blue Square Bet Premier division. This after a jet-propelled climb through the lower echelons of semi-professional football to the climax that saw them top the league and rack up over 100 points in the season just finished.
Crawley Town's swelling fan base was probably pinching itself throughout last season, as they not only saw their side dominate their league but also witnessed a fairytale run in the FA Cup as they disposed of nPower Championship's Derby County, then nPower League 2 Torquay United, to reach the 5th round, where they faced mighty Manchester United at Old Trafford - a fixture that drew support from over 9,000 travelling away fans. The fact that Crawley's Red Devils only succumbed to the champions 1-0 at the Stadium of Dreams has prompted many commentators to tip them for promotion next season too.
A move into the Football League not only requires big adjustments from the players and management, but also brings new responsibilities and an expectation from club and supporters to deliver the standards expected in the professional leagues.
Crawley's home ground - the Broadfield Stadium - was one of the most sought after in the Conference, and is likely to be equally as popular in League Two with plans to further extend the ground to seat over 6,000 spectators, more than doubling its current capacity.
Moving from their original home at Town Mead in 1997, Crawley Town relocated to the council-owned stadium, a site that better suited their ambitions, with the scope for continued development if the club were to progress further.
Immediately after securing promotion this year, the club was on the hunt, sourcing a turfcare professional to take permanent charge of what is, arguably, the most important element of any stadium - the pitch.
FA rules state that, with promotion, must come a full-time groundsman, so Crawley were keen to recruit someone with the drive, enthusiasm and talent to carry out the full-time duties of an ambitious club.
Experience of professional football groundsmanship was not a must-have requirement for Crawley, but would be a useful asset for anyone applying for the role.
So, when a man who had been involved with the industry since he was eight applied for the job, the club knew they could stop searching. Learning the ropes from his stadium manager father, 25 year-old Ben Harwood is the man in question and was picked from the list of applicants after suitably impressing the management.
"A friend of mine in the trade informed me of the vacancy at Crawley Town, and suggested I go for it as he knew my passion had always rested in professional football," explains Ben.
"I trialled with the club for two weeks and, to my knowledge, was the only applicant that they asked back, which must have been testament to my abilities and experience," he adds.
Ben joins Crawley from greenkeeping duties at Worthing Golf Club in his home town. It was during his time there that he gained his Turfcare NVQ Level 2 and amassed valuable experience of fine turf maintenance, which complemented his early knowledge of football.
Despite the big leap in responsibilities, Ben is keenly optimistic about his new appointment and excited about working in professional football. "I've had experience of this industry since I was very young, when I would go to work with my father, who was stadium manager at the Goldstone Ground - Brighton & Hove Albion's former home," he reveals.
"I enjoyed my time at Worthing, and it was useful to take formal qualifications but, for me, nothing I've learned has proved a substitute for the knowledge gained from colleagues I've worked with and, ultimately, football had always been my calling, so it was only a matter of time before I looked for a permanent position in the sport."
After leaving school, and with a wealth of knowledge already amassed from his dad, Ben landed his first job with national firm, Sports Turf Contractors, where he helped maintain pitches for the likes of Watford FC and Queen's Park Rangers FC.
At only 25, Ben is one of the youngest full-time professional football groundsman, yet handling the tasks alone has not fazed him, due in a large part, he says, to the support and commitment the club has already shown him.
"There is a real commitment to aim high here, and the club makes no secret that it wants to be pushing up the leagues in the coming few years, and part of this plan is ensuring that the pitch is first class," he explains.
"Financially, the club are in a good position and happy to invest in the tools that make my job easier. That's not to say that you can ever be wasteful. I have to choose my machines and products carefully, based on what I think will be best in the long term for the surface and what is affordable," Ben continues.
"So far, they've let me take the lead and allowed me to suggest what I think is needed, which is invaluable if you're new to the role, and it shows that there is trust and respect between us."
While Crawley have only just entered the top leagues, in reality, the club has been far removed from the 'standard' non-league outfit since 2005, when a local business, the SA Group, bought the club and decided to take it full-time, with an eye on pushing towards the Football League.
The next three years proved traumatic, however, and mounting financial difficulties meant that, in 2008, the club were bought again to save it from liquidation, this time by Prospect Estate Holdings Limited, who alleviated the club of its financial worries and set in motion a new plan to improve their fortunes on and off the pitch.
Last year marked a fresh start, as co-owner Bruce Winfield announced that the club's £1m debt had been cleared and that manager, Steve Evans, would be given funds to assemble a squad capable of securing promotion to the Football League.
It was in this year too that Crawley broke Conference records for a player fee - an estimated £250,000 - a move that brought criticism from some quarters, but soon quashed them with the estimated £2m that the club amassed from their FA Cup run.
Crawley tasted the glitz and glamour that top-flight football brings and it hopes to hit the heights again next season. For Ben though, there is little time to rest as his work is already well underway. With end of season renovation already completed, he soon turned to remedying some of the most pressing issues with the pitch.
"The first task for anyone coming into a new job is to find out exactly what you're working with and set out a programme of how to deal with it," says Ben. "My immediate aim has been to prepare the pitch for the pre-season matches in July so, by the first week in the month, all the renovation will have been completed and the new surface ready for play."
The two biggest issues have been drainage and compaction, says Ben, although he insists they should be reasonably easy problems to solve in the longer term. Prior to him joining, pitch maintenance responsibilities lay with Crawley Borough Council, which had carried out the work since the club moved to Broadfield in 1997. Problems of compaction had accumulated over the years, therefore.
"The root of it was really due to a lack of aeration, which meant the soil had compacted and the water sat on top and drained much slower than it should," Ben explains. "The club's drainage system is actually only a few years old, and is very good so, once the aeration programme is underway, we should be fine."
Root depth was another concern of Ben's - it was too shallow for the kind of intense action likely in the Football League. "There isn't enough under the surface to see us through what may well be another harsh winter. I need to start a regular aeration programme as soon as possible. Ben hopes to invest in a Toro Procore, or something similar, to carry out regular tining, which, weather depending, should set everything on the right track soon, so we can deal with poor winter weather if it strikes."
Ben clearly hails from a breed of turfcare professionals who like to be confident in knowing they can regularly trawl the available products, services and suppliers to ensure they buy exactly what they want, at the right price, while also outsourcing the larger jobs like spraying and vertidraining when necessary.
"I haven't yet found one manufacturer that offers everything," Ben states. "My Toro kit I have is excellent, but there are others, like the Dennis pedestrian, that also deliver very good results - it all depends what you're wanting it for."
The same's true for seed and fertilisers. "I don't swear by any one brand, and I believe it is important to remain fresh and continue to explore what's out there."
"Seed wise, I am yet to discover what performs here, as works are only just finishing now - only time will tell on that front," Ben continues. "As far as outsourcing is concerned, its clearly difficult to justify capital expenditure on machinery if it's only going to be used occasionally. Therefore, we will continue to use outside contractors for certain operations, such as spraying and verti-draining."
For Ben, having fit for purpose machines will play a crucial role in him executing his plans. At present, his fleet is humble, with the Toro 2000 triple mower and Sisis pedestrian slitter his only two permanent machines on site. Yet, with a management committed to investing in grass roots, Ben has his eye on a few that he feels would make his job complete.
"Ideally, I'd like either a Ransomes Mastiff or a Dennis pedestrian mower. "Pedestrian mowers are much easier to maintain and set up, and have the double benefit of giving a nicer, neater finish, and it means I don't have to keep putting tyres over the pitch, as I do currently with the Toro triple."
The big business that is now football means clubs have to make the most of all their assets - including the pitch and the stadium - to maximise revenue during the closed season. Attracting all manner of events and friendlies may bolster club coffers, but the groundsman's gripe is that they can often mean there are extremely tight time margins to squeeze in the vital post-season renovation. Luckily for Ben, this is not the case and he has the luxury - at least this year - to complete the work in good time.
His duties at Broadfield Stadium officially kicked off on 1st May and, within six days, contractors R & K Kensett had turned around the renovation and handed him back a pitch primed for premier growth. Kensetts are no stranger to the ground, having completed similar work for several seasons, and are highly regarded by the likes of club chief executive, Alan Williams.
Day one began with a double scarification of the surface to help deal with the accumulation of thatch. Monday saw sixty tonnes of sand incorporated by means of sand slitting, followed, the next day, by a three-way overseeding with fifteen bags of Masterline Pro 81 ryegrass mix.
On Wednesday, forty tonnes of 80:20 topdressing was spread to allow for the 12:4:4+2mg fertiliser to be applied on the Thursday. "I wanted a medium to high rate nitrogen fertiliser to get a good establishment and colour when the seed grows through," explains Ben.
"We are expecting another dry summer, so I wanted to give the grass the best chance possible. We do have a good irrigation system, so I predict positive results. But, we all know you can't beat natural irrigation."
With work complete, the pitch was left in Ben's capable hands once more, ready to implement the changes he deems necessary to achieve the results the club want.
"I'm expecting to see some growth between ten and fourteen days, so I will be topping and cutting in three to four weeks' time to encourage a good cover," he adds. "Once the renovations have settled in, I can start on my aeration programme, firstly addressing the root problems, which may turn out to be a long-term task, depending on how deep the roots develop with regular aerating," he continues.
Ben plans to combine his remedial work with regular soil sampling to ensure he's on track in correcting the current problems yet, for him, the likelihood is that he will avoid employing an aggressive fertiliser programme.
"I've never been one for using fertilisers to any great extent and prefer to keep it as natural as possible, as I believe that success lies in having sound foundations, something I will be working to achieve here."
"The most I'll be doing will be using wetting agents over the summer if we do suffer from drought again but, at present, that's all I can foresee. Otherwise, I know what I need to do and hope to see some significant improvements by the winter."
Even though groundsmanship is a profession renowned for length of service of its practitioners, Ben, at only twenty-five, has already amassed over seventeen years of experience, so there could be decades of service ahead for him still, especially given his ambitions to move on up with a club bent on making its mark in the Football League.
Crawley Town and Ben appear a perfect match, as drive and the vision to progress are qualities both have shown in spades. "Crawley is a great club to be part of," Ben concludes.
"The management has been extremely good to me and I know, in only a short time here, that I'd like to progress with them as far as I can, with the nPower Championship the key target in the next five years."
On current evidence, that's a five-year plan that looks likely to succeed.