St Bede's' partnership with its grounds team stretches back forty years and is still going strong. Greg Rhodes reports. St Bede's College, Manchester is a Catholic HMC independent co-educational college for three to eighteen year-olds.
The distinctive and imposing red brick buildings have enjoyed academic and sporting prowess since Victorian times. Set in extensive mature grounds, the college itself is a quarter of a mile down the road from the twenty-acre sports provision that lines a good length of Brantingham Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.
Featuring period changing rooms and clubhouse, the sportsfields have to be in prime condition year-round to host a huge calendar of college and private hire fixtures.
Co-ordinating the extensive undertaking is sportsground manager and sports coach Andy Brown, who works closely with the turfcare team, which has managed the site for nearly forty years.
"We've witnessed some real footballing talent here over the years," Andy declares. "Before Manchester City opened their academy site, they trained at St Bede's. Pitch quality had to be top-notch as you can imagine."
Well before Andy came in post, contractor Oakmere had been taking care of turfcare. "We began here in 1981," says founder Bernard McConville, "and have been working closely with the college ever since."
So closely in fact that the contractor has its base at the college's Brantingham Road grounds. "All our kit is stored here," Bernard continues. "It's really convenient to be able to roll out our machinery straight on to the pitches."
Sportsground manager and sports coach Andy Brown
Contractors have been criticised for a `ticking the boxes` exercise - arriving on site, doing the job and leaving for the next venue. "Except among the wealthy independent schools, many educational establishments simply haven't the budget to devote to on-site grounds teams and machinery," Bernard states.
"You could say we are about as close as you can get to a fully functioning dedicated grounds team and spend a big slice of our time ensuring St Bede's has the quality of playing surfaces they demand for such an extensive sporting programme."
Trained in horticulture, Bernard first moved into landscaping before shifting to sportsturf maintenance. "It was about the time that the private schools market opened up. Most schools and colleges were not allowed to purchase machinery but could contract out groundscare."
Operating within a tight catchment of up to seven miles radius of the city centre, Bernard began work for the likes of the University of Manchester and the then Manchester Polytechnic before taking on the task at St Bede's.
"My policy has always been to focus more extensively on fewer grounds so that we can really deliver results in the way a school's or college's own team would do."
Although Bernard oversees a continually evolving programme at St Bede's, the next generation of turfcare is already in place. Bernard's son Ben, 36, takes on much of the daily duties and runs the company day to day. "I was working in a sports shop, twiddling my thumbs," Ben recalls.
"I'd get itchy feet to be outside and felt cooped up indoors. I lasted a few months before dad asked me if I wanted to join him in the business and jumped at the chance."
That was nearly fifteen years ago and Ben soon knew he was in his element. "I love the job and applying the range of machinery and equipment across St Bede's' grounds," he explains, "and preparing different playing surfaces."
The college's outdoor provision includes football (junior and senior pitches), rugby, hockey and rounders, with field and track athletics and tennis in summer.
With new director of sport Mike Park in post, working in tandem with Andy, the scale and scope of the sporting programme is set to escalate further.
From a standing start in turfcare, Ben has progressed to handling the technologies emerging almost daily across the sector.
"Gone are the days of linemarking with string and a good eye," Ben states. "Now our machine of choice is the laser-guided Beam Rider. All the GPS guided kit coming out can be a bit mind-boggling but saves so much time."
Ben recalls the heady days of St Bede's hosting City training. "They certainly demanded the highest quality and came on site with all the perimeter advertising, banner tapes, stewards and security - a huge operation."
St Bede's also hosted the ISFA tournament here - the first time it had moved from Eton College. The event attracted huge attention, with sporting great Sir Alex Ferguson opening it, then complimenting the college on how well the grounds were presented and played. Praise indeed from a stern judge.
Also on the college's turfcare team is assistant groundsman Pawel Kalinowski, 31. "He's one of the better workers you could wish for," states Ben, "who never says die." Bernard adds: "The industry may be all about qualifications these days and that's fine but work ethic is what first attracted me about Pawel and he has that in spades."
Ben continues: "St Bede's is an ideal contract for us as we are not really into small areas but focus on the 20-25 acre sites, and for those, machinery is key."
The team favours Major triple gang mowers to tackle St Bede's grounds. Their latest 6m-wide model fits snugly within a full-size goalpost. The pedestrian mower fleet service the college lawns, while John Deere X495 mowers with collector handle compact, awkward areas such as around trees.
Among its renovation equipment of Amazon scarifiers and Charterhouse Verti-Drain, the SISIS Quadraplay still has a role. "It's more than twenty-five years old now and going strong. A sturdy bit of kit," Bernard enthuses.
"The lightest compact tractor hauls brushes over the synthetic hockey pitch. At seventeen years old, it's done well for the college. We lift the sand infill and replace it every three years."
"With plenty of experience in cricket square renovation, including work at Whalley Range Cricket Club and Alexandra Park close by, Oakmere is confident in moving forward with the college reintroducing the sport."
"The foundations are there, lying between two of the full-size pitches and the school is keen to bring cricket back to the ground after some years' absence. The sport was popular when the college was male only. "Girls started to be admitted and accounted for up to 45% of pupils, making selection difficult. Usage fell away but cricket across the board is gaining ground again," Bernard explains.
The team's key challenge is to ensure the pitches are ready for fixtures, Ben stresses. "We have to juggle timetables quite a bit and meet Andy every day to finalise work in line with the sporting programme".
The college has stepped up pitch hire - another complicating factor - while City still train here occasionally. "We used to renovate their Platt Lane facility before the club sold it to the university, so they know our capability and seemed happy with our work," Ben continues.
Meanwhile, the director of football is busy building up the programme at the grounds, especially as the girls' game is burgeoning nationally.
Both college grounds and sports hub enjoy a healthy selection of trees, including ash, chestnut and maple. "The fine line of Lombard/Manchester poplars were felled when the hockey pitch was constructed, however," Bernard recalls, "replaced with pieris."
The wildlife diversity prevalent then has shrunk a little, he adds, as magpies and crows have taken command. Magpies can bring their own issues, he continues. "We look after the goals as well and suffer from the birds picking at the nets and ruining them. Obviously we have to take care that we maintain sound wildlife management practices so it's a persistent bugbear."
A contemporary of David Shelton at Manchester Business School, shortly before he established AFT Trenchers, Bernard oversaw the installation of 6.5m centre lateral drains at the college in 1986, using one of the new AFTs.
The budget didn't stretch to banding at the time but it may be time to rethink and check that the drainage is still fit for purpose, he says.
As expected among the education sector, risk aversion and health and safety rank high indoors and out. "We certainly are asked about our safety practices across the grounds and strive to be as organic as possible," Ben says.
"Best practice is what we aim for - pesticides aren't applied and we knapsack spray herbicides as sparingly as we can."
"Cooper Pegler and Pullman models work well for us as they are robust and apply treatment liquids accurately and at the correct pressure, especially important when we are maintaining the garden borders around the college buildings."
Like many a Premiership football squad, rotation is key when accommodating the sprawling fixtures programme. "Meetings with Andy may last up to half an hour or as little as five minutes, depending on the agenda," Ben notes. "It's important to stress the importance of resting pitches during periods of intensive use and rotating them is a key part of our maintenance regime."
Speaking of best practice, Ben has a keen eye on delivering perfection. "I'm pedantic about getting everything right, I suppose in part because I'm so passionate about what I do."
The heavily tree populated site gives the team a perennial headache, Ben notes. "A never-ending battle to keep the pitches and gardens clear of leaves," he says. "As the main college building stands opposite Alexandra Park, foliage blows across the grounds, on top of those from trees growing here. Our vacuum suckers ease the task but sometimes you think it's a thankless one."
Worm casts present another issue. "As the pitches are soil based and we do not apply any pesticides, worms heavily populate the grounds. We don't mind them as such but the costs of constantly backlapping and sharpening cylinder blades on the walkbehinds we used when City were prohibitive once they had moved to their Academy, so we sold them."
"Over the years, we have pushed for more sand-based playing surfaces but that's still work in progress with the college."
What does make life a breeze for the team is their Major TDR2000 triple rotary gang mower. "Our 5m earlier model was fine for several years but it became clear we had to invest in a larger one, although the maintenance on it was minimal," Ben explains, "so we bought the 6m version, which really saves us stacks of mowing time."
The balance of sporting provision across St Bede's six playing areas has shifted over the years and seasonally, with junior grassed areas doubling as tennis courts in summer. Five years ago, two rugby pitches began hosting football as the fixtures programme demanded. Lately though, one of them has reverted back to rugby.
"Because the soil-based pitches can become heavy going if the cut height is too low, we tend to keep football at 28-35mm, and around 45mm for rugby," Ben explains.
And like the rest of the team, he is eagerly awaiting the return of cricket as Mike Park's sporting vision materialises. "The two junior pitch foundations are waiting to be brought back to life and as we have plenty of experience with cricket square preparation and renovations, I hope we see the game return to St Bede's soon."
The turfcare programme compromise is one usually struck between the grounds team, Andy and the bursar. "We recommend to Andy what we believe needs action then receive instructions on how much of it we can implement in that year," explains Ben.
The budgets sustainable in City's time in residence were unsustainable once they had left but Oakmere has stayed true to its choice of seed supplier, Ben says.
"DLF Premier Pitch was our preference when City were here as it's extremely hardwearing. The mid-range DLF Pro 81 or 80 we specify and apply now does the job well for the current sporting standards - hardwearing ryegrass mix with a broader leaf."
The accent on an organic programme wherever possible carries through to fertilising, with a selection of Marathon Sport slow release granular applied across the pitches in autumn, spring and summer (when the team scarify and renovate). "The pitches had been Koro'd just before City started playing here," adds Ben.
"Weeds are not too much of a problem. Plantains can spring up in summer. We apply T2Green selective herbicide just before renovations and when fresh growth appears."
Around the gardens, knapsack spraying sees off unwanted growth on hard surfaces, walls and on borders, kept at bay by wood chip and bark. The lawns look after themselves, Ben adds. Our Honda roller rotary mowers stripe them up nicely."
What's in the shed
John Deere 6220 tractor
John Deere X495s x 2
Major TDR2000 rotary gang mowers x 2
John Deere 4840 compact tractors x 3
Honda rotary mowers x 4
Cooper Pegler and Pulmic knapsack sprayers
BLEC vacuum sucker