Peter Britton headed to his local club to catch up with the Premier League's newest Head Groundsman, James Lathwell, a young man who has experienced the club's low moments, but is now looking forward to the high point of his career to date. As he explains, it has been an incredible journey that has put a smile on the faces of everyone connected with the club
The last time I visited Bournemouth's Dean Court stadium was a little over four years ago. The club were then playing in Football League One, along with south coast rivals Southampton and Portsmouth. Just two seasons previous, and having had seventeen points docked for going into administration, 'The Cherries' had narrowly avoided a drop into the Conference, with a last day win at Morecambe securing their league status.
So, how on earth did 'little old Bournemouth' climb all the way to the Premier League just seven years later?
It is a truly heart warming rags to riches story masterminded, for much of that period, by manager Eddie Howe, a former player who, apart from a short spell as the head coach at Burnley, has gone from saving the day against Morecambe to planning for top flight fixtures against Manchester City and many other illustrious clubs this season.
"And, in the main, it has been done with players from the lower leagues, including the Conference," says Head Groundsman, James Lathwell. "Eddie's work ethic is second to none. He expects 110% from his players and that has filtered down throughout the club."
Thirty-one year old James, a former greenkeeper, joined the club in 2009, at the same time as Eddie Howe became manager, and their working relationship has been nothing but positive in all that time. "I know what Eddie expects, nay demands, and he knows that I can deliver," states James. "He is very focused."
Revisiting the club at the end of June, just days after the Premier League fixtures were announced ahead of the new season, there is a clear buzz of excitement around the ground. Even the receptionist, a 'travelling' Bournemouth fan, can't stop talking about the coming season. The first game is at home to Aston Villa, followed by Liverpool and West Ham away. She will be on the coach.
The first couple of things one notices on arrival are the recently landscaped and extended car parking facilities and the name Goldsands on the stadium frontage; it will, though, forever be Dean Court in the minds of the fans. It is at the south end of the stadium where occasional visitors like myself will notice the biggest change. Where once was temporary seating, there is now the Ted MacDougall Stand, a structure that not only completes the stadium, but gives recognition to 'Supermac' for his services to the club. He once scored nine goals in an 11-0 win over Margate in the FA Cup back in 1971, a record that, not surprisingly, still stands. Additionally, waste ground between the Goldsands and the athletics arena now houses two training pitches and two small, caged 3G pitches.
Much of this work was initiated for their promotion to the Championship at the end of the 2012/13 season, as was the purchase of four TLS lighting rigs - three TLS160s and one TLS80 - plus the installation of a Fibresand pitch which, at the time of my visit, was under germination sheets having undergone a thorough renovation. As a prerequisite of the Premier League, undersoil heating was also installed.
Bournemouth is now the most southerly of Premier League clubs, having usurped that honour from Southampton, and James confirms that he has only had to use frost covers twice in the last couple of years. "I see the undersoil heating as more a grass management tool that will allow me to maintain soil temperature and get the grass going quicker coming out of winter. That, and the lighting rigs, will ensure that I can keep strong grass cover throughout the season."
The rigs are positioned mainly along the West and South stands where shadows are thrown across the pitch. They are moved every twenty-four hours. All stands have perspex roofs to allow as much light as possible to get to the pitch. "I'd like to get four more rigs in due course, but what I have are an absolute godsend."
James must be pinching himself. Back in 2011, he was the sole groundsman looking after an old, soil-based pitch, with the only help coming from occasional volunteers. Now, he has three full time staff and is looking for a fourth. "Rob Wilcox is my deputy. He has been with me for just over a year, having joined from Canford Magna Golf Club. My assistants are Dan Sutherland (2 years) and Dan Gonzalez, who came here in October of last year."
Joe Cooper, Head Groundsman at Milton Abbey, and Jim Scammell, Assistant Grounds Manager at Canford School, come in on match days to offer assistance, whilst James' two original volunteer helpers are also still involved.
I ask if his transition from greenkeeper to novice groundsman to Premier League head groundsman with staffing responsibilities has ever caused him any sleepless nights, but he appears to have taken it all in his stride. "Surely, it is what every groundsman would like to have on their CV. In the early days, I was fortunate to be able to call on Andy Gray at Southampton for advice - I still do on occasions - and a recent visit to Manchester City's new training facilities made me realise what is still out there to achieve. Darren at Spurs has invited me to see their new training ground as well. I'm already being made to feel part of the inner sanctum, which is great."
As an Arsenal fan, James will have to wait until March for his team to visit the Goldsands (unless a cup tie brings that date forward), but is already making plans to attend the away fixture. He is clearly keen to benefit from his new role.
With just five weeks before the start of the season, activity around the ground is continuing apace. A new players pavilion is still at ground level; "although you wouldn't believe the technology already in place underground. It will be completed in time for the Villa game," states James confidently.
"You should have been here a few weeks ago, when the place was heaving with contractors - pitch renovations, new buildings, groundwork, permanent camera positions being put in, extended media facilities in the West stand, along with a larger camera platform in the East stand. We don't know, as yet, when our first live match will be televised, but I'm expecting it may well be the Villa game to see how the 'new boys' cope."
Hard wiring for TV cameras and cabling for LED advertising boards were being installed at the time of my visit, whilst the goal-line technology is also to be completed.
"When we were in the lower divisions, if we had a live TV game, Sky would be here four days before the game to set out the cabling and camera positions. Now, they'll be able to just turn up and plug in," explains James.
A Rainbird irrigation system, with sixteen perimeter and eight in-pitch heads, is also in place, which can be controlled remotely from either a computer or mobile phone.
The two training pitches, originally constructed by John Pierson, also have irrigation - fourteen perimeter and eight in-pitch for both which, again, can be controlled remotely.
The Goldsands' 11,700 capacity will be the smallest in the Premier League, with just 1700 seats allocated for away supporters. "Eddie doesn't like to have away supporters behind the goals, so they will be accommodated in the East stand above my machinery facilities."
Dean Court and its surroundings occupy a sizeable portion of King's Park, a council run open space that provides numerous cricket and football pitches, the athletics stadium, an indoor bowls centre and a bowling green. Everything that the club want to do, therefore, needs council approval. "Fortunately," says James with a smile, "the majority of councillors are Bournemouth fans! But we have to remember that this is a community area, so even our training pitches and 3G areas are currently available to them."
"Ideally, we aim to get exclusive use. We would like to build a two metre high screen around the training pitches to offer a degree of security and privacy so that corners and set play drills etc. aren't spied on!"
Academy training takes place at nearby Canford Arena, which provides seven natural turf pitches, plus a full size 3G pitch should weather conditions ever pose a problem. This is green belt land and, therefore, no building is currently allowed. The club are hoping that this situation may be reconsidered so that Bournemouth can create their own dedicated training facility here.
If all the above wasn't enough, James has, in the interim period, got married to Amy, who has provided him with a daughter, Charlotte, now nineteen months old, to occupy his spare time!
Before I depart, I ask a couple of final questions. Can they survive? "The Premier League is two divisions in one. Those seven or eight clubs vying for European football and other honours, and the remainder who simply seek survival. At the end of the season, all we have to be is better than three other clubs. So, to answer your question, yes, I believe we can."
With season ticket sales capped at 6,000; "we could easily have sold twice that amount," says James, the Goldsands will be buzzing for every home game.
And what about the increased media attention? "I've already had a taste of that in the Championship and I'm quite comfortable with a microphone being thrust under my nose. The experiences made my Best Man's speech at a friend's recent wedding an absolute breeze!"
If the desire and ambition off the pitch can be replicated on it, who knows what the future might hold for 'little old Bournemouth'. Life at least appears to be pretty damn good for James Lathwell at the moment.