Not so much a training ground, more an expression of a football club's business and playing philosophy, that's the new Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre at Bulls Cross in Hertfordshire. When the club's Grounds Manager Darren Baldwin invited Neville Johnson there, just a year after it first began operation, it was an intriguing insight into this aspect of the game at the very highest level, and a reflection of the club's motto, Audere est Facere - To Dare Is To Do
As Tottenham Hotspur's Grounds Manager, Darren Baldwin, gives me a guided tour of the breathtakingly impressive new training centre, a word that keeps cropping up is 'aspiration'. He points out the skillfully re-instated natural hedging, a legacy of the land before its redevelopment. "We call this one Bechers Brook," he says.
The delightful natural barrier, mainly of hawthorn, berry-laden at this time of year, runs the length of the main driveway into the Centre. It provides a pleasing and distinctive dividing line between the club's schoolboy training area (for the under-8s and upwards) and the senior academy area, where life as a professional footballer begins to take shape.
"You can see a little of what's going on over the hedge, but you can't touch," said Darren. "It's very much part of encouraging each level of play to strive for the next one. The layout here was specifically designed with that in mind."
Between the Academy area and the pinnacle of the Centre, where the Spurs' first team squad train, is another natural barrier of hedging. Darren says they refer to it as another of Aintree's legendary jumps, The Chair. The three specific areas are quite distinctive yet, in one regard, indistinguishable - the inviting, unblemished greenness of the playing surface.
The elites of the first team squad had done their day's work and left for other things before I arrived at Bulls Cross; not so Darren's team. They were hard at work keeping everywhere immaculate, and as Darren describes "to nothing less than 5-star standard". I saw exactly what he meant as we continued the UTV tour of the whole of the new complex.
"Attention to detail is everything," Darren says, as we stop on one of the other main traffic ways between the pitch areas. "Grass between kerb stones looks unsightly, gives a bad impression and is a tedious extra maintenance job. We stopped it before it could get a hold by using mastic to fill each and every joint. Simple, but job done."
The neat rings around each tree, light and sign also show how much Darren and the club care about detail.
He has been in charge of pitch matters at Spurs for sixteen years now. In that time, there have been ten first team managers, or coaches as they now seem to be called; Glen Hoddle and, more recently, Harry Radknapp perhaps the highest profile ones.
He tells me how new first team boss, Andre Villas-Boas - known everywhere in football as just AVB - now in his second season in charge has that same attention to detail philosophy in training and match preparation.
"He's made it part of his business to know exactly what we do. He's very pitch aware," said Darren. "He's interested in the surface preparation process and has impressive knowledge about what goes on."
AVB's attention to pitch detail is so important to him that he insists Darren goes on pre-season tours with the team to make sure training and match surfaces and equipment are right for the team. During his first team training sessions at Bulls Cross - usually two-hour stints - he requires watering of areas not in use so that, rotating from pitch to pitch, ball play gets minimal grass blade friction. That's the kind of 'on the ball' demands top club grounds crews have to respond to these days.
Darren enjoys working closely with players too. "You do need to know your players," he said. "Some just give you leg-pulling banter: some will give you helpful, constructive comment."
I asked him about language difficulties now that so many of the top players don't have English as their first. It seems the club's player liaison officer is always there to deal with any translation difficulties, so feedback on all matters relating to the business of football - and that includes pitches - is as accurate as it can be. Darren says he relies very much on a core of senior players, like the club captain Michael Dawson, on how players feel about a particular surface.
The attention to detail psyche at Spurs starts at the very top. Chairman Daniel Levy insists on the same 'no stone left unturned' standards for the pitches and surroundings at the new training centre as he does for player transfer dealing. Darren says his interest in absolutely everything is very motivating. He was looking forward to the next two-hour walkabout they do together regularly, with no apprehension at all, but with genuine relish.
"It's great to be kept on your toes," said Darren. "Just as players perform better because of it, we try to produce better and better surfaces. None of us is ever satisfied, and that's great."
I'm given a real feeling that Darren's focus is never far away from his pitches as he catches sight of a very slightly leaking irrigation head. He records it in a notebook. It won't be leaking for very long.
Darren reckons he spends eighty percent of his time at Bulls Cross. We tend to associate football clubs - the big ones especially - with their stadiums, but training centres, more and more, are where the real groundwork is done. Daniel Levy's office is on the Bulls Cross site, so that tells you how highly it figures in Tottenham Hotspur's scheme of things. It's very much the hub of the business.
Darren has a twenty-seven man squad, only four of which are based at the club's White Hart Lane stadium. He has a number of key players at Bulls Cross, each of them vital to the 5-star performance that's always expected. He says there are two words that together they all share: accountability and responsibility.
In charge of the schoolboy pitches is head groundsman Wayne Billing, and responsibility for the whole of the Academy and Development training area is head groundsman Nick Phillips, who won the 2010 FA Young Groundsman of the Year award. Darren's deputy and first team area head groundsman is Paul Jones.
Included in the squad are six full time gardeners, led by head gardener Gavin Hardy. Plants, shrubs, fruit trees and, soon, a vegetable and herb garden are an integral part of the layout and they certainly give it a very rural and welcoming feel.
There's about 1.5 million pounds worth of turfcare equipment at the Centre. It all belongs to the club and it's as precious in its way as any of the club's big summer signings. Each bit of kit has a squad number, not surprisingly beginning with the prefix TH, specifically to keep tabs on their fitness for the job.
When the Centre first opened last year, Darren gave a four year maintenance contract to Ernest Doe. It means a specialist mechanic is on site three days a week, and on-call for the rest. After eighteen months in operation, this is clearly an arrangement that's working well for Darren and his squad.
"We have at least two of everything, so we're pretty much covered for all eventualities," he said. "Doe's make sure everything out there on the pitch is one hundred percent fit and that we've always got a fully fit sub on the bench, so to speak. I'm as pleased with that situation as AVB is when he has a full quota of fit players."
The centre has fifteen pitches but, with areas for special training needs, it equates to about twenty all told. Limagrain MM60 ryegrass mix is used, cut universally and daily to 25mm, though this will rise to 28mm later in the autumn when growing slows down.
Half of the first team's pitches are Desso Grassmaster, with undersoil heating to replicate White Hart Lane conditions. The remainder are Fibresand with no undersoil heating. For the senior academy and development pitches, four out of five are Fibresand. The schoolboy pitches are all natural rootzone, some of them supplemented with sand. All of the training pitches are fully drained and irrigated. There are hundreds of miles of piping beneath the surface and over 600 Hunter sprinkler heads watering not just the pitches, but all of the hedges, tree rings and lawns.
Darren uses three different pieces of aeration equipment at the Centre. Until November, a 2.4 Verti-drain with one-inch tines down to ten inches will do much of the work. Otherwise, a combination of pedestrian Toro ProCore and Wiedenmann Terra Spike keeps the air flowing.
"This is massively important and gives us a full range of spacing, tine widths and depths to suit all conditions," he said.
So far, Darren says there are no turf bug issues, just the usual risk of fusarium, which he says he successfully combats, by and large, by dewing all the pitches every morning. "We're as green as we can be and will only use fungicides if we absolutely have to," he said. "We do use compound fertilisers, but supplement this with a lot of seaweed liquids. As a boost to establishment after close season renovation, for example, we've been using Headstart seaweed extract treatment."
"Our green footprint may not be as all embracing as Forest Green Rovers, but we certainly do what we can. Rainwater from the buildings here is recycled and makes a significant contribution to irrigation."
All water from the first team pitches and the roofs is collected in a chamber and pumped back to irrigation tanks to supplement water from two on-site boreholes, which shut off at a certain level. The first third of all water used at the Centre is always recycled water.
At its Bulls Cross Training Centre, Tottenham Hotspur has a close working relationship with neighbouring Capel Manor College. Part of the negotiated arrangement with partners in the development of the site actually made this an obligation for the club, and it's something quite close to Darren's heart because he studied at Capel Manor twenty years ago. He recalls doing a tractor-mounted spray course there on a very clapped-out vehicle. Things would be very different now being next door to such prime facilities. Student groundsmen will get experience of working with equipment that's as up to date as you can get and see, at very close hand, how 5-star pitches are achieved.
"Our two gardening apprentices are students there," said Darren.
"In the fullness of time, we shall be playing a direct part in the college's turf courses but, at the moment, its turf interests are based at Gunnersbury Park. When they do introduce them here, we will be very much involved and devoting time to help run courses and be very glad to do so."
Working at Bulls Cross for Spurs is much sought after. Darren tells me that, when a gardening position became available recently, there were over 350 applicants. It's not quite as tough as getting over The Chair and into the first team playing squad, but not far off it.
Transatlantic internships via the Ohio State University programme, and with the support of BUNAC (British Universities North America Club), are very much something that Darren has embraced. He's already welcomed two American turf students into his squad there. Recently returned to the US was Matt Lane, who spent much of last season working on the newly established pitches alongside the regulars, and getting involved in the renovation work close season, all done by the Spurs groundstaff with the exception of top surface Koro removal.
"It's a really valuable work placement scheme," said Darren. "It was a great experience for them and us, and I'd definitely like to have more interns."
Darren pointed out that the club was properly vetted for this, as all companies are for such internships, to make sure students are not just used as additional cheap labour.
Despite all the pressure that life in football's Premiership brings, it is so apparent that Darren, and for that matter all of his squad. enjoy what they do. "It's a pleasure to come to work. I'm fortunate to have the most modern facilities there are at my disposal, but I do try to stay in touch with reality. There's only a small minority of us groundsmen that are so lucky and I have huge respect for fellow professionals working on a shoestring. It really makes me appreciate what I have."
"The environment here is something special, but it's important to keep your feet on the ground. Just to give you one example, Dougie Roberstson at West Ham and myself are lucky enough to be asked by the FA to judge the non-league Groundsmen of the Year Awards. It's such a breathe of fresh air, seeing what these guys achieve. We never stop learning from each other, you know."
As Darren had earlier said, whatever anyone at Spurs does, it's expected to be 5-star. The huge expectation there is this year, because of what has happened in the transfer market, actually changes nothing for the grounds team. It's obvious, looking around Bulls Cross, that they already strive for, and achieve, the best. Spurs pitches are very much ahead of the game.