From the very young age of seven, George Mills helped his dad look after their local cricket club and today he is Head Groundsman at West Herts Sports Club. He spoke to Kerry Haywood about the challenges at the club and how his vast experience helps overcome these.
It's fair to say that something is in your blood when you've been doing it for so long and, at the age of just 24, George Mills has been practising groundcare for over seventeen years.
From the age of seven, George was helping his dad Bob Mills (who is now Head Groundsman at The Honourable Artillery Company). He said: "I remember, when I was growing up, my old man was the voluntary groundsman at our local cricket club in Thorley and I was always keen to lend a hand. When I turned twelve, he also took on Bishops Stortford Football Club and I used to spend my evenings after school, my summer holidays and Saturday mornings working on the grounds at both Thorley CC and Bishops Stortford FC. Most of the time I liked it, but there were times when I hated it, and just wanted to go out and play with my friends. I look back and I'm so glad I did it with him. The only job I have ever wanted was to be a groundsman or greenkeeper."
Shoot forward to the day after George's 18th birthday, and he was granted a well earned full time position at Bishops Stortford Golf Course, where he worked for eight months before moving to his current position at West Herts Sports Club.
Situated in central Watford, with relaxing surroundings, the club was formerly home to Watford Football Club before their move to Vicarage Road back in the 1920s. The club currently hosts a selection of natural sporting facilities including cricket, football and tennis along with six astroturf tennis courts and one euro clay court. As well as this, there is a squash club and fully equipped gym (which are overseen by the gym manager).
George mainly looks after the 2.1 hectare site on his own and carries out the majority of tasks; however, since April, he has employed a part-time assistant Damon who is the cricket club's overseas pro. He will be on site one or two days per week until September when he returns home and has been trained to use a wide variety of the equipment so that he can undertake whatever task is required at the time.
George also receives a lot of support from local reps including David McInnes and a local company called A T Bones who scarify the cricket square in September and deep drill in November.
The soil profile of the cricket square is Ongar loam to a depth of at least 10 inches. George commented: "When I started at West Herts, there was a root break 3 inches under the surface. The deep drilling has drastically improved the root depth and reduced the definition of the root break. When I took a core sample out five years ago, the top 3 inches would fall off in one piece with no root breaking through the split. Now the break is still evident, but each year it closes a little more, and the root depth is also very good with thick rooting breaking through."
"I take soil samples from time to time, but perhaps not as much as some other groundsmen. In my opinion, if the pitches are playing well, and the grass is healthy, that's all you can ask for. I adapt to weather conditions as best I can as it's a case of having to. It will always change and you have to be prepared for that."
The club is host to many teams and, as a result, has to stand up to heavy use all year round. The pitches are used for West Herts teams in football, cricket and tennis and they can also be hired out for one off occasions. There are twelve football teams, including two adult sides and colts from age sixteen down to seven. The cricket club run five Saturday teams, one Sunday team and ten junior cricket teams and all of these games are played on the main cricket square. In addition to this, a large number of adults and junior tennis teams, along with as much social tennis as the courts can facilitate, certainly means George has his work cut out.
George added: "At the end of the season, I cut the square down to 4mm before A T Bones come in and scarify it. I then fertilise and topdress myself with a rye mix. I use Ongar loam, as it's the same as the square's base, and I was taught never to mix your loam. I have fourteen wickets on the main square and then 4 more on a square I built in the outfield five years ago."
"I dress all of them on the basis of ten 20kg bags per strip and I seed heavily using three bags of R9 rye mix for several seasons. I used to use the recommended two bags, as I was advised that was a good amount for a square of that size, however I found when I upped it to three bags, I had very good results and much better coverage. Tennis is a very similar approach, except I use the Sisis Rotorake scarifier to do the three grass courts and I use around 1 tonne of Ongar loam per court."
"The football pitches get very little in the way of repairs due financial constraints. I am given an annual figure which I spread out and spend as I feel necessary, but it doesn't stretch quite as far as I would want it to."
"I counteract this by being strict on the usage and limiting the amount of teams to three per pitch per season which means the pitches don't get too hammered. Also, over the Christmas break when football games stop for two weeks, I move all of the pitches around. The main reason for this is to move the goalmouths and the centre of the pitches around, so generally, we still have good grass coverage in April. At this point, all there is to do is overseed and fertilise with a slow release fertiliser."
"Another reason we don't do more extensive repairs to the football pitches is because of a two week overlap in April, and one week in September, when football and cricket are both being played so the site never stops."
George continued: "Presentation is very important to me. I think in your mind, if a surface looks good, people are far more forgiving than something that's poorly presented. Not that there's much to be forgiving of at West Herts because standards are high; the tennis club have professional players that come from all over the country to train on our courts, and cricket is of a very high standard as well."
Presentation is made all the more difficult when most of the equipment George has is old; including the 1984 Auto Certes to cut the wicket (making it older than he is!).
They may be old but, are mostly good quality second-hand machines, which are purchased outright from their local dealer, Oliver Landpower. They also carry out the re-grinding of machines and major repairs but George does all servicing and basic repairs himself.
George added: "When I started at West Herts, the programme was to cut the football pitches and cricket outfield with a Ransomes gang mower, which did the job but wasn't great for our surfaces. By changing to the John Deere 500, the quality of cut and presentation has drastically improved."
To make life easier, George's wish list would include a Dennis 36 inch cylinder mower with interchangeable units including the cutting cylinder, verti cutter and the brush. He would also love a replacement tractor; preferably with an English language manual and safety stickers included, as it's a grey import. The current Iseki has 3 point linkage but no hydraulic plugs and it is not strong enough to run anything off the PTO.
There's very little to deal with in the pests and disease aspect on site, and George mainly handles this on his own. The pitches are sprayed for worms twice a year and for weeds in May. The outfields require a bigger sprayer so CB Weed Control come in to do that whenever necessary.
The biggest problem with the location and central Watford in general is the urban foxes and George states that there's not a huge amount he can do to stop them. "I currently just tend to put up with it and deal with any repairs, which is obviously a frustration. At the moment they don't do any major damage but, if and when they do, I would need to take a more in-depth look and adopt a method to deter them."
Recently, George had to alter a small area of waste land behind the tennis courts that runs along one side of the site. The cricket club would get frustrated with tennis members walking behind the bowlers arm and across the outfield when they were playing. A path was put in along the waste area, so courts are now accessed from the other side and out of the way of the cricket field.
In terms of staff training and health and safety issues, George has recently completed his level 3 qualification and is up to date and compliant with all aspects of this. He is also looking to take on an apprentice in the near future, should finances allow.
"The industry needs to encourage young people into it," commented George. "I get regular pay increases and I certainly don't feel undervalued. If you do a good job, you will be rewarded, which is fair and that should be enough to promote our industry to youngsters. Just by doing a good job, I would hope that, sooner or later I will be approached with a job opportunity that's too good to turn down. But, in the meantime, I love working at West Herts and it gives me a great sense of reward and achievement."
What's in the shed
1984 Ransomes Auto Certes
Baroness Saxon greens mower - which was purchased second-hand last year
A second-hand Ransomes Matador - which gets very little use as the five blade cylinder doesn't give the best quality of cut
A grey import Iseki tractor - of which all the warning labels and instructions are in Japanese which makes getting parts a nightmare
A new Countax C60 - which does a great all round job; it pulls covers on, pulls trailers around and cuts all the peripherals. It also has a brush unit which is good to clear debris from the cricket and football pitches after games
A roller - that weighs 3.5 tonnes
A John Deere 500 which was bought second hand around four years ago