0 Catering for the pitch at Maidenhead United FC

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Maidenhead United Football Club was established in 1870. Their York Road home ground is acknowledged by The Football Association and FIFA to be the oldest continuously used senior association football ground in the world by the same club, having been their home since 1871. This perhaps little known piece of history has seen the club awarded a blue plaque by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

Head Groundsman/Catering Manager Jason Stewart

Maidenhead United Football are currently members of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. At the time of writing, they were lying uncomfortably just above the relegation zone. Their York Road stadium is floodlight and has a capacity of 4500 with 450 seats.

On what has been a very wet winter so far, and on yet another very damp day, Lee Williams met up with twenty-seven-year-old Jason Stewart, the club's Head Groundsman/Catering Manager.

Working at the club has been a family affair, which began when Jason's granddad Brian Stewart used to run the turnstiles years ago. Jason has been looking after the pitch at York Road since he was eighteen years old, with help from his dad Mark Stewart who is a director at the club. Jason also took on the club's matchday catering five years ago.

Jason has no formal qualifications in groundsmanship, but he does his best to keep up with what is new in the industry through social media platforms, industry magazines and websites. "I would like to look at doing an NVQ or some form of certificate in the future to help improve my knowledge, but it is hard to find the time to fit it in. I'm very comfortable here, and I have great respect for the chairman so, as long as he his around and he's happy with my work, I don't plan on working anywhere else in the foreseeable future."

Jason's pitch maintenance budget is small, which is the case with many lower league football clubs around the country. "I do have a good relationship with the chairman, who does his best to support me when I need fertiliser or a machine needs to be fixed. I appreciate the money constraints the club has to work with, and I do my best to provide the best pitch possible with what we have available."

The club has no agronomists or consultants to offer advice on the pitch; Jason relies on Martyn Parish at Agrovista Amenity to provide him with information and advice when he has needed it. "Martyn has been very good to me since I met him. I respect his sound knowledge of sportsturf management, and I trust him to recommend the right products that work within my limited budget."

"Since working with Martyn, I have seen a marked improvement in the quality of the pitch. It has also helped that the first team are not training on the pitch as much this season. I would say the pitch has been the best it's ever been."

The pitch is a mixture of clay, sand and soil with partial drainage. "From the eighteen-yard line to the opposite goal line, we have no drainage, and the drainage we do have doesn't go all the way across the pitch!" So, with all the rain this winter, how has the pitch coped? "It's been a tough one, but we haven't had any games called off in the league, just a trophy game a few weeks ago. The pitch does drain well considering the lack of drainage; it seems to soak away naturally."

Irrigating the pitch in summer can be a long drawn out affair, with Jason having to use the mains tap, a hose, a pump and a travelling sprinkler to water the pitch. "It takes three and a half hours to do one run, and it takes three runs to cover all of the pitch: if it's windy, four runs. It's non-stop. I often find myself working into the night. It does help massively having access to some water. If the club said I couldn't water the pitch for any reason during the hot periods, then we would lose grass cover fast."

Since starting his career as a groundsman, Jason has seen significant changes in the weather. "I think it's changed big time; I remember this time of the year being a lot colder and even getting some snow now and again, the last two winters have been a lot milder and wetter with heavy bursts of rain. The summer months are getting hotter for longer, especially in the last two years. It's been a real struggle to keep the pitch from burning off."

Jason's maintenance regime is limited by the amount of machinery available to him, but he tries to keep to the basics. "I used to cut the pitch with a ride on rotary mower but, at the end of last season, I told the club this was not the ideal way to be cutting the grass as it tears the leaf and doesn't give as clean a cut as a cylinder mower. So, we bought a Ransomes Mastiff from a local cricket club and the difference in the cut is fantastic. It's a lot cleaner, meaning less chance of disease. It's meant a lot more walking for me, but it is worth it when it comes to the presentation of the pitch. I cut the pitch at 26mm all season with the box on. The day after a game, I will go over the pitch with the rotary mower, which has had new brushes attached recently, this picks up a lot of the dead grass left on the pitch. During the game, while I'm busy flipping burgers for the fans, I have a volunteer - Gary Trenby - who will divot the pitch for me at half time. Then, immediately after the game, I will spend a few hours divoting."

The pitch is verti-drained twice a season by Shorts, a contractor from nearby Winkfield and, if the budget allows, Jason will carry out a third pass before the end of the season.

Jason undertook some of the renovations of the pitch himself at the end of last season, starting by building back up the goalmouths and linesman's runs using a rootzone mixed with grass seed. He then brought in Shorts to carry out the rest of the works. "They came in, verti-drained, overseeded with a disc seeder applying sixteen bags of Pro Master grass seed; the pitch was then topdressed with eighty tonnes of sports field sand which was brushed in. Finally, a 12:6:6 pre-seed fertiliser was applied."

The club bought Jason a 50-litre pedestrian sprayer eighteen months ago which has enabled him to spray the pitch with seaweed, and he believes he has seen significant benefits. "I sprayed the pitch post-germination and then followed this up every six weeks with a mix of SeaAction liquid seaweed and Bullet liquid iron to provide some colour and help strengthen the plant. The pitch has played much better so far this season with fewer divots after a match. The roots have got a lot stronger, and you can feel that when you are divoting. We have not had as much disease, which is ideal for us as we cannot afford a preventative fungicide programme."

All machinery bought by the club is generally second-hand and bought outright, like the recently purchased cylinder mower. But, if money was no object, what would Jason like to invest in? "Where do I start? I would love a new tractor, verti-drain and disc-seeder so I could carry out my own renovations and, at the same time, it would provide me with the means to put a more intensive aeration programme together. Also, a tractor-mounted sprayer would be nice. I'm grateful that the club invested in the pedestrian sprayer, but it can be a nightmare pushing it up and down the pitch but, at the same time, I don't mind too much as it's helped greatly."

Jason has a real problem with worm casts now that carbendazim has been withdrawn. "We used to spray all the time for worms. In summer, it's not as big

a problem as they dry up and are easily spread about with the brush or when cutting. The wet months of winter is when you really notice them the most. They stick to the rollers, making the job twice as long. So, before I cut or roll, it is now a case of drag-matting or brushing, and I also have a switch; it works, but it takes a lot out of you."

History

The origins of senior football in Maidenhead - the fourth largest town in the Royal County of Berkshire - can be traced back to October 1870 with the formation of Maidenhead Football Club, who subsequently played their first-ever fixture in December 1870 against Windsor Home Park. The York Road site is now officially acknowledged as the oldest continually used football ground in the world, eclipsing Northwich Victoria's previous claim by several years. The club was one of the original fifteen entrants for the first-ever FA Cup competition in 1871-72. Maidenhead Norfolkians, meanwhile, was founded in 1884 and amalgamated with their neighbours after the Great War. The "United" suffix was adopted two years later.

Maidenhead moved to York Road in 1871, after playing their early matches at Kidwell's Park, which later became home to the Norfolkians until the merger. As Kerry Miller (co-author of the Non-league Football Year Book) recalls, at that time the site was much larger, with the pitch at ninety degrees to its current position. One goal was close to the railway line, which today runs parallel to the far touchline. A thatched pavilion was provided in one corner.

As one would expect for such an old ground, York Road has experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs during its long history, including fire and an abandoned clubhouse project that almost ruined the club in the 1990s.

In 1922, a 500-seat wooden stand was erected on the north side of the ground, along the near touchline. Banked terracing on all four sides utilised old railway sleepers which gradually made way to concrete. The far side of the ground was the first to benefit, including the creation of a tea bar, which now serves as the club shop.

In 1935, the Supporters' Club raised enough funds for the building of a further covered enclosure along the railway touchline. Sadly, the wooden stand, which featured a beautiful gabled roof, was gutted by fire in 1986 and demolished, leaving a tell-tell gap in the concrete terracing on either side. Following the fire, 100 seats were added to the enclosure on the railway side, with more acquired from Millwall's old ground at The Den. Looking closely from behind and the sides at what now serves as the main stand, one can clearly see how the original enclosure has been adapted for its new purpose. Sadly, however, the view is very much a low-level one and obscured by numerous supporting pillars.

In 1974, there were grandiose plans to develop a new clubhouse on the north-east side of the ground, necessitating levelling of the terracing in that corner of the ground. However, the building was never completed, and the shell of the structure remains as a testament to a project that almost crippled the club. These days the area is used for contract car parking in the town centre, from which the club derives valuable income. Instead, more modest facilities are now in place on the site of the old stand.

Both ends of the ground are terraced. The original terracing is still in place behind the west goal (the Bell Road End), where there are two large covered areas providing the requisite shelter. The current tea bar stands at the near corner, but of particular interest at this end of the ground, is a mural painted onto the wall at the opposite corner, depicting various stages in the club's history. In recent years, the eastern end of the ground has been updated, with the addition of shallow terracing and a covered area behind the goal.

What's in the shed

Ransomes Mastiff
Sisis Quadraplay
Ford 1210 tractor
EvenSprey 50 litre sprayer
Westwood S1500 rotary Mower

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