Cogenhoe play in the United Counties League and, six years ago, embarked on a programme of pitch and grounds improvement, largely as a result of the FA's directions for improved standards within grass roots football.
The challenge they faced was that the ground was formerly meadowland and is located on heavy clay. As a result, there was a fair degree of soil compaction and waterlogging was a frequent problem, particularly around the goal mouths. The entire pitch was worn, suffering soil erosion and root depth was low. With three teams playing at the ground, the problem was only going to get worse.
Their first step was to appoint a professional consultant - Jeremy Lucas of Park Landscapes.
Previously, the groundscare team's focus had been on end of season remedial work, involving earthquaking and deep slit seeding with sports remedial seed. Surface dressing and weed killing was also carried out annually. This situation is perhaps not uncommon for many teams with limited resources.
Jeremy advised the club to de-thatch and aerate to improve the playing surface and to switch to a collecting mower. At the time, they were using a three rotor under-deck cutter which was compounding the problem, as cuttings were causing thatching and further starving the soil of air and nutrients.
Club groundsman, Brian Foley, contacted Turney GroundForce who advised they choose a flail mower/collector to go behind their New Holland TD27. They were already interested in the Groundkeeper, a tractor powered unit from Amazone and, following a demo in 2005, ordered the GH150 model.
"Not only was the cut quality excellent, but the fact that it can collect cuttings and litter, scarify, mulch and roll meant that it's a truly versatile machine," says Derek Wright, club Chairman and grounds assistant. "Like most clubs in this league, we could not afford an outright purchase but leasing proved a viable option. The choice was a logical one for us because we already owned a compact tractor."
The turnaround in quality - both actual and visual was apparent within a few months. "Not a match goes by where we don't get tributes from visiting players and spectators" comments Derek, who recounts an incident, prior to the improvements, in which they were playing Derby County at home in the FA Youth Club. "Not only did we lose 3-1, but our pride was dented further when their manager commented that it had been an eye-opener for his team because they had never had to play on such a poor pitch. I'd love for him to revisit us today."
But the benefits are not only for the team's pride; they are actually seeing a return on their investment. The clubhouse is hired out for events and it certainly helps when visitors are in pleasant surroundings.
"Because we have much better drainage on the surface now, it also means that we are even more likely to fulfil calendar obligations; we have rarely missed a match due to a water-logged pitch - and that's saying something being on clay!" Brian continues, "Because of the quality of the pitch, we have been selected for representative games - the most recent being Guernsey v Northampton town; this brings both kudos and revenue for the club."
Additionally, because the pitch condition has improved markedly, much less remedial work is required at the end of the season, which reduces costs, including the fact that they no longer need to topdress with sand.
Further recognition of the ground's improvement came when Brian was awarded Groundsman of the Year in 2009 after being nominated by Northamptonshire FA and Hereward Teamware Management Committee (the League's sponsors).
The ongoing maintenance of the pitch is critical to its continuing high performance, and Derek continues the story, " We cut to a height of 25-32mm - weekly during summer dry spells, which is increased to twice a week during the main growing seasons. During the winter months the pitch may be groomed and cut throughout, excluding wet periods and cold spells when no growing takes place."
"Line marking is carried out with a 75mm wet line marker. During wet conditions we use a dry marker for the heavy wear areas. We have a Javelin 32mm x 50m irrigation system which is used throughout the propagation period and during dry spells. During this period we allow the grass to grow to 50mm and cut weekly to encourage strong grass growth."
Since embarking upon the pitch improvement programme, contractors are brought in to use a 1.50m wide deep slit spiker and a SISIS quadraplane. Spiking takes place fortnightly from autumn through to spring and the quadraplane is used with rake and roller to ensure smooth true playing surface.
"I would estimate this contract work costs the club approximately £1600 per annum," says Derek.
"We use the Groundkeeper exclusively on our main pitch, the two other training pitches are usually cut with gang mowers. I reckon that, on average, sixteen hours a week is taken in pitch repairing, cutting and maintenance of kit and equipment. This includes pitch repairs using our tractor and loader. We use a 70/30 mix of sandy soil and silica sand topdressing. This costs approximately £32 per tonne and we collect it from a local specialist supplier. We use 3-5 tonnes throughout the season in high wear areas for added protection of the turf from divots and boot markings."
Annual work includes Earthquake decompaction, carried out by the specialist contractor. Deep slit seeding is undertaken immediately the pitch is closed for playing.
"We adopt a strict regime of regular attention and investment, mixing volunteer work, using the club's own equipment, along with regular and routine assistance by the contractor," continues Derek. "They are also employed to carry out annual spraying for weeds, plus fertilising as required, paying particular attention to weather patterns."
"I estimate we spend between £2-4000 on pitch maintenance each year. We consider this an investment and, as a club playing semi-professional football, it is a balance on providing excellent facilities against payments to players."
"These costs do not include the volunteer help - a team of four spending a minimum of forty hours a week - even more during pitch maintenance and irrigation in the close season. Fortunately, with the new equipment, this is becoming shorter year on year. The biggest benefit has been far less remedial work required, with even goalmouths and high wear areas, such as centre circle, still being in good condition at the end of the season. Quite remarkable considering we have around seventy games each season!"
"The improvements to the playing surface over the past four or five seasons have been remarkable," concludes Derek. "The FA's incentive to improve playing surfaces for the benefit of the game as a whole, has helped us to raise our standards. It has also seen our profile rise within the football authorities, and we have become the yardstick for what can be achieved by good planning along with good practice."