Not one of the traditional names perhaps in English football, but Crawley Town is well established and, for the eleventh year in a row, assured of EFL status next season, sitting comfortably mid-table in League Two. Neville Johnson went to its People's Pension Stadium to talk to the contractor who looks after the pitch and discovers he and his team are very much part of the club's family.
Ben Harwood, whose Complete Turf Care looks after the Crawley Town pitch
Crawley Town Football Club was ﬁrst formed in 1896, but only adopted professional status in 1962 when it joined the then Southern League. In 1997, it moved to its current home, the Borough Council owned Broadﬁeld Stadium which, with naming rights, soon became the Checkatrade Stadium and, more recently, The People's Pension Stadium after a naming rights deal was signed with the Crawley-based company in 2018.
Over the last couple of decades, it could be said fortunes on and off the ﬁeld have been chequered. Twice it even entered Administration, and was very close to extinction on one occasion during its years in the Football Conference. At the end of the 2010-2011 season however, the club climbed into the Football League for the ﬁrst time with a record 105 points at that level, setting another record with a thirty match unbeaten run at the end of the campaign.
As an EFL club, many a big name has taken charge of Crawley teams, among them England Internationals Chelsea's John Hollins and Manchester United's Steve Coppell, and Wales International Dean Saunders. It was Coppell, who was Director of Football when the second successive promotion took place in 2012, after just one season in League Two, who took the club into League One where it stayed for three seasons.
It has been FA Cup runs that have caught the eye and roused the fans in recent times. The visit of Stoke City for a ﬁfth-round clash in 2011 was the ﬁrst time the ground had hosted competitive Premiership opposition, but it was the third round game there against Leeds United last season that will be forever etched in the club's history. Crawley's 3-0 drubbing of the Premiership giants shown live on BBC Television, albeit without fans in the stadium because of Covid restrictions, is surely the club's most celebrated day.
Left: Pitch cutting ahead of the Forest Green Rovers game
At the moment, the stadium pitch is natural soil based. It is the same one installed when the stadium was built twenty-ﬁve years ago. In late February - in the wake of a succession of Atlantic storms - the latest, Storm Franklyn having dropped two inches of rain in a day - it looks terriﬁc and invitingly playable.
In the early days, however, maintenance may not have been all it should have. Black layer, probably as a result of over-watering and insufficient aeration, was a particular issue apparently.
According to Ben Harwood, who was the club's head groundsman there when it ﬁrst entered the EFL and now looks after it as a contractor with his business, Complete Turf Care, a type of Mott reinforcing system was used at the time of installation. Now and again he says small sections of Netlon mesh or waffles come to the surface. Ben reckons this was an early-stage attempt at reinforcement or stabilisation if you like, a precurser to today's Desso, SIS and hybrid carpet systems.
Ben does not think switching to a hybrid surface represents sensible spending for the club. Prior to Covid, he recommended that changing to Fibresand was both viable and affordable and in the best interests of Crawley Town. This may yet happen, but the quality of the pitch so deep into the season and, after such batterings, is testament to the work of Ben and his team in getting the best out of the existing structure of the pitch.
Ben was just twenty-ﬁve when he took charge of Crawley's Broadﬁeld Stadium and, at the time, was then one of the country's youngest full-time professional football groundsmen.
"Football was always a kind of calling, though I came to Crawley after a spell as a greenkeeper at Worthing Golf Club, where I gained NVQ level two," he said.
"When I left school, I got a job with a national contractor and did work at Watford and QPR. I suppose it actually started when I was about eight, helping my dad at Brighton's old Goldstone Road Ground, where he was stadium manager. That Brighton link has carried on here."
Nothing like old-fashioned hands on
Ben explained his last remark in more detail. "The club, as stadium leaseholders, entered into an agreement with Brighton & Hove Albion, allowing them to host their Women's First Team ﬁxtures at the Stadium." he said.
"This income source has brought a number of beneﬁts in the maintenance of the stadium's playing surface, which goes some way to offsetting the enormous ﬁxture pressure. Crawley mostly play on Saturdays and Tuesdays, with Brighton Women's First Team on Sundays, often meaning the Complete Turf Care team has to prepare four playing surfaces in ten days."
Ongoing advice provided from STRI's Senior Turfgrass Agronomist, Stella Rixon is one signiﬁcant beneﬁt courtesy of the relationship Crawley Town have with Brighton and Hove Albion and, four seasons back, it was the south coast club that helped fund the installation of primary and secondary drainage, which Ben acknowledges has undoubtedly improved pitch performance and virtually eliminated match postponements.
In October, the two goalmouths and the linesmen's runs were stitched to 90mm by SIS Grass and the stabilising effect of this could clearly be seen, even at the shaded southern end. It was a worthwhile measure indeed, again thanks to the funding.
As far as the Women's Super League is concerned, the Crawley Town pitch is one of only two natural grass surfaces - the other is Barnet, where Tottenham women play. Ben says Crawley's pitch, even though it is seldom used for training because Town does this on Horsham FC's artiﬁcial surface, has one of the heaviest usage among League Two clubs.
"Three of Brighton's WSL matches have been televised this season. If needs be, WSL will fund the use of rain covers. It also pays for a PSD agronomist to do three pitch tests a year for each venue," Ben adds.
Left: Primary drainage being installed in 2018 by Premier Pitches along with secondary Koro top drain bands Right: Stitching being added to high wear areas last October
Ben is critical of the EFL. He says it does not offer support to groundsmen, yet the WSL does provide pitch testing to its clubs which is an obvious help to the groundsman.
WSL and Brighton and Hove Albion both fund pitch testing here, not the EFL. In that regard we are lucky at Crawley," he said.
"EFL don't put any kind of pressure on clubs to invest in maintenance. You can have the best groundsman going, but if he is not backed by investment, pitches will not thrive. Lewis Hamilton would not get very far if asked to drive a family car."
"It would be true to say there is little communication between the EFL and the WSL regarding ﬁxtures, which does not assist those of us responsible for pitch preparation."
"The link with Brighton is very strong though and works well for all concerned at Crawley Town."
The Complete Turf Care team were hard at work getting the stadium pitch ready for the home clash the following Saturday with table-toppers Forest Green Rovers, which incidentally went Crawley's way 2-1. It was the preceding Tuesday and Ben's team had cut the pitch lengthways using Dennis G860s. They planned next day to spray with magnesium and calcium and apply half rate liquid feed in conjunction with use of light rigs, leased courtesy of the Brighton club. Ben says he tends to spray every couple of weeks to counteract a leaching tendency.
Talking to Ben he clearly has a ﬁne and long established relationship with Crawley Town. He's quite a fan of the team too, having so far only missed two away games this season.
Complete Turf Care is now ﬁve years
'down the road'. It is a tight team of four. Ben set out to be a contractor with a difference; one that helps clubs spend wisely and provide them with sound advice. Besides Crawley Town, it carries out pitch work for a number of other local teams like Three Bridges, East Grinstead, and Burgess Hill.
The Complete Turf Care Team, left to right: Evan Ridler, Ben Harwood, Daniel Gibb, and Tom Martin, who like Ben was also a Crawley groundsman
"Our philosophy is a simple one. We will always do things properly. No corner cutting," Ben emphasises.
"I much prefer working as part of a team like ours, rather than in-house. We have a broad variety of sports surface knowledge between us. The club beneﬁts from guaranteed cover should anything go awry. We can all do each other's jobs."
You get a clear impression that this is a contractor very much at home in the stadium and the way the set up functions, part of the Crawley Town family if you like.
"We're treated like members of staff, not outsiders providing a service," said Ben.
"This is partly to do with my history as the former club groundsman, but I also like to think it's because everyone at the club cares about what we do and it shows in the way we go about things."
Crawley Town FC, like all of CTC's clients, pays a ﬁxed monthly fee for pitch maintenance. "We are absolutely not a '50 cut' service," said Ben. "We aim to do everything necessary in an annual care programme. Feeding, fungicide, aeration, everything is included. Only end of season renovation work is outside of contract."
Crawley Town contract out any major renovation projects subject to budgetary and agronomist approval.
All of the equipment they use for weekly maintenance, they own, though Ben admits that a little upgrading here and there is not far away. "Everything we do here is with our own kit and that's a real bonus to the club," said Ben. "At these levels, clubs ought not to be concerned about purchasing and maintaining equipment. I believe it is one reason why we could see a growth in regular contractor pitch maintenance beyond just specialist tasks.
CTC also look after Sussex County Croquet Club at Shoreham on Sea, just west of Brighton where the last Croquet World Championships were held in 2019.
"I'm excited to say that we shall be seeing the 2022 Golf Croquet Federation World Championships at Shoreham again in July this year."
Ben is actually quite an accomplished golf croquet player himself and last year played in the British Open Doubles.
The contractor's Toro ProCore helps keep the natural grass surface well drained
Genial and professional in equal measures, Ben is anything but a grumpy groundsman. He does however admit to a couple of areas that sometimes irk him.
He is not generally a fan of football referees. When there's doubt about a pitch's suitability or otherwise for play, groundsmen are rarely listened to, he maintains, and gave a for instance that had stuck in his mind.
"Two years back on Boxing Day, heavy rain was coming in and due to cease around 1.00pm. The referee for the game here that afternoon was at the ground mid-morning and asked me to fork the pitch. I knew that was unnecessary because there were already thousands of holes spiked ready for this rain event and I refused. A confrontation involving the referee and the club's general manager ensued, but I stood ﬁrm. I knew that, come kick-off and assuming the rain had stopped a couple of hours before, there would be no surface water at all, which is what happened. Afterwards the ref just said 'oh, so you do know your pitch then'. We all do, and certainly a lot better than match officials. The refs give us a mark each game: we don't get to mark them."
Some coaches can be 'blame the pitch' merchants, he's found.
'If a team wins: nothing is said. If they lose: somebody looks to the pitch as a cause. I tend to cut a little longer in summer for matches. A team coach commented to me one day after a defeat that the grass was too long. Next time they visited I told the same coach during the warm up that I'd cut it shorter, although I hadn't. They won, and afterwards said they could tell it was shorter."
Ben says he is worried about the lack of respect for groundstaff by those in football who should know better. He thinks it is one reason why some groundsmen leave the industry.
A busy game period was looming large - another four games in ten days. The pitch would be put to the test and, thanks to Crawley's Complete Turf Care team, it would come through with ﬂying colours.