0 Dartford FC - Keeping the revenue flowing

Dartford BehindGoalDartford FC is moving on to 'fourth generation' synthetic pitches this autumn, renovating its existing full-size 3G surface with the latest, thicker, longer-strand version of rubber-crumb filled carpet.

The advance will bring the Vanarama National League South club fully up to spec - its two junior size artificial pitches are already 4G.

Dartford FC represents the new breed of sustainable football. It hires its synthetic areas out for community and club use to generate the revenue to keep abreast with turf development (the 4G upgrade is estimated to cost £250,000), whilst maintaining its natural playing surfaces in fine order, not only for first team action but to put itself in line to host European games.

The Kent club also plays host to a popular India sport, Kabaddi. "It is really popular here," reports head groundsman Andy Gibbins, whose sports contracting company, AJG Grounds Maintenance, is retained full-time to tend the club's turfcare needs. "Kabaddi is played in bare feet and is a bit of a free for all, but is catching on big time."

AndyGibbins3The club, which unveiled a near 5,000-capacity purpose-built stadium in 2006, was formed in 1888 by members of the Dartford Workingmen's Club. Today, a swathe of fundraising activities and a longstanding board of directors provide added financial and corporate stability to a footballing entity that boxes above its weight in terms of sporting provision.

"My budget varies from season to season," Andy says, betraying the faith that the club hold in his decision-making after nearly a decade in the post, "but I usually achieve what I request and our dedicated team ensures the job is done to the highest possible standards within the resources available."

He continues: "We run mostly hand mowers here, but also use a chunky Dennis 860 cylinder machine for the main stadium, whilst only ride-ons are used on the course."

Hang on. Did you say course? "Yes, the 9-hole parkland course the club purchased when it bought Princes Park fourteen years ago."

Princes Park Golf Club is no afterthought though - some sporting backwater left to vegetate as the footballing mainstream flows by.
In keeping with national trends, footgolf is proving a hit, attracting a fresh breed of youngsters with the prospect of them taking up the traditional form of the game: A logical move, given the influx of aspiring footballers closeby.

A greenkeeper for twelve years at Aldeburgh in his native Suffolk, Andy is well-positioned to apply his experience to nurturing the course in what is a more unusual blend of turfcare requirements.

AndyGibbins CobraAlso a little out of the ordinary is the working arrangement with turf machinery. "I own some of it," Andy says, "and the club purchase other items." Certainly sounds like Dartford runs on efficient lines.

"I'm employed by the club under a rolling contract as a contractor," Andy continues "and the working arrangement seems to be working fine so far."

Like the canny grounds manager that he is, Andy keeps his nose to the ground in the thriving market in used turf machinery to acquire his fleet, but he has well and truly nailed his colours to the mast. "I only purchase Toro machines," he confides, "those previously leased to golf courses, and try to replace them every three seasons."

His Toro Workhorse rotary and Toro pedestrian mowers, carrying heavy rollers for tending the greens of Princes Park Golf Club, come in for regular duty on its nine holes.

The synthetics are groomed and brushed two to three times a week to ensure clubs and community groups stay loyal and keep hiring the pitches. The level of demand to date certainly suggests they will.

AndyGibbins GoalsDartford's first team, meanwhile, will train on the new 4G, whilst the two academy squads are scheduled to stage all their home games on it. "We'll be staging at least four or five games a week on the pitch, so thorough maintenance is essential," Andy stresses.

Like its 3G predecessor, the 4G will be deep cleaned every eight to twelve weeks, Andy calling in specialists Replay as he does at present. "They use a brilliant piece of kit that removes the infill then re-topdresses the surface," he enthuses. "We hold a UEFA match licence to enable us to stage European fixtures here and need to maintain standards to keep affiliated," he adds.

Although thriving in the Vanarama National League South, Dartford is at the cutting edge of technology to ensure its facilities meet the European playing standards that allow it to attract top footballing sides.

Holding the UEFA licence puts Dartford in line to attract big ticket fixtures - the England C team plays at Princes Park stadium, as did Benfica and Galatasaray recently in the International Premier League Cup, the U21 equivalent of the Champions League.

"You always need a stadium pitch to stage these games," Andy explains "but the bigger clubs do not always want to take them on." Understandable perhaps, given Academy and other playing commitments, but Dartford, for one, would not wish to shun lucrative gate receipts any time soon.

Then there are the pre-season friendlies - another source of revenue. Millwall played Norwich here on 17th July and the Canaries, relegated from the Premiership in May, returned for more action on the 30th, this time against 'The Darts' themselves.

Dartford GroundsTeamWith the new 4G full-size synthetic pitch planned to replace the existing 3G surface soon, and two junior 4G playing areas to tend as well as the stadium natural turf surface, Andy Gibbins and his two trusty assistants, Michael Sheehy and Ben Francis, based full-time at the stadium, keep busy ensuring the facilities are primed for sport.

That's necessary to attract healthy revenue from extensive community hire and match fees - income that has given the club the cash to afford to upgrade the original 3G rubber-crumb-filled pitch to 4G status, with its longer, thicker pile.

As you'd expect at a club that is a model of sustainable football, the hierarchy at Dartford FC is as much a stickler when it comes to pitch presentation as Andy and the team.

"First team manager Tony Burman likes his lines to be pristine," states the 45-year-old head groundsman. He uses a range of marker liquid grades available that provide a strong line for televised fixtures. "Delivering a long-lasting, super bright result that looks the business is important. We use around two tubs each fortnight to three weeks, marking out for every game, of course."

Dartford CornerFlag

The turfcare team also find that aerosol linemarking paint comes in handy for applying a crisp white penalty spot, Andy adds. "Concentrated liquids in a can have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. We prepare a template for the penalty spot then spray on the paint for the result the manager and the players expect."

He prefers delivering the paint by spray linemarkers; "they are easier to use when making up the liquid from the tub, whilst wheel to wheel machines waste too much paint." His current model is two years old now, typically a time to consider a replacement, which Andy has in his sights.

For fertiliser needs, Andy applies a 20:10:10 with compound nitrogen 2-4mm homogeneous mini granules, which release nutrients over four to six weeks to deliver consistent, dependable performance on surfaces as diverse as winter games pitches, fairways and sports outfields.

The soluble nutrient sources generate rapid green-up and are intended for easy, accurate application. In fact, Andy applies the granules to the stadium pitch by hand using a pedestrian spreader. Isn't this a practice rooted in tradition when so many modern aids are available to speed the process?

"You can see the fertiliser going down and so ensure an even application," Andy responds; "not the case with tractor-mounted broadcasts." In an era when grounds professionals rarely if ever find time to breathe, let alone walk the job, can he afford the luxury?

AndyGibbins Divoting

"It takes an hour and a half to complete the task, compared with around twenty-five minutes by tractor, but I am keen not to leave anything to chance. It's the little things that make the difference." Clearly a man bent on leaving a mark of excellence.

The team fertilise the Princes Park match pitch in early May before the end-of-season renovation, applying granular feed in eight to ten 20kg bags and watering in with the pop-up irrigation system, before applying 80 tonnes of 70:30 mix topdressing and a "heavy overseed in two directions".

"The players and manager like the pitch to be slick before a game, so we also water just before a match. After fertilising, we let the pitch grow as much as we can and add eight bags of fertiliser every fortnight over the 7,000m2 surface. I apply 50:50 iron complex liquid fertiliser to give the pitch a serious pick-me-up, ideal when we are expecting key fixtures."

He refrains from including a Koro in his renovation; "the pitch was sand-banded a season ago to allow water to drain more swiftly to the pipes. At the end of September, we survey the surface to see if we need a light overseed in the first week of October to generate enough grass coverage to see us through the season."

The surface is a pure ryegrass mix. "I have used it for eight or nine years now with consistently good results. The seed germinates in eight days, establishes and grows quickly," says Andy.

Dartford 4G

The team also apply a sports field fertiliser across the golf course, under a maintenance programme centred around Andy's Toro machinery fleet.

Returning to synthetics, Andy dismisses recent fears expressed over the safety of rubber-crumb synthetic surfaces as "scaremongering".

"I've read the reports and am not convinced. I have worked with rubber crumb for about ten years now. The jury is still out, but I just cannot see it myself. It's a tough one to call. You could say that just about everything carries a health hazard in one way or another."

Clubs like Dartford that generate the revenue to afford resurfacing can expect swift returns on their investment. "We will recoup the outlay within two years if we sustain current hire-out levels," Andy predicts, "then it's all profit after that."

He also sees a rosy future for synthetics throughout football. "They will take over from grass in clubs up to and including the Championship, I reckon. It's sad in a way, but it is the future if many clubs are to remain solvent."

Dartford Canaries2He confides once more: "I have a job for life here, if I want it" and, at forty-five, Andy has many years ahead of him if he chooses to stay, but will his Suffolk roots draw him back to that tranquil county once more?

Andy moved away after his twelve year spell as greenkeeper at Aldburgh Golf Club to embark on an eight-year stint in tree surgery for Eurostar. "That was a great life," he recalls, "earning good money. I worked mostly on the French side and around St Pancras, but it is a young man's job."

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