Having missed out on promotion to the Premier League last season, courtesy of 'arry's QPR in the play-off final, Derby County are amongst the favourites to return to the top flight in 2014/15. Ensuring the players have the best possible surface to perform on is Andy Croft, the club's long serving Head Groundsman
Notable for being one of the twelve founding members of the Football League in 1888, Derby County Football Club is one of only ten clubs to have competed in every season of the English football league. In 2009, the club was ranked 137th in the top 200 European football teams of the 20th Century by International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
The club was actually formed in 1884 to give the cricketers of Derbyshire County Cricket Club "something to do" in the winter.
Their nickname, 'The Rams' was adopted in recognition of links with the First Regiment of Derby Militia, which took a ram as its mascot and the song The Derby Ram as its regimental song.
Derby moved to their Pride Park Stadium home (currently the iPro Stadium) in 1997, and with them moved current Head Groundsman, Andy Croft, who has been with the club for twenty-three years.
He began his career as a YTS gardener but, when a job became available at the club's former training ground, the Ram Arena, his brother's best friend asked him if he would be interested. "The rest, as they say, is history," comments Andy.
He confesses that, initially, he didn't bother with qualifications, but has subsequently taken a Management nvq Level 3 and a Sports Turf nvq level 2.
Andy oversees five members of staff; Paul Shepherd (44 years old and 20 years service), Paul Thompson (43 and 7 years service), Dan Tunnicliffe (29 and 10 years service), Dan Elvey (22 and 6 years service) and Paul Hitchcock (49 and 7 years service). All have achieved NVQ level 2, with further training given when required. Andy is currently looking to employ an apprentice.
Pride Park is a modern stadium facility with a seating capacity just short of 33,600. The pitch is a Mansfield Sand Fibresand construction, with the top 100mm being fibre rootzone overlaying a medium sand profile that sits on a stone carpet drainage layer. There is undersoil heating at a depth of 250mm and 300mm apart.
"I have to be careful when using the undersoil heating not to 'over cook' the rootzone and dry out the pitch profile, so I water the pitch to keep it moist at depth," confirms Andy.
"Talbot Turf help out with the renovation work, which begins as soon as the four weeks of corporate events are completed. We normally start the work in the first week of June, which gives us plenty of time to grow in before the first fixture. We have a new pitch every season; everything is koroed off and then power harrowed to open up the fibres. It's then topdressed with 225 tonnes of new 80/20 rootzone material with a small percentage of fibresand added."
"The area is then overseeded with MM60 at a rate of 40g/m2, designed specifically for rapid establishment and good wear tolerance."
"A pre-seed fertiliser is applied with an NPK ratio of 8:12:8. Once the seed has germinated, and reached a height of 35mm, we will begin our cutting regime, first using our Masport pedestrian rotaries, before bringing on the Dennis G860 cylinder mowers, gradually reducing to the match height of around 26mm. Through the season, we will cut between 25-28mm, depending on weather conditions and how the pitch is performing. Recent weather patterns have provided a bit of a challenge, but we just have to adapt, which we do quite well," says Andy.
"Managing sand based pitches is not easy, but the reduction in divots is a big benefit," states Andy. "Stability, colour and vigour can soon be lost, so it is essential that we keep the pitch well watered, fed and regularly mown to improve sward density."
"Our Toro ProCore has proved invaluable. It usually takes about three hours to tine the pitch. We also vertidrain every four or five months to ensure that the top four to six inches are kept decompacted. This machine is hired in."
"Like any other big stadium, shade and air flow can be a problem, but we try and deal with it the best we can. Our homemade lighting rigs have helped, but it would be good to have some purpose built rigs in the near future," he suggests.
Andy also keeps an eye out for any disease, keeping the turf in good health with a combination of cultural practices and the aid of fungicides and herbicides. "It is important to reduce the incidence of disease; leaf spot is particularly damaging if you get it in the winter months.
Regular brushing, grooming and dew dispersal helps. We fertilise every two weeks and apply Sierraform every six weeks. High wear areas are overseeded after every game. Presentation is everything."
"The turfcare industry is one of the few where everyone talks and helps each other out and I think that attending shows, seminars, demo days, road shows is essential for networking."
"Are we undervalued? In some cases, but I believe a lot more people now realise how important a job we all do, and we can help ourselves by getting involved with social media and spreading the word."