Having prepared a pitch for the visit of Manchester United in the FA Cup, Cambridge United's Head Groundsman, Ian Darler, found himself thrust into the media spotlight. Not bad, after doing the job - and a few others - for thirty six years. As he explains to Peter Britton, it's not all been plain sailing
When Cambridge United went into administration nine years ago, Head Groundsman, Ian Darler, lost all his staff, apart from his maintenance man. He is the only survivor of the original league club and has been with them a staggering thirty-six years. During that time, he reckons to have spent over £30,000 of his own money on equipment and supplies, just to keep the pitch in the condition he wants.
Now, some may think that excessive but, talking to Ian, you are immediately struck by how his soft Fenland accent appears not to betray an ounce of bitterness; more a resignation.
Having spent 2005 to 2014 in the Football Conference, the U's returned to the Football League this season following a 2-1 play-off final win against Gateshead at Wembley. At the time of writing, they are comfortably mid table.
This season has seen them enjoy an FA Cup run that resulted in a fourth round home tie against Manchester United; possibly the best draw any cash strapped club could wish for. Of course, it would all end there, or so everyone thought, but the spirit that exists at Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium saw them hold out for a 0-0 draw and a replay at Old Trafford (which they lost 3-0). This generated even more cash for the club, some of which, Ian hopes, is destined for his pitch.
As is often the way when top flight clubs slip up against lower league opposition, the home side's pitch comes in for criticism, as was the case when Louis van Gaal claimed that "everything was against us". Poor chap, he has more money than Ian could ever dream off. A donation of a week of Wayne Rooney's wages would, no doubt, be most welcomed by Ian.
He began his career at the Pye Sports Ground as an apprentice working under Head Groundsman, Bill Scott. It had the reputation of being one of the best surfaces in Cambridgeshire at the time. Those of a certain age will remember the Kinks and the Small Faces records spinning around their Dansette on the Pye label.
"Bill took me under his wing and gave me the opportunity that has served me well all my working life to date. He was simply outstanding and offered me so much support. He inspired me to always provide the best surface possible."
"The other person that directed me into the trade was the Sisis representative, Robert Chesham, who gave me a lot of encouragement saying there are very few youngsters getting into the trade; stick with it."
"I'd failed two football trials, so needed to find a career and this was the next best thing. I knew I wanted to work outside."
After the completion of his apprenticeship, Ian joined Cambridge United in 1979, becoming the youngest head groundsman in the Football League at the time. Following the Bradford fire, the club had to comply with safety standards and employ a stadium manager, a role that Ian added to his duties, but with the addition of full-time member of the groundstaff.
Following the Hillsborough tragedy, every club had to employ a safety officer and, yes, you've guessed it, Ian took on that role as well! But it doesn't stop there. Two years ago, the club's Commercial Manager left. "The chairman stood there with his hands on hips and, like an idiot, I said I had two weeks leave left and could help out. So I went out and got the biggest shirt sponsorship deal the club had seen in a decade. It's been interesting at Cambridge United, to say the least!"
So, with a job title that you'd find hard to fit on a business card, how on earth does Ian find the time to do what he does and, more importantly, why? "It's the hours that are a killer," he confesses. "The groundsman is usually first in and last out. And then there are all the other duties to perform around that. On the day of the Manchester United game, I was marking out in my suit as, obviously, I was match day safety officer. With the game being on TV, I got spotted by my colleagues - I seemed to have every other groundsman in the country taking the p**s out of me!"
"Mind you, that was a regular occurrence twenty years ago, when I'd also do post match divoting in my finery. I was known as the best dressed groundsman in the business!"
So, when his pitch gets criticised, how does he take it? "In my stride." he says in a matter of fact way. "Look, during the live broadcast, Martin Keown was down at pitch side and full of praise, and you had Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer in the studio saying what a good pitch it was for this level. I'm never going to compete with Darren at Spurs or Dougie at West Ham because I haven't got UV lights and a shed load of kit, but I do pride myself on providing a decent surface."
This is borne out by pitch marks from the League, which rate Ian's pitch 'above average', and is backed up by the referee reports on the condition of the surface.
"And, to be honest," continues Ian, "you don't win FA Groundsman of the Year five times and have three commendations if you're not achieving some sort of quality."
"The chairman has had to dip into his pockets on many occasions to keep this place going. Can we afford to pay the tax, can we afford to pay the players' wages? Yes we can, but there's no money for anything else."
"I've set up all sorts of contra deals with companies that have got plant equipment, plus a couple of local greenkeepers help me out. We pitch in together and have achieved a 'reasonable' surface." The Fenland accent puts the emphasis on 'reasonable'.
Asked if they are all U's supporters, Ian says no, not all of them; "some are just mates I go fishing with [his other passion], who come and bail me out. Obviously, some have an interest in the club, otherwise they wouldn't do it. A good example is a local contractor who has a verti-drain. I find him work in and around Cambridge and he'll come in and put the machine across the pitch whilst he's in the area as a thank you. Then I've got a greenkeeping mate who'll bring his Amazone in at a peppercorn rate. Somehow, I get it done."
So, how exactly does he 'get it done' week in, week out? "I have a maintenance man, Mick Brown, who has been with me for fourteen years. He helps out with just about everything going, plus a number of volunteers that I am so very lucky to have, as they fill the gap of the full time staff member I lost following administration. They are part of my after match team that stay with me on the pitch until midnight on evening games and 8.00pm on Saturdays. They don't wear suits though!"
"I have entered into a partnership with Tony Kvedaras of Growing Solutions/ITS. He has been an inspiration to me in recent months, for which I am very grateful. We have to be considerate to local flora and manage anything we use on the pitch as we have a freshwater brook that runs alongside the stadium that continues in to the River Cam. The area is managed by the Environment Agency, who we have a named contact with."
"When I started at Cambridge in 1979, the playing surface was simply awful, with no soil structure and solid clay just a few inches below the surface. Over the years, I have added thousands of tonnes of specialised drainage sand and rootzone (acquired on a contra deal, of course), to the point that we now have a high percentage sand profile surface, but that, in its own way, can cause another problem as moisture control is essential. If the surface is too dry, it simply breaks up."
"We hollow tine and aerate as often as possible to keep root growth going and to prevent black layer, which used to be a common problem in the early days due to compaction. It can be difficult to get a period of time long enough to carry out this work; we had three teams playing on the pitch last season, so it was a constant quick turnaround between fixtures. As we don't have the luxury of a core harvester, it's a two day job to shovel the cores up."
"We only have a standard 85mm pipe drainage system at 5 metre centres, most of which is now approaching thirty years of age and, although we have the system pipe jetted every close season, it is failing in several areas."
"Until this season, we never had proper frost covers but, following promotion, we had to purchase covers, as it is a requirement of the Football League. I have to rely on my volunteers to help put them on and off, which can be a challenge. Prior to this, all we had were a few polythene sheets to cover one penalty box at the south end, which was always in the shade and suffered from frost."
"The playing surface also suffers from a large shadow from the east stand which, together with the south stand shadow, covers around 55% of the pitch in the depths of winter. That said, I think we have only lost around twelve games in my thirty-six years here to frost; and now we have the luxury of frost covers."
This latest addition to his armoury is a welcome bonus, but surely there must be a rant around the corner, mustn't there?
"Our maintenance regime is to keep things simple," explains Ian. "We aerate as often as possible with our Ransomes tractor and Multi-Core aerator, using a variety of tines and depths, along with verti-draining every six to eight weeks, subject to availability."
"We sweep the surface early mornings when it is covered with dew to reduce the risk of disease. Mowing and light rolling is carried out, when required, with the two mowers - a Dennis G860 or Hayter 56 rotary - and we are normally cutting at 25-30mm. We will also swap the cartridge over in the Dennis and just clean up the surface with the scarifying cartridge as and when required."
"I am a great believer in constant maintenance and we will reseed any areas that are damaged after a game by walking the pitch with a bucket of rootzone and pre-germinated seed - when the finance side of things allow!"
"The fact we are very limited with labour means we have to maximise our available time. The club has just purchased our first piece of new equipment in ten years - the Dennis G860 with scarifier cartridge. It's been of real benefit as it has enabled us to prevent the thatch build up and keep the surface clean and generally free of debris."
"Everything I do is driven by presentation. I can honestly say that I have always strived to produce the best surface for everybody who plays at the R. Costings Abbey Stadium, whether it is for schoolboys or Manchester United. We have had a reputation, over the years, of producing a good standard of surface and that is how it should be. I always strive for perfection," Ian says proudly.
Where renovations are concerned, Ian says that he generally has to 'make do and mend' as there is seldom money available to carry out major work. "I have tried, for the past four years, to get a complete new drainage system, new irrigation system and fresh gravel bands at 750mm centres, but I have to make do with what I can do with just a few thousand pounds."
"I had a friend who was a fabricator make me my own piece of kit to put sand bands into the surface, which enabled us to at least reconnect the gravel bands onto the main drains."
"I've lost count of how many times we have actually done this over the years; cutting a 1" wide trench out with a standard edging knife along the edge of a scaffold board, and getting standard drag hoes and cutting them down to 1", then dragging out the spoil to a depth of 300mm, until we get on clean gravel, and backfilling with drainage sand to get a capillary draw and get the drains running again. And, yes, it's very hard work, but needs must and, yes, it's my volunteers again. They are like the home guard - our very own Dad's Army - but outstanding workers who, without their help, I know I would not have won all the awards."
"We did have a contractor Koro the surface and lightly cultivate the surface once several years ago, but we were very limited on what we could do, again due to cost."
"I am very lucky to have a mate, Adie Porter, the Head Greenkeeper at Greetham Valley Golf Club, who brings his kit over to help me out. We run his Amazone over the surface, taking the pitch back to the rootzone, which is followed by hollow coring at 2" centres x 5" depth in two directions."
"The next procedure has been my life saver though, says Ian. "By running the Blec Ground Breaker over the surface and lowering the back legs 50mm into the ground behind the disc cut line, it simply cuts a new sand band trench that we then fill with specialised drainage sand via a topdresser. I have to say we have been very lucky with the weather most years, as it has been dry and hot, so the sand simply dries and flows into these trenches. We follow this with a dragbrush and dragmat and, within a few hours, the sand slits are reformed and look very tidy. We then apply good quality pre-seed fertiliser, overseed and add around 100 tonnes of sand. This is followed by verti-draining to remove any compaction caused and then I get the water going."
"Having a 'third hat' at the club, as volunteer match day safety officer for twenty-seven years, I always ensure my staff have undertaken risk assessments appropriate to any machinery used, ensure that they have the correct clothing that is fit for purpose and are trained on the machines before use. To date, we have not had a single accident with machinery in thirty-six years, but things are constantly monitored and reviewed, as the first accident can be just around the corner; being complacent spells D-A-N-G-E-R."
"I review and monitor all my volunteer staff and any work experience children we take on."
"My safety officer position comes with the responsibility of training - to date, sixty-five stewards to Level 2 & 3 NVQ Spectator Safety - and carrying out all the risk assessments for every league game played at the Abbey Stadium."
"In the eighties, this involved clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Sunderland, Newcastle and West Ham, so a massive responsibility, but one that I have loved."
"I have a first aid qualification and always seem to be in the right place at the right time when somebody is taken ill. We have had three supporters that have had massive heart attacks in the stadium and were clinically dead. Due to the training the stewards and medical staff have had, all three were on a defibrillator within minutes, received treatment and recovered. All three are still alive today."
I ask Ian what he considers the state of our industry to be? "There are a lot of very good people in our industry who really try to promote it; from the grassroots to top senior positions. Most groundsmen and greenkeepers will offer genuine support to others, and there is so much help available nowadays, both online and through pitch advisors, agronomists, etc. Groundsmen are certainly getting better by the decade, as can be witnessed by the improvements in technology and equipment and the quality of all types of surfaces. If you look at the football pitches of twenty years ago, compared to the modern day, it speaks for itself. Most of the Premier League pitches are outstanding."
"Sadly though, we are undervalued and challenged by people who have very little knowledge or understanding of what is required. I speak to a number of my friends at professional clubs all over the country and they all have the same issue as me, but on a grander scale."
"I feel the demands sometimes put on groundstaff are just unacceptable, but what do we do about it? How many groundsmen actually get what it says in their contracts? How many work way over their contracted hours? The majority, I would suggest."
"The general view from people who sit in the office in their suits seems to be, if you don't like it, we will find somebody else to do the job. When a football club gets relegated, it seems the groundstaff are the first to lose staff or equipment, or both, and then questions are asked, some months later, as to why the surface is not as good as it used to be!"
"I really don't know the answer to this. I have been banging the drum locally for twenty years or more but, until the chief executives and managers understand how professional the groundstaff are in this country, I'm not sure it will ever change."
"People ask me, 'why do it?' Well, put simply, I have had a great deal of pride in my work over the years, and the pitch at Cambridge United has been my business card due to the reputation the surface has. I can honestly say that groundsmanship has been my life, and I have loved it. But, looking back over the years, I have put work before my family on too many occasions, and I am not sure it has always been appreciated by my employers."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the rant. Hardly surprising when you consider the sometimes desperate measures Ian has had to employ to provide one of the best surfaces in the lower leagues. He is a credit to the profession, not someone to be moaned about by some prima donna Premier League manager.