0 Divoting is key at Featherstone Rovers

Formed in 1902 and turned professional in 1921 (making this year their centenary one), Featherstone Rovers Rugby League Club in West Yorkshire boasts a rich and proud history. Their home ground is the 6,954 capacity Millennium Stadium on Post Office Road, constructed in 1904. Lee Williams met with Head Groundsman Chris Drury, who first joined the club in 2016 after a chance meeting with the club's chairman in a pub whilst he was taking a break from the industry.

Chris Drury would work the scoreboard at Headingley for Leeds Cricket Club, at thirteen years old to earn some pocket money, where the legendary Keith Boyce was the groundsman. Then, one day, it started to rain heavily during a match and everyone ran indoors, leaving Keith to put the covers on by himself. Not wanting to see him struggle, Chris went and gave him a hand. "He thanked me for helping him out, and then we started talking. He told me that, at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, they have cover staff and would I fancy doing it for the odd day. I snapped his hand off for the opportunity."

After leaving school, Chris got a job packing shelves at a supermarket, but this was not the career path he saw himself going down. Then, in 1984, Keith allowed him to work for him for a few months at Headingley, initially covering for another staff member. "I was in the right place at the right time as the staff member never came back, and I was handed the assistant groundsman's job full-time."

When Keith brought in Norman Southernwood to look after the rugby field, so he could concentrate on the cricket, Chris found himself floating between both sites. "I found myself pushed more towards the rugby, which I did not mind being a Leeds Rhinos fan. I gained a lot of experience working under Keith and Norman."

Head Groundsman Chris Drury

"In 1996, the opportunity arose for me to take a position as assistant groundsman working under John Reynolds at Leeds United's new training ground at Thorpe Arch. Understanding that John would retire, giving me the chance to become head groundsman, I joined the club. But John never really retired as it was more than a job for him after serving the club for fifty years. In the meantime, Norman moved to Elland Road, so we ended up working together again."

Chris worked at Thorpe Arch for eighteen years and, in the end, he did get his chance to become head groundsman of the site for a short time, before leaving in 2014 after struggling with an ankle injury. For twelve months, Chris worked for his wife, a practice manager at a doctor's surgery, delivering prescriptions and carrying out maintenance work. Then, in 2016, a chance meeting in a pub gave him the opportunity to get back into the sportsturf industry. "I love rugby, so I went to the Midlands pub one Thursday night to watch Leeds Rhinos first away game of the season. The pub was empty but, in the corner, was a guy I know called Ron Hill, who was sat with two of his friends Alan Agar and Mark Campbell, the Chairman of Featherstone Rovers. We got talking about what we do, and when I mentioned I was a groundsman and where I had worked, Marks's eyes lit up. He then asked me if I would go and have a look at his pitch, and here I am."

Since joining the club, Chris has been amazed by the volunteers' dedication and work around the ground. Whilst I was at the stadium, what stood out for me is the fact they managed to transport and build two new stands and extend the pitch. Chris explains, "The stands at Scarborough FC were available, so what they did was travel over to Scarborough every day - a 146-mile round trip. Once they got there, they would dismantle the stands and bring them back, ready to be erected. We are not short of land here, so they extended the ground, enabling them to erect a 70m all-seater stand behind the goal and a 30m all-seater stand at the side. Also, they extended the pitch length by 20m, so now, from post to post, it measures 100m. The pitch had a steep slope, so what they did was take the top off from the halfway line using the spoil to level out the pitch the best they could with the budgets they had to work with."

Chris tells me ninety-five percent of the pitch drains well, except for in one corner. Even so, it is scarce a game will be called off for rain. "Unfortunately, the area we are having trouble with is where we enter the pitch with machinery, so it can cause us some problems in the winter. We do have a plan in place to address the issue in the autumn, if not before. We will dig down to find the drains, make sure they are flowing, replace them if required and then sand slit across the area. Since 2016, I have only had one game called off, against Halifax and to be honest, we have played in worse conditions in the past. This pitch takes one hundred plus games a season plus training three times a week, so it doesn't do too bad considering."

Two mains water taps at either end of the ground provide the irrigation for the pitch, but this is about to change with the help of the volunteers. "Currently, we can run two hosepipes with Perrot Rollcart travelling sprinklers, and we are fortunate that we have certain people who are prepared to come in and turn it on and off when we have dry spells to keep the pitch going.

The volunteers are currently building a tank and pump house under the stand, which will hopefully give us more water, pressure and ultimately flexibility. I have to give full credit to them; they do like to get their teeth stuck into a project, and they do not want to be beaten."

The club does not own their own frost covers but, with Featherstone and Leeds Rhinos having close links, they have been able to borrow covers when required.

"Ryan Golding, as most people know around this area, is always willing to help local clubs if he can. He has brought us sheets over in the past and even sent his lads over to help. For me, Ryan is the go-to groundsman around here."

In September 2020, the newly formed Wakefield Football Club signed a two-year agreement with Featherstone to play their home games at the Millennium Stadium. I thought Chris would not have been too happy about hosting even more games, but he was completely the opposite, to my surprise. "The club has big plans, and they are paying some decent money to play here. They played some league games throughout last autumn and seemed to be happy with the surface, then suddenly, the league was ended due to the coronavirus. They are back in training now and, recently, they played in a Yorkshire Trophy Tournament against Brighouse and attracted a crowd of 691, which was fantastic."

Chris talks me through his pitch maintenance, but he first points out that he believes divoting the pitch is one of the most essential practices you can carry out after a game to ensure you keep your levels, and I could not agree more. "I cut three times a week using the Dennis G860 with the box on, which was the first piece of equipment I bought when I first arrived. The cutting height for rugby is 32mm, but now, with having the football, I have dropped it down to 28mm; I feel they may push for me to go lower this season. Once a month, I like to tickle the surface with the verti-cut unit in the G860 to remove any debris that has built up, keeping the surface fresh. In autumn, I will go over the pitch with the Aero-Quick slitter, and I get a contractor in to verti-drain or shockwave twice a year; once in November and again in February or March, depending on usage."

"I mark out every week using a transfer wheel marker and Grassline Ultra line-marking paint. I like a nice crisp straight line, so I will always use the strings; you will rarely catch me marking free hand. At the minute out there, it looks like noughts and crosses with both the rugby and football markings now on the pitch. I am hopeful the football lines will fade before the next rugby match; otherwise, we will have to invest in some green paint."

Tom Wood, Amenity Specialist from Agrovista Amenity, provides Chris with a fertiliser programme at the start of each season which is specific to the club's pitch and is kept within the budget available. "He has been superb from the first time I met him, and we work great together. If I have an issue with the pitch or if I am unsure about a particular product, I can pick the phone up and have a chat with him, and he is happy to help. Our fertiliser budget is not the best, but one advantage, with the pitch being built on clay, is that it seems to hold on to nutrients a lot longer than most, which helps reduce our costs."

In recent years, Chris has been unable to bring in contractors to carry out renovation works at the end of the season due to budget restraints, but is hopeful this will not be the case this year. "I would like to get the pitch scarified with the Amazone Groundkeeper and take as much dead matter as possible out of the surface, topdress with eighty tonnes of sand and overseed with a ryegrass mix using a disc seeder. Finally, instead of using the verti-drain, we will Earthquake as I have found, in clay conditions in summer, it does a great job of fracturing the subsurface enabling more water to reach the drains."

When Chris first arrived at the club, he was shocked at the club's lack of machinery to maintain the pitch and what they did have had seen better days. The Chairman told Chris, if you stick with us once we have the finances, we will invest in better machinery. "I have to say he has backed me all the way and stuck to his word. The first purchases I made was the Dennis G860 with the verti-cut cassette and a Kubota rotary mower for clean-up after a game. This was soon followed up with a new roller to replace the large old one we had that was falling to bits and a ride on Warrior mower, which does a great job on the training pitch."

"When the football club came in, one of the first questions the club asked me was did I need anything for the pitch. I told them, with the extra wear and compaction the games will cause, I could really do with a slitter to keep the surface open, and I cannot be waiting for people to come in and do it for me. So, with the help of Wakefield FC and the club, we bought a Solis 26 compact tractor, GreenTek Aero Quick slitter and a Winton finishing mower."

Chris is grateful for all the new pieces of machinery, but one piece of kit he would really like to get his hands on is a triple mower with grass boxes. "I tend to spend a lot of time walking behind a machine. If I could nip over the pitch with a triple now and again, this would give me more time to carry out other jobs."

Throughout the many years Chris has been in the sportsturf industry, he has witnessed significant changes in all aspects of the job. "We are in a lot better place than when I first started my career. I can remember standing on scaffold planks in February/March, hand forking, and that is all you could do. Technology across the board has vastly helped groundsmen achieve levels of perfection that you would have only dreamed of years ago; it is a different world. Lots of clubs around the country, at this moment in time, will be Koroing off their pitches and starting from scratch; this piece of machinery has helped transform the way we carry out renovations if you have the budget available. The advancements in fertiliser technology, grass seed, hybrid pitches and lighting rigs have helped the industry shine in recent years. I would hope that people are starting to realise we are not just grass cutters and a lot of science, skill and hard work goes into producing a quality surface."

What's in the shed

Dennis G860 with Verti-Cut cassette
Solis 26 compact tractor
Winton finishing mower
Kubota rotary mower
Murray side discharge tractor
GreenTek Aero-Quick Slitter
STIHL backpack blower
Stanley petrol strimmer
Transfer wheel linemarker
Perrot Rollcart travelling sprinkler

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