Radcliffe Football Club in Lancashire currently play in the Northern Premier Division. Since new management came in 2016, they have invested money in upgrading and improving the quality of their surface at Neuven Stadium. In 2020, they took on Billy Quarmby as Head Groundman and Lee Williams went to meet him.
I have known Billy since 2010, when I first joined Oldham Athletic FC, and it's fair to say he has had a varied career so far. At that time, he was a young lad working in the club's offices at Oldham, with no fundamental idea of what career path he would take. Billy commented: "From leaving school, I joined Oldham Athletic and started working in the shop, which led to working with the commercial team. When Lee Johnson arrived at the club, I somehow stumbled into taking on the First Team analyst role. After a short time, I decided I wanted a trade. After speaking to yourself, you suggested that there was a position available for a trainee groundsman."
I gave the position to Billy and he did a great job. He was eager to learn, always asking questions and I even promoted him to Deputy Head Groundsman within eight months as he was showing great potential. Despite this, he was still unsure what career path he wanted to take.
"The owner, Simon Corney (who I was close to at the time), told me there was no one in commercial and could I step back in. I felt a duty to help as the club had been so good to me. When the new owners came, I decided to step away from football after ten years, which was a sad time for me as I was passionate about the club."
"I joined a private security company taking on a management role, which included looking after their sales and response teams. Whilst I was on holiday in Indonesia, I received a message from a friend telling me that both Man City and Wigan were looking for an assistant, so I made the decision to apply for the Wigan job."
I asked Billy what led him to want to pursue a career back in the sportsturf industry? "I'm now a lot more mature and my head is more screwed on. Also, after talking to my fiancé Leonna, she told me I should do something that I love. The more I thought about it, she was right. I remembered my passion for being a groundsman; I got to work in the fresh air, deal with the many challenges it provided, along with the opportunity to meet people."
"I got an interview for the assistant groundsman position at Wigan. Luckily for me, one of the Wigan lads left to join Man City, leaving two positions open and making it more favourable for me to get the job and the chance for me to get back into the industry. I started at Chrissy Park before being moved to Exton, the club's first team facility. Everything was going well, until one day I was listening to Jim White on talkSPORT and he disclosed Wigan were going into administration. Ten minutes later, we got an email from the club telling us there was a meeting in the West Stand; I actually chose not to attend because what more could they tell us? A few days later, we were summoned to a meeting with the stadium manager, along with deputy Lance Wilde who looked after Chrissy Park and I was informed that I had been made redundant."
"With the help of Ryan Golding at Leeds Rhinos, I was only out of work for four days before I had a meeting about looking after the York Community Stadium pitch temporarily before it was handed over to the club. At the same time, I was asked to work part-time here at Radcliffe FC. So, I ended up working six days a week; three here and three there. Then, within four weeks, the owner of Radcliffe approached me to ask if I would work here full time and I agreed to take on the head groundsman position. Since then, I have not looked back and it is great to work with a club that appreciates what you do and have a clear plan for the future."
Billy works closely with the two owners of the club to work out a budget for the season. "When I first took on the job, I asked for a budget which was clearly split between fertiliser, machinery and renovations to keep things simple."
"All the machinery we use here is second hand, but I cannot complain as we have just invested in a second-hand 150 litre pedestrian Team Sprayer and a Toro Reelmaster 3100, which we purchased through Cheshire Turf Machinery."
Helping Billy maintain the stadium pitch is Harry, an eighteen-year-old lad who also looks after the Redbank playing fields situated over the road from the stadium (run by Radcliffe Juniors, who are twinned with the club). They have brought Billy in to help advise Harry and help with cutting. Harry is predominantly responsible for all the maintenance including marking out, overseeding and sanding worn areas. "He has come on board with us to pretty much learn from me. I have spoken to him about taking up groundsmanship as a career and he is very keen for someone at his age. He's a grafter and his confidence is growing. After speaking with the club, I hope to offer him an apprenticeship here at Radcliffe in the near future."
Two teams play their home games at the stadium; Radcliffe FC and Bury AFC and Billy relies on volunteers for match days to help keep the pitch in tip-top condition. "For the Bury games, I have four volunteers who help with the divoting, moving warm-up goals and lifting the main goals out at the end of a match. For the Radcliffe games, I have two volunteers plus myself. They are all fantastic and I could not do it without their help."
Billy describes the construction of the pitch to that of a park playing field. "It is a soil-based pitch with a nice fancy pattern on it. We have done everything to find out if there are any drains in the pitch, but nothing is down there and no one has any recollection of drains ever being installed. We have no real irrigation to speak of - just three garden hoses."
It is clear to me that the club is investing their money where it matters in the playing surface; still, to enable Billy to achieve the standards that he used to work to, they will need to invest a significant amount of money in drainage and an irrigation system. "It is something we have spoken about and something I have pushed since I joined the club. I know it is a massive investment and I have to put it across to the club in a way that they will see the benefit. The manager and the playing squad all see it, but it's a lot of money they have to find. I have had the work priced up and we would need around £50,000 for the irrigation system and £25,000 for the basic drainage system at three-metre centres. I put the plans forward this season, but with COVID cutting the season short, there was no chance - even though we still had thirty-six games on the pitch."
Having no drainage and irrigation can cause Billy some real headaches, but he does his best to work around any issues. "When we have heavy rain, the last four shades on the length will back up, especially with the camber of the pitch at 3.8 metres. The pitch does swell, but there is nothing we can do except aerate as often as possible and manage the wear on it. Some people say I walk around here like a bear with a sore head when it comes to water."
"The pitch was looking green and lush for the first pre-season friendly game against Fleetwood; it couldn't have been in a better place. Then, as the games went on and the weather got hotter and hotter, I could not get enough water on and it started to burn off. Luckily, through connections that I have, we were able to call in a fire engine to water the pitch, but that is just glossing over a massive crack. I am aware we cannot keep doing this in the future. The fire engine is not in active duty for anyone who is wondering. It is used on movie sets, so it is still in good working order. The guys that do it are volunteers, so we are not taking away from anyone whose houses may be on fire!"
Billy talks me through the general maintenance of the Neuven Stadium pitch. "In the summer, I will cut at the height of 24mm using the Allett Buffalo 34, trying to keep the length on there for hosting two teams. I would go shorter if we had just one team playing to help the ball roll, as I have no irrigation to help slicken the surface before a match. Going into the winter months, I will lift the height of cut to 28mm to help manage wear. I will always box off as I do not want any organic build-up, especially when I have no drainage. I do my best to keep the surface as clean as possible; I recently hired in a Dennis G860 to verti-cut the pitch and I hope to undertake this process more often throughout the season. Also, after every game, I will pick up any debris with the Lawnflite rotary mowers; it is time-consuming, but it does a superb job."
Billy does not have any aeration equipment of his own and relies upon the contractor, Richard Peel to bring in the Toro Procore 648, Air2G2 and he will also carry out any verti-draining that is required. "I often like to bring in the ProCore to help keep the surface open when we are forecast a lot of rain; we use 22mm tines and will go as deep as possible to around four inches. The Air2G2 does a good job and verti-draining is carried out once or twice a year, depending on the budget but, again, I will get them to go as deep as possible; generally around ten inches."
Presentation is key to Billy. He likes to string everything out to guarantee the straightest line possible, whether that's cutting in the shades or marking out. "The lads laugh at me here because I'm constantly getting the strings out. Marking out can be difficult when following the strings with the many undulations we have on the pitch. I use the Bowcom Atom spray linemarker with Atom linemarker paint. I would like to invest in a transfer wheel marker as it would probably make the process a bit easier but, for now, I just have to get on with it."
Billy says the club has taken on board a lot of what he has told them and he is grateful that they have given him a respectable budget to work with for putting a bespoke fertiliser programme together. "My programme includes a combination of liquid and granular fertilisers. When it comes to application, timing is critical. I'm constantly looking at the weather apps to consider the best time to apply products and I rely on the rain to help wash the products in. When the rain does not come, I'm on tenterhooks hoping and praying for the rain to fall but, if it doesn't come, there is nothing much I can do about it."
The club was keen on Koroing off the surface at the start of this season, as they have seen the benefits at other clubs. "As much as I would love to Koro off the pitch, I had to educate the club on the reasons why I would not advise us carrying out this work. To be fair, they agreed and told me to undertake what renovation work is required for our circumstances. We brought in Richard Peel, who deep scarified the pitch taking out as much organic matter as possible. It was then procored before spreading 120 tonnes of medium sand, which was then brushed into the holes to help pull water through the surface. The pitch was then overseeded with Blade 7 grass seed using the Vredo disc seeder four ways and then fertilised."
Behind the club are three lodges that bring an array of wildlife that can cause damage to the pitch. "I have a problem with geese, ducks, seagulls, pigeons, foxes, cats and I think I have had a badger a few times, but I can't be sure. Touch-wood they have not caused any significant damage to the pitch just yet, apart from all the poo. Last year, I did have a big problem with a fox digging up the pitch. I don't know if it was searching for chafer grubs, but it was going for something in the goalmouths of all areas. All we could do was relevel the damage and overseed them. At this time, winter was looming and thought I could do with some lighting rigs. So, I called some contacts and managed to get some confiscated marijuana lights from the Greater Manchester Police. We built two rigs out of them and they did a good job, but they are not ideal."
Billy believes the sports turf industry is short of qualified staff and the younger generation have no clue on how to get into it. "When it went out on Twitter that I was joining Radcliffe full time, I had messages from young lads wanting to know how to get into it. The best advice I could give them was to get in touch with Myerscough and look if any clubs were advertising for apprentices."
"I just don't think people are willing to work long hours and, in some places, the wages are not acceptable. It all comes down to people's preferences at the end of the day. I wish I had the answers on how we get more people interested, but that is the big question everyone wants the answer to. Honestly, I do not believe it is the most glorious or glamorous job, but the satisfaction I get from it is on a matchday; when people come in on a Saturday at 3 o'clock and praise the pitch - that's the only satisfaction I need."
One Hub Development Project
Further to Radcliffe's continued investment in their home ground, they are showing their commitment to the club's long-term future and the community. Alongside Radcliffe Juniors, they are part of an exciting regeneration project in the heart of the town. In partnership with Bury Council, the Lancashire FA and the Football Foundation, development plans are now underway on a 'state of the art' football facility to be situated at the club's Redbank playing fields site.
The first stage of the Radcliffe FC One Hub Development Project will include a full-size 3G all-weather floodlit pitch, remodelled extended car parking and a brand new changing pavilion that will meet the latest FA standards.
What's in the shed
Allett Buffalo 34
Toro Reelmaster 3100d
150 litre Team Sprayer
Bowcom Atom Marker
Lawnflites rotary mowers x 3