With a career path that includes greenkeeping, six years self employment and a stint at Glasgow Rangers, Niall Gibb now finds himself working for Fawley Parish Council as Head Groundsman at the quirkily named Gang Warily Recreation and Community Centre
Fawley is a village situated in the New Forest on the western shore of the Solent, approximately seven miles south of Southampton. It is the site of an oil refinery, operated by ExxonMobil, which is the largest facility of its kind in the United Kingdom. Visitors to the area are left in no doubt as to where they are as the refinery's towering structures dominate the skyline.
However, being part of the UK's newest National Park does have its rewards and the area is much more than this proverbial blot on the landscape ... and seascape.
Fawley Parish Council is the largest Parish Council in the New Forest, with fifteen Councillors and around thirty-six permanent staff, and boasts some impressive facilities and amenities. The Parish is made up of the villages of Fawley, Blackfield, Calshot, Langley, Holbury and Hardley, with a total population of around 15,000.
Providing sporting facilities for this community is Gang Warily Recreation and Community Centre. Its somewhat bizarre and unusual name dates back to a historic confrontation between the English and the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where the fast thinking ingenuity of the Scottish troops covered the ground with four pointed spikes (caltrops), which crippled the advancing English cavalry, consequently leading to a Scottish victory.
Many years later, the Drummond Clan, who played a pivotal role in the battle, were granted permission to use the caltrops symbol in their coat of arms. The phrase 'Gang Warily' was included which, from Latin translation literally means 'Go Carefully' and, although seemingly a tiding for a safe journey, is actually a warning to those outside of the clan.
It was not until 1772, when the Drummond Clan moved to Hampshire and acquired large areas of land in Southampton that part of this land was named 'Gang Warily' and, when sold to Fawley Parish Council for use as a local sports and community centre, it seemed somewhat fitting to keep the name. Its designation has since provided an understandable talking point amongst both locals and visitors.
Perhaps somewhat fittingly, the Head Groundsman, Niall Gibb, is a native Scot.
"My family were farmers, so I always knew I would follow a career outdoors. My father worked in sport, shaping golf courses and building sports pitches etc. as a bulldozer driver. He then had his own landscaping business for thirty years. This gave me an interest in horticulture and I would work with him in the school holidays. He knew a lot of the local head greenkeepers and used to take me into their facilities and he also completed contracting work for some, like new fairways etc."
"I was a junior member at Milngavie Golf Club and loved the sport. When I was leaving school, I wrote to local golf courses to see if they had any vacancies for an apprentice greenkeeper, Sadly, however, none were available, but I knew this was what I really wanted to do."
"It had crossed my mind to take employment with my father, but we both felt it would be best for me to go out and work for other companies to learn my trade. I started as an apprentice in horticulture at a local garden centre, where I had worked on weekends whilst finishing school. I attended evening classes at college and enjoyed growing plants for sale and learning about trees and shrubs. The business model, though, was about to change to become more like a supermarket; we wouldn't be growing plants anymore and this made me think about my career progression."
"Then, as luck would have it, a vacancy for an apprentice greenkeeper at Milngavie Golf Club came up, which I was successful in getting, and I studied for my National Certificate at college on day release. I really enjoyed my time there and learned a lot under the Head Greenkeeper, David Hindmarsh, and his staff."
"I then moved to a neighbouring course, Hilton Park Golf Club, a 36 holes facility, to further my experience. I worked under the Course Manager John Roberson, who was great on the theory side, whilst I learned a lot of good practical knowledge under the first assistants, Stuart Neil and Gordon Harvey. Stuart was especially good as he was my line manager and taught me a lot about construction. Stuart is the current course manager at Hilton Park."
"I now felt I was ready for a deputy position and moved to Brucefields Family Golf Centre near Stirling. I worked here under their Course Manager, Danny Lauder, who was very knowledgeable, especially with USGA specification greens and Agrostis greens surfaces. The course was a relatively new build with a driving range and a par 3 course. The managing director was John Souter of Souters Sports who was particularly helpful in teaching me report writing, course management etc."
"I then moved to Aberfoyle Golf Club to become Head Greenkeeper and, during this time, completed my HNC in Golf Course Management and chainsaw certificates, to add to Pa1 and Pa6 that I had completed at Hilton. Since being with Fawley Parish Council I have gained tree survey and identification, Pa2 and Level 3 CPD."
"Unfortunately, due to a large fall in membership and the resulting budget cuts, I was made redundant."
Undeterred, Niall made the decision to go self employed and, after completing a business start up course, launched a landscaping business.
"My father helped me a lot with old customers and day to day stuff. After his retirement (I bet he thought he could put his feet up!), I worked hard to build the business from sole trader to employing six staff at its peak. Sadly, at the time of the credit crunch, work was drying up after a busy summer period and I had two large jobs put on hold until the spring due to the financial climate. I thought long and hard about where I was going and decided I missed working on sportsgrounds. So I started looking for vacancies."
One that popped up on the radar was for a skilled groundsman at Glasgow Rangers FC and Niall successfully applied. "I really enjoyed learning the groundsmanship role and working on very high standard pitches. I worked under a great management team of David Roxburgh (Head Groundsman), Ben Grigor and Paul Matthew (Deputy Head Groundsmen) plus a fantastic team of groundsmen. The team spirit was the best I had ever encountered and it was a great place to work. All departments worked together very well."
Niall confesses that, after being self employed for six years, he was a bit low on confidence returning to his trade. However, working with the grounds team at Rangers saw the confidence in his own ability return, so much so that he felt he could progress to managing his own facility.
"I realised I may have to travel to achieve this and, whilst browsing various websites, came across a vacancy at Fawley Parish Council, who were looking for a head groundsman. With family connections in the area, I thought, why not? I applied and was successful. Getting the opportunity to work in a different environment has been a real positive in my career."
The facilities offered by Fawley Parish Council are extensive and comprise six grass football pitches, two grass rugby pitches for Fawley Rugby Club (nearing completion), a nine-hole par 3 golf course, twelve play areas, fishing lakes, seven public open spaces, three artificial football pitches, two skate parks, allotments, paddocks, the Pentagon and Manor wildlife areas and Ashlett moorings.
Additionally, Niall has responsibility for the QE2 Recreation Ground which was jointly funded by New Forest District Council, Hampshire County Council, Fawley Parish Council and the Football Foundation.
QE2 has three full size pitches and one junior pitch, two basketball pitches and an under-12 play area. The team also have contracts with three schools and a local golf course.
Niall has a team of four to assist him. Thirty-one year old Jason Mansbridge is Team Leader Groundsman, who has been with him for sixteen months. Groundsmen Pete Warne (23 and 16 months service), Tom Smith (61/11 years) and Maintenance Officer, Simon Llewellyn (41/31 months) complete the team.
"Early in my tenure here, I introduced a programme to collate all the annual works required. This was then broken down to monthly requirements. I now produce a weekly schedule for staff, which goes up on the notice board. Each member of staff is responsible for completing their hours on the weekly sheets; this is their time sheet. This helps me to manage workloads and ensure all areas are being covered. If any other works come in from the Council, senior management or other departments, they are programmed in on a priority basis.
This helps us to cover all our workload. We have a weekly meeting on a Monday, along with daily briefings. We use a white board for other notifications and comments and have regular 'one to one' meetings with staff."
"As we are a small team, we need to be multi-skilled and competent to cover all areas, however, I generally have one member of staff working on the sports pitches, with myself and two others covering all other areas. This role is rotated every year."
"As a Council, we have to be compliant will all current legislation. We undertake training and updated training annually to keep our certificates valid. We have a quarterly Health & Safety meeting where we bring forward any issues needing attention."
"We have to work very hard to cover all areas. The two newest team members are currently in study and learning on the job. I am really pleased with the squad we have. We have selected an apprentice, who joined our team in June. Whilst we would normally get a seasonal member of staff, we feel an apprentice will be more beneficial for all concerned."
"We use contractors for some works, such as the construction of our two new rugby pitches, tree works at height, hedgerow cutting and large landscape projects. We also have a conservation group who help manage our woodland area."
Asked to describe the soil profile, Niall explains that it is somewhat of a mixture. "The golf course is built on landfill and becomes very wet in winter, so we have started a programme of drainage improvements by targeting localised wet areas and installing new systems as required.
"The greens are a 70/30 sand/soil mix. We can be restricted, during the winter months, to carrying out works to the greens as getting round the course with machinery is a problem. We aerate as much as we can and regularly brush and remove dew from the greens. We have a problem with moss on the greens through the winter months and, this year, I have sought the help of an agronomist. Together, we have put a programme in place to improve the soil biology to favour Agrostis over Poa Annua grass species."
The greens are cut at 5mm in the summer and 6mm in the winter. Fairways and surrounds are kept at 15mm all year and the semi rough at 30-35mm. They are currently scarified twice per year, hollow cored in the autumn, verti-drained in spring and topdressed through late spring/summer, with a light dressing put on throughout the summer. This is being reviewed with a compost tea programme.
The fairways are spiked in spring and autumn and scarified and verti-drained in spring.
"We have a programme of nutrition which we follow and this is set prior to spring. Pests and disease is monitored regularly and acted on as required. Wormcasts are the main issue on greens; we believe we have microscolex worms and are currently sending samples away to an expert, but disease has not been a major problem, apart from very slight fusarium in the autumn. The new programme we are implementing should further help here. This will include compost teas and I am looking forward to seeing the results."
"We are currently installing artificial tee mats at every hole on the golf course as the space is not available to construct large enough natural tees. We are also taking out some shrubs on the course, including wild rose and pyracantha. These are not 'family friendly' - a participation area we are actively trying to encourage - and are planting more native species and promoting wildflowers by managing our rough areas. This is all part of a five year programme I set in place when I started here."
"The football pitches are sandy loam, as are our new rugby pitches. On football pitches one and two, topsoil has been imported from where the new pitches are being constructed at Southampton Football Club's Staplewood training facility, just a few miles up the road."
"Our QE2 pitches are clay loam which sits over old gravel pits. These pitches are also used for cricket during the summer."
Niall explains that all the facilities are for community use but that, additionally, Blackfield & Langley Football Club, who play in the Wessex Premier League, have a pitch dedicated to them. Fawley Rugby Club currently play on a temporary pitch, but will be moving onto the two new pitches this summer. A local cricket club also use the facility.
"The Blackfield & Langley main pitch and the two new rugby pitches require topdressings to maintain the sand slit systems in place. Apart from this, it's just our normal programme of works, with the main job being aeration through verti-draining and slitting. Here we will be improving the soil biology."
"The main pitch is cut at 25-30mm all year round. We always give it a pre-match cut and line mark. Post match it is brushed, 'hoovered' using a Ryetec collector, tramped (divoted) and rested."
"The rest of the pitches are cut at 30-35mm depending on weather conditions etc. They are brushed, harrowed and hoovered when required. Tramping is also carried out. Slitting or verti-draining is undertaken regularly."
Niall goes on to explain that pitches are marked weekly and always presented 'as ready' in case any extra bookings come in. Pitch inspections are carried out weekly.
"Our main pitch gets the most intense renovation due to the wear it receives. The other pitches don't get the luxury of topdressing, although the new rugby pitches will."
"Depending on condition at the end of season, we follow a programme of chain harrowing (2/3 passes), scarify and collect, hollow core and break up cores by dragmatting, clean debris, overseed using a mixture with creeping rye, apply 40/60 tonnes of sand topdressing (main pitch only), apply fertiliser and lightly roll. We also returf goal areas and linesmen runs. This year, I am trialing Zeolite on heavy wear areas like goalmouths."
The budget is set to accommodate renovations and suits the required league standard for Blackfield & Langley. The club are very good at purchasing extra fertiliser and seed to help maintain 'their' pitch.
"I am responsible for setting my budget which I propose annually with our Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer; this is then reviewed by Council."
"I am looking to reduce the need for chemicals to an absolute minimum and concentrate more on providing a healthy soil environment for the desirable grass plants to thrive. As we are a public facility, I feel this is really important. The new programme will have an impact on what maintenance work we carry out and will be closely monitored and adapted on the annual maintenance plan. It may also allow me to spend the money saved elsewhere," Niall suggests, somewhat hopefully. "The local environment is vitally important."
So there have been no regrets about getting back into the industry? "No, I feel it is in a very good place. You only have to look at the improvements in football pitches over recent years, with Fibresand, Fibrelastic, Desso etc. I feel that groundsmanship has really developed over the last decade and there are some fantastic groundsmen out there, from small volunteer organisations up to Premier League standards, all ready to help one another. It's the same in greenkeeping."
"There are fantastic training and development opportunities out there. The associations and Pitchcare all have great training in place and there are loads of opportunities to network or volunteer at major tournaments etc."
"There are also a lot of great agronomists, researchers and businesses in the background keeping our industry developing and improving."
"I ensure that all staff get to attend demo days and exhibitions. It is very important that they keep up with trends and get the opportunity to network and pick up ideas. I feel it is really important that we keep Continuous Professional Development up to date. Attending industry events is a great motivation tool."
"If I have a concern, it is that I feel we are still looked down on to a degree in some organisations. I also notice that salaries advertised for some posts are very low considering what is involved."
"All that said, we have won Pitch of the Year for the Wessex League and I have been nominated to the FA national award for Groundsman of the Year for Step 5/6 in 2015.
What's in the shed?
Billy Goat KV650H leaf vacuum
Camon Turf Cutter
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 7516
Dennis FT510 cylinder mower
Dennis FT610 cylinder mower
Efco IP3000 HS pressure washer
Hardi Manx 300 amenity sprayer
Huxley cricket roller
Ifor Williams KFG35 trailer
Ifor Williams RG6E
John Deere 4520 compact tractor
John Deere JS63V mulching mowers x 2
John Deere Roberine 500 triple mower
Kuhn MDS Fertiliser Spreader 17.1
Lloyds Leda gangmower
McConnel PA90 flail hedge cutter
Rega Rainmobile Turbo
Ryetec P1600CHE flail collector mower
Sisis HU31 FS1038
Sisis MultiSlit MS/4
Sisis MultiSlit MS/6
Sisis Rotorake TM1000
Sisis Twin Play
Stihl 029 chainsaw
Stihl BG hand-held blower
Stihl FS410c brushcutters x 3
Stihl FS90 brushcutter
Stihl HS45 hedgetrimmer
Stihl HT 131 long reach pole pruner
Stihl KM100 multi tool
Stihl MS171 chainsaw
Stihl Magnum BR 600 backpack blower
Stihl Multi KM310-R Kombi-System
Ultra Plant UB 30s Mk2 topdresser
Vitax Briteline Arrow 3 linemarker
Vitax Even Spray sprayer
Wessex 718 rotary mower
"We currently purchase outright as and when required, However, we are currently completing a business plan that includes a rolling replacement programme.
We normally purchase from our local dealer as the price is very competitive and the backup service is great.
We are generally loyal to one manufacturer but are required to obtain best value; I have to obtain three quotes before the purchase of any machinery is agreed.
The verti-drain has made a huge difference on all our playing surfaces, whilst the Rytec scarifier/collector has also been a great addition, covering leaf collection, scarifying, cutting and collecting, hoovering debris etc.
We hire in a mini excavator for works, including drainage.
Servicing of small plant is done in-house and we use local dealers for larger plant.
What would my wish list be? A greens triple, drainage trencher and sand slitter please."