Six promotions in ten years has seen Fleetwood Town rise to the heights of Football League One. Head Groundsman, Dale Frith, feels blessed to be leading a turfcare team who are witnessing a footballing transformation from the minor to major leagues in the relative blink of an eye. Tom James reports
Nothing less than a footballing phenomenon is unfolding at Fleetwood Town FC, the Lancashire club that has risen from humble origins in the minor divisions to Football League One status in a decade.
Head Groundsman Dale Frith is the man privileged to be in the right place at the right time to marvel at a multi-million pound investment in the club's Highbury Stadium headquarters and a state-of-the-art training ground.
The Fleetwood Town FC training ground at Poolfoot Farm actually opened some twelve months ago, boasting thirteen natural pitches and two 3G surfaces.
When interviewed, Dale, 34, was overseeing completion of the second 3G full size pitch and four 5-a-side red playing 'Arenas'.
Perhaps surprisingly, given his age, Dale confesses that he is 'a natural grass man'. "Artificial surfaces have their place in schools, colleges and club Academy sites," but he believes that further investigation is merited into safety issues reportedly surrounding surfaces such as rubber crumb-filled 3G. "Questions do need to be asked, as it is difficult to ascertain the effects on health."
But, as he points out, a new generation is growing up familiar with playing on synthetic surfaces. "Coaches in their forties, for example, may prefer natural turf, but young people who start playing sport on artificial pitches take these surfaces in their stride. Our youth have used our 3G pitch for training - it provides a level surface and becomes second nature to them."
Still in its teens (the club was officially established in 1997 although two previous incarnations are understood to date back to 1908), Fleetwood Town FC - the 'Cod Army' - is riding the crest of a wave of phenomenal fortune. Also residing in League One, it now runs a training ground arguably the envy of many an enterprise perched far higher in the footballing firmament.
Fleetwood's rise to prominence has proven to be meteoric, given that it serves the smallest town in the English Football League with a population of some 27,000 and rests on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.
"For home fixtures, we usually attract 10% of the town's residents," reveals Dale, "one of the highest percentages of any club."
Six promotions in ten years is going some as the club has risen from the North West Counties Premier Division in 2004/2005 through the tiers to League One in 2013/2014.
Now under the guidance of former Leeds, Wigan and Brentfood boss Uwe Rosler, still greater glory may be in store for the Lancashire powerhouse.
"The club is a huge success story so far, and hopefully I can now help write a new chapter," he was reported on the BBC website as saying.
Owner and chairman Andy Pilley, who arrived in the 2004/2005 season, was also reported to have said: "He's a hugely experienced, respected and knowledgeable coach in the game and the fact we have been able to attract him to Fleetwood Town shows just how far we've come."
Dale again: "When I started, we were at Fylde RUFC in Lytham, renting a pitch from them and, before that, a pitch on the outskirts of Blackpool."
Today, Highbury Stadium, under landlord Wyre Borough Council, and Pilley's vision, is a far cry from that formative era - a purpose-built arena improved and expanded to League standards and intended solely for first team action.
Renovated in 2007 from the 1939 original, the stadium honours the 1950s and 60s with the Percy Ronson stand, recording one of the club's sporting heroes.
The opening of the 2,000 seater Parkside stand in 2011 boosted capacity to over 5,500, although still humble in the grand scheme of things, ranking 112th in England, according to one source and 24th in League One.
Costly match postponements in the 2008/2009 season, because of the condition of the pitch, forced the club to undertake a reported £125,000 project to relay the surface and improve drainage, begun in spring 2009.
This region is enjoying a football upsurge, and not only in Fleetwood. National League North high-flyers AFC Fylde have just unveiled their 6,000 capacity Mill Farm stadium, including 2,000 all-seater main stand.
As the popularity of Fleetwood Town expands south, and the club sucks support away from troubled Blackpool, no doubt pressure will mount to further enhance Highbury Stadium, especially if their current rise in prominence continues.
Dale began life at Fleetwood under Micky Mellon, the Scottish former Blackpool midfielder who managed Fleetwood Town full-time from 2009 until December 2012 - now managing League One Shrewsbury Town FC.
Dale came to Fleetwood six years ago after a two-year spell with the Sports Turf Research Institute, when he travelled to South Africa for them for the 2010 World Cup. "That was too much travelling for a young family," says Dale, "but I developed a sound knowledge of turfcare."
Prior to this, stints at the All-England Club followed by Blackburn Rovers came before his Fleetwood posting. "I love playing tennis, so Wimbledon was the perfect place to be - prestige and premier standards," he notes. "I wanted to move back north anyway, but if I ever fancied a change, tennis would draw me back."
With a BSc honours in TurfGrass Science from Myerscough College and his STRI experience in the bank, Dale has the skills to move into top posts across turfcare, but his heart is rooted in Lancashire, heading up a lively four-strong team, including right-hand man Nick Hyndman, Liam Scott-Rattray, Ashley Roche and Cameron Chisholm.
His scientific training explains his approach to turfcare across Fleetwood's sporting provision. "We apply biology products, controlled release fertilisers, growing solutions and liquid feeds - last year introducing pro-bio products to encourage a happy family in the soil and hopefully reduce use of fungicides. We sprayed just once last year, so we are getting there."
The fact that the soil-based Highbury Stadium pitch grows within an open plan environment helps his cause, he believes. This can cause some headaches though - literally. "It's a constant battle getting the right conditions to apply products as it's always windy, and then there's the seagulls, which, during the breeding season, can attack if they think their young are in danger."
"In many stadia, it's like growing grass in shoebox - there's little, if any, airflow." That said, Dale has developed his own grow lights for use in the goalmouths, so there is still need of some assistance with promoting grass growth there.
Dale believes in the power of koroing to keep his main playing surface pitch perfect, calling in Bancroft Amenities to conduct the process and further improve the stadium's drainage by introducing a secondary network of 2m centre gravel slits. "An excellent family-run business," he says. "I worked with them during my time with the STRI."
The rapid journey to League One status has meant plenty of hard graft for the turfcare team to ensure the provision comes up to the standards required of their position within football.
Now that Fleetwood has achieved academy status, it can bring on its own generation of stars, rather than buying in quality, Dale states. "We are now category 3, allowing us to develop age groups from U9s to U18s, so I expect to see a period of consolidation now as home grown players come through the system."
That process must gladden Dale's heart as the £8m Poolfoot training ground, officially opened this spring by no less a footballing peer than Sir Alex Ferguson, glowing in his praise of the facility, has been at the centre of his thoughts from day one, four years ago.
"A former farm, the site was to have been dedicated to first team and community use," explains Dale "but it has evolved into the Academy training base, although we still hire out the 3G pitches to junior clubs."
The story is not as simple as that though. Sited in Thornton, the base is also home to Thornton Cleveleys FC, which has earmarked seven of the thirteen pitches as their own - the other six being owned by Fleetwood Town.
"We maintain them for our own use during the week and for them to use at weekends," Dale continues. "They gain the benefit of playing on what are professionally managed pitches, so that's a major plus for the club."
Two different pitch profiles prevail at the training ground. Elite pitches 1 and 2, which are fibre reinforced (Locksand) set out for first team practice.
The Fibresand pitches, built on a gravel mat with drains laid at 8m centres, are fraize mown to strip off their surfaces, before a light dressing is applied followed by reseeding. "These are better quality than our stadium pitch," Dale adds.
Other pitches at Poolfoot Farm are of natural soil construction, with lateral drains at 5m centres. The quantity of drainage beneath the playing surface is necessary in a region renowned for its silty soil, due to its proximity to the sea. "Very bad for drainage," declares Dale, "which is why what's been laid is designed to function for the next twenty-five to thirty years."
Computer-controlled pop-up sprinkler systems, at both Highbury Stadium and the training ground, keep all surfaces primed for play - a level of provision you'd expect for a club committed to quality.
Peering over the expanse of turf is Poolfoot Farm's futuristic clubhouse, resplendent with bar and grill, gym and community changing rooms, serving the Academy and local clubs, and acting as another valuable source of revenue for Fleetwood Town.
Although some head groundsmen run the gauntlet of headstrong, fixated head coaches, Dale maintained a healthy working relationship with former boss Steven Pressley. "We enjoyed a very positive climate under Steven," says Dale, "and the club has a good reputation for the surface at Highbury. He wanted to keep it in the best condition possible." Doubtless, incoming head coach Uwe Rosler will insist on nothing less.
Misfortune can strike any club though and, last season, it took record-breaking wet weather to force Fleetwood to postpone a game for the first time in eight years - testimony to the calibre of the turfcare at the stadium surely. "Called off at 1.30pm, the teams went to the training ground instead," Dale recalls.
Maintaining the quality of the stadium pitch comes despite the reality of a crowded timetable, Dale explains. "Although the match pitch is played on competitively every other week for home fixtures, the training ground has to be ready for training five or six times a week."
Thankfully, freezing conditions rarely prevail. "Our frost sheets haven't seen action in three years, because Fleetwood enjoys a warmer climate as it is near the coast," says Dale.
Pre-season fervour gripped Fleetwood in July, when Highbury Stadium hosted Liverpool then Wigan at the end of the month, before the club played Leeds United in the EFL Cup on 10th August.
The nation must soon wonder how long it will be before The Reds come to Highbury for a Premier League fixture.
The contractors story
White Horse Contractors started on the site of former Poolfoot Farm in June 2014 for what was one of its larger contracts (£1.7m), completing its part of the overall project in October/November 2015.
"Fleetwood Town researched the synthetic turf carpet they wanted - a Desso for the first 3G pitch - and instructed us to purchase it," says Jim Crabbe, Contracts Director for White Horse Contractors (Northern) Ltd, the division that undertook the work, "but site conditions were challenging throughout because of very bad weather and the ground itself."
"We undertook the earthworks at what was the old farm, shipping in topsoil before contouring ready for the natural pitches, including the 3G facilities."
The first full size 3G surface, complete with perimeter fencing and league standard floodlighting - hired out to the local community for use virtually every day of the year and for summer camps at Poolfoot Farm Sports & Leisure Complex - is a standard construction with a 50mm pile carpet.
The build included 250mm formation with aggregate and Type 3 drainage stone, tarmacadam, open grade engineered base, then Schmitz shockpad and Desso IDNA X50 polypropylene pile carpet topping out the job, Jim explains.
"For the second 3G facility, we did all the construction of the platform and the drainage for the natural pitches, then finished on site."
The Elite pitches were Tanners TopSport and Fibresand with full drainage, gravel carpet, imported sand, rootzone mixes on top then Locksand concentrate, mixed in to stabilise them.
Top 75-100ml rootzone. Then rootzone with fibre. Foundation with drainage, then carpet.
Poolfoot Farm's natural pitches are all standard constructions, says Jim, comprising platform, topsoil, with intensive drainage, seeding with Barenbrug RPR and some operating automatic watering.
"Clubs we work with mostly want to generate revenue, so they want pitches that can withstand high usage," Jim explains. "In our experience, a North South divide is evident - we build more artificial pitches in the north and more natural ones in the south."
White Horse Contractors numbers among its other high-profile sports projects the rebuilding of the Ascot course, the Olympic Park, Chelsea training ground, Emirates Old Trafford and Chester-le-Street, Durham outfields, the Welsh RFU training ground and the first build at St George's Park, where they constructed all the pitches.