When you hear of St. George's Park, you immediately think of the home of England football - twenty-seven teams to be precise! It lies within 330-acres of stunning Staffordshire countryside and Assistant Head of Estates Matt Arnold and his team have the enviable task of developing and maintaining the estate to offer visitors the 'wow' factor. Kerry Haywood reports.
On the few occasions I have previously visited St. George's Park for various events, I have taken the entrance and long driveway of livestock, rolling hills and mature trees somewhat for granted! Knowing I would be speaking to Matt about the estate changed my focus, and I was surprised by how vast it is… so much so, it took me a while to locate him!
Matt's passion and enthusiasm struck me as soon as we met, as he told me it has always been one of his career goals to be interviewed by Pitchcare. He had previously worked at the venue for three years under Alan Ferguson, looking after the grounds and everything deemed to be 'customer-facing' for the estate and Football Centre. In 2015, Matt moved to JCB Golf & Country Club as Assistant Head Gardener and, as the impressive new course was built, the landscaping around it also grew. As things continued to develop, Matt's role evolved into Golf Course Estates Supervisor, looking after the clubhouse, lodges and the infrastructure surrounding the course.
"The General Manager, Euan Grant, put a lot of faith in me to develop the landscaping how I wanted it" Matt commented. "Essentially, we knew where the lawns and buildings were going to be situated, but it was a real opportunity to further my passion for planting schemes. I was given free rein, aside from one remit (and you could say a heads-up), that the Chairman's wife liked white. So, we worked with a pastel colour palette and it turned out spectacular."
Assistant Head of Estates Matt Arnold
"Having that experience put me in good stead when returning to St. George's Park at the beginning of this year. It struck me that, everywhere was lovely and green, but there was very little colour, structure or areas of interest … so that is my current project. It's going to take time, but I want to give the site a 'wow' factor."
I deduce that the strong passion within Matt must have started from a young age. "My dad was a head gardener all of his life and my mum was also green fingered at home. As a result, I was dragged around as a child every weekend, looking at different gardens and estates - which, obviously, at the time I hated! When I left school, I worked in the construction industry for a while before realising that all those hours spent looking at flowers was something that now really interested me. I enrolled at Rodbaston College and, as part of that, I secured a work placement at a private school. Over the next three years, I achieved my First Diploma and National Diploma in Horticulture."
"From there, I joined Sudbury prison as a Horticulture Instructor and my boss (Steve Benson) was the best I have ever had. I learned a lot from him about how to manage a team; he led from the front and encouraged the team around him. He was very hands-on and would never shy away from getting stuck in, but at the same time, you knew he was an authoritative figure. Most importantly though, he gave me my eye for detail. There is an annual competition; the Royal Horticultural Society's Windlesham Trophy, which awards the best-kept prison garden in the country. The first year I was there, we won first prize - which also meant I received an individual commendation for the work I put in. We considered every detail even down to painting manhole covers green, so they blended in to the surrounding turf. I have joked with the lads here that we will be doing that before next year's Euros, but I don't think they don't believe me!"
"I try and get across to the team that; it's one thing to go out and cut grass, but it's the finer points and the attention to detail that will make the difference and set us apart from everyone else. More than ever, we have greater competition for the training grounds. When we opened in 2012, the bigger teams didn't have the training facilities they have now so to attract the biggest clubs in the world, we need to offer a complete package."
"I know what we do doesn't have an impact on how the teams perform, but the environment and landscape around them make a difference. There needs to be a seamless flow from what is happening on the pitches to the surrounding areas; you wouldn't have a nice picture and put it in a cheap frame. We're open for training 365 days a year and we need to be on our game all year round."
Currently, helping Matt are an additional three estates workers: Harry Roe (31), Lee Mitchell (28) and Jack Corcoran (31) who are all CS30 and CS31 qualified, along with PA1 and PA6. "We would also usually have a seasonal team member but, given the pandemic, that's not happened this year. There are an additional ten team members on the grounds team and there are certainly times when we cross over and help each other out; it's important we consider ourselves to be one team, achieving one goal. We operate out of the same break rooms, however we now have our own shed and own dedicated equipment."
From left to right: Harry, Lee and Jack
"I am keen to invest in the right piece of equipment to the do the right job. Our industry and technology are evolving all the time and you should never be afraid to try new things. In my opinion, one thing I learned from my time at JCB was that the golf industry leads the way in biodiversity and ecology and football is catching up. Their ethos behind sustainability is certainly something we need to consider and move towards."
The football grounds team have regular contact with agronomists, and that's something Matt is starting to do on the estate side. "I regularly speak to Chris Knowles at Agrovista Amenity Ltd, who has been really helpful in advising on a nutritional programme for lawns around the hotel. It's something that's never been done before, but I'm keen to see the results and how it impacts each area. We should be aiming to have the lawns looking as good as the pitches and having this time before next year's Euros will give us the opportunity to achieve that."
"In terms of getting things done, we have an agreement with the hotel that we don't operate power tools before 10:30am, which means we have made the move to battery equipment in order to reduce noise. It doesn't allow us to do everything we need to, but it gives us a head start. We are fortunate that we have 330 acres to maintain, so there is always something we can be doing away from the hotel and main areas. When the England teams are on site there are many restricted areas, but we are big enough to accommodate the work that needs to be carried out."
"We use Stihl products, as I believe they are the market leader and we can rely on them. I'm really excited for the Stihl Smart Connector to be introduced in the UK, which would allow us to monitor usage, vibration levels and where the machines are etc. We also have a Husqvarna robot mower on site, but I don't think we would ever move in the direction of full autonomy for the lawns."
"We have a machinery agreement with Jacobsen Direct, who also have a link with Briggs Equipment, who we use for some of our servicing, but we try to carry out what we can in-house."
Each team member is certified in the use of chainsaws to maintain the vast number of trees on site. "The nature of what we do here can sometimes mean the team go months between focusing on trees, so they all have refresher courses and are encouraged to keep up to date on legislation. This year, we did quite a lot of thinning work at the front end of the park and we are currently having a full tree survey completed. The oldest tree on site is estimated to be around 500-700 years old we also have many woodland areas which border our jogging trails - these trails need maintaining regularly so they are kept clear for anyone who wants to use them. We are in the heart of the National Forest and actively seeking to plant new trees and help re-create the link throughout the whole country."
"In addition, when the Euros were scheduled this year, UEFA made a commitment that every host country would plant 40,000 trees. They recognised that it would be a continent-wide tournament, creating more traffic, movements and potentially impact the environment by having a bigger carbon footprint. We had started talks with UEFA to determine what this would mean for us and if there was anything we could do to help, I'm sure these talks will continue on the run up to next year's event. Any trees I plant now will be here for future generations to come and will be our legacy - which is an exciting concept."
Left: The oldest tree on site; 700 years old Right: Arthur Wharton statue unveiled in 2014. The 16-foot permanent memorial recognises the pioneering achievements of Wharton - the world's first black professional footballer
"Ecology has never been my strong point, however it's something I am passionate about and learning more and more as I go along. We have introduced a number of bug hotels created from old trees and have a fair few bat boxes and bird boxes since the site was initially built. We're lucky to have such a diverse environment which, amongst many varieties of wildlife, is home for geese, wagtails, barn owls and a pair of kestrels. I have seen more hares than ever this year and I would say that could be down to less people and visitors to the site."
"We have also recently looked at installing beehives on the edge of the site, which are surrounded by wildflowers and bramble. Initially these will be managed by an external company, but in the future it would be great to harvest the honey to use in the restaurant and maybe even sell it locally."
"In places, we sit on what feels like a 100% clay profile, which holds on to water and there's not much life in it, but we're quite lucky really that we don't suffer too many issues as a result. Having said that, the driveway does flood quite a lot, which can cause a few problems in terms of first impressions. When the site was landscaped in 2011, a lot of earthworks was undertaken and a small amount of topsoil was added, but it's not great. I am doing everything I can to improve this by topdressing with 70/30 rootzone mix and working it into the profile to increase the nutritional content and improve growing conditions."
Left: Two beehives recently installed
"We don't have an irrigation system in place to use around the estate. This year, I have purchased numerous sprinklers and hoses and there are three stand-pipes around the site, which we tap into. It just about got us through the dry spell earlier this year, but a lot of areas did suffer. Chris has also advised on the use of wetting agents and introducing more practices from the pitches into our lawns. We can certainly learn a lot from golf, football and private schools - who are far ahead of where we currently are - but it takes time and we're getting there."
"We accept that at some point during the year, we will suffer from red thread and have started to move towards liquid fertilisers rather than granular - mainly down to the flexibility restrictions with irrigation. We got to a point of needing to rely on the weather forecast in order to water granular fertiliser in, which isn't ideal."
"When I returned to the Park in January, I had a target of things I wanted to achieve by the time I was forty. I wanted to be in a position where I positively influenced a team and put my stamp on a department, by controlling budgets and projects. This year was the first time I have ever written my own budget, which was quite a daunting task - much to my wife's dismay as I spent a lot of hours on it. It was a great experience though and I enjoyed the process."
"Recent projects include the completion of a new gatehouse, which will offer both increased security and a presence that visitors have 'arrived' at St. George's Park. There is a holding bay which needed to be addressed so that people couldn't bypass the barrier. It was my challenge to make this area visually appealing; essentially, this meant I had to make a mound of soil look nice!"
New gatehouse and wildflower area
"I initially spoke to Helen Gillespie-Brown at Wildflower Turf Ltd. Together, we investigated the option of a wildflower area covering the bank; firstly, to reduce the possibility of erosion, but secondly and most importantly increase biodiversity and provide a low maintenance solution. The area covers 150 square metres and includes 20% grass / 80% flowers (thirty-two varieties). It is a soil-free turf system that is made up of wildflowers which thrive in a wide range of soil types. It is nursery grown to produce a mat of wildflower plants that retains 100% of its root system. The biggest compliment was that the project manager came on site and didn't even realise it was there! For me it was perfect, as I wanted it to blend into the surrounding parkland."
"The beauty here is that the possibilities are endless. The management team are so supportive and completely on board with where we want the park to develop and how we want to promote the estate. I'm proud to be a part of it."
What's in the shed
Jacobsen AR3 rotary mower x 2
Izeki SBC 600
Grillo Climber x 2
Ransomes Meteor flail mower
XROT remote controlled high grass mower
Stihl FS 460 C-EM petrol brushcutter x 3
Stihl FSA 90R battery brushcutter x 3
Stihl HLA 85 battery brushcutter x 2
Stihl MS 261 CM chainsaw
Stihl MS 500i chainsaw
Stihl MS 181 C-BE chainsaw x 2
Stihl HSA 86 battery brushcutter x 2
Stihl HS 82 petrol brushcutter x 2
Stihl HTA 85 long-reach chainsaw
Stihl BGA 100 battery blower
Stihl RL 540 scarifier
Husqvarna Tiller TR 430
Cushman 1600XD-R utility vehicle
St. George's park was originally part of the land named Needwood Forest, owned by the Byrkley family of Byrkley Castle in Gloucestershire.
Before it was purchased by the FA, it was the site of Byrkley Lodge - the family home of the Bass family.
Left: Views from the fishing lake up to the main house Right: First World War Memorial
1754 Lord Townsend acquired lease for property known as Byrkley Lodge which was rebuilt as weekend hunting lodge
1786 Arthur Chichester the Marquis of Donegal buys lodge from Lord Townsend
1887 to 1891 Byrkley Lodge was completely rebuilt and founded as a racing horse stud for Hamar Bass
1896 The Byrkley stud produced and trained "Love Wisely" which won Ascot Gold Cup
1898 Hamar Bass dies and passes estate to Sir William Bass
1952 William Bass dies and Byrkley estate sold, shortly after the main house was demolished
2001 FA bought the 330-acre (140 ha) site