Forest Green Rovers are currently enjoying their eleventh consecutive season at the highest non-league level, the Blue Square Premier. Located in the Cotswolds, in the Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth, the club have a new, five millon pound, multi purpose stadium, completed in 2006.
The new stadium generated some much needed finance, enabling the club to operate on a full-time, professional basis. With the 'bigger named' teams, such as Torquay, York, Mansfield and Oxford, that are currently fighting to get back into the Football League, this new status is vitally important for the club to be able to compete.
With the new stadium came a new rootzone playing surface, and a new full-time groundsman, me! In addition the club appointed an experienced manager in Jim Harvey, formerly manager of Morecambe and an ex-player with Hereford and Arsenal. Jim coaches a quick, slick, one touch, passing game. Long gone is the long 'boot' up field that was once synonymous with non-league football.
Last season Forest Green Rovers finished eighth, their highest ever position, and reached the FA Cup 2nd round.
With so many former league clubs now playing in the Blue Square, alongside clubs aspiring for a taste of the 'big time', it is little wonder that the league has attracted interest from scouts from the Football League searching out emerging talent (our 28 goal striker from last season, Stuart Fleetwood, was sold to Charlton Athletic).
Equally, it is no surprise that television has shown greater interest with Setanta Sports agreeing a three year deal to show fifty-two live games a season. This has exposed the standard of the pitches to a much larger audience and, whilst it is clear that the best surfaces are currently at the clubs which dropped out of the football league, it does give clubs like ours the opportunity to improve the playing surfaces, albeit with limited resources.
I tell my board of directors that these 'league' standards are what we have to achieve to compete because, like it or not, the role of the modern day groundsman has a direct impact on the success or failure of the club. It is my job to ensure that the club do not stand still where the pitch is concerned. Expectations are now so much higher no matter what level a club plays at.
It has been rewarding being a part of the club's upturn, both on and off the field. I have been with the club for four seasons and it has been a constant challenge to raise the standard of the surface on a very restricted budget.
The biggest tasks were improving the equipment I had at my disposal and educating the board of directors to understand how much money was required to maintain a quality rootzone surface. By talking to each director one on one, and letting my work do the talking, I believe they now have a better understanding about what is needed, why it's needed and how it's used.
After overseeing the construction of the new pitch, and creating the new surface in a ten week timescale, the first year saw seventy-one games played on it. It was very hard to maintain the quality of the surface, especially as I work on my own, but my efforts were rewarded when I came second in the FA Non League Groundsman of the Year 2006/7. Not only was this a huge personal reward and incentive for me, but it also made the Board members take me and my work more seriously.
We currently have a groundshare deal with Gloucester City Football Club (who play three leagues below us) due to their stadium being flooded 'up to the crossbars' during the freak summer storms of 2007. It does not look like they will be returning to their ground, as it is now a flood plain!
Last season was particularly difficult with three games every week throughout the season. Double headers caused most wear. Between our first team, reserves, ladies team and Gloucester City, the pitch had to cope with ninety-two matches. I was also having to battle though one of the wettest winters on record. Eventually, the club realised my dilemma and purchased a secondhand vertidrain to improve surface aeration.
During the wet winter months it was a case of divoting and using the vertidrain when conditions allowed to keep the surface open. This was my only option given the short time period between matches. There was no possibility of postponing matches (apart from two Gloucester City games) and, in the three seasons I have been here, I have not lost a first team fixture.
Taking into account that 275mm of rain fell in three months, I got through the packed fixture list, albeit with only 40% grass coverage left and poa appearing in the bare soil.
The heavy rainfall highlighted that the new pitch's drainage was not doing its job, with water ponding in localised areas, even after installing sand banding in May 2007. So, I asked Dr James Welsh of TurfTrax, who had been involved in the initial design, to make an assessment and offer possible solutions.
He found that the surface was holding water under tension. This happened in the small pores found in a clay soil and water was not passing into the coarser pores (sub soil) and the lateral drains. There was insufficient hydraulic draw from the gravel banding through the natural stoney bash that made up the sub-soil.
The high clay content soil had also given the grass extra health problems with outbreaks of anthracnose, leaf spot and red thread; these diseases occurred regularly due to the compaction and high levels of moisture held in the upper rootzone.
I discussed these findings with the club's chairman and his response was straight to the point: "You have identified that the drainage we installed does not work as we expected it to. We have the desire to keep learning and moving forward and, if we want heavy use of the pitch, get some quotes!" If only every meeting was that easy!
I was soon to find out that new drainage is not cheap! We were short of the amount required by a not inconsiderable 50%! So, to raise the shortfall, we hosted four, day long, youth football tournaments and charged everyone attending £10. Coupled with the end of season presentation evening, we raised enough to bring in specialist pitch contractors.
Premier Pitches performed the work. I had seen what they had achieved at Cheltenham Town and Bristol City and I have to say their work was faultless - every phone call was answered and they worked endless, unsociable hours to beat the unsettled weather.
In May, Pugh Lewis installed further sand slits at 2 metre centres at 45 degrees, 400mm deep, 50mm wide, backfilled with 50mm of gravel (6-3mm) and topped with 70/30 rootzone. The slits were left for thirteen days to settle before Premier Pitches returned at the end of the month to koro off the top 5mm of vegetation and apply 80 tonnes of rootzone. They dragmatted level and overseeded in three directions, at the rate of nineteen bags, sown at 35gms/sq metre using Rigby Taylor R14 rye grass. That included two bags of R314 which was drilled down the wings to hold for warm ups wear. Fifteen bags of pre-seed feed (6:9:6) was then applied.
I now had just a six week close season to grow in the surface in time for four pre-season home games.
Two days after completion 25mm of rain fell in seven hours, which was a real test for the new drainage. There was no surface water anywhere and, apart from seed wash off in two of the corners, it was a job well done.
Germination took eight days and a further eleven days to reach 55mm across most of the pitch. Temperatures remained low for the time of year and the stadium's shaded east wing and south goalmouth took a further eighteen days to fully establish.
Eventually, the Dennis G670 came back out of the shed to lightly roll the surface. This was followed by seven rotary cuts in different directions with a Husqvarna ride on, the first at 50mm gradually reducing, on a daily basis, to 35mm. Once at that height the Dennis took over, steadily taking the height down to 27mm.
After the first cut I began a rigorous high dose feeding and watering programme to push the plant along. Feeding was fairly intense as the sward was slow to thicken up. July began wet and cool. The sward was not as thick as I had hoped and, in the wet conditions, leaching was a problem causing some leaf spot and red thread on the wings. However, once the temperatures rose towards the end of the month, the feed kicked in, the soil became warmer and I was now cutting daily to keep on top of the new growth!
Within six weeks the surface was playable. The first linemarking was performed with a demo of Fleet's Beamrider. I was really impressed!
We hosted three games in seven days against Championship 1st team sides from Bristol City, Reading and Birmingham City. These were followed, one week later, by Wycombe Wanderers. The pitch stood up really well and there was very little damage.
I always speak to the away coaches. My pitch rules (all in line with the Football League handbook) are pinned on the wall of the dressing room. I point out the warm up areas etc. and I am very particular. It drives me crazy to see my hard work getting a hammering when coaches go off and do their own thing, such as goalkeepers spending longer in the goals, and then the reserve keepers getting in on the act. That's when I intervene. I just wish all teams would abide by the rules.
I am lucky to have a good working relationship with the gaffer, Jim Harvey. He usually rings me at least twice a week so he knows the condition of the pitch leading up to match day. He is also very supportive when it comes to board level approval for my requirements. In turn, I support his passing style of play by providing a good surface.
Keeping a good rapport between the management and players is a must. I feel it is vital that we understand and respect each other's needs and find a middle ground.
My aim, this season, is to produce a better surface than I did two years ago (which won an award). Each season I will try to improve the surface. To date I have added Fibresand to both goalmouths and linesman runs. I've put in infield pop up watering sprinklers to control water usage more efficiently and to aid match day watering to add extra zip to the passing game - dragging hoses out onto the centre of the pitch was simply impractical. We are the only club in our league with infield pop-ups, which is a staggering fact when you consider the teams that are playing in it!
It goes to show how far I am pushing the club forward. I want the Forest Green pitch to become the benchmark for other non-league clubs so that they are ready to perform in the Football League should they gain promotion.
This is dependent on weather conditions and fixtures. Mowing takes place a minimum of three times a week - 26mm during the summer which is raised to 28mm for the winter. I aerate on a fortnightly cycle, or between fixtures when conditions allow, to keep the sward healthy and the roots searching for water. I increase aeration during the winter to keep the soil profile open, using solid and needle tines at different depths. Scarifying, verticutting and brushing are performed when required.
The Rigby Taylor impact glide marking machine is perfect for my use as the liquid paint requires no mixing, no cleaning up, and the box and bag are fully recyclable. Best of all the paint dries quickly in all weathers. I have found no other paint that holds as well after heavy rain. Only one mark is ever needed, and I don't get any ghost lines.
Feeding is carried out every four weeks using slow release feeds and 'Natural Soil' to keep nutrients balanced - good surface density will be essential if the pitch is to cope with over sixty-five games this season.
Divot replacement and the removal of debris is undertaken straight after a game, and the following morning, adding a soil/seed mix to keep the surface level.
Irrigation is applied as required based on daily checks of rootzone moisture levels.
I am delighted with the progress we are making at Forest Green Rovers, both the pitch and the team. I believe that we stand a good chance of reaching the play-offs and, hopefully, the Football League.
I cannot believe how poor the weather has been. August turned into the worst month on record for lack of sunlight and September began so wet (60mm of rain in the first seven days!). It's been a tough growing in period - I am now in the middle of the coldest winter in decades!