A brush with the local fox population is keeping Leeds Rhinos' groundsman Ryan Golding busy during the coronavirus crisis.
Leeds Rhinos' head groundsman Ryan Golding with groundspug and chief pigeon scarer Sherman. Picture by Tony Johnson. Copyright: jpimedia
Most of Rhinos' 150 employees have been placed on furlough, a form of paid leave, but Golding is among a handful still working - and vulpine pitch invaders are giving him plenty to do. They are a nightmare," Golding said of the four-legged hooligans. They live near the railway track, in all the bushes there."
"On a night, when they are scavenging for food, they come into the stadium and they always dig in the same place on the pitch. They are digging bones into the pitch - I am finding bones all the time."
The urban foxes are sometimes spotted on the terraces after games, which is one reason why cleaning crews are brought in so quickly following the final whistle.
Golding hopes fencing will deter the pests and noted: "It's a unique problem, with it being an inner-city stadium.
"You wouldn't have a problem like that on an industrial site, it's just another thing we have to deal with."
Ryan Golding repairs damage done by foxes to the Emerald Heaidngley pitch. Picture by Tony Johnson. Copyright: jpimedia
On the other hand, the foxes do keep Emerald Headingley's pigeons - another traditional groundsman's enemy - at bay.
"They are stalking around the pitch on a night, waiting for the pigeons to land," Golding reported.
"There are feathers everywhere! On a morning I have to go around picking pigeon carcasses up. It is like a war zone, but they don't go near our feed, fertilizers or chemicals, which is good."
Even without the foxes, Golding has his hands full restoring the pitch to its usual glory following unprecedented rainfall last winter.
"My assistants have been furloughed, so it's just me," he said. "I am having to look after all the stadium and all of Kirkstall [Rhinos' training base] on my own. It is challenging, but it's quite enjoyable - it is taking me back to when I was younger, getting my hands dirty. It is very negative circumstances, but it is what it is - there's people dying, so you can't really moan."
The last few months have been tough for Rhinos' ground crew who, as well as looking after Headingley, had to cope with flooding at Kirkstall.
Ryan Golding is ploughing a lone furrow as the only member of Rhinos' grounds staff not on furlough during the coronavirus shutdown. Picture by Tony Johnson. Copyright: jpimedia
Golding recalled: "We had a record three months of rainfall - around 300-350 millimetres. That is a hell of a lot - and it wasn't necessarily the weather, it was the timing. We always seemed to get downpours the night before games and the morning of."
"We weren't really getting any luck and the game where it turned was the double-header [when Headingley staged Rhinos' Betfred Super League opener against Hull immediately after Castleford Tigers had faced Toronto Wolfpack]. We had a lot more rain than expected after the first game. I had two choices, to leave it as it is and have a slow surface, or take it on the chin and make it a fast one."
Rhinos scored 154 points in their three home games after the loss to Hull and Golding added: "People say it looks like a beach, but it plays really well.
"That's something I had to discuss with the management team, Rich [Agar, Rhinos' coach] and Kev [Sinfield, director of rugby]. I am not bothered what people say if it allows us to play fast rugby and get two points.
"That's what we did, we applied sand quite regularly to make a fast, stable surface to enable the players to gain purchase - rather than it turning into a mudbath."
One of the Headingley Stadium fox holes. Picture by Tony Johnson. Copyright: jpimedia
The break has allowed Golding time to work on the pitch, but - with no clear indication when rugby will resume - he explained: "I don't want to throw everything into recovery yet.
"It's a bit like a finely-tuned athlete, you don't want to hand it all the supplements and everything it requires now because it's going to keep needing that. It is a sand-based surface so it drains very quickly and leaches nutrients very quickly, so I have to be careful with what I am applying."
Life won't get any less hectic for Golding - and his team - when the season eventually resumes.
Midweek matches are likely as Super League clubs race to make up for lost time, but Golding has no concerns over having to prepare the ground for multiple games in a short space of time.
He stressed: "I don't see it as a bad thing.
"You get some groundsmen who are very much 'keep off the pitch', but I wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for the sport so let's get as many games on as we can and get back to enjoying sport."