Game off-Fire Brigade to the rescue!
By Peter Hamilton
I have been Head Groundsman at the Brigade's Sports and Social Club in Aveley, Essex since 1995. Most of this time, I was on my own and it's only recently that I have been fortunate to have a full time assistant with me; this helps particularly in the summer months.
I work with an operating budget of about £30,000 a year, which isn't as much as I like, but it doesn't include finance for capital equipment. Mind you I have to put up a damn good case to get any new machinery.
The whole site is now 39 acres, up until recently it was 45 acres but the Brigade sold 6 acres for development of the new A13 byepass. There are five football pitches, of which one becomes rugby every other week, two cricket squares and a bowling green. There is also quite a lot of open space landscaping and children's play areas.
We tend to host three games of football per pitch at the weekends, so you can imagine that all chaos breaks loose as thirty teams descend on us to play on Saturdays and Sundays. We also have games on Wednesdays, where the pitches are hired out to East London University and Havering XI Form College. Once a month the Brigade representative sides play here on a Thursday, the pitches take a real hammering.
Dare I say there is also some training as well, but more recently I have cut this back because of the damage to the pitches.
I wanted to get some floodlighting installed on the first team pitch by the clubhouse and had got prices together for eight pylons and lights. There wasn't going to be much change out of £30,000 but the powers that be decided against spending the money. It is a well-known fact that the club is up for sale, so investment in the surfaces had all but been halted. Even when sold the facility will have to remain a sports club for the moment, but I suppose it will eventually become a building land asset for someone.
I felt that with floodlights we could hire the pitch out in the evenings and earn more revenue from the pitch. Although the pitch would have had even more use, I could have allocated some of the extra monies towards further improving this particular surface.
I have the vertidraining done twice a year, the pitches drain quite well anyway, but with so much usage they do get compacted in the top. I usually get the lad in to do deep aeration in mid December and then of course at the end of the season, when I do my renovations.
I have a continual spiking program as well and weather permitting; I try to slit/spike weekly all year around using the tractor drawn Sisis spiker. This broke recently and until it's fixed I've been using my Charterhouse slitter. The Charterhouse only goes in about three inches (75mm) but it is my 'get out of jail free' card for the moment.
The ground here is silty sand and apparently the land used to be a storage site for Thames board mills. They used to store the paper here, but during the war an incendiary bomb hit and burnt the whole place to the ground. I've been told that the site was just filled with topsoil following the fire, so there is supposedly a layer, a yard thick, of ash underneath.
During the season I will attempt to put the divots back by hand and fork when possible, particularly on the first XI pitch. We have only lost two weekends so far, which considering the rain fall we've had is quite pleasing, but because of the large maintainable area and the amount of games played, my winter maintenance means that I have to use the chain harrow quite a lot to get the pitches flat for
One of the drawbacks using chain harrows is that they drag the lines about, so I tend to re-string the pitches every fortnight to straighten them up. They will of course be marked in between times as well.
Because these pitches tend to drain quite well, we always get last minute requests from other local teams in the winter that have had their game postponed because of a waterlogged pitch and they want to come here to fulfil a fixture.
I use a Hayter triple ride on cylinder mower and a set of Lloyd's tractor drawn gangs to cut the pitches in the winter, but I tend not to cut through the six-yard boxes at this time of year, hopefully providing some extra protection to the grasses that are left.
On a separate note, all the clubs that come here have the nets supplied. Touch wood we've been quite lucky in that only one set of nets has gone missing in the last two seasons. Theft seems to come round in cycles and I remember a few years ago, a set went missing; the following week a set of corner flags went and the third week, the clips that hold the nets on disappeared. I left the club hammer out for them on the fourth week, but they obviously already had one!
My renovation and convalescing time for the winter sports pitches are condensed into a few short weeks, starting at the end of April. The facility is used nearly all year around and the football continues in the summer in the form of five a side tournaments. I do keep the pitch on the backfield open too for summer eleven a side games.
I continue to top dress sand to the pitches at the end of each season. On average I have about 300 tonnes of specified drainage sand delivered and then decide which pitches need the most. I may put 100 tonnes on one pitch and then 50 tonnes on each of the others, but this is flexible and will all depend on how the pitches have performed during the season.
I use about 8-10 25kg's bags of seed per pitch and the seed is professionally drilled in, so I usually get a good germination take. I tend to over seed in two directions and if there is any left, I'll get the lads to run it down the middle of each pitch between the six yard boxes.
I need to get the grass up and growing as quick as possible so that it's resilient to all those feet playing in the five a side tournament. Every year I debate with myself about how to set these pitches out, in the past I have had them playing in the corners of each full sized pitch. But the parents coming to watch then tread a path down the middle of the pitch on all the new seedlings to watch their kids. The other option that I may try is playing across the pitch, but I'm worried that sliding tackles will just remove the new grasses starting to establish.
I fertilise the pitches after renovation to give the seed the best possible chance of establishing and then again at the start of the season's senior play in August. I am thinking about giving them a tonic at the moment to perk the grass up, but it will depend on my finances.
We have a lot of worms on the field, and I would dearly love to find a cost effective way of removing them, but at the moment I have to live side by side with them. I suppose they help with the drainage so it's not the end of the world.
In the summer though, I don't find that they give me too many problems on the cricket squares, although there are plenty about in the winter. By the time I've started my summer preparation on the square of cutting and rolling, they seem to disappear. Probably to quieter pastures!
We used to play a lot of cricket here at one time, but these days the squares don't see much other than local company beer matches in the evenings. The Brigade still play a couple of matches, but I don't think the players get as much time off to play sport these days as they used to. I don't spend too much energy on the cricket because of this and divert my time to the bowls green. The other problem is that the club hire the cricket squares for £65 per game, and I've worked out that we should be charging about £125 to break even on maintenance costs. This cost is prohibitive to teams, but even so there is little weekend cricket anymore. The only major cricket tournament held here now is the Inter-Brigade 6 a side weekend, where both squares are used all day long in a round
When we thought that the club was going to be sold, the club froze the budget and there was little I could do, I did manage the end of season renovations on the bowls green, in terms of scarifying, top dressing and an autumn/winter feed. Now the budget is back I can do more. At the moment, the green has become infested with moss. I've treated it with a Gem product called Mossicide, but the conditions and the results
In terms of winter maintenance I brush the green daily and top it with the mower every couple of weeks. We have had quite a mild winter and there has been some growth so, it has been important to keep it topped to help strengthen the grass. The dressings have now worked in well, particularly with the heavy rains.
The green gets heavy use during the season, not only by the Brigade, but also by the Thurrock district for the inter district matches and finals.
Membership at the social club is no longer reserved for Firemen; anyone can pay a subscription to play here. The local clubs will pay a group membership for the season and then their pitch fees. Within this, the social club will let them have a function room twice a year to raise money. The money raised usually is enough to pay for all the pitch fees and annual subscription for a team.
As well as sport, we do hold other events, the biggest being the Koi Carp show in the third week of July each year. The organisers spend the whole week setting up for the show, which spans half the playing field, all for the Sunday when it opens to the public and enthusiasts. It is a great event and some fantastic fish, but the fields look like a bombsite when everybody goes.
I've been in this Industry for thirty years, starting out on the parks and gardens for the council, my Dad was a Parks Superintendent for the London Borough of Hounslow. I'd gone to college to learn about plants, but wasn't happy. He suggested becoming a Groundsman and while I was apprehensive at first, I soon realised what a diverse and pleasing profession it was.
I soon moved to Gunnersbury Park, which had 36 football pitches, five rugby pitches, hockey and lacrosse pitches, two bowling greens, cricket squares as well as two nine hole pitch and put courses.
My days were kept busy as you can well imagine, and while at Gunnersbury I went back to college part time to learn more about the science side of Groundsmanship. I then spent five years at the City of London Council before taking a Head Groundsmans position at Edmonton Sports Club in the private sector. I had eight great years there before this job became available. I have always held a dream to be involved in the professional football scene, but I'm not sure if it would get a little repetitive and boring. Maybe now I'm a little too old as well, when you look at the ages of many of the lads in professional sport!
I get on well with many of these lads, and it was to my surprise, how approachable they are. I really didn't think that the lads at Spurs or Arsenal would be interested in the lad from the local Fire Brigade sports club, but they have been both helpful and friendly. I met them and many other professional club Groundsmen at the IOG's football conference last year down at Newport and found that they all are just normal guys willing to share advice.
It was refreshing and that's how it should be, after all, we all work in the same Industry.