Clubs like Gillingham are the bedrock of English football. Its Priestfield Stadium, which dates back to 1893, is typical of lower league grounds that have evolved over the years to suit needs. Few are elegant but, for ninety minutes or so, on Saturday afternoons mostly, they are home from home for thousands of football fans.
The Gills' Priestfield now has an all-seater capacity of 11,582. Until Chairman Paul Scally's dream and intent of taking the club to a new, purpose-built nearby stadium, it will continue to be home. It has a head groundsman who is clearly at home there too.
When Tony Provan was at school, he liked nothing better than being outside. As we talk on a bitter January morning in the warmth of one the club's offices, it was obvious that he still felt the same. At ease and articulate as he was, you sensed he was itching to get back into pitch territory.
He gets ribbed a bit by colleagues at the club for being a lifelong Charlton fan, but it's never an issue and, actually, the Gills have their south London rivals to thank for his professional grooming. He asked his school, back in 2000, if he could do his work experience at the Valley. He knew a few people there and this was easily arranged. Paul Geary, then in charge of Charlton's training grounds, was impressed by his attitude and application and he was offered an apprenticeship when he left school a year later. He went on to study at Hadlow College and achieved levels 1 and 2 diplomas, spending eight years as a member of the grounds team.
He left the Valley for a brief spell as head groundsman at Brentford's Griffin Park and, as Tony now admits, was perhaps too young, at twenty-three, to take on such responsibilities.
Soon after, he became head groundsman at a big sports club in south-east London, the Meridian, where he worked for two years. All this time, Tony kept in touch with Charlton's then head groundsman, Colin 'Paddy' Powell, for whom he had previously worked on many a match day at the Valley.
"One day, he rang me to say there was a vacancy as head groundsman at Gillingham and he would be happy to recommend me if I was interested," said Tony. "Of course I was, and very quickly applied, came for an interview with Gills' chairman Paul Scally, and got the job."
That was in the summer of 2013. At just thirty, Tony is now mid-way through his second season at Priestfield, after a testing first one.
"When I first arrived at Priestfield, it was obvious that the stadium pitch was being seriously affected by compaction and the sub-surface structure wasn't functioning as it should," he said.
"I realised from day one that there was something major wrong. There was black layer all over. You could smell it a mile off. This could only be because of inadequate aeration."
"I distinctly remember the first home game of the 2013-14 season - and mine as head groundsman - against Colchester. A Gills player going for the ball slid on and on, and that shouldn't happen at such a very early stage in a season. I knew then that I was going to have a difficult time in wet conditions later on. There was very little root structure and divots were too readily made in the surface."
Sure enough, last winter was the wettest on record and getting through that first season was indeed tough.
"We have our own Verti-Drain and weekly all-over usage went some way to improving the soil structure," said Tony. "The surface repeatedy retained excess water because compaction meant it had nowhere to go so, to ease things, I decided to purchase a couple of waterhog machines, which were very effective in taking up surface water, especially ahead of home fixtures. It proved a useful short-term investment and I reckon I may well have saved five games from postponement by getting up at silly o'clock to dry the pitch."
Tony did get through the season by hard work and vigilance, but a longer-term remedy was essential.
Priestfield is a naturally drained pitch, but only if nature is given every chance. There is no drainage construction or fibresand, so it is totally reliant on the efficiency of the rootzone structure. This had to be reconstructed and Tony made it his business to bring it to the Ground Manager John Carter's and, ultimately, the Chairman's notice.
The stadium pitch had been acting like a sponge all season. A pitch makeover at the end of that season was the only way to resolve what was otherwise going to be a permanent issue. For Tony, the best way forward was to get rid of the compacted and bobbly top layer of the pitch, integrate sand into the structure, and create a new seeded surface.
"John Carter and I put the matter to the Chairman, and he was very receptive. I think he'd realised something was fundamentally wrong at pitch level and welcomed professional confirmation and a practical remedy," said Tony.
As the end of the 2013-14 season approached, Tony was asked to put his plan into action. It was his first major project of this kind. "I don't think there'd been any major refurbishment for ten or more years. It was now really a matter of starting afresh," he added
Engaged by Tony to perform the work was Lincolnshire-based contractor Fineturf. He'd seen similar refurbishment work carried out by the company at Notts County's Meadow Lane and felt it could do a sound job at Priestfield. Work began right after the May Bank Holiday and lasted just three days.
The compacted pitch was fraise mown using a Blec Combinator and all debris matter cleared from the playing area, which was then rotavated in two directions using a Kuhn Spike Rotavator. The camber of the pitch was maintained during the renovation by dividing it into four quadrants and the levels of each of these, in turn, set by laser grading, followed by the spreading of 20mm of sports sand.
When all of the pitch quadrants had been laser graded, the sand was ameliorated into the top 80mm of rootzone. Ground preparations were completed by using a Blec Stone Rake and a new pitch created by applying Limagrain MM60 sports seed at 70gm2 and Headland 14:6:8 fertiliser at 35gm2. Less than a week later, Tony was delighted to notice that germination was under way.
Well in time for the start of the 2014-15 season, the Priestfield had a lush new pitch. More than mid-way through it, with some pretty wet spells having none of the past detrimental effects, it looks in pretty good shape, better than it has done for years.
Gills players have definitely noticed the improved playing surface and said so to Tony, though he does very occasionally have a bit of an issue with the odd training session on the stadium pitch, but accepts "that's football" in Division One where, by and large, there aren't 3G areas to turn to when grassed training surfaces suffer from winter conditions.
"The club does very well for what it's got," said Tony. "Big club money doesn't guarantee decent playing surfaces, and having instant resources at your disposal might just lead to complacency. There's none of that here at Gillingham. You should always make the very best of what you have. That's what we all try to do at the Priestfield."
"The possibility of a new Gills stadium sometime in the future is exciting and everyone at the club is watching this space. I'd relish such a huge challenge and would love to be involved from the very start in playing surface decisions."
The Gills have been without a manager as such for some time, relying on a team of four senior coaches. How does that affect Tony?
"Everyone is very positive and knows exactly what is required," he said. "It's the energy and effort from top to bottom here that makes me feel good about my job. There is an air of belief and optimism around the place and the Gills are starting to pick up points again. We're all striving for the same thing, aren't we? Success? I like to think that what we've done to improve the Priestfield pitch is contributing to the general buzz that I do honestly sense."
The day I was at Priestfield, the first team were away taking on Sky Bet Division One pacemakers Bristol City in the second leg of the Johnson's Paint regional final. A place at Wembley was at stake and all the financial benefits that go with that. A creditable 1-1 draw was not enough and they fell short because of a home defeat in the first leg a week earlier. A miss may be as good as a mile, but for the Gills there will surely be another day.
Tony has one full-time assistant, Hayden Lawrence, who predominantly looks after the club's two nearby training pitches. He is soon to be an apprentice, with training for qualifications.
"He's very much like I was," said Tony. "I'm all for giving people a chance to get experience and proper training. That's what happened to me and I'll always be grateful for that chance."
Tony cuts the Priestfield pitch every other day, and immediately prior to a match. He says he'd like to hand mow, but time and manpower constraints rule this out at present. Two Toro Reelmaster ride-ons are the right tools for his current needs. He always cuts to 25mm, come rain or shine, all season long, and he and Hayden take between two and three hours to keep the stadium and two training pitches in regular trim.
The only contractor help Tony turns to is for spraying. Specialist Kent-based firm, Weed Management, comes in every four or five weeks to apply herbicide or fungicide as required, and occasionally a bio-stimulant with nitrogen and potash for 'green up'.
He thinks cosmetic treatment is an important part of presentation for fans and those TV highlights glimpses. "We may not get many visits by live television, but everyone who pays to watch matches at the Priestfield has a right to expect a high level of appearance. They don't want to see an uneven, mudded or lack-lustre pitch. That gives a bad all round impression, and it's just as important here in Division One as it is in the Champions League," he said.
Having worked at Premiership level, where pitch upkeep can be a very managerial occupation, Tony likes the hands-on necessities at Gillingham and thinks he'll always be that way. He's ambitious though, for the club and himself, and looks forward to taking on the expanded challenges that come with success, and maybe a new stadium.
He's a very modern groundsman. Football is a business: Gillingham FC is a business. Everything has to make sense, and you have to be realistic. Solve your problems in a way that makes best use of what you have to hand and spend what you can afford is Tony's mantra. That's very much the way they like things at the Priestfield.