0 Grassroots Round Table - what challenges do groundsmen face?

The provision of sports surfaces at the lower levels is often hampered by little or no budget, poor equipment and volunteers simply doing it for 'the love of their club'. We ask four groundsmen what challenges they face and how things might be improved.

Old Boltonians Football Club

First, let's meet the panel.

Colin Mason is the former volunteer Head Groundsman at Hertford Town Football Club (he left his role recently), a Step 4 club recently promoted to the Bostik Isthmian League. As well as the first team, the club also has an U25 development squad, plus youth teams at U18, U15 and U14 age levels.

Dave Lee is the Grounds Manager at Old Boltonians Football Club's Turton football ground in Lancashire. "We are the current owners of what is believed to be the oldest football ground still in use in England," states Dave. "We know it's a 'Heineken claim' which others might dispute, but we're sticking to it. Recent research has evidence of a game of football of some sort being played in 1830 between Darwen and Tottington (for a £5 purse held by the landlord of the village pub). We think informal matches were played from the 1850s and certainly Turton Football Club played on the ground from 1871, originally under Harrow Rules and then adopting Association. We took over the ground in 1952 and purchased it in 1971 with all that brings."

Colin Mason (left) and Dave Lee

Christopher Proudfoot is Grounds Director at Peppard Stoke Row Cricket Club. "We were two village clubs (Peppard and Stoke Row) that both played league cricket. We merged just over three years ago. The picturesque grounds are 2.5 miles apart - fifteen minutes on a tractor! We field three Saturday teams, two Sunday teams, one (sometimes two) midweek teams and have an extremely successful junior set-up with over 200 members and junior league teams from U9 to U19."

Martin Wood is a volunteer groundsman at Stokesley Sports Club, a multi-sport facility offering football, cricket, tennis and bowls. Stokesley is a small market town and civil parish in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire. The first team play in the Wearside League, but also field over 35s and Wanderers teams.

Christopher Proudfoot (left) and Martin Wood

So, without further ado, let's find out what each one thinks of conditions at the grassroots level.

What made you take on your role in the first instance?

"I thought the quality of the playing surfaces was poor and needed to be improved," states Martin. "I'd had no previous experience though, so it was a steep learning curve, but I had always been interested."

Christopher had dabbled in groundswork for a long time. "I worked as a groundsman at my first club back in Glasgow when the groundsman went on summer holiday. That was nearly thirty years ago when I was at university! When the clubs merged (I was involved at the larger of the two), we needed someone to oversee the management of both grounds, so I volunteered."

I had started playing for the club after leaving university in 1971 and also moved into the village, and was asked if I'd help mark out the pitch for the start of 1972-73 season ... and I've been stuck with it since!

"I had started playing for the club after leaving university in 1971 and also moved into the village, and was asked if I'd help mark out the pitch for the start of 1972-73 season ... and I've been stuck with it since!"

Apart from Christopher, all other participants stated that they had no previous experience before taking on their role.

Stoke Row CC (left) and Stokesley Sports Club

Where have you gleaned your knowledge from? For example, have you undertaken any industry training, attended seminars and/or researched online?

"For me, it was a lifelong passion for cricket," says Christopher, "and I always liked mowing the lawn. I learned a huge amount from the Pitchcare Forum - big thank you to Andy, Gordon, Eddy, et al - but soon realised that one has to digest the sometimes differing advice and work out what it means for you."

"I took the FA pitch maintenance course and did much online research," commented Martin, whilst Colin said that most of his knowledge has been gleened from fellow groundsmen, online resources, seminars and on-the-job learning.

Dave, meanwhile, did a lot of reading and then attended a Pitchcare day course. "I've since been to a number of FA events and Campey Turf Care open days."

Do you seek help from any outside sources; regional advisers, agronomists, forums etc.?

Dave is up first; "I have sought advice from professional groundsmen, suppliers, contractors and the FA regional adviser. We joined the FA's Pitch Improvement Programme last year."

"I use online resources and forums," comments Colin. Similarly, Martin heads online for advice, but has also used the FA regional adviser and had soil samples taken.

"I chat to anyone who will listen about how to improve our grounds," says Christopher, "and chat to our ECB pitch adviser from time to time. One of our grounds team plays Over 60s cricket during the week and he is always chatting to other groundsmen about how to improve things."

Hertford Town pitch and Stokesley dug outs

Does your club/committee understand the importance of your role and are you well supported when it comes to budgets for machinery, sundries, renovations etc.?

David says that his committee is hugely supportive. "Managers and players accept decisions on pitch fitness without question, and there is support for the principle of prioritising the pitches for spending, but money is in short supply."

We've been able to buy, usually second hand, all the basic equipment we need -tractor, rotary mower, quadraplay, spiker - but money for renovations is hard to come by. Last season's renovations budget disappeared when the tractor needed a new clutch at a cost of £2,700!

"We've been able to buy, usually second hand, all the basic equipment we need -tractor, rotary mower, quadraplay, spiker - but money for renovations is hard to come by. Last season's renovations budget disappeared when the tractor needed a new clutch at a cost of £2,700!"

Martin's position is somewhat different as he is also Chairman of Stokesley Sports Club and Chairman and a Coach of the junior football section. "Do the committee understand? Probably not, although the players and spectators appreciate a good playing surface, but don't realise how much work is involved to produce one."

"I am also treasurer of the junior football section, so have a major 'say' in how the money is spent. That said, I also spend a fair bit of my own money as well."

"We have an excellent committee,"comments Christopher. "Our current and previous chairs are/were both very good. I think they realise that we are fairly unusual, and fortunate, in that we have two good grounds looked after entirely by volunteers."

Juniors evening at Peppard CC

"Before I became involved, the grounds were looked after on a shoestring. I have been able to convince people that we 'must' get September renovations right and that involves money. We do most of it ourselves; buy loam in tonne bags to keep the costs down. The only professional we use regularly is for spraying, which we do once a year for winter feed, iron and worm control. Other feeds we do ourselves."

"I service most of the equipment, but get mowers professionally ground far more often than we ever used to. We don't run the junior section to make money, but it does help with funds, despite junior subs being less than half that of local football clubs."

Colin, meanwhile, says that his committee do understand how important his job role is, but that it is tough to get funds for new machinery, tools, treatments etc. due to lack of funds; "but they do try to support me as best they can and that is all I can ask for really."

How many hours do you put in each week; is your time limited by your 'day job'?

"Hertford Town was my 'day job'" said Colin, "so I usually put in 40-plus hours a week depending on the time of year, fixtures and such like."

"It depends on the time of year, but eight to ten hours a week on average. I am self-employed so fit the hours in round my day job," commented Martin.

Stokesley and Hertford Town

Whilst Christopher's role is somewhat different, he said that his role as Grounds Director is absolutely limited by his day job. "I simply have to delegate and rely on others, but generally it works very well. I pop into both grounds frequently, so have a good idea of what condition they are in, how dry the pitches are etc. When I am at nets with my children, I usually end up getting the hose out on some repaired ends or, when I am at colts training, might get the roller out for ten minutes."

"We have a grounds team of around seven, all volunteers; some of them are retired and there's one female. We have a range of skills and experience. We have set jobs each week and get work parties together for tidy ups in spring and the end of season renovations."

Dave says that, now he is retired, work at the ground is increasing to 'fill the time available'. "I'm there most days, certainly four days a week, for at least two hours."

Could your sport's governing body do more to highlight and support the grassroots sector?

Colin believes so. "Grants are difficult to apply for, and win. And they are not always for the kind of things actually required at grassroots level."

A bit off track, but both my sons play football (as well as cricket, of course, and hockey) and the condition of the pitches they play on leaves a lot to be desired. That needs to be addressed by the governing body of each sport. One wonders if any basic maintenance is carried out other than mowing. All that money in football and some think the answer is to replace six grass pitches with one artificial pitch!

Christopher complains that many grounds in his area [the South Chilterns] have declined over the years and club cricket, in general, is struggling.

"We have over two hundred junior members, but how many will go on to play club cricket for ten, twenty or even thirty years? A bit off track, but both my sons play football (as well as cricket, of course, and hockey) and the condition of the pitches they play on leaves a lot to be desired. That needs to be addressed by the governing body of each sport. One wonders if any basic maintenance is carried out other than mowing. All that money in football and some think the answer is to replace six grass pitches with one artificial pitch!"

Dave adds: "Yes, the funding is sometimes there, but never publicised, it's always a question of pestering. Priorities seem to be decided at long-distance and the local FA has little discretion."

Old Boltonians new pavilion

"At the moment, it's all about 3G pitches in urban 'hubs'. What happens to those of us based in rural areas? And equipment - which is no help to those of us who've paid out a lot of money in recent years to sort ourselves out, but now can't get funding for pitch improvements. Plus, of course, there's soon going to be an awful lots of equipment sitting in sheds unused. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to cluster it or expect it to be shared."

"Apparently, the FA doesn't support 'routine maintenance' which seems to include aeration and topdressing - 60 to 100 tonnes of sand per pitch (which the PIP report suggests) at £30 or more a tonne is not 'routine' to us!"

Would you say your surface(s) was the 'best it could be' given the circumstances, and is there more you wish you could do?

"Surfaces could always be better," comments Colin, "but that usually means more time and money required and, as has been pointed out above, that's never readily available at our level."

It needs levelling - it ripples, not a slope - and it has too much meadow grass because we can't afford to Koro and reseed, and we'll never get the five figure sum together to improve it without grant support!

"Yes," says Dave abruptly. "It needs levelling - it ripples, not a slope - and it has too much meadow grass because we can't afford to Koro and reseed, and we'll never get the five figure sum together to improve it without grant support!"

"We are very pleased with the pitches we produce," comments Christopher. "We would like to increase the clay content of the surface to ensure the footholes hold up better and also to improve the outfields, which we are doing slowly, but spring raking and slitting the outfields will not transform them overnight."

"Are they the best, is there more we could do?" asks Colin. "Both; with the equipment I currently have, it's in good shape, but I wish I could utilise better machinery to improve it. Groundsmen should 'never' be truly satisfied and always strive to improve."

Match officials - pain or pleasure?

"Mostly a pleasure," comments Colin, and Christopher agrees; "they don't cause us much of an issue and it is pleasing when they make positive remarks about the pitch."

Martin says that he has no problem with Match Officials; "I treat them as I expect to be treated. That seems to work."

I won't bore you with the detail, but we've opted out of this after a referee, in November 2015, on being told on the phone that the pitch was on the margins of playable at 10.00am, but there was a severe weather warning for heavy rain at 2.00pm (kick-off time) said 'I won't call it off on a forecast

Dave, however, has more to say. "We decide whether matches are played except, nominally, for first team games, except when the decision is out of the club's control. This penalises clubs which own their own grounds (and have to pay for repairs), but not those who rent from councils or other clubs."

"I won't bore you with the detail, but we've opted out of this after a referee, in November 2015, on being told on the phone that the pitch was on the margins of playable at 10.00am, but there was a severe weather warning for heavy rain at 2.00pm (kick-off time) said 'I won't call it off on a forecast'.

The game was played and was a farce, though fortunately it didn't cause massive damage. Having said that, up here in the north-west, most teams didn't play between that weekend and mid-February because of waterlogging and the leagues had to extend the season!"

Who gets the blame if things go wrong?

Martin is up first; "If we are talking about games getting called off; I live in the north east of England, the weather is not great and we get more than our share of rain, snow and frost. If a pitch is played on when it shouldn't have been, then it will take weeks to recover. That's just common sense but, unfortunately, not all players and managers see it that way. Is it the weather's fault or the team that played on the pitch?"

"We have an unwritten rule that nobody involved in grounds work at the club is criticised," says Christopher. "We have the odd issue, but most people pretty much understand and generally appreciate the efforts of the grounds team, especially as our facilities are amongst the best in the league. Fortunately, no other sport is played at our grounds."

Colin and Dave's views are somewhat more succinct. "Always the groundsman, isn't it?" suggests Colin, whilst Dave concludes "I suppose, me!"

Conclusion

One final question regarding association membership was asked and all four participants said they were not members of any association.

Using Pitchcare and social media appears to be the way these particular lower level groundsmen prefer to gather their information, which is perhaps a damning indictment of the kowtowing to the top level groundstaff and the governing bodies that is a turn-off for Martin, Dave, Christoper and Colin.

Pitchcare would like to thank the four participants for giving their time to help compile this article.

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