2020 has been an unprecedented year. The effects of Covid-19 will still be being felt in years to come, with the general economy struggling to return to something like normal. Unemployment is likely to rise and the way people work will, no doubt, change substantially.
Through all this mayhem, and indeed considerable fear and anxiety, sport has been able to return after a period of lockdown. How did 'lockdown' affect the grassroots sports venues? In this 'virtual roundtable discussion', we seek the opinions of those struggling at the coalface of the industry. Here's our panel:
Are you a volunteer or paid staff?
Wes Matthews (WM): Volunteer.
Matt Stevens (MS): Volunteer, committee member and reluctant player.
John Thornton (JT): I am a volunteer.
Paul Clarke (PC): I'm a part-time groundsman.
Philip Harper-Scott (PHS): I am currently being paid to look after three greens; two on a full-time contract, whilst the other one - the club undertake the cutting during the playing season, but I still do all other work on the green.
If on the payroll, were you furloughed at any stage?
PC: I offered to work for free during lockdown; to maintain the facilities and ensure things would be ready for when we were given the green light to return to play.
PHS: Covid did not have any effect on my workload, except for the green I lost.
How did this affect you, both personally and at work?
PC: I was fortunate, as I still had my full-time Royal Mail job during lockdown. The cricket ground is based on the Enville Estate, who were keen to limit numbers during lockdown. I was one of only two people allowed from the club onsite, whilst attempting to ensure we were ready to go.
PHS: The only real effect was that the greens did not get played on enough and I only played six times myself.
Farsley Celtic Football Club
Were you able to continue working on your pitches/facility, even if it was just basic 'grass cutting'?
WM: We were able to work both on the pitch and in the clubhouse. As a volunteer groundsman, I wasn't furloughed by the club, although I was furloughed from my full-time work. Personally it effected me as I run my own business, so the uncertainty was a worry. Being able to get onto my pitch with the mower and cut the grass once or twice a week helped me stay positive.
MS: Yes. My full-time job allowed me to work from home, so I managed to find time to regularly attend the venue - in an attempt to keep on top of things during lockdown.
PC: Yes, but I didn't have the usual volunteers from the club to assist.
PHS: After communications from Bowls England and the clubs wanting to commence play, things just carried on as normal. I ensured that I was the only person at the club when I was up there working.
Other than the governmental restrictions in place at the time, did your club/facility place additional restrictions on you?
WM: The gate was to be shut/padlocked whilst people were onsite.
MS: None. Although, some of the other helpers are generally older members of the playing field committee and were reluctant to attend during the early weeks of lockdown. This meant that I took on responsibility for the whole playing field including hedges, boundaries and our children's play areas, as well as the cricket pitches.
PC: No restrictions as such; though managing budget and limiting end of season work were discussed. That was until the grant money came through.
PHS: The only 'different' thing was that I wore gloves when visiting the club at all times and made sure I wiped things down that I touched. Every time I went to Trumpington, I had to inform them that I had been there so that they could inform the secretary. The Club belongs to the Council and all their buildings were closed down.
Left: Cranfield United FC Right: Cambridge Bowls Club
Did club members/players offer any assistance?
WM: Some committee members and players offered assistance but, with social distancing, it was difficult to involve everyone.
MS: Yes a bit. It's a lot of work just to keep on top of the surrounding grounds, although I prefer to do the pitches on my own.
JT: I was offered help by a couple of the club officials and volunteers.
PC: Some of them would but, due to the location of the ground, the Estate were keen to limit numbers onsite.
PHS: The clubs just left me to get on with things as normal.
Were you able to keep on top of things?
MS: Just about. I actually enjoyed the time; the weather was good and I had no interruptions, so I could work to my own time with no sport or other events to work around. The playing field and playground were shut to the public, so I could come and go as I pleased.
JT: It was difficult, but working part-time enabled me to put more hours in voluntarily to keep things under control.
PC: Yes, the ground was ready to go when the ECB gave the green light in the summer that play could commence.
PHS: Despite what was going on in my private life, during summer, I managed to keep on top of things.
Elstow Cricket Club
What condition was your ground in once you were able to return full-time?
MS: Pretty good. The pitches could have done with a bit more pre-season rolling, but that is such a time consuming exercise that the lack of helpers meant that we didn't get as much done as usual. Also, with the uncertainty of knowing when we would start, it made it difficult to plan for the games.
PC: It was ready to go, though some of the extra rolling that is usually put into the square had probably been missed.
PHS: I never walked away from the playing surfaces, because of Covid, so they were kept in a good state.
Have any projects been put on hold as a result of reduced income to your club/facility?
WM: Yes, new pitch side barriers and laying of artificial grass in front of the dugouts. The pitch was in good condition (as the season finished earlier than normal) and I was able to cut and brush the pitch once/twice a week.
MS: The cost to maintain our equipment and for end of season renovation is circa £5,000. Currently, we are hoping to get a small grant from the ECB to help with some of these costs, as they will use up all of our money. We had planned our bi-annual fundraiser - which usually brings in this sort of money to keep the club running. Obviously, it was cancelled, hence we will almost definitely have a shortfall this season.
JT: We are struggling for funds because of Covid; no visitors being the main issue. We have managed to Verti-drain our pitches and a local company donated fertiliser. Our main machinery is old, but we cannot invest at the current time.
PHS: The only thing that was put on hold was the green I lost due to Covid, but they are saying that I might get it back at the beginning of May 2021.
Left: Enville Cricket Club and Enville Athletic FC
Were you able to carry out end of season renovations (summer sports)?
MS: Yes. Thankfully, we have a very good treasurer and she has some reserves for a rainy day, so we were able to do a full renovation as normal.
JT: Verti-draining, overseeding and fertiliser application.
PC: Yes; full renovations completed to the usual standard. Once the funding came through from ECB/Sport England, the club were more than happy to proceed.
PHS: All three greens I currently maintain had their autumn renovation completed by the end of September.
Are you still planning a full renovation at the end of the season (winter sports)?
MS: We are hoping to do more renovation of the winter pitches in April/May 2021, but again it is subject to costs. We have a fairly new team on the football side but, with some additional resources now in place, we should be able to do more on the winter sports than we have ever done before.
JT: Covid and fans not allowed into the ground have meant our year has been disrupted and seen a reduction in cash flow, therefore a full renovation will not be undertaken.
PC: Currently in discussion with the football club as to what we can do.
PHS: I am still visiting the greens two or three times a month.
Farsley Celtic Football Club
Have you still been able to purchase sundries such as fertiliser, topdressing, hire in machinery/contractors etc.?
MS: Yes. All equipment and contractors purchased and paid for the 2020-2021 cricket square. We just need to get our machinery serviced over winter.
JT: We have been able to hire in a Verti-drain and our fertiliser was donated. The maintenance and upkeep is done by me.
PC: Yes, no problems - but it would have been a different conversation without the grant money coming through.
PHS: I have still managed to get everything I want to complete the work. The only trouble I have had is to pay the invoices.
Do your members/players understand the difficulties that Covid-19 has presented?
WM: Yes. All players and staff are aware of the situation; changing rooms/showers are not used, social distancing and table service in the clubhouse. We were able to do mini reservations when lockdown was over and we got hold of topdressing materials and seed.
JT: In general, I believe the vast majority of the club's staff, volunteers, parents, players and coaches do understand the difficulties associated with Covid in making the pitches playable.
PC: Some do yes, but to a lot of people, I just cut the grass and they don't understand the effort that goes into maintaining the facility.
PHS: Some members have understood things have not been the same on the greens this year, whilst other people have said that their green has not played so well. However, some of this is down to the greens not getting played on so much.
Machinery at Cranfield United FC
Are you a member of your industry association?
WM: Yes the GMA.
MS: No, but I'm hoping to join as I am planning on doing some online learning over the next couple of years.
JT: Yes. The GMA.
PC: I have previously been a member of the GMA but, this year, I didn't renew my membership, with everything that was going on with the pandemic.
PHS: The GMA.
If so, have you called on them for help during this time?
WM: They gave us very good guidance on how to operate during lockdown.
MS: Yes. I have been in touch with Phil Jeggo who was very helpful.
JT: Yes; through the GMA and a BBC Sport article, we highlighted the problems volunteers have at the lower level of sport.
PHS: No, I have not called on them, but I have spoken to Ian Darler BEM, from Cambridge United Football Club who has pointed me in the right direction and given me advice on several occassions.
Do you feel they could they have done more?
WM: No, not really.
Cambridge Bowls Club - autumn renovations
What are your thoughts about Trade Shows over the next twelve months?
WM: I feel it's right for them not to go ahead! When we are able to, I'm sure they will be bigger and better.
MS: As a volunteer, with a small budget, shows are probably not something high on my priority list, albeit I do look at things online a lot.
JT: As things are, I believe no gatherings including trade shows can go ahead.
PC: I was looking forward to Saltex, but this has now been moved back further. Always good to catch up with people, but everyone's heath comes first.
PHS: At this moment in time, I don't think I will be going to the Saltex show.
Have there been any positives arising from the current situation?
WM: People are beginning to realise how important volunteers are to sports facilities.
MS: Not that I can think of. Other than I got some quality time at the cricket pitch all on my own and there is no better place I would rather be.
JT: I started wanting to help my local club where I coach an under 14's boys' team - the pitches were of poor quality and needed improving. Through collaboration and social media, I have made friends with local professional grounds people including Kiel Barrett at Leeds United, sports pitch contractor Nick Hatfield and Ryan Golding at Leeds Rhinos. They have all offered advice and help whenever they can. These people need mentioning, as they are sharing their experience and knowledge for the sake of good.
PC: I had a lot more time to spend with my kids at home.
Left: Elstow Cricket Club Right: Enville Cricket Club
Has your mental health suffered?
WM: Yes, I have questioned my mental health more.
MS: No; if anything it helped. I work for a large construction company and do long hours; sometimes spending three to four hours in the car each day on my commute. Working from home was a huge relief from this and the time then spent at the club was really relaxing and allowed me to refresh. It took all the normal pressure of work/home/club balance away.
JT: I consider my mental health good and healthy. Being involved in the maintenance of pitches is great for the mind; through
both exercise and being outdoors. I now offer the opportunity to young people in school to come and taste what it is like to be a groundsperson.
PHS: My health has suffered only slightly, whereas it had a major effect on my ex-partner, who I was living with.
How do you see the future panning out?
WM: My glass is always half full, so I would like to think that, once this is all over, we can get back to how things used to be (or as close as possible).
MS: Difficult to say, but I don't see things getting back to normal for a good couple of years. If we are lucky enough to have a full season of fixtures next year, I will need some additional help, as the volunteers seem to have disappeared. We run four adult sides, one ladies team and five youth teams; some of these teams have fixtures or training almost every day, so fitting in ground works can be tricky.
JT: I want to gain more knowledge to improve the pitches I care for. I have a strong passion to do this as a full-time job.
PC: The requirement to return to playing sport is key for all clubs survival. The longer the restrictions stay in place, the greater the negative impact will be on available funds to spend on facilities.
PHS: I cannot see bowls being back to any sort of normal until the summer of 2022. I predict that people will be back on the green, but reduced numbers.
Left: Enville Cricket Club Right: Cranfield United FC
Has this year deflated or encouraged you?
WM: One minute football's back, then the next minute football's off again. Highs and lows all round I think.
MS: Encouraged. I love the work I do. We have some new equipment and I can't wait for the spring.
JT: Encouraged me to continue and do more.
PC: Encouraged; the facilities were ready to go without any impact.
PHS: It's just encouraged me to knuckle down and get on with things.
Thank you to all our panel