With more illustrious clubs just a few miles up river in Glasgow, Greenock Morton FC retain a strong following that regularly has their loyalty tested as the 'Pride of the Clyde' yoyo up and down the leagues.
If the team isn't consistent, the playing surface certainly is, as Head Groundsman Mark Farrell explains
Greenock Morton Football Club currently play in Scottish League One after finishing bottom of the Scottish Championship in 2013-14. At the time of writing, they were top of the division and heading for promotion, a fact that will only add to their record for the most promotions and relegations between the leagues - ten promotions and ten relegations. However, they have never played in the current Scottish Premiership, having last competed in the old, top flight Scottish Football League Premier Division in 1988.
The club was founded as Morton Football Club in 1874, making it one of the oldest senior Scottish clubs. The reason for the name Morton remains unclear, although the general consensus is that the club was named after 'Morton Terrace', a row of houses next to the original playing field, where some of the players lived. Morton were renamed as Greenock Morton in 1994 to celebrate the links with its home town of Greenock.
Situated on the southern bank of the River Clyde, Greenock has a population of around 44,200 and once relied on heavy industries, most notably ship building, for its income. However, like many industrial towns, it suffered decline in the 1970s and 1980s and unemployment became a major problem. It has only been in the last ten years, with reinvestment and the redevelopment of large sections of the town, that the local economy has started to revive. Tourism has appeared as an unexpected bonus with the development of the Clydeport Container Terminal as an Ocean Terminal for cruise ships crossing the Atlantic.
Football fans are constantly reminded of the town's industrial past by an enormous crane that looks down somewhat menacingly over the Cappielow Park pitch.
Head Groundsman is Mark Farrell, who has been at the club for close on eleven years. "When I was eight years old, I jumped over the wall at my local cricket club, Newton Heath in Manchester, and asked if they wanted any help. They did, and their groundsman, George Power, was very instructional in my formative years. I studied for a National Certificate in Greenkeeping & Groundsmanship, a National Diploma in Sports Turf Management, a National Diploma in Turf Irrigation and completed PA1, PA2 and PA6 in pesticide use."
"Prior to coming to Greenock, I was Deputy Head Greenkeeper at Dore & Totley Golf Club, south of Sheffield on the Derbyshire border."
Apart from a pool of fans to assist him, when required, for moving the Tildenet frost covers, Mark works alone, but does get technical assistance, when required, from his suppliers, including taking and analysing soil samples.
"It's an old, traditional pitch with medium course sand incorporated, so it requires lots of verticutting, scarifying and aeration. I have to make the grass plant very hardy," Mark explains. "I don't have the luxury of undersoil heating, drainage or lighting rigs."
"We suffer a regional 'West Coast of Scotland' climate, which means we receive plenty of rain. For example, over 300mm fell in each of the last two Decembers. So it's important to keep traffic to a minimum but, at the same time, make the grass plant hardy and the surface firm enough to cope with high usage during inclement weather."
"We also get shade from the main stand, which is also the part of the pitch that is susceptible to flooding. My main focus of attention is on this area and I aim to keep warm-ups away from it on match days."
Mark goes on to explain that Greenock Morton Community Trust use the pitch to deliver holiday camps at Easter and summer for around eighty boys and girls aged between four and twelve. The Trust also use the pitch to play small sided games for community teams and holiday camp participants. "Celtic FC play their Under 20 reserve league home games here at Cappielow, and the Scottish FA use the pitch for international youth matches, as and when required. So, I have my work cut out."
"The club, players and fans expect the pitch to be in pristine condition all year round, so careful planning is required. Cappielow will stage seventy matches this current season."
"End of season renovation is, therefore, very important. These take place roughly two weeks after the season has finished, which allows the stadium to be used for any supporters or community games. I heavily scarify leading up to the renovation and use a contractor for spreading sixty tonnes of medium/coarse sand, followed by vertidraining. I brush the sand in with a dragbrush on the back of my John Deere Gator and the contractor follows me with his overseeder. Fertiliser application takes place two weeks later."
"I'm now into my eleventh year of doing the same renovation, so the club know the drill by now," states Mark. "All materials for the year are bought during renovation time, so the club take one hit during May and I have what is required for the pitch for the whole year."
"I have to keep to a budget for general maintenance. For large purchases, e.g. for equipment, I have to liaise with the stadium director."
"Two weeks after renovation, I feed the pitch with a 15:2:12 and cut it three times a week at 22mm with our Dennis G860. I verticut or scarify the pitch every fortnight during the growing season, depending on growth and the weather. This allows me to keep on top of the pitch and maintains free movement of water away from the surface."
"Aeration is carried out every two weeks using our 'new' Verti-Drain 7316; again, this is weather dependent at all times to allow the grass plant to take hold. Two weeks before the first scheduled league game, I fertilise the pitch with a 12:3:24 using an Everris spreader; I really don't want fast growth in August and September. I then apply a 6:0:24+2%Fe in September. When growth slows down, I use the verticutter after each game to clean the surface of debris, but will still get recovery with slow growth. I always divot after each game once the surface is clean and repair with a pre-germinated 100% rye grass mix. Soaking takes six days from start to finish and is mixed in with a 90/10 rootzone and feed."
Mark then goes on to explain a technique that is somewhat unusual. "During November, and through to the end of January, I blow the whole pitch with a backpack blower after each game, a process that takes two days. This removes debris and stands up the leaf blade. Keeping the leaf blade off the surface minimises disease to the plant. I believe the pitch is better for this and have carried this out for six years now."
"I start verticutting again after each game in February. During this month, I usually apply a 12:4:8 to help the grass to thicken up and, with the extra daylight hours into March, get a reasonable response. When growth really picks up in April, I start cutting again, bringing the height down to 16mm for the remainder of the season."
"The last home league game is in the first week of May and, after that, I start to scarify and verticut the pitch quite heavily, in between fans' and community games, leading up to the renovation in the third week of May."
"As I said earlier, everything is done through careful planning to keep the surface open and minimising compaction."
Asked if he thought the turfcare industry was in good shape, Mark replied; "Training wise, the industry is very strong but, on the ground, lack of funds is apparent and people are now very choosy where they spend their money. Clubs have had to diversify their facilities to bring in new income streams as money is tight. Survival is key."
"Are we undervalued? No, I don't feel that here, but we need to raise our profile. We need to utilise social media and get involved in community programmes to show the kids, the parents and, especially, the local authorities the importance of quality playing surfaces."
Well said, and well done on eleven years of providing a quality playing surface to a football team that looks like it might just be heading up the yoyo string once again at the end of this season!
FOOTNOTE: Greenock Morton were crowned champions of Scottish League One at the end of 2014/15 and were promoted to the Scottish Championship.
What's in the shed?
John Deere Gator TH 6x4
New Holland TC400 tractor
Dennis G860 cylinder mower with scarifier and verticutter cassettes
Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain
Sisis Supa Rotorake
Ransomes 36" Mastiff cylinder mower
Plus a strimmer, pole hedge trimmer and backpack blower
"All machiney has been carefully bought second hand. Diligence is key.
These are usually purchased from local dealers, but I have recently received great service from Campeys in purchasing a secondhand Verti-Drain.
The Dennis G860 has been a game changer for Cappielow to make it easier to manage the turf and my time.
Nairn Brown or Hamilton Brothers carry out servicing, depending on the type/make of machine.
A cherry picker is hired in to clean the gutters on the main stand."