West Herts Sports Club, based in the heart of Watford, are a club with big ambitions. Thanks to selling some of its land for flats, they have rightly invested the profits into their facilities. Lee Williams met with George Mills, the club's Site Manager, to discuss and see for himself what improvements they have been able to make and what it means for the club's future.
George Mills joined the club as a young lad eleven years ago. In this time, he has made some significant improvements to the playing surfaces and seen some big changes in the facilities. He starts by talking to me about what conditions he faced when he first started. "The two main complaints about West Herts before I arrived were that you couldn't see the wicket from the clubhouse - there was no definition; it looked like one big field, and that the ball wouldn't bounce. The bowlers would complain that they are putting their back into it but they can't get the ball above knee height."
"After some investigation, we discovered we had a big thatch problem and a clean root break at two and a half inches under the square."
"We first toyed with the idea of digging the square up but, with it being my first year, digging up a square that was then going to play badly for a few years, I felt was too big a risk for me … and I didn't want to risk losing my job! In the first year, we saw some big improvements just by taking the wicket height down a little more and doing the basics and, suddenly, the players were a lot happier."
"This allowed me a bit more grace to ask the club to bring in some more extensive equipment to allow me to do more severe renovations each year. The first renovation I did was by hand with a little walk behind scarifier that the club had at the time - and I had to spread the four tonnes of Ongar loam with a barrow and shovel followed by the SISIS Trulute to level out the surface. With the constant scarifying using the Koro along with aeration each season, we have managed to alleviate the root break, and we now have some good root penetration."
Site Manager George Mills
Since the sale of the land, George has been given the opportunity to invest heavily into the playing surfaces and the machinery to maintain them. Working alongside the club, they have made sure every penny has been spent wisely on securing the site's future. "We are now halfway through what is a three-year project. The first thing we did was replace the grounds shed because it was essentially falling down. We used to have to park the equipment in the shed in such a way to avoid all the leaks in the roof, so they were not getting dripped on overnight. Once the shed was up, I went on a mechanics course to allow us to service and maintain our equipment in house; we could then replace several of the large pieces of equipment. The big one for me was buying the John Deere 3038R tractor, a complete game-changer for us. It has enabled us to attach bigger implements so we can carry out most of our renovations in-house now. Alongside this, we also bought a Poweroll Excel roller, Jacobsen TR3, Trimax ProCut, Cushman belt topdresser, SISIS Quadraplay and a John Deere X350 with Astro Brush."
"We have installed a new six aside 3G pitch which measures 26 x 42 metres alongside a new grass screed car park making sure we make the most of the land available to us as every inch is taken up by football, cricket or some form of sport on it. New cricket-wicket nets have been installed and one of the junior wickets on the square has had SIS grass stitched into it, which helps keep the wicket more stable enabling us to play more games."
George has also invested some of the money into a new automatic irrigation system, which has helped him do away with the hoses and sprinklers, saving some much-needed time to get on with other jobs. "We have had Hunter pop-up sprinkler heads installed around the cricket square and the tennis courts. They are controlled by the Hunter Centralus irrigation management platform. The system is currently fed via the mains into a thirty thousand litre holding tank, but the plan is to put a borehole in once more finances are available. We now spend less on the water with the irrigation system than we did using the hoses. Instead of watering all day like we used to, starting early in the morning, allowing a lot of the water to be evaporated by the sun, I'm now able to set it up for ten minutes at a time at night giving me greater control of the amount of water we apply. The other thing is I can control the sprinklers on my phone, which is cool."
Many teams use the club's facilities and George has to make sure they are all accommodated for and, at the same time, provide the best surfaces possible. "There are six men's teams that play cricket here and I also consult at the other grounds they play at around the borough. We have twelve football teams, from kids all the way up to the men, who are all part of West Herts Football Club. Also, we have one of the most successful junior cricket set-ups in the county. On fifteen wickets, we accommodated one hundred and twenty cricket fixtures this year. The hybrid pitch, which we installed on the edge of the square instead of in the middle for the men's games has been a game-changer. It's allowed us to hammer it with kid's games allowing more wickets to be used for men's cricket. One advantage this site benefits from is that it's long, so the first team has nine wickets available to them, giving them a brand-new wicket for every league game all season."
George (middle) with this team - Robbie Sweeting (left), Anthony Maylor (right) and not forgetting Hunter
George talks me through the details of the maintenance of the wickets, tennis courts and outfield areas. "We now pride ourselves on the wickets. At the end of the season, we will always carry out a deep scarify to remove as much thatch as we can. I tend to go quite heavy on the seed to give us a bit of density and always use a pure rye mix. Then we put down ten bags of Ongar loam per wicket. In November, we will get them deep drilled and the main reason we use this rather than a verti-drain is that I'm conscious about the root break. The deep drill gives less lift, so I feel it helps us get through that root break with less heave and I feel it is one of the few things that you can get a good depth on the cricket square. This year, I'm going to mix it up a bit and bring in a Toro Procore 648 and use pencil tines to mix up the root depth."
"Once the grass has established itself through the winter, we will cut once a month with the Dennis G860 at the height of 20mm, and I find we get a lot fewer rough grasses coming in as a result. Depending on the weather, we will get on the square with the roller at the end of February early March. We probably do a lot less pre-season rolling than other clubs, but I think when you have one hundred plus games a season and you're rolling all summer you need to be careful. I want to make sure I do not over roll it and kill it."
"Preparing a wicket starts two weeks before a game and we roll heavily early on with the Poweroll Excel, which starts at 1.8 tonnes but, if you ballast up, you can go to 2.7 tonnes. This summer, we kept it at 1.8 for the pre-season rolling and then we put it up to 2.2 for the playing season. We will thin the wicket out using the verti-cut unit in the Dennis G860 and the old SISIS Lawnman. I particularly find using the verticutter in different directions works well. As we go through the process and get down to a week, we will start tailing off on the rolling. The height of the cut will be gradually reduced and, by the weekend, I will bring it down to 4mm quite harshly as I find it really gets the colour to pop and we get that nice straw colour."
I mentioned to George that a lot more groundsmen are leaving a bit more grass on the wicket to help with recovery and if this was something he had considered doing. "They are not wrong. Our method for the wickets is to use one for a first-team game, then the following week, we will use it for the second team match and then chuck a load of junior games on it, then re-seed the ends and it won't get used again that season. We also have very good density (even at 4mm) so, rather than with other clubs that will keep a lot more grass cover on it, and will go back to the wicket at some point in the season, we expect to use a wicket until it is knackered and we won't go back to it until next season."
The tennis courts are maintained similarly to the wickets but with some slight differences. "We pre-season roll them. I try and use precisely the same grass seed mix and the same loam. I find the two working together works quite nicely. The main difference is the height of the cut, which used to be around 12mm to help protect them. This all changed when one of the members decided to point out that Wimbledon cut their courts at 9mm, so that is where we are now. It keeps the members happy, so I pick my battles - they just wear slightly faster as a result. We don't tend to roll and verti-cut the courts as much as the square as grass coverage is vital, especially the amount of use they get. We must be doing something right as we have the players who are trying to qualify for Wimbledon come and train here and it's always good to get nice reviews from those guys."
The shed before and after
"In the summer, the outfield is cut two to three times a week using the Jacobsen TR3 triple mower at the height of 13-15mm depending on the weather. In the winter, we use the Trimax ProCut on the back of the tractor and we take the height of cut up to 26mm for the football. In spring, we will apply a slow-release fertiliser and again in autumn."
Being situated in the centre of town, the club often gets visits from the local urban fox population. "We have a resident badger as well as the foxes, but we just have to try and live with them the best we can. The worst thing is removing the fox sh*t every morning from the playing surfaces. Other than that, they don't do a whole lot of digging. I have a dog called Hunter who lives on-site with me, so every evening, I will take him out for a walk around the site and he helps scare the foxes off for a bit - and it makes them think twice about digging holes everywhere."
Since starting his NVQ Level Four, George is more aware of the club's environmental effects on its surroundings and what the groundstaff are doing daily to help improve their impact. "We have gone from loathing the foxes and badgers to accepting they are part of our environment. We have bird boxes up all around the site. The grass screed car park was installed, but after I saw it being installed, I can't vouch for the eco-friendly nature of that now. Being landlocked, we do not have the space available for a composting area for the debris we take off the site when carrying out renovation work, but we do our best to offload this to any local allotments. When constructing the new 3G pitch and car park and working with the council, we asked if we could use a bit of land adjacent to us, which is one of the few bits in Watford that have been left untouched, to mound the spoil from our recent works to form a bund and then planted with wildflowers, to which they agreed. We will continue to look for any ways we can help improve our local environment."
What's in the shed
John Deere 3038R tractor with front loader
John Deere X350 with Astro brush
Jacobsen TR3 triple mower
SISIS Rotorake TM1000
Cushman belt topdresser