In the mid nineties, Eamonn Murphy decided to leave a career at a large consultant engineering firm in central London to pursue one that he would enjoy. That decision saw him study for an HNC in Sports Turf Amenity Horticulture at Otley College in Suffolk, during which time he took a work placement at Ipswich Town Football Club, following which he went on to become Senior Groundsman, working under the highly regarded Alan Ferguson; "an inspiration," states Eamonn.
In 2002, Eamonn left the Suffolk club to take on the role of Deputy Head Groundsman at Haileybury, an independent co-educational boarding and day school in Hertfordshire. Eamonn was quickly promoted to Head Groundsman in 2004, and became Grounds & Gardens Manager in 2010.
It was in 1806 that the Honourable East India Company commissioned William E Wilkins (later the designer of the National Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge, and much of the University of London) to plan the buildings for its new training college for civil servants for India.
On an area of empty heath, just a few miles south of the county town, Hertford, Wilkins created his buildings in a neo-classical style around a large grass quadrangle - still regarded to be the largest academic quadrangle in the land - and here the East India College flourished for fifty years.
It was one of the country's most distinguished centres of scholarship and teaching and the training ground for generations of those destined to govern British India.
Four years after its closure in 1858, Haileybury opened its gates once again, this time as a public school. In 1874, a Haileybury housemaster was appointed the first headmaster of the United Services College at Westward Ho!, which later moved to Windsor and became the Imperial Service College.
In 1942, Haileybury and the Imperial Services College combined to become Haileybury and Imperial Service College; now simply known as Haileybury, such is its esteem in education circles.
Moving from the relative order of league football to work at Haileybury's 500 acre site might, to some, appear foolhardy, but Eamonn says it has been the highlight of his career thus far. "The grounds here are simply stunning and we have, arguably, some of the most picturesque sports pitches in the UK."
There are 250 acres of formal and informal gardens, sports pitches and associated areas, with the remaining 250 acres being woodland.
"As you can imagine, the department has a wide and varied range of staff, including specialists in tree work, grounds, horticulture and pest control. Where possible, staff with certain skill sets, knowledge or experience are involved in any relevant procedures relating to that particular skill. On the occasion of inclement weather, in particular periods of heavy snow, it is an 'all hands to the pump' approach to ensure the campus remains open. The department has its own gritting policy."
Eamonn has a staff of eleven to support him: "Ian Mackay is my Deputy Grounds and Gardens Manager. Adam Smith is our qualified mechanic; he does all servicing of department machinery and vehicles. Neil Allison, Chris Bartlett, Graham Perrin, Luke White, Ryan Wilson and Steve Whorlow make up the Grounds and Gardens staff, whilst Michael Ricketts, Christian Bath and Rob Lloyd are the team's tree surgeons, with the latter two also responsible for pest control. They also work on the grounds and gardens on a regular basis. Ian, Christian, Michael and Luke are our registered first aiders."
"All staff are compliant with current legislation," continues Eamonn. "Our department holds regular 'tool box sessions' relating to relevant issues, for example working on slopes and banks, hand arm vibration and such like."
"Ongoing training is a key part of the department. Where relevant, all staff have the opportunity for training and I also ensure that they all have current and updated certification for their own qualified skill set."
"I'm also looking to appoint an apprentice in the near future, as I believe it is important to encourage youngsters into the industry. My staff and I set high standards and I believe that, with our extensive experience, we have a lot to pass on to the next generation of industry colleagues."
Haileybury employs an "efficient and helpful" Health & Safety Manager, Fiona Russell.
As with all top public schools, presentation ranks highly - first impressions count. "After pitch safety, it is a very close second on the list," confirms Eamonn. "In the formal areas, it is all about aesthetics as Haileybury, quite rightly, requires a high standard of presentation. Soil samples are taken in January on all sports pitches and some of the higher profile amenity grass areas to ensure that remains the case."
The pitches are highly regarded, so much so that they are regularly used by Tottenham Hotspur and also Hertfordshire rugby in conjunction with Saracens. They are occasionally used by other professional football clubs and local clubs. Several local community football clubs, with ages varying from 13-16 years old, as well as Old Haileyburians cricket and football teams play at Haileybury.
"This year, both the Argentinian and USA national rugby teams will be using our pitches as their training grounds for the Rugby World Cup 2015 - a pretty good accolade to the state of our pitches today," states Eamonn proudly. "Our rugby pitch in front of our College Terrace and Chapel is surrounded by 450 year old oak trees and is one of the most picturesque pitches anyone could play on in the UK."
With so much extracurricular activity, plus the constraints of an educational establishment, what end of season renovations can Eamonn and the team undertake?
"It's certainly not as easy to fit in as, say, a standalone sports club. It is further complicated by outside lets during the term breaks. Somehow, with a lot of hard work by the team, all the grass pitches and some formal areas are overseeded during the Easter break (not leaving much of a window; three weeks generally) prior to the pupils' return."
"The 1st team rugby pitch is scarified in early July (3-4 passes), overseeded with DLF Premier Pitch grass seed and topdressed with 40-60 tonnes of 70/30 rootzone. Depending on need, sports sand is applied to the 1st team pitch over the Christmas break period."
"All four cricket pitches (this year, this number will increase to five) are firstly scarified by AT Bone contractors, with the remainder of works carried out in-house using Surrey GOSTD 125 loam and a combination of DLF Premier Wicket and DLF wicket."
"The College has a long and celebrated history," continues Eamonn, "of which we are all very proud. In terms of the pitches, they have been used for sports since the early 19th Century. Over the years, the College has played all the major public schools on its pitches, including Harrow, Tonbridge, Uppingham and Wellington and, to this day, retains a prestigious fixture list."
"The soil is London clay which requires plenty of aeration, both shallow and deep; the timing of which is crucial. We use a Toro ProCore SR70 (using a wide variety of tines and sizes) and a McConnell deep slitter, followed by sand topdressing, when appropriate."
"We do have drainage of various forms on some pitches, in particular the 1st team rugby pitch and1st/2nd team cricket outfield, plus mobile cricket covers for the 1st team cricket square but, in an ideal world, more drainage, additional covers and irrigation would be top of my wish list. More realistically, another John Deere 4720 tractor and a couple of utility vehicles would also be useful. Oh, and more sunshine and blue sky days!"
"Our biggest concern, sports pitch wise, is to ensure they are in prime condition for the College pupils and visiting teams to use. With the World Cup squads being here later in the year, we have scheduled additional work to ensure our pitches are the best they can be this year."
"Logistically, it will be difficult, especially as Tottenham Hotspur's summer camps are still taking place. It will be a challenge, but one that I am up for. I love a challenge."
Eamonn is responsible for the department's budgets, which are agreed via an annual financial meeting with the Bursar. Additional meetings with the Bursar are held throughout the year, as required.
All machinery is purchased outright from local dealers, most notably George Brown Groundscare, Oliver Landpower Ltd and RT Machinery. "We aim to stay loyal to these suppliers, where possible. We've built up good relationships with Steve Lee, James Boyle and Richard Taylor at the respective dealerships. This ensures that we not only get 'best price' on new equipment, but also that we are well looked after when it comes to spares and repairs."
Recent purchases have included a Trimax Procut "which produces a quality aesthetic presentation to the pitches", a Toro SR70 aerator "which is versatile and efficient" and a Toro 3100D "which presents the formal grass areas to a high standard," comments Eamonn.
Machinery is hired in for scarification for end of season cricket renovations and a side arms flail is required for some areas of the site. AT Bone are the contractors of choice for the sports pitches and BW Services are used for any landscaping works.
In addition to the natural turf surfaces, there are two full size sand filled pitches and eight macadam tennis courts.
These are maintained in-house with regular brushing of the surfaces. The sand filled pitches receive a quarterly 'powersweep' courtesy of Technical Surfaces. Annual pitch inspections take place and rejuvenation is carried out, when required.
"Construction of the second full sized all-weather surface resulted in the loss of one of the existing rugby pitches. So, in conjunction with this build and to restore/increase the number of grass pitches, a new grass area was created from a horse paddock. This will accommodate two rugby pitches which, in the summer, becomes a fifth cricket square and outfield. All topsoil removed from the new artificial pitch construction was utilised on the new grass pitch area."
The weather provides a constant challenge. "The seasons don't appear to be as defined as they once were," suggests Eamonn, "certainly here in the south of England anyway. This makes our job increasingly more complex. Winters, in general, appear to be less cold, which creates issues with disease; and the summers can be hit and miss also."
"The last couple of years has seen an increase in worm and chafer grub activity, which I put down to the generally milder weather. We try to control the worms with a suppressant and use a target specific chemical for the chafer grubs."
"Regular cultural practices greatly reduce pest and weed outbreaks. If and when required, we apply systemic weed control and apply a total weedkiller to all hard standing areas. But we are ever mindful of environment issues here; it is crucial to keep our ecosystems healthy and vibrant."
"Where possible, we do things in environmentally friendly way - the whole department is sustainability and environmentally focused. We have purchased several pieces of kit - chainsaws, blowers, strimmers, hedgecutters and mowers - that are battery operated to help reduce our carbon footprint. We have instigated a compost tea fertiliser programme, which has greatly reduced the amount of inorganic product being applied needlessly to the soil."
"I firmly believe that it will only be a question of time, in the near future, that inorganic products and chemicals are banned from being used at educational sites, similar to the legislation in Europe and North America. We like to be one step ahead, if possible."
"We keep aware of all industry developments and best practice in terms of environment and sustainability."
"It is our intention to construct a wildflower meadow in one of our dormant fields in the near future," Eamonn confirms.
"As I stated earlier, working at Haileybury has been the highlight of my career so far. It has opened up so many opportunities to learn new procedures and techniques. And it also gave me the opportunity to be involved in a pitch project in Almaty, Kazakhstan as an advisor/consultant."
"The project involved transforming a former Russian army pitch into the national Kazakhstan rugby pitch," explains Eamonn. "This project came about because Haileybury has recently opened Haileybury Almaty, one of our two sister schools in Kazakhstan, and some of the rugby sessions at the school in Almaty were undertaken by the captain of the first team."
"The Kazakhstan Rugby Union were hearing good reports about our first team pitch in the UK and, with the kind permission of the Bursar, I was invited, on several occasions, to travel over to Almaty to assist and consult on the improvement, care and maintenance of their pitch."
"So, within two hours of landing at Almaty airport, following a seven hour flight, I found myself deep in discussion with the president of the Kazakhstan Rugby Union - a meeting that (mainly due to translation) lasted three hours!"
"Consulting on the project was a fantastic opportunity and something that, although providing lots of logistical difficulties, was a rewarding, yet challenging experience. But that's another story for another time!"
What's in the shed?
John Deere 4720
Toro 3100D Sidewinder triple
Toro 6500 Reelmaster fairway
John Deere 2653B triple mower
Scag turf tiger
Suire tractor mounted finishing deck
Trimax Procut tractor mounted rotary
Sportster 3 gang trailed cylinder unit
Dennis FT510 cassette system
Autoguide cricket roller
Greentek maxi brush
Impact Glider line markers x 3
Charterhouse easy spread topdresser
Kilworth Fertiliser spreader
Paslode nail gun
Pellenc battery operated system incudes hedgecutter, strimmer and blower attachments
Scotts Fertiliser spreader x 2
SISIS Trailed sweeper
Stihl Backpack strimmers x 3
Stihl Hedgecutters x 4 (includes 1 battery option)
Kaaz strimmers x 2
Sealy arc welder
Snowex tractor mounted grit spreader
Front loader bucket for Kubota L3250
Front loader bucket for Kioti CK22, also snow plough attachement
Variety of weird and wonderful hand tools for landscaping and fencing