The North West of England is home to five top flight teams. But what is life like for the region's lower league groundsmen who can only dream of the extensive budgets available to their lofty neighbours? Lee Williams visits four such clubs to find out; the first being Curzon Ashton Football Club of the Vanarama National League North.
Curzon Ashton Football Club is a semi-professional association football club based in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester. Founded in 1963 and nicknamed "the Nash", the club is affiliated to the Manchester Football Association and currently competes in the Vanarama National League North, the sixth tier of English Football.
The Tameside Stadium has been the home of Curzon Ashton Football Club since it was officially opened by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005. The ground has two covered stands and is fully terraced on all four sides and it currently holds the FA 'B' Grading. Total capacity is 4,000, with 527 seated and 3673 standing.
For the first game at the new ground, Curzon played a Manchester United XI which included Gerard Piqué, Giuseppe Rossi, Frazier Campbell and Jonny Evans. Outside the stadium, a statue stands to commemorate three locally born footballers associated with the World Cup; Geoff Hurst (born in Ashton), Jimmy Armfield (Denton), and Simone Perrotta (also born in Ashton).
Outside the stadium, I met up with Nick Wild, whom I have known personally for over seven years. I have often wondered and admired how he manages to share his time between being a full-time Head Greenkeeper at Reddish Vale Golf Club, whilst providing a consistent quality surface that anybody would be proud of, in his part-time role has Head Groundsman at Curzon Ashton FC.
Nick has been at Curzon for nine seasons, and he used to play for them fifteen years ago until he went to work for a golf course down South; this is when he stopped playing football entirely at about twenty-nine years old.
After a few years, he moved back up North; at the same time Curzon had moved into their new stadium. Nick explains; "I had spoken to a few people who told me they were having problems with the pitch but didn't really get involved." After five years, Nick was contacted by the manager at the time whom he used to play for.
Nick had been doing some work for Glossop North End FC, his local team who he played for prior to joining Curzon. "I did eighteen months at Glossop; we had some good success up there. It was an old cinder pitch so, basically, it just needed plenty of verti-draining to get that connection through, and decompacting, and it came good really quickly."
At this time, Curzon had played Glossop quite a few times and had noticed improvements in the pitch from what it had once been. Twelve months down the line, Curzon contacted Nick, asking if he would look at their pitch, and he was more than happy to see what he could do to help a team he used to play for. He began by giving them advice on ways to improve the quality of the surface and it wasn't long before he was asked if he would be their head groundsman, to which Nick agreed.
As previously mentioned, Nick is also full-time Head Greenkeeper at Reddish Vale Golf Club and must manage his time between both sites. This means a lot of hours spent at work, whether it be at Curzon or the golf club. "But the golf club always takes priority; that is my career,"
Nick explains. "If we have problems at the golf club, Curzon gets put on the back burner, it's as simple as that, Reddish has to come first. We do seem to have everything in order though. It's rare that we can't come to Curzon; we might be late or only have an hour on the pitch, but generally, we get it done."
As Nick gets to make improvements with the general maintenance and drainage work to the pitch year on year, he is finding it increasingly difficult to meet the high standards he sets himself with the limited hours he and his team can put into it.
Nick can call on the help of Barry who has been with him eight years, whom he says is "knocking on a bit". At this time, Barry was in the room which gave us all a laugh, but he is a great help to Nick when it comes to the little jobs. He also has his Deputy from the golf club, Justin Pickering, who works Monday-Friday which, in the summer, means they can both be at the ground for 2.00pm, which enables them to get around 3-4 hours work in. In the winter, they manage to get about 1-2 hours in with the nights drawing in, making maintaining the pitch more difficult.
Nick feels lucky that, when it comes to budgets and investment in the playing surface, the club has backed him from day one. He doesn't really have a budget. It's a matter of working to what they need at the time. The club trust that Nick will not go over the top and only spend what he feels he needs to, this gives him the freedom to get what he needs when he needs it.
The original construction of the Tameside Stadium pitch was poor. When Nick first went into the club there was very little information available about pitch construction or specifications. This meant that at the end of the season he would have to carry out investigations himself, to get a better understanding of the make-up of the pitch and what he had to deal with.
"It was a case of getting a spade out and having a dig around to see what we were working with, as the water certainly was getting away. It appeared to be 12½ inches of poor soil - if you could class it as soil! Below that was a blinding layer of stone, but it reminded me of blue slate, and below that was what you would class as a membrane over broken brick; the membrane reminded me of being like an onion bag; that was the kind of quality." Nick believes the stone above the membrane is just there to stop the soil going onto the membrane and blocking it up. After his initial assessment, it was decided that they would have to address the drainage issues going forward if they were to start getting the improvements they required to the surface.
Nick agreed a plan of drainage work to be carried out before the start of the coming season. "We decided to go with excavated sand slits, using a whizz wheel down to the membrane, just tickling into that stone, as we could cover more area with the money available at the time. The excavated sand slits are at one metre centres enabling us to cover more area initially, making it drain better to begin with, this tied the surface into the membrane." If they were to put main drains in first, which would be the ideal scenario, they may have only got four or five in a year with the funds available.
Nick goes on to tell me that they did do it odd ways about though. He would have liked to put primary drains in first and then gone with the secondary. Since this initial work, the club have invested heavily in their drainage and now have main drains running lengthways down the pitch at four metre centres which are 150mm wide, with a 100mm perforated land drain in the bottom, 2-6mm gravel over the top and a 4-inch sand cap, running into a main drain behind the goal. They are now halfway through the project and will carry on at the end of the season.
With Nick and his team being part-time, I asked him how he manages to provide a quality surface that any football league club would be proud off with the limited time he has available for maintenance. I know from first-hand experience the difficulties we all face as groundsmen and the pressure we are under to deliver a quality surface day in day out, especially now we have social media, and I was full time!
"We try and keep our standards as professional as possible; that's important to us. We are now renowned for having a really good pitch. Even though we are at non-league level, the pressure is on to keep the pitch as good as possible."
As well as Curzon playing on the pitch, the stadium also hosts Burnley Under 23s which helps bring money into the club. For the preparation of a game on a Saturday, Nick will double cut on a Friday, and also likes to cut the pitch - and sometimes double cut if he can get Justin in on a match day! This means, on a Saturday, he must try and juggle work at the golf club. He will then mark out on the day of the game, emulating what most professional football clubs do.
Once the game has begun, he will tend to stay until after half-time, then goes home to spend some time with the family after a long week and get a few hours rest. No work is carried out immediately after the match; he will go in on Sunday after he has finished at the golf club and start to repair the pitch.
"I have a little ride-on brush that I have kind of manufactured. It's a lightweight thing out of a Sisis Robbi that used to be for our 3G. I tend to brush the pitch two ways to flick up anything that has come away. That is followed up with a rake cassette that goes in the Allett C34, and we pick it up with that." Most clubs use rotaries to clean up after games. Nick would invest in rotaries if he had more time but, for now, this method works for him.
As winter draws ever closer, Nick will have less time to carry out his maintenance. I asked him how he will get around this, "As we lose the light, we will then turn the floodlights on to get around if we are tidying up or cutting. To verti-drain, we have big lights fitted to the roll bar of the tractor front and back which puts down plenty of light. Then we just verti-drain in the dark till six o'clock. It's a matter of just working around the problems."
The pitch rarely suffers from disease as the ground is open, allowing plenty of airflow. There has been the odd occasion when they have had bits and pieces of fusarium kick off and a bit of leaf spot, but they have never sprayed a fungicide.
"I don't feel there is a need to do it, and we don't suffer like somewhere that is a bit more enclosed, where it is damp all the time and it's difficult to dry out. In September, we will get bits and pieces when its damp but, once we get a windy day, the pitch will dry out quickly; we are lucky in that respect."
Nick puts his own fertiliser programme together after he has received the results of his independent soil tests. He tends to use quite a lot of organics on the pitch and tops this off with the odd recovery spray.
When I first walked into the ground, the first thing I noticed was the SGL MU50 lighting rig standing proudly under the shaded area of the main stand. This was a shock to me as not many Football League clubs have lighting rigs, never mind a non- league club, but I have got to say it was good to see. This, to me, shows the forward thinking of the club and that they are willing to invest in providing the best playing surface possible. Nick is very proud of the fact he has the rig at his disposal.
"I believe more clubs should be looking at investing in lighting rigs as they are more affordable than most people think; the benefits are huge. We mainly use ours under the main stand and occasionally in the goalmouths now we have the extra cable. It has enabled us to keep grass cover in areas where we have struggled in the past. It is my insurance policy when it comes to keeping grass. It's a brilliant tool."
SGL MU50 lighting rigs
Nick does not have frost covers at the club, as it's a significant investment, and one that he feels is not necessary at this moment, and he doesn't have the staff and time available to get them on and back off. If the club lose a game to the weather, it is, unfortunately, just one of those things.
When it comes to renovation, Nick believes it is essential for every club, if possible, to spend the money and back the groundsman to do the relevant work that is required on the pitch, as this gives a good base for the rest of the season ahead. Again, Nick feels very fortunate that Curzon invest the money into the renovation works. This year was no different.
"Alongside carrying on with the drainage works, we koroed the top off and put on 120 tonnes of Chelford 45 sand. Then we verti-drained down to 6 inches and worked the sand into the holes, which worked well as it was so dry. The main aim of this was to get some clean sand into the soil layer. The surface was then turned over with a Blec Power Rake to get the levels back; especially with all the drainage work, it helped to fill in any areas that had sunk. Finally, we overseeded it with Johnsons Premier Pitch grass seed and, a week later, applied a conventional fertiliser."
With the renovation works and regular aeration they have carried out over the years, they have managed to improve the root depth slightly, but the construction of the pitch is still a problem. Nick tries to concentrate on the density of the roots rather than length, and this seems to work for him as he doesn't get many divots coming out of the pitch, just scarring.
The club manages to fund the work on the pitch as, next to the ground, they have a full-size 3G pitch which is hired out throughout the week and at the weekends. Around 1,000 children a weekend play their league games with their parents watching, plus the first team, ladies' team and disabled team use it for training.
Extra revenue is brought in by having the bar open and, alongside this, they have a café selling hot/cold drinks, snacks and hot food. Then, at the end of the season, the East Manchester Junior football league have all their finals on the main pitch, which last about five weeks.
Nick still likes to keep up the high standards, even though the pitch is taking a battering as the children expect to play on the same quality pitch they have seen the first team play on all season. This gives Nick a tighter renovation window but, without it, he wouldn't have the funds to do the relevant work he requires.
Finally, I asked Nick what his thoughts on the industry are as he can answer from both sides of the coin. "Golf, as an industry, is in decline. Golfing members and numbers are still dropping off from ten years ago. It's getting more and more difficult, you have got to ensure you are producing a product that people want to use, and that is where the pressure lies. It has got to be good all the time."
He recalls that, when he first started in greenkeeping, it was a summer game, with only some people playing in winter. Now it's non-stop. The golfers want the same quality greens throughout the whole year; the pressure of trying to produce that means improving the surfaces. "Greens are definitely improving; if you have dry firm greens in Manchester, you are doing alright."
When it comes to the football side of the industry, Nick believes that, at the top-level, investment is great but, as you come down into lower end football league and non-league clubs, they are struggling. "As I have said before, we are really fortunate with the support we get. Investment in the pitch is what makes it a success, alongside what me and my team have done with the pitch, but this would not have happened without that investment."
They have made the most of the grants that have been made available to them which has helped with the drainage works. Nick believes more investment needs to be made available for grassroots football and what the clubs do receive has to be spent wisely and maintained.
"I know of non-league lower level clubs that have had a grant, gone out and bought a tractor or a cutting machine, but don't know how to look after them. That investment is great but, if you end up with a mower that has not been maintained properly, then it's pointless. As a groundsman at non-league level, we should have to meet criteria and maybe go on courses that give you access to grants."
"Even I would do it, if it was required. Ideally, this would be a course that went through the maintenance of machinery, how you put it on cut, how you set the height of cut and daily checks etc. Then, once you complete the course and get your certificate, that opens the door for grants to be given."
"What's happening at the minute is that money is being invested, and there are grants out there for draining football pitches, for example, but then there's no real maintenance afterwards. Then clubs are going back after three years and saying the drains aren't working. The funding isn't too bad, but it could be better. At this level and lower, it needs some kind of qualification gained and understanding to be able to use a tractor, verti-drain and things like that, combined with a general knowledge of turf.
This can only help everyone improve their skills going forward and help provide better surfaces around the country."
What's in the shed
Toro 2000D triple mower
Allett C34 with various cassettes
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 7215
1-tonne tipping trailer
350-litre tractor mounted sprayer
Spray line marker
Scotts ICL fertiliser spreader