"I take the training very seriously and like to be thorough, which is why Sussex CCC like sending apprentices to me. I put them through their paces"
The football world shook in May with the abrupt departure of Sir Alex Ferguson after twenty-six years in charge of Manchester United. Many younger fans, and even senior players like Ryan Giggs, don't remember a time before him. Yet, at the drop of a hat, it's all change and the club prepares for a new era without the fiery Scot at the helm.
Certain organisations are so entwined with a particular figure that it's hard to imagine life without them. The age-long influence of powerful, devoted individuals within professional sport seems on the wane as managers are no longer allowed the bedding-in time once afforded men like Ferguson.
At amateur level, this is thankfully not yet the case and many small outfits continue to be kept afloat by the goodwill and generosity of committed members.
A quarter of a century seems for ever in sport but, for one Sussex cricket club, twenty-five years is a second in time compared to the life-long devotion of its founding member, who, even in death, leaves a lasting legacy that has ensured the financial security of the club for generations to come.
Some of the most impressive views of the South Downs can be enjoyed from Brighton & Hove's highest point, Devils Dyke, which also offers a picture postcard scene of one of Sussex's loveliest, and now wealthiest, cricket clubs - Preston Nomads, with its first and third concentrically ringed grounds lying either side of a magnificent flint and brick pavilion, shed and outbuildings.
This once unassuming club, tucked away beyond the quaint village of Fulking, nestling at the foot of the Downs characteristic rolling hills, enjoys facilities and a level of professionalism that most amateur clubs can only dream of, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of its founding member and benefactor Spen Cama, who devoted his adult life to the club.
Spen was born in London in 1908 to an Indian father who had come to England a few years previously to establish his carpet import business. His father later become ill with a serious chest complaint so endured spells in and out of hospital. It was during one of his many stays in hospital that he met his wife, a Welsh nurse.
Spen was born shortly after his father died, so was brought up by his mother, who relocated soon after his birth to Brighton, where he went on to study at the grammar school.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Spen trained as a barrister and later (1945) turned to purchasing and leasing property, forming his own company, Lyndale. While studying for the Bar, Spen often drove out in the evening to the rural peace of Fulking to study in the Sussex countryside.
On one such visit, he found the area littered with 'For sale' boards. The meadows were being split up and sold off. Spen was a hugely successful businessman throughout his life, so this was an opportunity he wasn't ready to pass up - he promptly purchased several of the lots, one of which was to become the major part of the club's present south ground.
Spen's love for cricket began early, playing at Athol House with friends at the tender age of six. He and his gang of cricket-loving friends continued their regular fixtures at the house well into their late teens, when Spen called a meeting on 8 March 1927, at his house in Maldon Road, Brighton, to propose the formation of Preston Nomads Cricket Club - in connection with the Church of the Good Shepherd, in what is now the Preston Park area of the city. The fact that the club had no base was the inspiration for the name, but was a far cry from the picturesque setting they now call home.
The death of Preston Nomads' charismatic figurehead - and life President - in spring 2001 was a sad one for all who knew him, but Spen ensured his name would live on for friends and strangers alike in the form of a £9m bequest to his beloved club.
Spen's generosity has also had lasting effects on the whole county, thanks to his £12m bequest to Sussex County Cricket, who have since forged formal links with Preston Nomads, using it as an outground and training site where Sussex turfcare apprentices have the chance to develop their skills - an opportunity that wouldn't be afforded them at Hove.
Spen's handsome bequest has been used to fund major developments at Hove, without accruing debt, including the construction of an indoor cricket school in 2003, £8m to refurbish the pavilion, two new stands, upgraded floodlights, a new groundsman's facility and the Boundary Rooms.
The relationship between Sussex and Preston has blossomed, but it's by no means a one-way street for either club. Preston benefit from the presence of full-time ground staff, who ensure the facilities at Fulking are no less impressive than would be expected at Hove.
In fact, I'm yet to see a first-team square that struck me quite as much as this one did at first glimpse. Little wonder the ground has been named one of cricket's loveliest, with a backdrop that is stunning all year round.
Green and lush it may look, but the man whose job it is to keep it looking this good is still striving for the level of perfection that he feels the square is yet to reach.
"You haven't seen it at its best," remarks Head Groundsman Brian Fandalls. "We've had a tricky year with such heavy rainfall, so maintenance that should have been completed months ago is only just being tackled. Come back in a month's time and you'll really notice the difference."
Whether I would notice is another matter, as the pursuit of perfection is a journey many grounds professionals take, and Brian is no different. He's probably the envy of most in the profession though, with the tools to deliver a first-rate wicket but without the demands on him of his colleagues over the Downs at Sussex. Despite this, Brian is a man on a mission as he strives for the best during his time here.
Since 2001, Sussex have run the contract to maintain the Nomads ground, which is also one of the county club's apprentice training venues, along with nearby Blackstone CC.
The luxury of this relationship from Sussex's perspective is it provides an environment where apprentices are allowed a greater degree of freedom to experiment, and one where mistakes won't have the impact that they would in the pressured environment of Hove.
Thanks to the poor winter, Brian, like many in his position, is a month behind schedule. "We've had little growth until recently; the seed is only just taking with the bit of sunshine," he tells me. "Barenbrug's Bar Extreme has been our saviour; it suits our climate and we're beginning to gain some good germination. The fact is, we're up against it to get everything ready for the season, which this year has more fixtures than ever before."
Brian admits preparations were met with a degree of panic because of the unseasonal weather and have led to some unorthodox practice.
"We'd normally only sow once, but we've done so five times this year. As the rain came down without letting up, we worried 'has the seed rotted, been washed away, will it germinate in time for the season?'"
"However, the difference a month makes is huge. Our first and third squares are like chalk and cheese, such is the microclimate here. We've never completed renovations in such poor conditions before, but we had no choice this year and the results were always going to be worse than we'd have liked. Ultimately, if you prepare in poor conditions then poor results are what you'll get." A verdict I couldn't help but feel was a tad harsh, but such is the perfectionist's burden.
Like the many apprentices that progress through the Sussex ranks, Brian began his career at Blackstone, where, like others since, he had the chance to hone his skills in a less urgent environment. He began his youth training at Arundel Castle as a groundsman/gardener, returning to the historic town after a few years out to join the staff at Arundel Castle Cricket Club, where he enjoyed four years as assistant to Colin Dick.
He was now set for a new challenge and entered the contracting world, taking a position with the then Worthing District Council where, for two years, he was stationed at Goring Cricket Club. Grounds management switched from council to contractor and back again, but the same problems persisted with contractor-led maintenance, he recalls.
"When you're looking after several sites, you have to cap how much time you can devote to one club. I find it hard to stop when I see improvements being made, but there was only so much time we could spend at Goring, and the fact was, I was over-servicing. When a position became vacant at Sussex, I applied and was offered the Senior Groundsman post at Blackstone, moving here two years later to take the head's job."
At Preston, Brian's helped by an annual flow of apprentices and developing groundsmen who often share their duties between Fulking and Blackstone. Ben Stapleton-Denyer is the latest in line - one of the best recent prospects to develop through the ranks in, what Brian believes is, an increasingly shallow pool of young talent. "Sussex is committed to train apprentices annually, but it hasn't made the job of finding good staff any easier," he grumbles.
Chris Geere, Dan Gibb and Matt Gravitt are among the best apprentices to graduate from the Sussex scheme, but Brian is concerned by the growing difficulty in sourcing committed young staff.
"The demands of the job appear to put some off," he says. "I've seen many come through here who don't really have a grasp of what's involved. Sometimes, they see it as a cushy number where they can sit out and watch cricket all day. The reality is that you need the confidence to make tough decisions on your own and be willing to work long hours. For some, the rigours of this profession are just too much."
Those who do make the grade benefit from one of the most demanding training programmes around, shaped with care and attention by Sussex CCC, who adhere to a skills checklist that ensures ground staff are well armed for a career in the industry, wherever it may be.
"I take the training very seriously and like to be thorough," states Brian, "which is why Sussex like sending apprentices to me. I put them through their paces."
The improvements to the original club have all been carried out in keeping with the idyllic village setting, utilising Sussex flint construction - even the groundsman's shed has a certain panache. A total of £1.5m was pumped into the clubhouse and renovations, which began in 2002, a year after Spen's death.
Investment came just at the right time too, with a host of costly installations required to bring the quality up to the standards expected of a professionally maintained facility.
"Drainage was a major issue here, so new lateral drains had to be installed as a priority," Brian tells me. "The bequest enabled us to totally transform the ground; the first square was wholly unsuitable for cricket when I took over, the club had always used what is now the third and fourth team square."
The club's ambition was to bring the historic first square back into use, because it boasted fifteen wickets, a far larger outfield and the plans for the new pavilion were geared towards utilising the larger space.
As he walks me over to the strips - now lush green in pre-season growth - Brian remarks on the fine purple hue visible across the outfield. "The grass is hungry, we're running behind schedule," he says, almost to himself.
"The first team square was layered on a gravel raft ten inches deep and was corrugated, creasing the soil. We had to koro and work on the levels intensely," he explains. "Settlement was also a major issue. We were lucky here because Sussex Head Groundsman, Andy McKay, had similar problems at Hove, so we had access to his knowledge and vital contacts that eventually allowed us to remedy the problem."
Andy was able to call on the support of Pete Marron, who he'd worked under at Blackpool CC. Pete joined the ranks on a short-term consultancy to show Brian and the rest of the renovation team how to solve the settlement issue.
With most of the major renovation completed over a decade ago, the near future shouldn't require any further large investment, Brian reckons. "The wickets are only ten years old and should last more than thirty years for a ground with the level of play we see," he explains.
"The free-draining nature of the latest gravel base is the only minor issue now, which, contrary to problems which existed prior to investment, is little cause for real concern. We have to be cautious not to let it dry out, as we don't have access to irrigation systems. Luckily, we've not had a lack of water over the last 18 months."
Like the rest of Preston's facilities, the groundsman's shed is as well-equipped as many a county ground and the club enjoys the benefits of their links with Sussex CCC.
"Most of the machinery here is ours, bought outright with the bequest," explains Brian. "We also like to take advantage of the second-hand market, though, especially for kit that we might only use once a year for renovations," he adds.
"Our dimple seeder is probably the best machine we've bought, cost wise. I picked it up cheaply online and it's never let us down. Sometimes, you don't need to spend thousands on a piece of kit, you have to pick your battles."
Occasionally though, only new will do and Brian believes it's a matter of understanding what kit you can buy used and what you can't. "Our Autoroll was a new purchase, but I believe it's an investment that has to be spot-on. It's such an integral piece of kit and can have such an impact on the square if you get it wrong that you simply have to know its history. I would always buy a new roller, as you can never be 100% sure where it has come from."
For day-to-day duties, his John Deere 3720 outfield mower is most in demand - its hardiness is one reason why JD is his brand of choice. "Plenty of coins are lost on the outfield, where hundreds of kids turn up for our events. You can hit a pound coin with the 3720 and it would cut right through it, the blades are excellent and you won't find a longer-lasting, less maintenance needy machine," he enthuses.
"You won't enjoy the fine cut you would with a Jacobsen, for example, but the level of training needed to make the best of their machines is not worth our while here - you need grinding equipment on hand to prolong lifetime. The 3720 is a real workhorse."
For Brian, another virtue of his role here is the freedom to stretch his ecological legs, as tree management and conservation are also part and parcel of his remit.
"Tree maintenance has been important here particularly because we had loads of elms, which suffered Dutch Elm Disease. Nearly 2,000 were felled and removed. We've replaced all of those we lost, mainly with English species like hawthorn, blackthorn and beech. The replacement of the trees was also cost neutral as West Sussex County Council awarded us a £500 grant for purchase, and Plumpton College removed the old and replaced with new, free of charge, as part of the student's forestry training programme." Another example of Brian's canny management of the Preston Nomads acres.
With rural Sussex surrounding it, the club's need to encourage wildlife is hardly pressing, but, as conservation is a passion for Brian, where possible he strives to let his job and the natural world live in harmony.
With chemicals application reducing, the need for pest control to be administered with a heavy hand becomes less viable, but they still have their place in today's maintenance regime.
"Chafer grubs in particular are drawn to our sandy outfields," says Brian. "They attract the birds, which cause havoc, rip up the turf and leave us with a bill we'd rather not incur," he adds. "We've doubled our budget for insecticide in the last year, rising to over £800 to rid the outfield of the grubs. Our level of damage is fairly modest compared to some clubs locally, where birds have torn the square up and left significant damage for them to make good."
In an ideal world, Brian would like to have no chemical input, but sadly this is still some way off, he says, and coupled with the rising spot treatment costs is the overall spend on fertiliser, which has risen dramatically with the growing unpredictability of the seasons.
"Our slow-release applications on the first square have really been beefed-up, but we are still behind on our feeding programme, due to the lack of real spring weather," he says. "We need rain, sun and rain. Prolonged bouts of rain and drought are the worst kind of weather, especially as renovations have been so delayed."
Contrary to the decade of investment and transformation of the first square, the third and fourth team square is fertiliser free, yet Brian dubs it "how a cricket square should look", following a renovation last year.
"The density, grass cover and colour is spot on and, once the we are up to speed with the time we've lost over this spring, the square should look just so for the new season."
As the noughties dawned, it might have seemed hard to believe that the club would host anything other than amateur fixtures but, with the Sussex CCC connection and the investment made across the board, Preston Nomads are now in a position where they are able to host international events.
The ICC Division 1 Championships will be held in the UK for the first this year, and the tiny village of Fulking will be the destination. In addition, the venue will host its first Twenty20 fixtures this year, seeing some of the biggest spectator numbers in the club's history.
Working day to day in this tranquil spot would be manna from heaven for most, especially as we usher in the (hopefully) long, warm summer days, but Brian's drive for turf perfection (he labels himself "a bit OCD") and career progression mean it might be hard to imagine him ending his working days here.
"Moving on certainly would be difficult; the standards here are very high, budgets are good and the club are extremely supportive, but I relish a challenge, so I'll have to wait to see what happens - a private school job, with a mix of sports and a large acreage would be tempting. For now, I still have plenty to achieve here as we prepare for our busiest season in the club's history."