In the latest of our 'Key Note' interviews looking at individuals who have helped shape and move the turfcare industry forward, Lee Williams meets Roy Rigby, Grounds Manager for Manchester City Football Club, at their City Football Academy training base which is situated next to the Etihad Stadium in Beswick, Manchester. In this interview, Roy tells us how he progressed in the industry, how he aims to raise its profile, and much more ...
I have known Roy Rigby since 2002, when he gave me the role of assistant groundsman at Manchester City's then training base at Carrington, where he helped me develop my skills and knowledge and gave me my first management role, during the six and half years we worked together. We have kept in touch ever since, and Roy has always been on the other end of the phone whenever I have needed some advice. Only recently, in my role at Oldham Athletic AFC, he gave up his time to try and help me out. I have the utmost admiration for a man who has inspired me throughout my career so far, and I'm honoured to be in a position now to share his story.
Roy was first inspired into the industry through his love of crown green bowls when he was a young lad. "I played at a bowling club in Blackburn called Highfield Park, where I got to know the greenkeeper, George. At the age of fourteen, I was asked to play for the club in the lower leagues; that's how it all started."
Whilst Roy was playing bowls, his dad got friendly with George who told him he was looking for some help watering the green. "There was no automatic watering system at the cub, so my dad let me stay out until nine at night, watering the green with a hosepipe, If I needed a rest, I would lay the hose in the middle of the green and let it run down the crown. When I was done, my dad would pick me up." Over time, Roy began helping with maintenance on the green and it was this that helped develop his passion for looking after grass surfaces.
Whilst still at school, Roy was asked by his dad what he would like to do when he left school, and his answer was; "I want to work in grass on bowling greens".
At the age of sixteen, when Roy left school, it was time to try and find a job doing what he loved, but this wasn't an easy task in the 1970s. "I used to walk seven miles to Corporation Park on Peace Park Road, Blackburn - my parents didn't have much money at the time - to see Norman Thompson in the council offices, and ask if there were any positions available."
"I will always remember one particular Friday he told me to come and see him and he would see what he could do, but he wasn't there. I came home and was ringing wet through, and I ended up with a bad cold which put me in bed for four days. My mum wasn't happy, so she went to the corner shop to use the phone and rang Norman Thompson up. She told him that her son has been up to see him several times but, if you feel you don't want to take him on, then let him know."
Norman told his mum to ask Roy to "come to Corporation Park and he can start Monday. Tell him to bring steel toe cap boots and a bait box". This is where Roy's journey began, and it just shows, with determination, what can be achieved.
Roy's first job, for the first three weeks, was picking up litter around Corporation Park, a 3-acre site with bowling greens, landscaping and a big glass house.
After this, Roy was given his official role of apprentice greenkeeper/groundsman. Soon after, he went to see Norman to ask what his options were for career progression, "I told Norman I wanted to go as far as I could in the industry and was really keen to learn."
Norman explained to Roy that there were courses available, but nobody wants to go on them, but he could see that he was very keen. The only problem was he would have to travel to Myerscough College in Preston!
"I went to college once a week for four years, plus there were four or five occasions when I had to go five days on the run. I had to catch the bus, but I was able to claim the fares back."
During this time, Roy started to question if this career was for him. "As I got to the age of eighteen there were plenty of other distractions, but I started to gain a better understanding of the job, and I believe getting into this industry is one of the best decisions I ever made. I love the passion of the job and what I do. If there is one thing I'm good at it's looking after grass."
One valuable lesson Roy learned from John Welsh, one of his colleagues and the man who helped him whilst working with the council, was never to cut corners when doing a job; a lesson he has valued throughout his career. Once Roy had gained his qualifications, he was promoted to Head Groundskeeper overseeing the bowling greens and football pitches.
In 1990, Roy joined Blackburn Rovers who were looking for groundstaff to look after their new training ground at Brockhall village. After three months working for the club, he was made Head Groundsman, looking after the day to day running of the training ground's three rootzone and two fibresand pitches with the help of three members of staff.
Then, in 2001, Manchester City were looking for a head groundsman who had experience in Fibresand constructed pitches. "I was quite lucky I had the experience at Blackburn with Fibresand pitches as, at the time, not many people had. In those days, people thought the grass was just grass, but there is a big difference between looking after a rootzone pitch and a Fibresand one."
When Roy first moved to Manchester City, he was tasked with taking the club forward, because all the pitch works were then being undertaken by an outside pitch contractor - fertilising, seeding, spraying and all pitch renovations. "I was lucky that, when I was at Blackburn, we did a lot of these tasks in-house, so I brought that experience with me."
"Inside twelve months, all the staff at Maine Road, Carrington Training Ground and the Platt Lane Academy Complex were doing the pitch works in-house - for example, driving tractors and Workman buggies and also knowing how to work the irrigation system. If we had any problems, it was up to me to resolve them at all three sites."
"At the first team's training complex at Carrington, I oversaw the installation of new Fibresand pitches which, at the time, were all very new to the club. Very quickly in 2001, my position was upgraded to Grounds Manager. One of my first jobs at the Maine Road stadium was to take out the old rootzone pitch and install a new Fibresand pitch, which was like for like with the first team training ground. In 2002/3, we won the pitch of the year at Maine Road, the first time the club had ever won anything on the grounds side, which was good to see for everyone at the club."
In 2003/4, Manchester City moved to east Manchester to their new home - the City of Manchester Stadium (now the Etihad Stadium) - which had a Desso constructed pitch.
In August 2008, the club was bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group and, in September 2009, Roy was asked by the club if he would go out to Abu Dhabi to oversee the Club World Cup and run a team of groundstaff which were called the Dessert group. "I was one of the first to work outside the UK in our industry, working abroad with warm-season grasses (Bermuda and Paspalum) and different fertilisers, chemicals and mowing heights, all of which I picked up very quickly. I had to learn how they worked, and the establishment was so different with temperatures hitting 40 degrees plus, which is a lot different to the cool season grasses we work with in the UK."
Roy spent three months in Abu Dhabi, staying out for twenty-eight days each month, coming back home for a few days, and then out again due to visa requirements.
In 2009/10, the club installed a new Desso GrassMaster pitch with a fully automated irrigation system at the Platt Lane Complex, which replaced one of the soil-based pitches. At the same time, one of the Fibresand constructed pitches had a fully automated irrigation system installed.
In 2012, the club sent Roy out to Melbourne, Australia, to look at installing a new Desso GrassMaster pitch - the first in that part of Australia - for Melbourne City FC, their sister club.
"Things moved on very quickly with the new owners. We used to water both pitches at Platt Lane with a hosepipe; those were the days! I will never forget, in 2003, we had a scorching summer with temperatures hitting thirty degrees plus. Both grass pitches were dying in front of our eyes, so I made the call to the fire brigade to help us out; without their help, we would have lost both grass pitches for sure."
Planning for the new training ground started in 2008. This was to be called the City Football Academy (CFA), to be built in east Manchester right across the road from the Etihad Stadium. The work was completed in 2014. "I now oversee seventeen staff in total; three at the Etihad Stadium and fourteen at the CFA. We have seventeen pitches; eight hybrid, six Fibresand and three full size Desso synthetic pitches (two outdoor, one indoor), and I also oversee all the landscaping."
Roy helped with the build of the new 10,000m2 sand-based pitch at the New York training complex, which began in 2016 and was completed in 2018. "I have travelled the world with the club. I have been to South Africa, China, Australia, Ghana, Abu Dhabi and the USA working at the training camps abroad. I have been fortunate. I'm a very focused and professional person in everything I do in life, so it has kept me in good stead with all the experience I have gained. You cannot buy experience, although some people think you can. That is why I have stayed at the top from day one, and still moving forward in the industry looking at making things better and moving the club forward."
"In 2018, Manchester City were the first Premier League club to install a new full-size Hybrid Hero carpet pitch system (at the CFA). The reason for this was the club wanted more playing hours in the winter months. The Hero system was chosen after a lot of investigation looking at the hybrid pitches that are out there on the market. I was given a budget to work to, I went down to London on a lot of occasions and over to Real Madrid's training ground to look at the Hero pitch installed there."
"When I first started in the industry, forty-three years ago, as a fresh-faced sixteen year old, if you had asked me would I be where I am today, I would have to say yes. I have put my life and soul into the industry, helping others along the way, but I must admit it is good to have people around you who want to learn about the industry from the lower level to the top. The most important thing is that myself, the industry and the football club are moving forward, and we are now in a good place. We are all in it together as one team. Moving to Manchester City is the highlight of my career, and I have never looked back."
Roy tells me that, since he started out, many areas of the turf industry have improved - machines, pitch construction, fertilisers - but the most significant change over the last five years is with chemicals being taken off the market. "We have seen this coming for a while, so what we intend to do is put a plan in place where we keep the plant as healthy as possible. We have a big problem with nematodes at the CFA, with the pitches being sand-based, and we are not on our own. It all comes down to how you look after your pitches. I believe, with the right fertilisers, with the right chemicals at the right time and working with the weather we should be okay."
I asked Roy what he regards the best part of his job and if he has any regrets? "The best part of my job is overseeing everything for the club, looking at new developments and helping the club move forward with the playing surfaces. I have no regrets in life; I'm where I wanted to be, working at the highest level with Manchester City, one of the biggest clubs in the world at this time and, when I retire, I will look back and be proud of what I have achieved."
The most significant pressure Roy and his team face is turning the pitches around at renovation time, especially at the Etihad Stadium. "The club want to hold concerts on the pitch every year as we are in a big catchment area, and you can't blame them."
"A subject that I believe, as an industry, we need to be looking at, is ways in which we can attract more youngsters and women into, what can be, a rewarding career. Manchester City are one such club that has two young grounds women who have successfully completed their apprenticeships and been given full-time roles."
"I feel college tutors need to be going into schools and promoting the industry. The interest is out there. I talk to a few children and their parents who ask about getting into the industry. The same questions are coming back to me all the time. The tutors need to be telling them that you can get grants for qualifications if you are of a certain age; people are under the illusion you must pay for everything. The industry is a better place now than it's ever been. I believe if clubs invested in people we'd end up with better employees who are qualified to do the job. This is what we do at Manchester City."
Roy's advice to youngsters who have just started in the industry is, "you have got to believe in yourself. Listen to what people say; if you don't know what you're talking about, then you just listen; I learned that from my dad. Keep your eye on industry developments, go on any courses that are made available to you and, when possible, attend trade shows. All you need to do is pick up one thing that could make the difference to your job and how fast you move up that chain. Never be scared to ask a question. There is no such thing as a daft question because it could be the most important question you ever ask in your career. Always think positive and look ahead. I have come from a background were my mum and dad had no money. I struggled myself with reading and writing when I was younger. I have not found it easy, but I'm sure that, if I can do it, others can too. Sometimes, you have got to walk before you can run. You have to take it gradually and evenly."
Roy likes to attend industry shows and educational days, "It's good to meet and interact with other turfcare professionals, to discuss and share ideas. The shows are good to have. People say it's the same old thing and, once you've been round, you've seen it, but there are always new things that will come to the market. I look at it like this; if I don't go, I could miss out on the one thing I didn't want to miss out on, and someone else sees it. We also encourage our staff to go when possible; it's about getting the staff out of the day-to-day environment they are in and seeing the wider industry."