After being in the industry for over twenty years, Southampton Football Club veteran Andy Gray was appointed Head of Grounds and Estates at the FA home of football St George's Park in Staffordshire. In this keynote interview, Kerry Haywood chatted to him about his career and how he has settled into the dream job.
You were at Southampton Football Club for over twenty years, what was the pull to come to St George's Park?
I had been at Southampton since I was seventeen and had been in my current position as Grounds Manager for ten of those. In that time, we had rebuilt both St Mary's pitch and every training pitch, some twice - the training ground and the team had doubled in size. I would by no means say that I was bored, however, I was ready for a new challenge. I saw the position advertised at St. George's Park and I consider this to be one of the most prestigious jobs available in our industry, so I didn't want to miss the opportunity.
How difficult was it starting a new position during Covid-19 and lockdown?
It hasn't been easy! Full teams were back on site when I started in September 2020 and the lads had renovated certain pitches, to varying levels, during the summer; some were fully renovated, some half renovated and others not at all. My first day coincided with the first day of International Camp - which meant the England Senior men and Under 21's were both here and, needless to say, I was in at the deep end. The following couple of months were also busy and then, December to February are historically a little quieter, which gave me time to reflect and plan.
As a native of Southampton, was it a wrench to move away?
I reached a point where I was ready to leave and take on a new challenge, but that doesn't take away from what we achieved there. My family is still based half a mile down the road from Staplewood, so I make the commute every Monday morning and then back home on Thursday evenings. It has actually improved my home life and time with my family though, as I now get weekends with them.
Were you given a specific remit when you were offered the position?
The FA have incredible high expectations and the remit is to ensure the grounds and pitches are the best condition they can be at all times. I would like to think that I got the job on the back of my vast experience and what I had achieved at Southampton, but it's not just a case of replicating what I did there, because you have to work and think differently here, but working practices and my management style will obviously be implemented and make a difference. Not only that, but my experience of pitch renovations, reconstructions, project work etc. means I'm in a good position moving forward to deal with everything that needs to be achieved.
It must be different looking after such a big site and so many pitches
Football is my main interest and I have worked in a football environment my whole career. It's not club football here though and that's why this is so different. In club football there is an International break from games and that break is when we are most busy.
It's not just the seniors that come here, we have a lot of development teams here too. And it's not just the England teams' home; Burton Albion FC are residents and we host a lot of training camps, as well as quite a bit of rugby this past year. The variants of all the different teams and requirements really provide an interesting set up and that's different to what I'm used to.
How many different surfaces are there?
There are ten grass pitches and five artificial (two full size and three smaller). Two of the grass pitches are fibre-sand and three are hybrid; one SIS pitch and two Desso, then the other five pitches are natural soil. They are all fully drained and on a gravel raft, but the soil and sand profile on top of that means it slows the drainage rates down considerably. I worked with the same set up of artificial pitches at Southampton, so I am used to the maintenance of those.
When the Senior squad is on site, is maintenance, and how your teams work, affected?
We are home to many England teams and FA Education. When the senior squads are here, all our focus and efforts are always on those teams and their requirements. So, we prepare the training pitch for when they arrive, repair it that afternoon and then prepare it again the next morning (if required), ahead of their next session.
The training pitch isn't used when they aren't on site, so it is just maintained as part of the rest of the site. It's nice when they are here because, essentially, that's what we are here for!
How often do the England teams visit?
Men's seniors are here five times a year; with camps in September, October, November, March and June, with the womens teams following two weeks later. This summer, with it being the Euros, we will host the base camp for England and then, next year, will be the same for the women's team ahead of their Euros 2022.
You were very much your own man at Southampton. Is that still the case here and how are your team sizes different?
The team is actually the same size; the difference is that we cover one site here, whereas there were three sites at Southampton. Here, we have a team of ten groundstaff, with a further four on the estates and landscaping team. The pitches are obviously maintained in intricate detail, but it can't be ignored that the site is 330 acres and the pitches only roughly make up 20 acres of that, so the estates team do a fantastic job of maintaining the estate to offer visitors the 'wow' factor.
Are the FA strict custodians?
Not as a rule. We clegg every pitch each week, so that we have a record of the levels, and our aeration programme is derived from those results. I'm just getting to know the medical performance team here, ahead of base camp for the summer and take everything they say on board. Every player wants the grass short and wet, so that's what we give them! Each pitch is cut at 25mm and, unless it's raining, they're watered before each session and we would tend to have someone available in case they require more water during training.
What sports were you involved with in your younger days?
I played football until I was around twenty-four. However, I was worried that if I got hurt or injured on a Sunday morning (which was very likely given the teams we used to play), I wouldn't be able to do my job.
What inspired you to become a groundsman?
The most important factor for me was to work outside and do something practical. I wasn't academic at school and I didn't enjoy being cooped up inside, so I was determined to find something outdoors. There was a golf course a couple of miles down the road from where I lived, and I found myself asking them what it involved to maintain the surfaces and how I could work on the course. I was in Year 11 at school at the time and they allowed me to work two weeks work experience in the Easter holidays. I really should have been revising for my exams but, instead, I was raking bunkers and paving the way for my future career!
I loved it and enrolled in a college course where I studied Sportsturf and Horticulture. Everyone on my course worked on a golf course and, similarly, they played it and loved the sport, but my passion was football. Out of sheer luck, my tutor knew David Roberts who was head groundsman at Southampton FC at the time (1998) so I asked for some work experience, which then turned into an apprenticeship at the club. I couldn't believe my luck!
Did Dave Roberts mentor you through your early career?
Absolutely. I was on release from college for the first two years of my apprenticeship and then was lucky enough to be offered an assistant groundsperson role. Dave was my boss for the first nine years in the industry and I couldn't have asked for a better mentor and tutor.
You have been in the industry for over twenty years. You must have seen some changes in that time?
In a stadium environment, I would have to the say the biggest improvement has been the introduction of grow lights. As long as you have the budget and finances, they allow you to have a pitch in January the same as it would be in August, and the surfaces can be consistent all year round; regardless of what you did before grow lights, you could never achieve that before! Going back twenty years, it was commonly accepted if a pitch was returfed during the season.
Also, hybrid pitches have made a huge difference, giving extra stability throughout the year and achieving that consistency. When I first started my career, it would definitely be a challenge to keep goalmouths green throughout the season, and now it's very uncommon in the Premier League (and also the Championship and below, for the most part) to see anything bad.
Expectation levels for both the pitches and the game have risen massively over the years - which covers much more than just sportsturf. Nutrition and the medical side of sport has vastly improved and everything has moved on. (At this point, we joked about players from twenty/thirty years ago having a pint at half time - which would certainly not be allowed today.)
Left: One of the two Desso pitches
Do the TV pundits and press folk talk common sense when it comes to pitches?
I feel like everyone on TV is a referee, linesman, manager and a groundsperson. If a manager doesn't make a correct or timely substitution everyone is on his back and, likewise, if the surface doesn't quite look its best, everyone is a groundsman and can do better! This season, there have been a few pitches not looking quite as good as normal because of last year's circumstances; non-renovations due to Covid, smaller teams and money etc. However, the commentators don't take any of these factors into consideration when they are passing judgement on the pitch.
We have often thought about how we could educate pundits. Do you have any ideas?
My deputy at Southampton, John Wright (who has now taken over my role), once had a very interesting chat with Gary Neville after he cut the corner of the pitch. John asked him not to do that in future, which led to a natural conversation about what goes into pitch maintenance and I think if more people were challenged over their actions or words, the more they could be educated.
Do you feel you are out of the media spotlight now?
Industry wise, I feel like I might be in it more at St. George's - not that I feel pressure as I don't tend to get excited about much (he laughs). I have always been a big believer that you can control the controllables and don't worry about anything that you can't control. St Mary's is obviously on television every time Saints play, so that was available for all the world to see and, ultimately, what you are judged on. But, since I started here last September, this position has definitely had more exposure; companies want you to use their products, their machinery and want to be affiliated with the FA and the prestige of it being the England training facility.
What would you consider has been the highlight of your career so far?
It would be very difficult to pick out one particular moment but, in 2014, Southampton won the Premier League Grounds Team of the Year (jointly with Arsenal). I have always said that if we were ever going to share an award, it would be with Arsenal - as I consider they have been the front-runners of pitch maintenance for the past twenty-five years. We also won the Championship award in 2008 and League One in 2010 - which have all been highlights.
I also have to mention though, that one of my biggest achievements was the development and transformation of the training ground; we rebuilt every pitch and doubled the size of the site. Although it's quite small compared to some, it's a beautiful place and something I'm very proud of.
In addition, I am a huge football fan and love to visit other stadiums such as Anfield, Old Trafford, Wembley etc. and I'm lucky to have been abroad to a fair few clubs, including Juventus and Milan. Standing on the pitches at Santiago Bernabeu and San Siro was very special. My first tournament memory is Italia 90 and the San Siro is iconic to that, so it took me back to being a young lad. I don't take it for granted that Joe Bloggs would ever be able to pay for that experience, so it's unbelievable that this is my job.
Is there anything you would have done differently, professionally and personally?
To be where I am today and do what I'm doing, there is nothing I would say I should/could have done differently. I have never had any regrets about anything and I have taken every opportunity that has come my way to gain more experience. In 2005, Southampton took on the pitch maintenance at AFC Bournemouth and I worked there for two and half years - which was my first position as head groundsman. This paved the way for when Dave left Southampton and I was primed and ready to take on his role. From 2008, I worked as a casual at Hampshire Cricket Ground for the following three summers to gain experience of cricket pitch maintenance and expand my knowledge to a different sport … it only took those three summers for me to decide that I wanted to stick with football and I take my hat off to cricket groundsmen - it's intense!
Personally, I have been with my wife for twenty-one years (married for fifteen of those) with two beautiful daughters. She has seen me develop throughout my career, knows everything about what I do and has been amazingly supportive over the years. My youngest daughter (10) is also taking a keen interest in it and regularly comments on the state of pitches - good and bad. The other day, we were watching TV; Watford were playing at home and she passed comment on how great the pitch looked … I immediately messaged Scott Tingley to say he had the seal of approval and he was very grateful.
How would you raise the profile of groundsmanship?
I think we have to get into the school and college age groups. It would be great if industry bodies such as the GMA could be attending career evenings and educating pupils about what a career in the industry can offer. It's as simple as a stand with an image of Manchester United or Wembley etc. and kids would be over there to see what it is. Once you have their attention, you can explain what we do and hopefully get their interest. It is literally a job for anybody; someone who may not be academic, might be great with their hands and, if you are, you can get into the technical and science side of things.
Thank you for your time Andy.