This year has been a positive time in the long and proud history of Ipswich Town Football Club. A few months on from the estimated forty-million-pound takeover by the American based Gamechanger 20 Group, optimism has returned to the Suffolk club. A positive Grounds Manager, Ben Connell, explains all to Blair Ferguson.
On the day myself and Grounds Manager Ben Connell sit down at Ipswich's Playford Road Training Centre, the team are within touching distance of the League One play-offs after the arrival of new manager and former Manchester United ﬁrst team coach Kieran McKenna. Like many who work and support the club, Ben has been buoyed by the changes and developments new investment has brought and is looking forward to a bright future.
Ben joined Ipswich almost eleven years ago when the club were ﬁrmly in their record-breaking run of seventeen straight years in The Championship. During that time, he's had investment in the pitches scuppered by failed play-off campaigns and staff and budget reductions due to relegation in 2018/19.
During the interview, Ben is open, honest and considered. Clearly, there have been frustrations both for himself and his exceptionally hard-working team, who until now have had to make the best of what they had. However, now is the time for him to put his stamp on Ipswich Town after a decade of ﬁreﬁghting, starting this summer when work begins at Portman Road to accommodate the club's ﬁrst major pitch reconstruction since the 1930s.
"Now that we've got the opportunity to start putting some plans forward and do what we want, it's almost like I've got a list of ten or fifteen and which one do we want to do first. So, you really have to take a step back and think about it and think about what is going to make the biggest impact first, what do we need to do to make the best improvement we can initially."
"It's still an old-fashioned pitch at Portman Road and hasn't really moved a lot since the 1930s," Ben explains. "I gather there was something done in the 1970s, but not much, and then minor improvements being made as you go with annual renovations and extra sand added in. So really, in the last ten years, we've probably added in and taken off with koroing somewhere around 800 tonnes of sand."
Grounds Manager Ben Connell
"So we have diluted it down a lot, but coming with all the adding of sand and such, we haven't got any reinforcement in there. So you do lose some stability. Some players prefer it because it's a slightly softer pitch, but it really can show itself during the depths of the winter."
"I feel we can produce good pitches for three of the four seasons, but there is usually a ten-week period where it is a bit of a struggle if the weather is against us."
"During the summer, as the club was being bought, we were already doing end of season renovations. We had koroed and dressed sand in and did our normal renovation on there, and it was starting to grow in."
"I immediately put reports into the new Chief Executive, Mark Ashton, laying out where we needed to head with the pitch, and the recommendation was to go for a full construction with a stitched hybrid and also to purchase as many lights as they could afford," Ben jokes.
"We were lucky enough to get passed on the lights immediately, and we placed an order with SGL for three LU440s which cover about 1,6000sqm of light on there with the six lights that we have, and it's made a massive difference."
"With a slightly kinder winter this year, we have got through it. The lights arrived at the beginning of December 2021, and we had taken quite a hit on the pitch beforehand because we'd had double the rainfall in November than expected. We had about six ﬁxtures in the month before in twelve days and, coming out of the back of that, we were not doing great considering it is a natural soil-based pitch."
"But, as soon as we put the lights on, the pitch picked up straightaway and, within two weeks, we'd started to grow some grass again. We'd overseeded the pitch completely after the FA Cup second round tie because being in League One, and we've also got the extra EFL games, the ﬁrst and second round of the FA Cup, which we got drawn at home in. So, we were struggling towards the end of November beginning of December, and it was looking more like a February pitch than a beginning of December pitch."
"We were willing these lights to turn up as soon as they could, and once they were on, we made dramatic improvements straight away. Then, it started germinating, and soil temperatures picked up, and we effectively grew a new pitch back in with the lights."
"The next step is to have a new pitch constructed, which is planned for the summer of 2023. The planning is underway with that, and we'll be looking at putting in a full hybrid stitched pitch with undersoil heating. It will be the first time we have had undersoil heating, and I think it will make a big difference for the team in terms of time saving against putting a pitch cover out."
"We have some works to the stadium that need to be done before we can reconstruct. The access isn't great because it's an old stadium, so we need to develop that."
"It was a case of not doing too much too quickly. There are some developments where new dugouts are being built, and a corner is being opened up to allow better access in and out, which will help with the pitch build and future concerts and events because, nowadays, we can't just be a football stadium, it needs to be multiuse."
"All of those bits are being sorted out now. We were going to try and do it this summer, but it got a bit complicated, and we didn't want anything to go wrong, so we delayed. We've proved the purchase of the lights have really helped with the pitch an awful lot, even though we will always be looking to improve, and there will be a better playing surface as we go forward."
The process of developing things his way is already underway with grow-lights and construction plans, and it allows Ben to do what he has done twice already is in his career.
Starting out as the Head Groundsman at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club at just eighteen years old gave Ben a lot of on the job experience. It was also his first experience of professional sport, with the LTA hosting a tournament every summer at the club during his time there.
However, his ambition was to work in his favoured sport of cricket. Both he and his brother represented Suffolk up to under nineteen level, and moving to a school was Ben's way of keeping in the sport. At St. Joseph's College, Ipswich, his immediate impact and progress over four years got noticed by then Ipswich Head Groundsman, Alan Ferguson, who actively persuaded Ben to replace him in the role.
At the time, Ben joined a club that had weathered administration and had halted phases two and three of their training ground development. Now, two decades on, plans are already well into development to upgrade the pitches.
"For us this year, it was lights, and then it's getting a pitch in. We're also turning our attention to the training ground as well because, although twenty years ago, it was opened as state of the art. It was still on phase one of three, and the club went into administration in the early 2000s, and all work halted."
"So it's been very much a waiting game for a long time up here. We're now starting to think about getting into the 21st century. Where everyone else has moved on with Premier League money we just haven't had that ﬁnance."
"So, initially for the summer, we're looking at developing one of the ﬁelds. We're looking at moving the ﬁrst team out of one ﬁeld into an academy area, but we're looking to develop the three pitches. We're on natural soil pitches, which was farmland turned over to sports ﬁelds, and then Ipswich bought them. So they have their restrictions and limitations during the winter, but during the summer, they play well, and they are good in autumn and spring, but if you get some bad weather in the winter, we know about it."
"Here, drainage rates aren't great, so we're looking at having a company come in, starting in the springtime, to initially do some sand carpet pitches with a progression to stitched pitches as the club progress in the next year or so."
"With a view that we can upgrade pitch six next summer from what's done this year to a stitched pitch, we'd probably have the same done. So 2023 stadium hybrid construction, and then we'd maybe have something similar up here. It may not be a full construction here, it may be the upper rootzone and stitch, and we initially wouldn't have undersoil heating with the lower rootzone and gravel carpet. But we've got to look at the weather in East Anglia as well, and it's not quite what it is in the North West, and we have quite low rainfall in general."
Away from the major project side of developments, close attention is also being paid to what is used on the pitches. Ben has almost completely reduced fungicide use and is concentrating on plant health. He uses the training pitches to trial different fertilisers and has recently found a winning formula with Barenbrug that is in use at the training ground and stadium.
"We have been looking at Barenbrug seed over the last ﬁve or six years. We try and do different pitches with different seeds, so we are keeping an eye on the latest developments and what works for us."
"We like to try it on-site in real case scenarios, and we will try Barenbrug, Rigby Taylor and Johnsons to see how they work. We swayed heavily towards the Barenbrug in the last couple of years because the mixes have worked really well for us and have been successful in the pitch trials here."
"We will still have pitches of different companies in, and we're looking at tetraploids and what beneﬁts they can bring us, especially for the earlier pitches and quicker establishment in lower temperatures. I think they could be really beneﬁcial to us, bearing in mind we're renovating in April to get pitches back in play for June."
"But, we're excited with the new varieties coming out, and Barenburg is proving what they are saying they can do. The company is based in Suffolk, and a lot of the grass is grown in East Anglia, which is good because we don't have massive air miles on it, and I like the idea of supporting local companies."
"We're using ICL, Ransomes Jacobsen, Barenbrug and MH Goals as well and, for us, we are in a great position really because, as a proud Suffolk club, we want to use local companies. So we are very fortunate to have some of the world's best here on our doorstep."
The mention of reducing air miles on products sparks a separate conversation on Ben's passion for the environment. Like many, he juggles treating the land as well as he can with the demands of professional football. His biostimulant, seaweed and nutritional programmes go some way to addressing this, but his new machinery plan aims to take things further.
The two sides of Ipswich's training ground are separated by a road and almost completely surrounded by houses. A new machinery plan allows Ben to ease any early morning tension with neighbours whilst addressing his environmental concerns and showing his staff the club is willing to invest in them.
"We're putting in a machinery plan to the club to improve machinery. We are looking at new machines on a case of user comfort, health and safety and environmental factors both for the neighbours and all of us. So we're looking at battery-powered equipment like mowers and hand tools."
"We are looking at electric pedestrian mowers and the Jacobsen Eclipse 360 ELiTE to cut before training. We need to cut early in the morning before training and, with us being so close to houses, we need to consider things like that. It's something we need to do, and it's good for air pollution as well as noise, and we don't want to be a nuisance to our neighbours."
"Because we were taken over last May, a lot of the stuff is still waiting to feed in. We have had some new machinery over the last year. We've had a new verti-drain, two new Dennis G860s and a new sprayer."
"That's not to say we haven't invested in machinery before now. We bought our Vredo in 2018 because our previous seeder wasn't doing what we needed when trying to establish on sand pitches. It broke down during our renovations, and a contractor turned up with a Vredo, and we had one hundred percent germination. There were no patches that it didn't grow in, and it made life a lot less stressful during the renovation period."
"We're three passes over, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock and one o'clock pass, and we're playing football on it in ﬁve or six weeks. It absolutely revolutionised what we were doing and the conﬁdence to get pitches back in successfully."
For a long time, Ipswich has been a club where decisions have been concentrated on saving money and working with what they have. This includes renovating all of their pitches themselves and completing other projects. Regularly throughout the interview, Ben circles back to his team's hard work, past and present. In his view, their dedication has played a signiﬁcant part in keeping the pitches at a high quality but, like himself, their mindset will now have to change.
"It will be like a new job for me. We are having to change our mindset from how cheaply can we get away with doing this to how good can we make it. And that is something that is changing."
"When we were relegated, we had to change the way we managed things here, and the budgets were also reduced, so we didn't renovate all of the pitches. We aimed at making sure the ﬁrst team pitches were looked after, and we did the best job we could on them, but the academy suffered off of the back of that, both in staffing and budget."
"We knew our route out of the situation would be to make sure that the ﬁrst team had whatever we could do for them, and it was the academy that suffered."
"I gather that we lost nine million straight away from TV money, and that has got to impact budgets, and it did. We had to compromise on that, and we had to change our feeding programmes, change staff numbers and generally change the way we do things."
"We've had a lot of things on the back burner for many years, and I think a lot of companies are probably fed up with me phoning them and saying can you give a quote for this because we're looking at doing that. And then the quote comes through, and then it doesn't happen, and it gets a bit awkward after a while when you're going back to the same people."
"Pitch construction companies and lighting companies are watching how teams are getting on in the league, and they know if the teams that have the quotes in get promoted, the deal might go through, and if they miss out, that might say goodbye to that. But that's part of the fun of being involved in football or professional sport. It's all on a game of football, and that is the exciting thing."
"On a Saturday afternoon, you're cheering the team on not just because you want them to win but because you know you're more likely to get what you've just put in for, and that is the way it goes."
"Over the years, there has been careful consideration into where we want to go, where we want to head as a grounds department and the development of the pitches. Now it's starting to come to fruition, and it's good to start putting things in place."
"But we mustn't forget that we're still in League One and, although our ambition is very high, this will pan out over a number of years."
"Really, it's been patience. Waiting for the opportunity and waiting for the club to have some investment. The previous owner, Marcus Evans, kept us aﬂoat for many years, and I think a lot of people need to be grateful to him for that."
"Okay, we didn't have mega-millions ploughed into it, but he did keep the club going rather than buying a ﬁve-million-pound striker. That wasn't happening, and it was a case of being patient and waiting for our time and now it looks like Ipswich's time is coming around, and we want to make sure that we make the most of it on and off the ﬁeld."