"Our heads of specialist sports consult with me to decide if fixtures are played or not, and if the students are allowed on to the pitches at certain times"
Brian Minshall, Head Groundsman, Manchester Grammar School
Discussions over who will prove to be the true beneficiaries of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been bubbling away for some time. For the venues outside the capital, hosting the world's sporting elite will likely prove to be a big feather in their cap and, hopefully, bring a lasting legacy.
Old Trafford is amongst a handful of high-profile sites selected in and around the North-western hub that will witness a share of the Games' modest tally of football fixtures.
Just a few miles south, in the suburbs, another venue is busy preparing for the Games' football training programme. It's one blessed with its fair share of prestige and a rich history but is, at first glance, a surprising choice to welcome Olympians on to its turf, some might say.
Come mid-July, The Manchester Grammar School (MGS) will become one of only nine schools to play any formal role in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, when it welcomes a yet unknown (at time of going to press) number of world nations to train on two of the school's football pitches.
Each of the thirty-four training venues had to meet the requirement of being no more than thirty minutes' drive from the Olympic and Paralympic venues.
More than £17m has been invested in schools, universities, sports clubs and leisure centres across London and throughout the UK, to bring facilities up to world-class standards.
For a school with nearly 500 years of history (established by Hugh Oldham in 1515), and a fine sporting pedigree, MGS's task of delivering first-class playing surfaces was nothing new for its turfcare team, led by Head Groundsman, Brian Minshall, who has spearheaded a steadily improving sporting provision since he joined the staff in 1997.
"I spent six years as head groundsman of the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in nearby Didsbury before coming here," he tells me. "This was a fresh challenge, catering for a much wider range of sports - and having to meet a new set of requirements - was all part of the appeal of joining, what is, one of the most prestigious schools in the country."
He must have left the courts in prime condition, as then top-ranked player, Pat Rafter, had remarked on their quality. "A high point in my career," the 58-year old confides.
Head groundsmen worth their salt recognise that success in turf management is rooted in a strong support network from both staff and employer.
The awareness by educational institutions, that to achieve sustainable results on sports pitches requires investment, is growing steadily and, in the case of MGS, that commitment surely has played its part in the school being granted Olympic training status.
Brian is one of a rising number of grounds professionals being given the financial tools they need to deliver lasting results, and who are charged with more responsibility and influence in determining how the sportsturf they tend is utilised day to day.
"Our heads of specialist sports consult with me to decide if fixtures are played or not, and if the students are allowed on to the pitches at certain times," says Brian in typically no-nonsense Northern fashion.
"We had to cancel a load of games through November last year, either because of flooding or freezing. It's just one of those things, but it's important that we don't have games played for the sake of it, as it's ultimately detrimental to the quality of the pitches."
Once, groundsmen would have been dismissed for voicing such sentiments, but the times they are a changing as operators begin to take the longer view, and recognise that maintaining quality provision is a question of managerial balance.
A stone's throw from Noel and Liam Gallagher's Burnage birthplace, the school has a large acreage devoted to sport, thirty, no less, on both sides of Old Hall Lane, with rugby and football played opposite the site of the main gates - with a short drive up to a rather severe 'citadel' styled brick entrance building, redeemed by a picturesque clock tower.
In total, Brian and his team of five are responsible for seven rugby and six football pitches, two cricket squares, four sets of nets, nine hard tennis courts, whilst, in the summer, a 400m grass athletics track and softball pitch add to the provision.
Trouble with flooded or frozen rugby pitches is a constant niggle, and new drainage systems might be the answer, Brian explains. "A cancelled game is the low point of my year, but there's no skills development to be had when playing on a pile of mud or sheet of ice."
"There's another crucial consideration," he adds. "The school is extremely health and safety conscious. We have two full-time nurses in our Medical Centre who are always on hand for matches during the week, and a part-time nurse one on duty for Saturday games. Both Peter Mellor, my deputy, and me are St John Ambulance qualified, so can be right there should accidents occur."
Whilst MGS is noted for its academic excellence - the 1,500-pupil school is one of the biggest feeder schools for the Oxbridge universities, alongside the most notable public ones such as Eton and Harrow - sporting excellence has deep roots here, primarily in cricketing terms.
But, I cherish memories of another pursuit as, back in my sporting youth, I recall battles royal as the seat of my secondary education - William Hulme's Grammar School, sited only a few miles away - pitted its lacrosse skills against MGS. As, arguably, the premier school in the country for what is still sadly a minority sport, WHGS invariably prevailed (or so my memory would have me believe).
The lacrosse world championships were staged in Manchester a few years ago, with barely a nod nationally.
My old school gave up the sport in the 1990s, finally preferring football, but MGS still soldiers on, with a natural grass pitch occasionally marked out, Brian says. Mostly, when it is played locally, it is at the Armitage Centre next door, on synthetic turf managed by the University of Manchester.
The sound of willow on leather (or the modern-day equivalents) is the focal sporting pursuit here, spearheaded by Master of Cricket for twenty years, David Moss, and new Director of Cricket - Mark Chilton - a former Sportsman of the Year when he studied here - who was appointed in January, following his retirement from County Cricket with Lancashire.
"A lot of things may change to accommodate cricket," predicts Brian without further ado. From that remark, I sense that Mark Chilton could prove the catalyst for major initiatives.
Not that matters haven't moved on apace already. "We used to have a cricket week in June, now it's a fortnight," explains Brian. "It's extra work for the turfcare team, on top of the fact that so much effort is channelled into delivering cricket playing surfaces utilised for less than a quarter of the year. "Exams have finished and everybody is expected to take part in an activity - sporting or otherwise."
Despite that emphasis, rugby union is fast gaining ground, I gather. Current student, Marcus Webber, is a current England U18 international and MGS was named Best Venue for Rugby Teams 2011 at a meeting of schools in the region in January. "Justification that what we're doing here is good," insists Brian.
The change of training and coaching practices at the school has led to still greater achievements on the pitch, which means the role of Brian and his team is an ever more pressured one, given the mounting expectation for excellence from staff and players alike. But, some of that is self-administered. "You put pressure on yourself to put things right if anything goes wrong," says Brian candidly.
A healthy budget also always helps if groundstaff are to invest in quality machinery and trial new materials, so Brian is fortunate that he has "an ample annual sum" to play with.
MGS boasts a strong fleet of machinery, capable of meeting the high standards expected by the school. Two John Deere tractors - a 4720 and 4410, two Trimax ProCuts, a Charterhouse Verti-Drain, SISIS spiker, tipping trailer, two Toro Workmen, a Clubman, Dennis 36", Dennis 24" diesel, two John Deere rotary mowers and three Flymo hover mowers - "used to trim the cricket square when it's too soft to walk on" - and a pedestrian Blotter which, no doubt, comes into its own more often than Brian would prefer - this is Manchester, and rain is obligatory!
Whilst Brian has a mix of brands in his shed, he's not shy to divulge his favourites. "We like John Deere here," he volunteers. "They produce some of the finest machines you'd want. For me, their 4720 is the best tractor on the market for fuel efficiency, manoeuvrability, visibility and layout in the cab."
"Deere's aftersales service is also very good. We had an arm break on one of the tractors one Monday morning - by the Wednesday, the linkage was fixed and we were up and running again. This is exactly the fast turnaround you need when your machines are used every day."
We walked out from the school buildings, across the turf, towards the site of all the excitement - the first team cricket square. Wind and rain was the order of the day, but with clear signs underfoot that the temperature had plummeted recently; the tell-tale yellow patches betraying the fact that the pitches had been in the grip of ice and snow.
"The ground's soft and spongy after the cold snap," Brian says, reading my thoughts. "We Pro cut it with front and back rollers attached to bed it down again."
Despite only occupying ten to twelve weeks of the year, cricket definitely stirs the passions at MGS. With an impressive alumnus of former cricketing students, such as Michael Atherton, John Crawley and the aforementioned Mark Chilton, MGS clearly knows how to nurture talent.
The school has pushed the boundaries of the sport further still as it set out, last summer, to become unique in its field, ploughing in major money to create two new Test standard wickets, to make MGS the first educational establishment to possess any of this quality.
The development has been brought into sharper focus over the last twelve months with the aid of a prominent grounds professional who has imparted valuable advice and knowledge to the projects, Brian tells me.
The original cricket squares had been on site when the school moved from central Manchester to Old Hall Lane in 1930. Over the last decade, both the first team and intermediate squares have gradually been replaced, the turfcare team completing five pitches a year over two five-year periods under Brian's management.
But, the school was eager to progress again, and opening day of the 2012 season will mark the fulfilment of the most ambitious of the renovation work, as three, first team, test standard, wickets come into play - the culmination of a team-up between Brian and Peter Marron, Lancashire County Cricket Club's former head groundsman, who now works as a consultant. David Moss, who had managed Lancashire's U16 to U19 sides, knew Peter, and asked him if he could help.
"Peter saw us through the process," Brain recalls. "It was great experience for all of us to work alongside such a cricketing legend, and to be given some invaluable input into what was required to make the wickets Test standard," he enthuses. "But, he kept his cards close to his chest about some aspects of exactly how he went about creating them to that level."
Each of the three wickets (two on the first team square, one on the intermediate) cost more than £3,000 to prepare, with works starting last summer. Both were dug out to a 12in depth, stoned up to four inches, with 25mm to dust rolled in. The sides were shuttered with wood, spirit-levelled when an inch above the top, then five inches of Gostd loam from Surrey Loams Ltd were laid, before being screeded off to achieve a level surface, about an inch above ground level. Finally, the two new strips were seeded with Johnsons Ji Premier Wicket - a seed blend Brian had decided to trial following visits to the freshly renovated Old Trafford surface, where head groundsman, Matt Merchant, had turned the square 90O and sown a Johnsons iSeed mix after first trialling it in the practice nets.
"Matt's success is well documented up here, mainly because he'd found a seed that gives good year-round growth in Manchester's famed wet climate," Brian explains. "We decided to go with it, and I'm glad we did, as the results have justified our faith in it."
"In the past, we couldn't get any germination with certain mixes, but the iSeed really took off - we had to cut it six times with the Flymos before Christmas, after only sowing in October - the growth was unbelievable!"
Coated seed has come in for heavy criticism over the years, notably among sceptics who see the use of an outer shell of pre-applied fertiliser as simply a more costly alternative to standard product. However, successful trialing bolsters the argument for wider adoption across the sectors.
"There was no real science involved with my application," Brian admits. "I threw on as much as I would with any other seed. Since October, though, growth has been tenfold and we haven't needed to feed it at all yet, like you might expect with standard seed to get good germination."
He adds: "Within three or four days we had growth and, four months on, I'll only now be applying the Sierrablend fertiliser. We couldn't have asked much more from a new seed, and we hope to continue using it, especially as the focus on cricket will increase as the school plans to replace a further eight wickets in the coming years."
As my visit draws to a close, Brian reveals that the school's next five-year plan is already underway, with its vision to further develop cricket (no surprise there then) by adding more strips to the new Test standard wickets laid last summer.
With a new cricket season looming, Brian has his work cut out for a sporting season characterised by souls yearning to move the bar of achievement a notch or two higher still.
After almost five centuries, The Manchester Grammar School is still building its business and looking forwards. We pass an extremely fetching alpine cabin-style building, still sporting a fresh, clean, light wooden appearance before weathering imparts the 'silvering' that characterises the structure next to it.
"The new junior school," Brian states, "with capacity for more than 200 pupils." More pupils to keep the turfcare team busy I suspect.
Premier provision is the name of the game now at MGS, as the turfcare team readies itself for a summer of mainstream sport that includes hosting the very best of the footballing world.
Preparation for the arrival of the Olympic football squads will surely be Brian's primary focus, but he knows the cricketing fraternity at MGS will be hard at his heels right through the season.
The 2012 Games training schedule was still a closely guarded secret, so Brian remained tight-lipped when I asked him for more details. We know one thing for sure - the Games administrators would only grant training status to sites they felt assured were to a standard befitting the world's largest sporting event.
In the run-up to July 16th, when the site is handed over to the Games, the turfcare team will be following the maintenance regime dictated by STRI agronomist, Andy Cole, within the Institute's role as official turfgrass consultants to London 2012.
For MGS, the Olympic Games accolade marks yet another milestone in an enviable heritage. For Brian, more proof that "we're doing something right."