The contrasts of tending natural and synthetic surfaces could not be greater than across the acres that the University of Manchester runs for its students and for the community. Greg Rhodes views the scope of provision and the task of keeping two venues ticking over when miles apart.
Mike Tomlinson, Peripatetic Duty Manager
Host to one of the largest student populations in Europe, Manchester runs a huge sporting programme for both pre- and postgraduates.
The University of Manchester alone coordinates some eighty sports and the usual suspects - football, rugby and hockey - figure strongly in demand for provision.
A single site could never satisfy the scale of requirement, but the scope of delivery needs to be seen to be appreciated.
The fabled Manchester weather descended on the day we visited the sites, but the downpours couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of the grounds team.
We met a cheery Mike Tomlinson at The Armitage Sports Centre, Fallowfield, south of the city. After an overview of the provision, he introduced us to Leisure Attendant Scott McLean, who has tended these grounds for some forty years.
The University of Manchester's approach has been to create a workforce of utility players in which 'everyone can do everything' and Mike's job title - Peripatetic Duty Manager - reflects that policy.
His roving brief sees him splitting his time between the Armitage sporting hub and the 100-acre expanse of sports pitches at Wythenshawe - some miles out of the city centre, nestling in a nook between the M60 and M56 motorways that stretches along the banks of the river Mersey.
The style of sporting provision has changed somewhat since Scott arrived, I guessed, but I was soon to learn by how much. The university campus here is undergoing further transformation as a rugby pitch on the site has been lost to the student accommodation rising from the ground.
As many as 1,000 students can crowd this venue daily for outdoor sport and to use the Armitage Sports Centre's gym and sports hall, so Scott's task is about crowd management as well as groundcare.
Sheltering from the rain, we're looking out from the vantage point of the Firs Pavilion, a traditional brick built and 'Magpie' timber clubhouse, now more than a century old.
"This was the former cricket pavilion," notes Scott wistfully, "which looked over the square until last year, when the provision moved to another ground. We still have practice strips round the back of the clubhouse though."
Nothing less than a vast green sea of synthetic turf has supplanted natural grass in front of the building - an impressive vision of sporting provision and evidence enough of the huge demand from both local community and student population.
Behind the pavilion stands a characteristically contoured building betraying itself as one housing squash courts. "Fifty years ago, these were the first of their kind in the North of England," Scott announces. "We clean and maintain the four courts, although one of them doubles as an ergometer training centre for the boat club."
Lacking the glass backs or spectator capacity of more recent constructions, they nevertheless offer 'second string'provision to add to those built within the Aquatic Centre for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which Manchester hosted.
The cricket square made way for more intensive sporting facilities as a swatch of synthetic pitches took the University into a new era and scale of participation on the site.
In its place stretch out two full-size synthetic football pitches, (laid straight on to a tarmac base, two full-size sand-filled hockey pitches, a 3G oversize rugby pitch (laid on a rubber base), full-size 3G football pitch and 3G 5-a-side football areas.
"Clearing the litter off the surfaces is the biggest bugbear," declares Scott, "especially after games. We take up most of it, then apply the drag brushes.
Due their annual maintenance soon, the rubber crumb surfaces laid last year are performing well," he adds. "We use a tractor with a cab on the larger areas, whilst the smaller Iseki tractor does the job on the 5-a-sides, although we wear masks as a precaution when using the drag brush."
"We are told there is no evidence of health risks associated with rubber crumb but, as part of health and safety best practice, we asked the university for the masks, just in the same way we use personal protection when the team knapsack spray."
The Scots pines after which the pavilion is named have gone, relieving the team of the chore of clearing their needles and cones. "Because of the quantity of natural green we have lost to recent developments, three trees are being planted for every one that was uprooted," Scott continues.
"This is certainly a dramatic change from my early days here, tending the square. The rise in usage is incredible. When we hold competitions, you can barely move for the crowds on site."
Scott, 55, arrived as a 16-year-old, just a month after leaving Spurley Hey School. "One of my most important jobs then was serving tea to cricket teams in the changing rooms," he jokes.
"I remember when Graham Atkinson was grounds manager, we entertained Lancashire's second team. Links with them were quite strong. Some of the benches in the clubhouse came from Old Trafford."
A footballing centre forward who reached semi-professional level, Scott can still relive his glory days on the two natural grass pitches that remain. "These are used by external teams," he explains. "Southampton U23s have played on them, so too have MK Dons, who needed a training area when they were up here."
Scott McLean (left) with Mike Tomlinson
Mike, "45 going on 72", is no newcomer either - twenty-two years serving both sites. "I began working at Wythenshawe as a leisure attendant before an opportunity for the post of peripatetic duty manager came up, when my duties spread to both sites," he explains.
His career has taken various turns. "I left school to become a gamekeeper at Tatton Park (a National Trust property in Cheshire) before moving to Herefordshire Agricultural College as head gamekeeper then coming to North Cestrian Grammar in Altrincham as a groundsman."
"If truth be told, the cricket here was slowly dying a death, but the site has a new lease of life since the new pitches were laid and demand at the weekends is massive. It's Bedlam."
"The FA Respect League plays here and they were filming football for TV's `Man v Fat` recently. Wednesdays sees BUCS [British Universities & Colleges Sport] fixtures both here and at Wythenshawe, which can witness up to thirty fixtures and cup games on Saturday mornings."
Aside from football, rugby and hockey, the Armitage Sports Centre hosts less traditional activities. "The University of Manchester Titans American Football team play here, and Ultimate Frisbee is popular on the rubber crumb surfaces, as well as at Wythenshawe, which also hosts softball," Mike explains.
Health and safely rank extremely high across both sites, Scott and Mike stress. "We are ultimately responsible as individuals if something goes wrong, so it is far wiser to be safe than sorry," Scott notes, "and that means ensuring staff are comprehensively trained to use all the machinery and equipment, such as the three-point linkages for the heavy tractors - and the new lads who come here must hold licences to drive anything."
The level of use on the Armitage sports hub's synthetic pitches raises concerns over player safety. "Knee injuries can occur when players twist on the surfaces," says Scott, "whilst only metal studs are allowed on the '4G' rugby pitch, which has more of a spongy playing characteristic."
Having hung up his boots last year "after my knee went", Scott is eyeing walking football as an option. "Its an art form. Far more skilful than you think at first glance."
The death of Graham Atkinson two years ago signalled a switch to site management "from the inside", Scott notes. "It can be difficult sometimes as internal managers may not always understand the requirements of managing external facilities, but we all strive to make it work."
Now on the clubhouse balcony overlooking the natural grass, we can see the three synthetic turf practice nets, while the 60m polymeric running track and two tennis courts, installed in 2010, are just visible.
In view too is Owens Park - where the renowned 'Toast rack' contoured student accommodation building caused a sensation when built in the 1960s. "It was the athletes village during the 2002 Games," Mike comments. "The Manchester Grammar School, whose sports pitches were used in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, is in the distance."
The natural turf has hosted some worthy visitors. Two years ago, Manchester United FC's U16s were on site for the International Nike Cup. Real Madrid and Barcelona have trained at Armitage sports hub too, in readiness for Champions League action. The Bobby Charlton Soccer School and the Manchester Youth Games also figure, as have trials for LA Galaxy recently, giving local lads a chance to display their skills.
The lush green surfaces betray more than the result of recent relentless rainfall. What's the secret? "Our contractor comes in and applies chicken muck," reveals Scott. "We try to adopt a green strategy." I think that qualifies.
"They Verti-Drain and topdress every Christmas time. Not bad looking for the end of the football season are they?" Impressive.
"We have plenty of fixtures to fulfil still. BUCS first, second, third and fourth teams, the Roy Little Cup [due to be played on 5 May] and an Old Mancunians match that day also."
I wondered if the surfaces were this luxurious for the 1893 FA Cup Final, contested by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton at the then Fallowfield Stadium before a bulging 60,000 crowd, which is reported to have spilled out on to the pitch, delaying the game.
Whilst I'm still musing, Scott pops up with: "I met George Best here in 1992 when he was doing a video shoot." Seems the great and the good have been out in force both here and at Wythenshawe. Ryan Giggs, Peter Schmeichel, Michael Owen and David Beckham, filming on one of the old 'Astroturf' pitches before the surfaces were replaced with new carpet in 1989 and 1995.
"Don't forget Manchester City's Joe Royle and Asa Hartford who trained here and at Wythenshawe," Scott chirps up. As a suffering Man U fan, I let any references to 'the noisy neighbours' flow by harmlessly.
The Red Devils' newly-formed women's team is training at the Armitage hub too until their ground is ready, Scott tells me - a welcome note of optimism amid this season's gloom.
Given the welter of fixtures and sports undertaken on the synthetics, it's little wonder goals are everywhere - full-size, mini, 5-a-side, hockey, lacrosse. They are everywhere - off and on playing areas. "Checking them and tightening bolts is a two-man job," notes Scott, "not to mention carrying them to and from pitches for different sports. Some of them can be folded up for storage and that's also a big job."
Yes, I'd forgotten that the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship was staged here, the US narrowly defeating Canada for gold. Synthetic surfaces seem ideal for a sport that was too often played on pitches resembling quagmires.
The machinery fleets are split between here and Wythenshawe, Mike says. "We have two of some items, such as the Trimax Pro Cut, and store one at each site - more economic than ferrying one machine between them.
"The Pro Cut is a favourite - good for striping and makes the turf look mint and it's not too much of a heavyweight compared with the solid rollers we once used. We box off for tournaments but, as there is no composting here, we leave cuttings on at other times."
Scott continues: "With three full-time staff and a couple of casuals, I have to prioritise my duties on site, depending on tournament fixtures and so on - not only traditional groundsmanship but also tasks such as maintaining the squash courts and the sports centre."
Mike adds: "That's true at Wythenshawe, with two full-time staff and me spending two days a week there on average. The groundstaff all take pride in what they do and there's huge reward in seeing the sites pristine for the many competitions and tournaments we stage."
In the end though, "health and safety overrides everything", Mike stresses. "Scott is the Leisure Attendant, Grounds and decides if games are played or not here, whilst I have that responsibility at Wythenshawe. The indoor duty managers are not necessarily best positioned to make those calls as their backgrounds are not in groundcare."
After a brief respite in the weather, dark clouds gather again as we climb into Mike's utility vehicle for the drive to the other site. Once there, it's a dash to "the brew room" where Duty Manager Outdoors Glyn Powell and Leisure Attendant Andrew Stapleton greet us.
Bubbling with enthusiasm, Mike explains some of the environmental measures in place in and around this mammoth expanse of turf, interrupted by lines of trees and ditches.
"Along field perimeters we leave a metre-wide edge of wild to encourage biodiversity and seed with wildflower mixes. It's all about improving wildlife habitats as well as the sporting provision," he continues.
"Bat and bird boxes are positioned across the site and we ensure the brook, which runs across the fields to the Mersey, is kept clear of rubbish and litter. Clearing up after matches and tournaments can be really time-consuming, but is vital to maintain the standard of presentation and minimise hazards for wildlife.
"Hailing from a farming life, too much indoor work is not ideal for me and I love nothing better than getting to grips with the challenges of a 100-acre sports site. There's always something pressing, but I have to accept that my responsibilities cover The Armitage Sports Centre facility as well and an element of work indoors comes under my remit."
Glyn begins to unravel the history and complexity of the Wythenshawe provision. "The three cricket squares formerly on site have gone and the priority is football now," he explains.
This is billed as arguably the largest area devoted to football in Europe, but many of the twenty-seven pitches are hidden by mature trees that prevent the whole expanse being viewed at a glance. One of the best vantage points is probably from the motorways that are clearly visible from the pavilion.
"Most of the teams and organisations hiring pitches prefer those nearest the main entrance," Glyn states, "as you'd expect, since the furthest ones involve quite a walk to and from the changing rooms, so receive more intensive use."
"Mowing starts at the end of March and continues into November now, using the five gangs and the Pro Cut. We never stop cutting in summer - it's an endless task, three on a shift rota with a list of casuals who can come in at a moment's notice. Worn areas receive a 50:50 rootzone mix."
"This is a year-round operation. We are planning for the next season as soon as the current one ends. There's no respite."
Plenty of wear and tear on the machinery then. "The bottom mower blades are replaced and all cylinders reground offsite regularly," Glyn adds. The marking out is challenging too, not only because all pitches can be played at a time, but also because some high-profile tournaments are staged here.
"The NAMS national one-day tournament, Manchester Cup [requiring thirty pitches so some resizing required] and Premier League Kicks Cup are just three we host here," Glyn notes. The pressure is on to deliver quality of presentation to help ensure stakeholders return next year and beyond.
Wednesdays see the site crammed with BUCS football fixtures, whilst increasingly popular softball takes up to four pitches now.
Then you have the rather unusual requirements. "Everton winger Yannick Bolasie carries a diagram for a specially designed octagonal training pitch wherever he goes so that he can train on it. He marked it out himself when he came here," says Glyn.
He walks over to a pitch plan on the entrance wall displaying the numbering and positioning of the playing areas. "Main Field covers pitches 1 to 4," he begins, "First Field, 5 to 13 and 26, The Piggeries, 14-16, The Banking [on two tiers] 17 and 18, and 19 to 21, and Peats' Field, 22 to 25.
The Metro tram network took a couple of pitches - Old Greg's - when it was constructed, then they gave us back one of them, so we have renamed it Metro Field, number 27. We also have a permanent rugby pitch on First Field."
Mike adds: "This was farmland once. Rhubarb was grown on Peats' Field and there was a farm at Old Greg's."
Tournament organisers love Wythenshawe, Glyn reports, because it provides the parking and playing spaces they need to put on a grand presentation. For that reason alone, Glyn and the team treat each pitch as an arena in its own right - keeping the highest possible turfcare standards is critical as each is a year-round revenue-earner.
"We apply a 9:7:7 spring/summer fertiliser," he states, "switching to a 10:8:8 for autumn and winter. The car park, with its loose stone surface, and all hard standing is sprayed, although we try to limit application of pesticides. Mike and I hold chainsaw licences so we tend to handle that side of things."
In the absence of an installed network, drainage is by natural means, feeding the stream criss-crossing the site, but the rugby pitch, sited near the river on First Field, can flood in winter, Glyn explains.
"Thanks to our programme of spiking, aerating and applying twenty tonnes of sand per pitch in winter, 90% of the area drains well. But, as every pitch is played at least every week, we have to roll to provide an even playing surface, so aeration can suffer.
"Clay underneath the Banking pitches helps water drain into the brook, whilst the water table feeds the Mersey. Pitch 1 and the Piggeries are being improved in stages to help water from them also drain into the brook. A mass of stone lying under the fields that became pitches 17 and 18 means drainage there is poor also."
Glyn, 58, came here as a junior groundsman in March 1977, after spells working in a supermarket and motor factors shop. "I always liked football so this was a natural for me," he recalls. Promotion to assistant foreman, then foreman followed, before his job title changed to duty manager in 1996.
In keeping with the university's policy, his remit stretches to health and safety, fire marshalling as well as gaining a pesticides licence and attending management courses. "I used to attend groundsmanship events in Harrogate and Haydock Park, but time doesn't allow that now." The programme of activity keeps everyone at full tilt. "We had seven days to turn the site round from hosting Team Tours to preparing for the Kicks tournament and that's a big ask, but we manage."
Biodiversity is not without its issues at Wythenshawe. "Minks moved in when voles were relocated here from Carrington," Mike explains, "and rabbits can dig deep holes in the pitches that can break ankles. Once their scent is there, they keep returning to the same spots. There is a warren in the wild area lining the right hand side of First Field."
That said, welcome wildlife includes barn and tawny owls, kingfishers, nesting parakeets, buzzards "attracted by the worms" and a grey heron, which obligingly rises from the trees in front of us while Mike drives us around the fields."
A claim to fame came to Glyn two years ago when 'Jasper the Wonder Dog' hit the national headlines by getting stuck between two drainage pipes for five days at the Wythenshawe site.
"Once he'd been found, I started digging and, more than five hours later, eventually broke through to rescue him. The University won an award for saving his life."
What's in the Armitage Sports Centre Shed
Trimax Pro Cut 210
Toro Groundmaster 228D
Trailer 1 (5ft)
Trailer 2 (6ft)
What's in the Wythenshawe Shed
Kawasaki 2510 (four-wheel drive)
Kawasaki 3 (four-wheel drive)
Kubota LA 1002 front loader
Trimax Pro Cut mower
Stihl 026 chainsaw
Stihl 020T chainsaw
Charterhouse sand spreader
Cage trailers x 2
Tomlin mole plough
Agri Fab push spreader