Leisure & Sports Centres across the UK are amongst the various sporting arenas that have become casualties of the ongoing Covid-19 era, having been forced to close their doors for months now.
Always busy, these centres are real hubs of sporting activities serving the general public in the local areas and have been sorely missed by adults and children alike.
Based in Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, the Melvin Sports Complex offers a wide range of facilities, including a new multisport 3G pitch for rugby, football and GAA.
This particular leisure centre is owned by the local Derry City and Strabane District Council and is also home to a number of grass pitches and an athletics track. The indoor provision includes a soft play area, a four court sports hall plus range of activity rooms.
The Felix McCrossan 3G pitch was built to replace an older 2G surface and an existing grass pitch on the site. Completed in 2018 and officially named in 2019, the 3G facility was constructed to a standard that would meet the requirements to host competitive games in football, GAA and rugby.
The standard had to meet World Rugby and FIFA quality accreditations. A strict maintenance scheme was subsequently drawn up to ensure that these accreditations are retained.
The layout of the pitch can accommodate two full size football pitches, one full size GAA pitch or one rugby pitch, with a quick turnaround time to set up each of the pitches.
This project was jointly funded by the Northern Ireland Executive Department for Communities and Derry City and Strabane District Council.
When it was open and running, the facility was an overwhelming success with all sports utilising the 3G pitch for both training and competitive fixtures as well as recreational and community use. The modern surface enables the maximisation of the facility with much less maintenance requirements than the pre-existing pitches. This, in turn, meant that the playing hours that the facility could offer had been greatly increased, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown regulations that forced its closure.
Investing significantly in the facility is just the first step for the council. Keeping the surface in the best condition requires a joint approach from the management team of Melvin Sports Complex and the council's grounds maintenance team. Maintenance is normally scheduled to be carried out at times when the demand is low and in line with the 3G manufacturer's guidance. This ensures that downtime is kept to a minimum and that the surface is always in excellent condition.
In these unprecedented times when all the leisure centres are closed the groundcare teams still have to maintain the facilities, and the man in charge of looking after that maintenance is Warren Knobbs, who is the grounds maintenance crew leader.
Warren said: "I'm now eighteen years with the council looking after the various sports grounds including Melvin Sports Complex. Previously, I worked on a golf course and had already obtained my greenkeeper qualifications levels 1, 2 and 3."
Warren reports to his manager to discuss the budgets and requirements to upkeep the facilities and works alongside two others. Between the three of them, they have almost thirty years experience.
"I work alongside Liam Brolly and Nigel Gilchrist, both of whom have five years service in pitch work," said Warren. "The team have worked considerably longer in a general grounds maintenance capacity though.
"We carry out most of the work ourselves, but do call in contractors when required to carry out supplementary works," he added.
All staff in the team are fully trained and expected to be able to carry out all and any duty requested and, collectively, they take great pride in their work.
Warren said: "We take our job very seriously and all aspects of maintenance are geared towards the pitches looking and operating to the highest standard possible."
"When it comes to the cutting of the grass surfaces, we have noticed that climate change has impacted the grass growing season. The grass is now growing in February, but that also means the weeds are growing quicker too," he said.
There are a number of new projects planned at the Melvin Sports Complex and some have already been completed.
"There is a redevelopment of an existing grass pitch with athletics facility planned," said Warren. "A new stand, toilets and changing room facilities are being installed."
"Over the more recent years, the introduction of the 3G pitch has been a major development at this site."
The council has its own Health and Safety department but the staff are also kept regularly trained, undertaking various courses as seen appropriate.
When it comes to machinery, Warren and his team have access to the normal machinery portfolio, including tractors, five gang mower, spiker, verti-drain, fertiliser spreader, boom sprayer, linemarkers and a range of hand tools.
Machinery is normally purchased via a council tender policy which doesn't necessarily stick to the same brands, just the best deal.
Warren said: "Any new purchases are sourced via council procurement. We don't tend to stay loyal to any one brand in particular. I would say the verti-drain has been the piece of equipment that has helped us the most."
"All the machine servicing is carried out in-house and, if I had a wishlist, it would stress we need some more updated machinery."
"The ecology and environment is also very important at our sites and we have several Green Infrastructure initiatives throughout the council area," he added.
Warren agreed that the groundcare industry was undervalued and more needed to be done, perhaps by using social media, to improve it.