Middlesbrough Football Club were one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992, moving three years later from Ayresome Park, their home since formation in 1876, to the Riverside Stadium in summer 1995.
Their return to the top flight, following their relegation to tier two in 2009, will not be too soon for head groundsman Tony Bell, who has witnessed the triumphs and traumas and who is hoping to step up to Premiership provision at the club's stadium, Rockliffe Park training ground and Eston MFC Foundation sites.
Tony, 52, joined Boro in 1997, heading up the training ground turfcare team for five years before coming into his current post fourteen years ago after the retirement of David Rigg.
A lover of cricket as well as football, Tony feels privileged to have met some sporting greats in his twelve years at Middlesbrough Cricket and Rugby Club then later at Boro.
"When I moved to Acklam Park, I followed in the footsteps of Tom Flintoft and Keith Boyce, two of the masters of our industry, witnessed Geoff Boycott score his 15th first-class century and the emergence of Michael Vaughan."
"On moving to our training ground, I worked with the likes of Bryan Robson, Viv Anderson and Gordon McQueen. I was a little star struck, but felt very privileged."
It's a case of work in progress at Middlesbrough though, Tony adds. "I'd like to end my career here and retire into the wilderness, but there are plenty more plans and ambitions before that comes about."
Boro can boast of being pioneers in football provision. Its training ground facility is sited within the grounds of sport and leisure jewel Rockliffe Hall Hotel Golf and Spa - an official club partner - the five-star destination owned by Middlesbrough-born businessman and club chairman Steve Gibson who, with a consortium, saved Boro from liquidation in 1986 following its slide into decline.
Budgets were tight when the club reached rock bottom in the Championship four or five seasons ago. That's when communication across all levels really counted and still does as fortunes rise once more, Tony believes.
"Our team have a really great relationship with coaches and players, and it is in our own interests to have that. We sing off the same hymn sheet. Communication is the key and, in chief operating officer Mark Ellis and chief executive Neil Bausor, we have board members who really understand our problems."
Regularly in at 8.00am, early bird Tony knows first thing is the right time to catch fellow early riser Mark Ellis, his immediate line manager. "If I have any problems, I know I can speak to Mark before 9.00am, when the business of the day really kicks in."
Renovation, the busiest period of Tony's year, is racing towards them as the season climaxes - time to call in agronomist Tim Colclough of sports surface consultants TGMS, which also provides agronomic support to Sunderland AFC, Chelsea FC and to Wembley National Stadium's own advisors.
Sports construction specialists CLS Sports and Premier Pitches, the companies that have completed major pitch reconstruction work at Rockliffe Park and the stadium, will also come to the table to discuss Tony's requirements and recommendations before he submits these to the board.
"We implemented a plan three or four years ago to really improve things at both the training grounds and the stadium - CLS have ameliorated the playing surfaces at Rockliffe Park from basic soil pitches to free-draining sand pitches, enhanced by the installation of in-pitch irrigation to create facilities that befit a top-flight club. We are up to a really good standard now."
Four 1st team pitches were brought up to specification, plus two Academy match pitches for the 16-18-year olds, but as he confirms: "There is the potential and willingness to go up another notch."
Pioneers of footballing provision, Boro had slipped back as other clubs surged forward. "We were one of the first clubs to have a training ground," says Tony, "then others jumped on board and we were left behind a little. We have a 50-hectare site running down to the River Tees that could be further developed."
The full-size outdoor synthetic pitch was arguably the first 3G in the country when it was laid in 1998. A 60m by 40m indoor 3G pitch was installed at the same time.
Although fully functioning, the pitches give Tony a little cause for concern, given the recent media coverage over the health impact of the rubber crumb infill used in 3G surfaces, but the jury is still out, in his view.
"There is no substantial evidence or proof of its effects, but it has to be a concern until the research is proven beyond doubt. Until then, I keep a watching brief and am aware of what the industry is saying."
Considering its age, the condition of the 3G pitch is "remarkable" says Tony, bolstered by the yearly refurbishment it receives from revitalisation specialists Replay to impart a fresh lease of life.
Middlesbrough FC is a Category One Academy in the reorganised structure introduced in summer 2012 under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), the Premier League initiative that saw youth football undergo reportedly its most radical overhaul in a generation.
The club's Academy net is flung far and wide to capture young players for its development programme, billed as one of the most successful in the game.
For the 2014/2015 season, no fewer than 114 young players were registered to play for the eight Middlesbrough teams from the U9s to the U16s. Above that, came twenty-four full-time scholars, seven first years, ten second years and seven third years, plus thirteen U21s.
Boro also participate in new national U18 and U16 programmes designed to nurture England's most promising talent, but is aware that it is testing itself against some of England's biggest clubs, such as Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool.
Tony also has responsibility for tending the ground at Eston, community home of MFC Foundation, the body set up by chairman Steve Gibson as the club's independent charitable arm. Based at the Willie Maddren Centre in the East Stand of the Riverside Stadium, the charity began in 1996 as Middlesbrough Football Club in the community before its relaunch in 2013. A full-size artificial was laid nearly a year ago, which is rented out to local teams, further boosting Boro's commitment to the community.
Tony heads a tight-knit team across the club's three sites, with five based at the training ground permanently and two at the Riverside, including Tony, one at the Eston MFC Foundation site and an apprentice moving between two of them.
The apprenticeship programme is proving particularly worthwhile, Tony reports. "Two years ago, we took on two 16-year olds and have kept both of them on, one each at the training ground and at Eston."
This year's new recruit is Rob Cook - currently taking his NVQ Level 2 - who works at both sites. "We give him the flexibility to gain experience at the training ground and at Eston to gain a better understanding of the scope and demands of the work here."
Upskilling to full potential is particularly important in the North East. "There are not many jobs for groundsmen regionally," Tony says, "only Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, so it is very much up to them to make the most of the opportunity we offer them here."
With the technology that is transforming groundsmanship, and the consequent rise in skill sets, comes heightened expectations from management and players of quality in pitch presentation and maintenance.
One of Tony's key tasks though is to manage those expectations when site conditions at the Riverside are truly demanding. Communication is key in this regard, he believes.
The lack of air circulation so common in larger stadia means that diseases such as leaf spot present a persistent problem. "We have it all the time and regularly open the stadium doors to increase airflow over the ground. At the moment, we cannot compete with the likes of Tottenham, who have five giant fans at White Hart Lane."
Throughout autumn and winter, the team manually brush the pitch every morning to discourage build-up of water droplets on the grass leaves, conditions that present an ideal breeding ground for disease spores. "Preventative action is the way forward in what is a heavily shaded environment here," Tony maintains.
Tony keeps a sunny outlook in the face of some grim statistics about light levels on the Riverside pitch. "By the shortest day, the sun only reaches as far as the north penalty area and that's it," he reflects. "The rest of the pitch is permanently in shade."
A long, dark winter for sure and a suitable prompt to purchase lighting rigs, which the club did in the 2005/2006 season. "Compared with some grow lights they are museum pieces, but they still do the job."
The £25,000 lighting budget (excluding maintenance costs) is a far cry from some in the Premier League, but promotion at the end of this season may give Tony grounds to push for a larger one.
Warmish, damp autumns create ideal conditions for outbreaks of fusarium at the Riverside, Tony reports - just one of his worries over what he admits is "a very hungry pitch".
Fortnightly feeds alternating with granular then liquid nutrition help keep the Fibresand surface up to spec. With an equivalent 90% sand, 10% soil rootzone, the pitch transmits water and nutrients rapidly, while the top four inches containing the fibre impart the stability the modern game demands.
"In winter, we apply an 8:0:16, then a 17:2:5 feed," he explains, "always including iron to maintain a green sward, along with amino acids, potassium and other micro nutrients."
Quarterly soil samples give Tony the vital data feedback he needs to adjust the pitch maintenance programme. "A typical pH of 6.7 to 6.8 is fine, although we can adjust it quite quickly if we need to by adding sulphur-based fertiliser to lower pH, for example," he explains. "We have few pH issues."
If one problem has bugged his years at Middlesbrough it's nematodes, he reveals. "The bane of my life. They are a separate story in themselves," he states.
Specifically, he's talking about plant parasitic nematodes, which gorge on grass plant roots, adding another tier of torment for him on top of shade and moisture issues.
"I've tried everything, including biostimulants, then garlic and sugar products at the end of last season," he continues, before, out of his predicament, sprang a ray of hope. "Steam sterilisation of the rootzone."
Sounds a tad drastic, but there are dramatic results to report. "For some years, I've kept in touch with Colin Fleming, who works in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute at Queen's College Belfast, and he had heard of a method of steaming the rootzone and suggested I try it."
Accordingly, last April saw Tony testing the method at Riverside on a patch of turf behind one of the goalmouths. "I took a few samples before steaming, then another few afterwards. Tests revealed that nothing was living, so we included steaming in last season's renovation and the results have been nothing less than fantastic. The root structure is the best it has ever been."
Not all nematodes are injurious though and Tony has welcomed back the nematode 'good guys'. "What we have created is the most stable and healthiest pitch in the club's history. Out went the root knot nematodes [plant-parasitic] and in came the beneficial species. A tailored microbial package was put together, including humic acids and phosphites, to bring life back into the pitch," he explains.
The population of 'bad' nematodes in the soil was startlingly higher than normal numbers. Anything above 20 per cubic square foot for root knot nematode is deemed unhealthy - Riverside's population had soared to astronomical numbers - 1,000 to 2,000 per cubic foot.
Organisms killed during the sterilisation process bring benefits after life, Tony adds. "There is so little organic material in the soil because of the nature of the pitch composition that the dead bodies of the nematodes help boost levels."
As you might suspect by now, Tony is not afraid to try new measures to tackle thorny problems, and Middlesbrough can claim to be the first club in the country to adopt steaming to cure nematode infestations in turf.
Southampton are believed to be adopting a similar solution at their training ground, conducted by the same company that Tony brought in for the Riverside - Dutch concern Nemaworks.
What worries him now is keeping the root knot species out of the stadium turf rootzone. "The worms can be imported onto the site in material supplied to us," he maintains. "I took samples from the 180 tonnes of new material we bought in last summer and they contained a few root knot nematodes but, nine months later, we still have none in the soil."
He has quarantined 60 tonnes of soil for three months - covering it up away from light and moisture to use this spring - to prove his theory.
Steaming is not an annual task, however, and is a process best conducted when a pitch is first constructed, Tony says. "I will not be treating the pitch this year," he confirms, "as I am trying to manage levels by ensuring material coming in is free of root knot nematodes."
What he will be doing once more is koroing off the surface, as he does annually as he's a firm believer in its efficacy. "You think you can manage the algae and the Poa, but I believe it is far better to clean off the surface every year."
Like some reinforced turf pitches, the Fibresand installation promotes drainage to the point where nutrients can quickly leach through the rootzone but, given his trials and tribulations with the Riverside surface, he remains free of any envy of Premiership clubs' Desso installations.
"I just think 'good on them' and continue working towards producing the best possible surface I can."
The memorable Middlesbrough days may be beckoning again after Boro's promotion to the Premier League. "Relegation was a bad time for us. I had to regroup after losing two members of staff."
The experience taught him to achieve more with less. Although he outsources some maintenance tasks, the team do as much day-to-day duties as they can in-house, including basic servicing of machinery.
Promotion could well propel a move to upgrade what, Tony admits, is an "ageing fleet", but tight budgets have not prevented him from experimenting with and adopting advanced technology for duties as fundamental to groundsmanship as linemarking - the team use a Bowcom Trike for the training ground and a laser guided marker is currently on test at the Riverside.
Despite his vast experience in groundsmanship, Tony believes there is always more knowledge to assimilate. "You never stop learning, it's a lifelong process," he says, "and I'm ensuring that my lads go through the proper educational channels."
Tony Bell called in specialist sports contractors CLS Sports to undertake major works at the Rockliffe Park training ground and Riverside stadium last year, with the 2016 end of season pitch renovation at Rockliffe already planned in when Pitchcare went to press.
In a hectic six-week schedule of improvement works last September, CLS Sports upgraded the Riverside pitch perimeter, installing a 3G synthetic surface.
Boro had sought a contractor to undertake the enabling civils package to prepare for the installation of the club's new ADI digital perimeter board system and a synthetic perimeter surface upgrade.
Working to tight deadlines to ensure the stadium remained fit for home matches throughout the project timeline, CLS undertook the North and South stand foundation extension, running cable ductwork to the pitch perimeter, cable rerouting, raising of existing perimeter manhole chambers and regrading the existing Redgra perimeter track.
A new perimeter drainage system was then installed and the 3G synthetic surfacing to the perimeter run-offs with associated infill fitted.
A key element of the work was maintaining strong communication links, stresses CLS Sports' Andrew Miller. "We enjoyed a fantastic relationship with the club, along with head groundsman Tony Bell helping to ensure the works were coordinated and completed on time to the exceptional standards and tight timescales MFC required."
Meanwhile, CLS Sports also worked closely with the club last year in preparation for their steam sterilisation operation. They were on hand to verti-drain the surface at the Riverside, which was required to facilitate the steaming process.
Raising standards at Rockliffe
In a process of transforming pitches at the Rockliffe Park training ground, natural and synthetic surface specialists CLS Sports upgraded the playing surfaces from a basic soil formation to a free draining sand make-up.
Utilising their extensive fleet of specialist sports construction and maintenance equipment, they carried out the end of season natural pitch renovations, including koroing and scarification, sand spreading, amelioration and overseeding. This has improved the quality of grass coverage and allowed the pitches to be more free draining. Disruption to the surface in wet weather has also been reduced.
The company also returned mid-season to verti-drain, whilst also constructing an access road to enable maintenance machinery to treat pitches with minimal damage and undertaking a major planting scheme for Leylandii hedging.
What's in the shed?
Allett Buffalo cylinder mowers x 3
Honda Rotaries x 3
Dennis G860 cylinder mower
Toro Pro core
Pedestrian fertiliser spreader
John Deere 2653 triple mowers x 3
John Deere 4610 tractor with mid-mounted deck
John Deere 748 compact tractor with mid-mounted deck
Kubota STV 40 with mid-mounted deck
Kubota STV 30 with front bucket
Charterhouse disc seeder
Sisis litamina x 2
Hardy mounted sprayer
Bowcom trike linemarker
Mounted fertiliser spreader
John Deere Gator
John Deere Aercore 2000
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXi