Carlisle United Football Club in Cumbria was first formed in 1904 and have called Brunton Park their home since 1909. In the groundstaff's office, where the walls are covered in old photos and cuttings of times gone by, Lee Williams caught up with David Mitchell, the club's fifty-four-year-old Stadium Manager, to discuss his career so far, recent renovation work and the flooding of 2015 when Storm Desmond ran amok in the North … all whilst tucking into his late lunch.
Carlisle United is situated close to the River Petteril. In 2005, the river burst its banks, and again more recently in 2015 after Storm Desmond rampaged through Cumbria, flooding the stadium and the many homes surrounding it. This left the pitch under several feet of water and caused extensive damage to the club's facilities. I asked David how they got through those situations and how they get play back on the pitch?
"The first one in 2005, when the riverbanks were nowhere near as high as they are now, just inundated the ground with floodwater. The groundstaff at that time, after the water receded, did not take the top off the pitch. From what I can gather, they just put the roller on the back of the tractor and let the silt stick to the roller and cleaned it off at the end of each run. That meant that contamination was still present on the surface for the rest of that season, and the pitch was terrible. The following season, when I took over, the pitch was horrendous; we put some drains in across the pitch every five metres during the close season of 2005, but it was futile with what was happening on the top."
"I remember we had a reserve game, and Joe Hart played in goal for Shrewsbury on Wednesday after we'd had home games on the previous Saturday and Tuesday. There was hardly a blade of grass left on the pitch! One of the board members called me in to 'have a chat' about what we intended to do, not 'there is the door' as I initially feared. So, ultimately, after all that, the pitch was replaced at the end of the season with a Fibresand construction."
I can recall seeing on the news the devastation Storm Desmond caused to Brunton Park and its pitch, with the team having to play their home games at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End. This gave David the time to work his magic on the pitch, and the club to clean up and repair its facilities.
"I will never forget the 5th of December 2015 when the river burst its banks as Storm Desmond raged. The pitch was in tip-top condition that year, and we had just received some excellent compliments the Saturday before the flood from Crawley Town FC."
"Once the water subsided, it was a matter of seeing what had been left behind. Gary Owen from PSD came up on the Monday or Tuesday and we started to get a grip of what the surface was looking like, the percolation rates, what we could do and if the insurance would cover us. PSD advised us that the grass coverage was pretty much where it should be for that time of year, even after the floodwaters had been on it. However, the volume of water meant that other damage had been caused and it was agreed all-round that the best course of action was to Koro off 15-20mm from the existing surface and re-turf."
"The EFL gave us special dispensation to play three home games away from home and, by 23rd January, we were back playing."
I asked David how much silt the floodwaters had been left behind and if anything had been learned from the first flood in 2005? "It all depends on the lowest point where the water exits the stadium," he explained. "In the worst areas, we had around a 5mm covering of silt; it would come up around your wellies. It was horrendous. I would describe the texture of it as like chocolate icing; it is peculiar. But, one thing we learned from Worcester CCC, was to use lobster pots or bread baskets and drag them around in the water to churn up the silt as the water subsided, so more of it could be carried away with the water as it goes rather than settling on the pitch."
"The last flood gave us the experience to look at what we did before, and that wasn't much, leaving most of the silt left behind on the surface; every time the pitch was damp, you would leave brown footmarks behind as you walked across it! We had to look at factors like is it any good for players' health, and the answer was no. So, all that was factored in; we have been here before, and we probably made a mistake. Given the higher levels of professionalism we now have, that is how we got a re-turf in. Even that was not simple, as there was a shortage of fibre turf in the country to do all of the pitch. So, we had to split it between soil turf and fibre turf, ultimately giving us problems for future renovations."
The Fibresand pitch is now approaching its fifteenth season since being constructed in 2006 on a gravel carpet with six inches of lower and upper rootzone. David believes the upper rootzone is now around four and a half inches deep with renovation work over the years. Every year, in February, soil samples will be taken to determine the fibre content in the pitch; the results will then determine what is required when renovating the pitch at the end of the season.
David was highly commended in the EFL Grounds Team of the Year Awards 2020/2021 for League Two for his efforts in maintaining the pitch in what has been a challenging year for many. It is renovation time again, and David is often asked why an award-winning playing area needs to go through this process, particularly when the club is managing costs across the board.
"It is a fair question, but what we've got to be careful of is that what fans see on the top, when they watch the games being played, is one thing, but all sorts is going on underneath. If we want to provide the best kind of surface, sometimes we have to accept that additional work must be done, which obviously comes at a cost. In terms of what we are doing now, it's a bit of a longer-term fix rather than something that won't last too long, but if you had the budget, you'd probably do it every year."
Before planning out exactly what renovation work should occur this season, David took a look at the Fibresand content results and had some soil tests carried out. Once all the data was analysed, it turned out the pitch's pH levels were too acidic, and it also needed topping up with fibre.
"In places across the pitch, it is pH4, and ideally, we need it to be around pH5.5 to ensure we have a healthy ryegrass sward. With the weather we had and the lack of grass cover, I could see that the grass we did have wasn't enjoying its environment anyway."
"To adjust that acidity to get it closer to where it should be, we have added some lime to help neutralise it. To get the lime in, we had to plough it up, which is pretty much what a farmer does when he turns the soil over in a field before planting the next crop. We have also added a trace element package with magnesium, boron, manganese, and all kinds of things like that."
When I arrived at the club, renovation work had been completed, and the pitch was looking like it had a great take and was well on its way. David talks me through this renovation process.
"The first thing was to remove the top 10mm with the Koro; it did not need too much off as we have managed to keep it clean over the last few years. The next phase was to get it cultivated and add in the 1.2 tonnes of lime, trace element package, slow-release fertiliser and 87 tonnes of Fibresand concentrate required to help maintain the durability of the surface. This gives us a concentrate across the pitch of 0.3%, which is okay, and it is a little bit closer to where we want to be. To put it totally back in proportion, we would have gone for 312 tonnes, but obviously budget comes into it, so we can only chip away at it bit by bit."
"It took three cultivations to get it nice and mixed and a bit of handwork around the sprinklers. From there, we used a stone rake machine to level it up before rolling. Finally, the pitch was overseeded using GG22 Premier pitch renovation, a perennial ryegrass mix that includes Eurocordus, Europitch and Eurosport, using a dimple seeder. In addition to this, I like to randomly run over with our SISIS Variseeder 1300 and the fertiliser spreader to make sure the space between the drills have been filled in, ensuring even coverage."
"The take on the seed has been excellent this year, taking around five days, which is probably a record. It is so much easier for the seed to germinate after a turnover instead of going straight in after a Koro off, like you have to do on a Desso pitch, for example."
David is happy with the pitch so far, but now comes the hard work of getting the surface established and maintaining it throughout the season. "Once we have got the turf established, we will cut the pitch at 25mm for the start of the season with the Dennis G860. After a game, I will go over with the rotaries to pick up any debris rather than use the brush attachment on the G860, which tends to be a bit too harsh. I can never get enough time to verti-cut the pitch and I tend to find that, when I have done, it tends to knock the pitch back a bit and creates a lot of dead matter that doesn't go into the box of the reel, so it makes me wonder what I am achieving. I believe regularly going over with the rotaries with the fixed brushes on the front helps keep the surface clean."
"I do not aerate the pitch on a calendar basis; I like to react to how the pitch is performing to avoid making the surface too unstable. When we do aerate, the maximum depth we can go is six inches to make sure we do not hit the irrigation pipes. We have a Toro ProCore with 19mm tines and we will always vary the depths to avoid creating a pan."
"The pitch is marked out with strings for every game using a Fleet Kombi Marker and Super C marking paint which I have used for many years."
David tells me his fertilising regime is flexible and is pretty similar year on year. "I like to start with an application of ICL Greenmaster Pro-Lite NK 12:0:12, followed by ProloNg with 25% slow release it also helps kick it on. Then, depending on the weather, I move onto ICL Greenmaster Pro-Lite Double K 7:0:14 in October through to December if it is warm enough. If not, I will switch to ICL Greenmaster Pro-Lite Invigorator 4:0:8; then, once the weather warms back up around March, I will switch back to the Double K."
"Occasionally, I will apply GS Consolidate Plus and GS Bio Carb when we have a run of games coming up and the pitch looks like it is running out of gas. It helps pep it up, so then it comes out of those games on a sound footing. My take on it is you have to peak it for a match for the visual aspect, and it will come out of that game with a bit of a kick to help it recover."
"My philosophy is to keep it simple; I'm not into gimmicks. In the morning I can walk in and I know when the pitch looks like it is about to go over the edge and needs a dose of fertiliser."
The club owns most of its machinery, but they also have a sponsorship deal with Rickerby, their local machinery dealer. "They supply us with an Iseki TLE 3400 compact tractor for spraying, front loader work and heavier duties. Also, a Jacobsen Tri-King 1900-D triple mower and a golf buggy; the rest of the machinery is ours. Most of the equipment is serviced by Rickerby's, but we also have locally sourced mechanics who we can call upon."
From a young age, David always had an interest in turf. He would cut the lawn at home and even take the mower down to the local village green to cut a cricket strip out. When leaving school, his dad wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an accountant, but that was not the career path he wanted to take. "After leaving school, I visited the careers adviser who knew me well. She suggested I took a National diploma at Myerscough College but, when l looked into it, I needed twelve months of practical experience to enrol."
This did not stop David from wanting to follow his dream of working in the sportsturf industry. So, being proactive, he started to apply for positions at local golf clubs, nurseries, schools and sports clubs. "Luckily, Brampton Golf Club, nine miles east of Carlisle, offered me a place on their greenkeeping team to gain some experience. I was paid £20 a week. Ten months later, a full-time position for an assistant greenkeeper came up at the club, so I applied for it and got it. I stayed at Brampton for sixteen years, working my way up to Deputy Head. The club was kind enough to let me carry out my qualifications up to NVQ Level 3 and my spraying certificates at Newton Rigg, our local college that has now sadly closed. It was a great course, and I helped make many improvements."
"I then moved to Eden Golf Club, which was a newer course with lots of young trees and was maturing at that time. It had many problems, which I believe I helped overturn in the five years I spent at the club, before moving to Carlisle United FC as Head Groundsman in April 2005."