I arrived at Meadow Lane to find the Notts County Head Groundsman, Greg Smith, and his assistant, Trevor Hutchinson, just finishing putting the pitch back after yet another game. "We've had six matches in twelve days," bemoans Greg, "that's included back to back rugby matches."
Notts County have been ground sharing with Nottingham RUFC for a number of seasons now and the pressure this puts on the pitch is clear to see.
"It has been a tough season," says Greg. "Not only have we had to cope with a lot of fixtures, but the constant cold and wet weather has taken its toll on the pitch. Having said that, we still manage to produce a flat, level surface for play."
"One of the biggest issues is the lack of repair time between matches and, what time we do get, is often affected by inclement weather. It really is just a case of spending time divoting, using the mowers to clean up and firming up the pitch."
Greg tells me he has been trialing a new tractor drawn sarrel roller to keep the surface open. This has been loaned to him by Simon Hutton of Fineturf, his preferred contractor for end of season renovations.
"I've built up a good relationship with Simon over the years," says Greg. "We've been using the sarrel roller to ensure the pitch remains open and surface water can drain away."
"Like many lower level clubs, finances are tight and money spent on the pitch is kept to a minimum. However, we are always given enough to get the pitch cleaned off and renovated at the end of the season."
Notts County are the world's oldest football league club, having been formed in 1862. They were FA Cup winners twice in the 1890s, and even had a spell in the top flight in the 1990s, but their recent history has been chequered to say the least, with the threat of administration, and of Middle East ownership, being serious concerns or opportunities, depending on your viewpoint!
Greg joined the Magpies in 2000, at the same time as a new Fibresand pitch, primary drains (at 3m centres) and a pop-up irrigation system were being installed. Greg had previously spent fifteen years at the Boots the Chemists sportsground in the city, where he looked after cricket, bowls, tennis and winter sports pitches. He was, therefore, highly qualified for his new role. His assistant, Trevor Hutchinson, has been at Meadow Lane for twenty-five years.
"Having dual sports on the pitch is not ideal," says Greg, "but, I understand the reasons behind the decision, as revenue is hugely important to the club."
"Working to beat this winter's snow, frost and rain has been our biggest challenge though, especially when faced with man handling heavy frost sheets on and off in between games. It's been difficult to maintain grass cover and keeping the sward upright when there are so many games in succession."
" There have been times when we have had a football match on Saturday, a rugby match on Sunday and a second XI game on Tuesday. The grass doesn't stand a chance in those circumstances. All we can do between games is replace divots, perhaps put a bit of topdressing down to restore levels, mark out and mow."
"We do not have undersoil heating, although plans are in the pipeline (excuse the pun) to put in a gas powered system in the future. Neither do we have the luxury of lighting rigs, although we did trial some last year and I was very impressed with their performance. The only protection we can give the pitch is with forty Tildenet frost sheets, but they only work down to about minus 4OC."
However, help from an unusual quarter has recently 'lightened' Greg's mood. "Heat lamps confiscated in raids on local cannabis farms have been offered to us by the local constabulary," says Greg with a smile. "We'll use the siezed equipment to make lighting rigs. We've got Nottingham University students involved in the project to design and build the rigs, with wheels for them being donated by a local golf club. I'm hoping they'll be ready to use before the start of next season."
Nottinghamshire Constabulary's Superintendent Mark Holland said it was a "win, win" situation for all involved. "This property would normally be crushed, so it is important it gets reused."
Greg obviously agrees and says that it will be a massive saving for the club. "Normally, to buy just one rig, you are looking at between £10,000 and £15,000. The club has made a donation to a local charity supported by Nottinghamshire Police as a thank you."
Greg and Trevor have got the change over between football and rugby down to a fine art. "We can take down one set of posts, erect another set and re-mark in less then two hours," Greg says.
"Ongoing maintenance is fairly typical," explains Greg. "Aeration is undertaken monthly, using a Sisis fitted with solid tines, to keep the pitch free draining. Headland products are used for feeding - every four to six weeks - usually Greentec 6:5:18+Mg+04Fe NPK, with some liquid iron applied, as and when needed, to maintain colour."
"The pitch is marked out using a spray jet impact linemarker - both football and rugby lines are painted in white."
Mowing is done on a daily basis throughout the growing season, maintaining a height of cut around 28mm to provide a safe and quick surface for both rugby and football. "The rugby lads have now got used to playing on a flatter, quicker surface, and they reckon it helps the speed of play," says Greg.
Available budgets dictate the amount of work that can be achieved in terms of maintenance and, more importantly, end of season renovations.
This May, with the help of Fineturf, Greg is going fraise mow the top 15mm, re-level, verti-drain, topdress with thirty tonnes and overseed with Limagrain's MM60 and MM25 grass seed mixtures. He has specified MM25 to help retain some grass cover in worn and shaded areas of the stadium. A 14:6:8 pre-seed fertiliser will be applied at 35gm2, and the final surface sown at 70gm2 over two passes using a Blec seeder.
In his thirteen years with the club, Greg has seen umpteen managers come and go. "They all have their own ways of working and special requirements, but I always make a point of getting to know them and ensure I build up a good working relationship."
"I consider myself very lucky to be working here. Sure, it can be stressful at times, and I do get some flack about the current state of the pitch. But, the management understand the reasons for it and, together, I think we will see improvements next year, especially if the snow and freezing temperatures stay away. Sometimes, you just cannot compete with Mother Nature!"