David Anderson joined Barnsley Football Club's groundstaff because he was 'handy with spanners'. He has now risen to the role of Head Groundsman and a new lighting rig is proving to be a worthwhile investment for one of the darkest pitches in the English Football League, as Jake Barrow discovered on a recent visit.
Walking into Oakwell, home to Barnsley Football Club, one is struck by the size of the stands. They look far bigger than its 23,000 capacity would suggest. This is both blessing and curse - Oakwell is one of the shadiest pitches in the English Football League.
The East Stand follows the touchline, and is the marquee stand, accommodating a potential 7,500. It rises in two equally deep tiers, and is a very popular seating area.
At the southern end of this is the corner-filling Britannia Drilling Ltd Stand, which connects the East to the CK Beckett (South) Stand. Any light which would otherwise be able to sneak in through the corner is, therefore, blocked. And the South Stand isn't particularly short either.
Thankfully for David Anderson, the Head Groundsman at the site for the past four years (plus a further seven as groundsman), his club decided to invest in a lighting rig, on the suggestion of both him and the FA itself.
David told us: "The FA asked me to do a shade pattern diagram, which I think they asked of every club in the English Football League."
"November is perhaps our worse month for shade here, and we don't get light anywhere on the pitch until about 10.00am, and then it's completely gone again by about three in the afternoon."
"So that's all you get - about five hours. And that isn't full coverage anyway. There's most of the time through the winter when that corner [the South-East] doesn't get any sun at all. They told us we had the darkest pitch of any they assessed in the second, third and fourth tiers."
"The lighting rig has been brilliant for us. I didn't expect the technology to be as helpful as it was. Last season, we had the best coverage we've ever had, and I put a great deal of responsibility for that improvement on the lights."
"It's especially handy through the winter. We just have one to tackle the one area, but a team tends to only need to really focus on one area anyway, depending on where the sun hits."
"Our worst areas are where the goalkeepers warm up, which gets pretty chewed up, and an area where the outfield players do the same warm-up every time they train or play."
"They go around in a sort of oval, so we have those two areas where we can risk poor coverage; an oval and a circle. So, it's just the first team warm-up area, the goalkeeper's training area, and the goalmouth. We just rotate between the three."
"Including that, we focus on that corner for several reasons. The shade encourages various things, but one of the worst is algae. We use moisture absorption products to combat that as well as the lighting, which is the most effective tool we've got."
"Overall, it's been a godsend to us. If they haven't tried it already, I'd recommend investing in lighting rigs to the other clubs who can afford it, definitely."
Like most clubs in the Championship or higher, Barnsley FC's facilities are spread across several training and development pitches. These are all under the 'Oakwell' banner and, strictly speaking, the term applies to the whole facility, rather than just the main stadium pitch.
The stadium has been an all-seater since 1995 and the three imposingly large stands, the North, South, and East, have all been installed since 1993.
David arrived after all this change, and has only ever worked at the stadium whilst in its current state, which makes for an attractive office.
Before this, he worked an all-rounder's job in a Peugeot dealership. He was their mechanic, but also a parts salesman, pitching into the business where needed.
Tony Stones, then the man with David's current job, liked the fact that he had so much expertise "with spanners", as David puts it, because he needed an in-house mechanic.
David's love of football was the draw for him at the time, but once he joined the staff, he was trained in the other skills required for professional groundsmanship, most recently including City and Guilds Level 3, and climbed the ladder because he is multi-skilled.
The enjoyment he took from helping a friend to landscape when they moved into their new house gave him familiarity with some tools and techniques suited to the job, and he said he had always liked "gardening and weeding".
He said the pull of those hobbies was the pride one can take in their immediate benefit; you do the work and see its results without delay.
He is a fan of the club at which he works, as is so often the case with long-time stadium groundsmen. He has lived there since infancy, after being born in nearby Rotherham. He is also a Manchester United fan - but it seems he has that much in common with most people.
His first day on the job was in March, and he was straight into grounds responsibilities, on the cusp of renovation time.
He said this was a necessity, due to the timing of that renovation, and that he was "chucked in at the deep end". It was less a formal training regime, more a casual mode of learning by trade. They put him on a machine and, if he wasn't doing it correctly, they'd take him off it.
Now he's risen to the Head Groundsman position, he is responsible for budgeting across the areas he manages. He has one budget for renovations, given by the company accountant and CEO, and another for day-to-day costs.
Like elsewhere, this depends on league position, but historically this hadn't troubled Barnsley Football Club - they have played more second tier matches than any other English club, having existed for 107 seasons, and spending a whopping seventy-six of those in what is now the Championship.
His staff includes four men beneath him: two full-time assistant groundsmen; one part-timer; and a young man studying for his Level 2 apprenticeship.
The staff are also helped on matchdays and at other pressure periods by the club's Facilities Management team, who build nets, undertake servicing, and other laborious tasks for which the groundstaff don't have enough time. David's team help them in return.
David has considered upgrading the main pitch's irrigation system, but may stick with the current one, and simply refurbish it:
"We've been feeling for a while that we could do with a new irrigation system. I got a quote last year, and it's perhaps a bit expensive for a club of our size, even considering that we're doing well financially for a Championship club."
"I've got our current one working far better than it was, and the club made a useful compromise by investing in both a new pump and new sprinkler heads for the existing system."
"At the moment, we're in the process of researching other affordable options, and trying to go about improving the irrigation economically. For now, it'll do, because it's working better than it has done for some years, and we'll save up for a while."
Irrigation and drainage perhaps matter at Oakwell more than at most venues, because David isn't yet sure what makes up the lower layers of his surface.
To this end, an agronomist undertakes Clegg Hammer Impact Soil Tests, infiltration tests, and Turf Doctor analysis. They attempted to find evidence of a gravel carpet, and the presence of nematodes, to help them decide whether they need to invest in related products.
David said: "Last time he came to test, the sward and the colour were both good. It was in the eighties, which they summarise as a four-out-of-five."
"At the end of last season, it wasn't draining as it should have done, but that's recovered a lot now. The infiltration rates are pretty average."
"We added 120 tonnes of Fibresand to get the profile back up to spec, and the pH is good at about 6.2. The pitch is Fibresand by construction, but the profile has a mix of all sorts in it. It's somewhere between 80-100mm deep too, which we're pleased with."
This is all helped by an undersoil heating system, which has been underneath since the pitch's inception immediately after their sole top-tier season in 1997.
The consultant who came in most recently raised this system as a chief issue, because he believed the aged pipes could be compacting the surface.
These pipes are only around 300mm down, so when the team verti-drains, they only take the tines to nine inches to avoid risk to the pipes' integrity.
They usually don't verti-drain during renovation, which is around the end of May, because it tends to include a full turn-over of the turf. But, when cost-saving, they Koro the surface instead and this will be accompanied by verti-draining, and again roughly eight weeks later.
He also ProCores with a club-owned machine as required. He does this when inclement weather has been predicted, or when the pitch is clearly compacted, but without affecting the structure of the pitch.
For cutting, the team has a fleet of three Dennis G860s, with which they cut three times per week during the season, except matchdays which require a double-cut. After the matches, they use the rotaries for a clean-up, avoiding cutting where possible.
They hover between 22-25mm for matches in autumn and spring, but try to push that a little higher unless the manager asks for it shorter, but our current manager understands the reasons for trying to protect the coverage.
On controlling surface contaminants, David said: "We always have fungicides in stock. That's because I make a point of it since I first arrived here when they never had any in."
"That November, we had a disease and nothing to fix it. Within a few days, the grass had pretty much disappeared with a match straight away. Everyone heard about that, and I made sure I always had some in stock from then on."
"I usually have two types of systemic, and two types of contact fungicides in stock at any given time. The systemic is at season opening, with it still being so warm into the autumn these days."
"Leaf spot is our biggest bother. We're constantly trying to control that. But I've noticed in recent years that there's no contest between proactive and reactive control."
"If we get the product down before anything has shown, before the winter sets in, we can get rid of it no problem. If we wait until it shows itself, and then try to solve it, it's much harder and a lot of unnecessary damage can be done."
"During the off-season, around July, we were showing some fusarium patches right down one side of the pitch too. And that's with daily dew brushing."
"I put a systemic on that, and it did work. But that's with the help of a biostimulant, as we'd been told by the consultant. With the stimulant, the leaf strengthened and started to help itself."
"The worm issue is huge now too. I've been trying a few different products, mainly sulphur-based, but you roll the dice on them."
"Our casts have been really bad. We're spraying them all the time, which does seem to slow them down a little bit, but it's still hard to control them properly."
"We get coaches and players sometimes complaining about the casts in the surface, because they think we're not divoting properly, and we have to explain that they're not divots."
"But it's hard to convince them, because there are so many. It's understandable when they ask why the pitch is deteriorating so early on, because only we know that's not actually the case."
"And they're getting worse year-on-year. That's because, I think, after the health and safety-inspired carbendazim reductions took place, the chemical didn't do quite the job it once did anyway."
"So, it might have been time, even without the complete withdrawal, to start looking for new solutions."