"I couldn't wait for the Head Groundsman to go on holiday so I could really get a feel for being in complete control"
After my first day as a naive thirteen year old, coming to help the Head Groundsman at the time, I knew that this was going to be what I wanted to do.
A Coventry kid, born and bred, I had set my sights on becoming a footballer, as every young lad does. However, I unfortunately didn't have the required physique back then to become a professional footballer - short and slightly overweight wasn't really what the club looked for in a potential goalkeeper!
So, I had to be realistic and I was so desperate, at the time, to be involved in the club set-up I would have done anything. Little did I know back then that this "grasscutting" would develop into my passion and career, and be something that I enjoy so much.
I was taken on as an apprentice in 2002. Every day, I would cycle the ten mile jaunt to the training ground with my colleague, Neil Matts. I was so happy to be going to work at 'my' club and doing something that, over the years, has developed from a hobby to a 'slight' obsession.
I worked through my NVQ level 2 and 3 with the help of the then head groundsman, Michael Finch, in a very short space of time and, at the tender age of nineteen, was made Deputy Head Groundsman at the club, primarily overseeing the day to day running of the training facility and managing some young apprentices in the department. On occasions, I would take control of all eight pitches within our tenure. For most this would seem daunting, but I couldn't wait for the Head Groundsman to go on holiday so I could really get a feel for being in complete control.
I spent three fantastic years in this role and learned a lot, every day facing different challenges and dealing with some rather 'interesting' characters within the club!
As in most careers, there comes time for a change, and this is where I possibly made the best decision of my life, with a move to Aston Villa's training ground, to manage their beautiful and very modern training facility, as Assistant Head Groundsman to Jonathan Calderwood. I can honestly say I thought I knew a fair bit about standards when I left Coventry, but Jonathan took this to a whole new level and made me quickly realise how attention to detail is everything in this job, and why he is at the top of his game when it comes to groundsmanship.
Attention to detail was the key, having the right machinery, keeping machinery clean and serviced, using string lines when mowing, cleaning up the sward using pedestrian rotaries, spending time researching and trialing equipment, products and services, taking regular soil samples, networking and talking to other turfcare professionals are some of the valuable practices I taught at Villa.
I learned so much in my fourteen months at Aston Villa and can't thank all the team, especially Jonathan, for everything they taught me, and for giving me the opportunity they did. I couldn't have been happier working with some fantastic people at the club, including two lads who followed me over to Villa and are still there now, loving every minute.
But, an opportunity I had been working so hard for, came up at my home club, and I had to make an extremely difficult decision - at twenty three years old - to take it or not? Again, Jonathan was a fantastic professional, supporting me in my decision to become the new Head Groundsman at Coventry.
I was in an advantageous position, knowing the previous history at the club, and was under no illusions about what I was coming back to. But, the club had made a lot of progress in terms of the running of the business, which made my decision easier to make.
My main responsibility is to manage the pitch at the Ricoh arena, but also manage the other seven pitches we have across our Academy and first team training ground. All the boys - a few that were still there from previously, along with some new faces - made me very welcome. I had a fair bit of mess to clear up before I could even start with the pitch, and my management style was to get stuck in as much as everyone else and lead the way.
To say it was a baptism of fire may possibly be an understatement. On arrival, after a cold November, we moved into December and the joys of frost and football.
I knew the club's stance on being a multi-use stadium, so it came as no shock to me when, during an FA youth cup game, I received a call from my line manager asking if there was any chance we could accommodate a rugby fixture in two days, as our local team had gone into administration and the gates were locked at their own ground! I outlined the damage that would be caused on the weak pitch that I had inherited but, nevertheless, accepted it and, the very next day, we had a rugby training session on the pitch, followed by the game.
Some people ask me how I didn't throw the towel in there and then and run away, but I like to look upon all events as a challenge, and I thought if I can get through this I can get through almost anything.
Accompanied with training sessions and games at the ground, the pitch went into freefall and became extremely difficult to manage throughout that period, and we lost up to 70% cover. However, as soon as we had a sniff of warm weather, the seed came out and, by the end of March, we were back up at around 80% coverage. Finally, I could show the club what I could do.
After a long spring, it was finally renovation time and I had now got the chance to make a difference.
My first objective was to plan the renovations around the Pink concert in June which, I calculated, would give me five weeks to establish everything, bar the stage end, before it was covered.
I worked this into two parts - the stage end in the south stand and the rest of the pitch.
I calculated accurately using the drawings given to me by the promoter. My plan was to renovate the whole 8200 square metres, but to put additional dressing on the stage end to allow for compression from the weight on the aluminum pads, and only seed up to where the stage was going, as to me it seemed to make no sense to grow something for it to be killed off and, once the aluminum was removed, waste more precious growing time ripping it all back out before I could reseed.
The plan was to tilth the stage end and relieve any compaction and seed as soon as possible. As part of my plan, I hired an MLR12 1000w portable lighting rig for the five weeks I had before the first game.
My main aim was to get back to the Xtragrass synthetic fibres that had been buried in over 300 tonnes of material over the five years the club has been at the Ricoh and, hopefully, give it one last chance to get working for us as a reinforced system again.
So, Premier Pitches moved in with their Koro and caravan and got to work, removing over 35mm of vegetation and soil to eventually reveal the tip of the artificial fibres, and turf cut around all the kerbs to completely remove the lot. We then had to try to break up the original dressing that sat within the Xtragrass system. So, we used a combination of a straight spring rake and a specialist Blec machine used to renovate Desso pitches to achieve this which, on the whole, worked well.
We still had a few areas where the fibres weren't quite as prominent as I would have liked, but they weren't far away, and certainly were closer than ever before.
I then opted to topdress the pitch with fifty tonnes of a sterilised 80/20 mix from Mansfield Sands. I did this as, in the past, we had suffered with terrible dry patch and leeching, so my thoughts were that this would help retain some moisture and nutrient within the profile, without decreasing the infiltration rates too much, and retaining too much moisture.
Once this had been brushed and vertidrained in, and fed with Scotts 8:12:8 pre-seeder with trace elements, it was seeding time.
After year long trials at the training ground (just before I left for Aston Villa) and also on a small area off the pitches at their training ground, we had trialed Scotts new Pro Select 1 seed and found the colour, density, rooting and resilience of this grass seed, although not yet trialed by the STRI, was performing fantastically well.
Some people thought I was taking a gamble putting this in a stadium environment, as this had never been done before but, for me, it was more of a calculated risk after seeing the trial results first hand.
It had performed to a level no other seed had done at a training ground and, ultimately, it was grass and it was my job to grow it. The mix we used contained 40% Roadrunner, 30% Citation Fore, 30% Vantage. We had germination in four to six days.
At this point I applied a base feed of Sierrablen 19:5:18 at 35g per square metre. I tend to use this, as a catalyst for the straight feed, every eight to ten weeks.
After a couple of light rolls with the Dennis G860s, I decided to cut it after thirteen days at 27mm. Early and regular cutting was going to form an essential part of making the pitch healthy and strong before the concert arrived in just three short weeks!!
PrimoMaxx formed quite a large part of my management programme, not only for its ability to thicken the sward and reduce cutting, but also for the conversion of energy to the roots - from all my previous experience at the Ricoh, rooting had always been an issue. This also allowed me to manage the other sites and allocate my time to meetings, budgeting and all the other things a groundsman has to do.
I applied my first dose of Primo, just twenty days after seeding, at a rate of 40 litres of Scotts 10:0:10 liquid feed and 0.6 litres of Primo. I quickly saw the results, with the sward thickening and roots starting to rattle through the profile. I supplemented the slight discoloration with a dose of Scotts 12:0:12 Pro-lite granular feed at 35g per square metre, and this quickly broke down and gave a lovely colour.
As I mentioned, rooting has always been an issue and I'm quite old school if I'm honest, whilst still keeping a balance of new methods. But vertidraining was in my plan to improve the rooting structure of the pitch so, after twenty seven days, I did my first one using our tractor mounted 7117 Verti-drain. I can spike a pitch in just over two hours at a 150mm depth with 13mm tines and 100mm spacing. The downside to our pitch here is I can only aerate to this depth due to the proximity of the heating and irrigation pipes, which sit only 200mm below the surface!
So, the weeks soon passed and soon it was concert preparation time. I had moved on to rotary cutting for a week or so before the concert, down to 25mm.
Spraying commenced, fitting it in between stage building and the riggers tea breaks! I began with Heritage systemic fungicide at 400g per application in 520 litres of water. This took place five days before the Terraplas flooring was due to go down.
I then applied Scotts 10:0:10 liquid feed and 1 litre of PrimoMaxx, aiming to slow the rate of growth and relieve stress whilst the pitch was covered.
Finally, the day before the flooring went down, I applied Daconil WeatherStik contact fungicide to the foliage. I like to think of this as putting a protective jacket on the plant to eliminate, or at least reduce, the risk of disease.
And that was it. Time for the floor layers to complete their task and move out, to let thousands of adoring fans descend upon the pitch to watch the concert.
I would like to say that I worried the whole way through the concert but, if I'm honest, I was quite confident that all the months of planning, thought and preparation I had put into protecting the pitch, through my first concert as Head Groundsman, would pay off, and it did.
Once the concert was over, and the covers had come up, even I was amazed how well it had reacted to all the intense heat, weight and deprivation of moisture - bar coke and lager - it had been though.
I remember waiting, in anticipation, for the first terraplast panel to be lifted so I could see what I had left, it was like watching the fall of the Berlin wall!!
Within thirty six hours - and a sleepless thirty six hours for me - they had gone, all that was left was a bare stage end and a decent looking rest of the pitch. Now it was time for me to plan for and focus on our first game in little over five weeks.
Almost immediately Premier Pitches were back, minus the caravan, to tilth up the stage end, whilst myself and a young work experience lad scoured the pitch for any nuts, bolts or fag ends left behind. We discovered quite a few, along with the few hundred bottle tops!
As the contractors were hard at work, we were busy brushing the rest of the pitch with a straight brush in preparation for a rotary cut and a vertidrain.
To say I was pleased would be an understatement, as all the hard work prior to the concert had definitely paid off.
By the time we had finished cutting, the stage end had been levelled and was ready for seeding. We carried out five passes, using a combination of a disc and dimple seeder, burying eight bags on the area and also overseeding the whole pitch twice with five bags just to fill in any gaps.
Within four to six days we had germination and it was time to apply some artificial light. I ran the 1000w MLR12 rig across the newly seeded area, leaving it in one place for twelve hours overnight and moving it strategically across the width of the pitch every night.
We had some fantastic results, with rapid recovery and thickening up of the sward. It was catching up with the rest of the pitch quickly. I had been feeding the stage end with the granular feeds prior to the concert. Even though there was no grass, I felt it would be beneficial to have the nutrients in the profile after the concert to give the new seed the best possible chance.
I continued with a very simple feeding plan of liquids every four weeks, and granular applications in between, to take us up to the first game, with the addition of some molasses sugars and biostimulants into my liquid programme of 10:0:10 and PrimoMaxx.
We used a product called Molturf, a sugars programme used more for the prevention of nematodes. We had a history of the little blighters and, even though I had removed a lot of the soil, I felt it was best to be overcautious and, also, feeding through the leaf gave the plant every chance of sustaining an attack if they were feeding off the roots.
As a biostimulant, we used a product called Bios from Soil Harmony, which encourages and feeds all the micro-organisms within the profile. We have seen some fantastic root development since using it alongside our other products.
Since returning to Coventry, I have replaced some old equipment and brought in new. We now have two new Dennis G860s cassette mowers, three new Sarp 53mm pedestrian rotaries, a new sprayer and a John Deere 3720 tractor. I predominantly use the pedestrian rotaries for cutting and cleaning up, they do such a good job, and we use the G860s for pitch presentation (banding up).
I have a team of six staff working with me at Coventry to look after the main stadium, academy and training grounds. Paul Aston, my assistant, and Neil Matts are based at the training ground, whilst Julian Morris and Andrew Thompson work at the academy training ground. John Wright, who has just returned to work after an horrific traffic accident, works with me at the stadium. John is lucky to be alive. He had just finished a cup game, in November 2009 and was on his way home when he collided with a vehicle on his moped and received life threatening injuries.
The club has been marvellous. Many of the players and the club chairman went to visit him in hospital and have been instrumental in helping his recovery, allowing him access and support from the team of club physios. He his now back working a few days a week with the aim of getting back to full time working next year.
On match days, along with two other staff, I come in around 7.00am to cut and prepare the pitch, We have to cut the pitch (23mm) in special band configurations for the manager, using the Dennis mowers, stringing out every band. We double cut, usually finishing about 10.00am. We them use our spray linemarking system to mark out and, finally, set up the portable goals. We usally finish around midday. I generally meet up with the manager about 1.00pm. Generally, we do not water the pitch before matches unless the manager specifically requests it.
Once the game has finished, the staff and volunteers divot the pitch, whilst I mow it with a Sarp rotary to ensure it is clean and tidy.
This season we are seeing some fantastic results from all the hard work and effort we put in across all of our sites, and I'm told the pitch here at the Ricoh is one we should all be proud of. We have a long hard winter ahead but, if we can hold it together, I think we will be in for a successful year.
Planning and preparation is well underway for the Olympics coming to Coventry in 2012. The Ricoh Arena - or the City of Coventry Stadium as we will be known for the games - is set to host twelve games of football in fourteen days, some of which will be double headers!
I know it will be the toughest test of my short career so far, as we then only have approximately seven days before the football season commences! But, I am looking forward to being involved in such a prestigious event, that will be viewed worldwide, and the challenges that come with that. I believe it can only help develop me as both a head groundsman and a person.