Plymouth Argyle are one of two English Football League clubs in the county of Devon in south-west England; the other being Exeter City, their nearest and closest rivals. Next season, the two clubs will renew their rivalry in League Two following Plymouth's relegation by the narrowest of margins and Exeter's failure to make the fourth tier play-offs in similarly unfortunate circumstances. The club are nicknamed 'The Pilgrims', after the historic sailing to America made by the Mayflower out of this important Royal Navy city, whilst their supporters are the 'Green Army'. Lee Williams reports.
It takes six hours to drive from my home town of Oldham to Plymouth, so I was glad to be met by Grounds Manager Chris Ralph complete with a very strong cup of coffee. That, at least, would keep me awake after the long journey!
Thirty-five year-old Chris took on the new challenge of Grounds Manager just six months ago.
Chris was formerly Head Groundsman at Torquay United FC, a former Football League club who are 'on their way back' following this season's promotion into the National League.
Chris explains how the move came about and the challenge he was given. "I came to Plymouth in the middle of November 2018. There were a few issues with the pitch and Colin Wheatcroft, a previous head groundsman who retired eight years ago, but who is still well respected by the club, was asked to help find someone who could help improve the pitch. I kind of knew Colin. He had been over to Torquay's Plainmoor Stadium a few times and liked what he saw. So, he was asked by Michael Dunford, Plymouth's Chief Executive, to approach me about taking up the Grounds Manager position here. I jumped at the chance as it had always been an aspiration of mine to work here as I have supported the team since I was a young local lad."
Chris is responsible for the stadium's Fibrelastic constructed pitch with a Rainbird pop-up irrigation system. A short walk from the stadium, in the park, are two clay/soil-based training pitches which, in recent years, the club has invested heavily into to provide primary and secondary drainage, along with sand banding.
"When I first came here, the stadium pitch was very thin; it had a lot of black layer in the top few inches and water was holding on the surface, even though it is a Fibrelastic pitch construction."
I asked Chris what he has done so far to address these issues, and has he seen any improvements with the surface? "The first thing I did was open up the pitch using a reconditioned verti-drain; we probably went a little bit too close with the centres, plus going over it twice in two weeks softened it up a bit too much. But, by putting a regular aeration programme in place, varying between depths of six to ten inches, you could immediately see the grass come alive again. It is now standing up; infiltration rates have improved and there's a much-improved root system."
"Instead of a mismatched fertiliser programme it was being given, I have put a regular, consistent programme in place based on soil results that came back indicating low calcium/potassium levels and that the CEC rating was poor, but that is to be expected on a sand-based pitch."
"With a better fertiliser programme in place through October to December, the pitch reacted well, it thickened up, and the seed drill lines disappeared. We have also used a combination of Banner Maxx and Heritage to help prevent disease. This we already had in stock."
Chris explains his plans for the renovation of the stadium pitch and training pitches at end of the season. "Inscapes will be doing the renovation of the stadium pitch. They originally constructed it in 2010 and have carried out the work every season since. It will be koroed off, then sixty tonnes of Fibresand will be remediated back into the surface, re-levelled, overseeded using a dimple seeder, with a pre-seed fertiliser applied."
"We have already fraise mown the bottom pitch on the training ground, due to a late grow in the previous season. Last year, the manager came in for pre-season training and there was basically no grass on that pitch, it was October by the time they were able to use it. It doesn't have a pop up system, so we rely on a portable Javelin sprinkler which throws out quite a lot of water, but a portable generator also powers the system, so I am restricted to when I can turn it on. This, combined with the hot spell last summer, obviously meant it was difficult to get enough water on. Hopefully, with an early renovation, I will see a good establishment of grass and be in a much better place for when the players come back."
Chris talks me through how he got into the industry. "My old man was working for a few companies around here selling Jacobsen, Textron and other various machinery. He heard Teign Valley Golf Club was looking for an apprentice greenkeeper, so I started there on a youth training scheme where I did my NVQ Level 2 in sports turf. After two years, I moved to Hele Park Golf Club as Assistant Greenkeeper where I did my NVQ Level 3 in Sports Turf and spraying certificates in the ten years I was at the club. When the head greenkeeper left, I was helping to run the course alongside the owner, but was never officially given the 'Head Greenkeeper' title. I was then approached by Torquay United FC who knew about me through someone coaching in their youth department, who is the Course Manager at Dartmouth Golf Club and was lecturing part-time when I was doing my level three. I went down for a chat and ended up spending six years there as head groundsman before moving here."
Left to right: Billy White, Chris Ralph and Martin Bird
Helping maintain the pitches alongside Chris is Martin Bird, 42 years old, who was the previous Head Groundsman and still holds that title. He has been at the club for two and a half years and has NVQ Levels 2 and 3 in sports turf as well as his spraying certificates; Billy White, 30 years old, Assistant Groundsman who has been at the club for nine years and did voluntary work before being full-time; and Colin Wheatcroft, 73 years old, Pitch Advisor and former Head Groundsman.
In the short time Chris has been at the club, the management has supported his request to start investing in new machinery. "We had two old Ransomes Mastiffs that weren't in good order, and the boxes weren't fit for purpose either, with grass flying everywhere. We have now replaced these with two Cub Cadet Infinicut fixed head mowers, which we are paying for over two years. They have made a massive difference to the quality of cut and presentation."
"The tractor was an old Tym which was too big for what we needed - it had narrow tyres and we were paying way over the odds for it. This has been replaced with an Iseki tractor with Galaxy turf tyres and a SISIS Quadraplay, which we purchased through DGM (Devon Garden Machinery). Our verti-drain is falling to bits, so we are replacing this with a reconditioned Charterhouse Verti-drain which is just being finished off. We are also looking at clean up mowers, so we have been demoing the Dennis Pro 34R and the Allett Uplift 86. I'm still undecided on which way to go as there is not much between them, they are both outstanding; it will come down to price."
Main stand development
Chris will be exploring new hybrid pitch construction options in the next few months as the club looks to replace the current stadium pitch. "When the pitch was installed, Colin was told its life span would be around seven years so, once the pitch has been Koro'd off, Mansfield Sands are going to take samples from the pitch to determine what life is left in it and offer advice. We have had SIS Pitches down to have a look, and they have given us a rough ballpark figure for their system. We are still in the early stages and have just started looking into it. We know what's available; it's just a matter of doing our homework, getting lots of quotes in and taking it from there."
The club is currently redeveloping the main stand which will help sustain the club's future income, but it will provide an issue for Chris to manage. "Typically, at this level, it seems like not much thought has gone into how the stand will affect the pitch. Over half the pitch will be in the shade from October through to March." This led me to ask if it's possible to invest in lighting rigs? "It would be advantageous. They are becoming more available to us in the lower leagues as more second-hand reconditioned units come onto the market. With this in mind, it will be something I will put forward to the club in the future."
Chris believes our industry is improving all the time and people are becoming more aware of what the job involves. "The biggest problem our industry faces at the minute is recruiting and attracting new blood, whether that be younger people leaving school or anyone who fancies a change of career. I believe a lot of it comes down to wages. I have experienced some terrible rates of pay throughout the sports turf industry, and I would love for it to become compulsory for clubs to have to adhere to the IOG/BIGGA rates of pay. We need colleges and our governing bodies to work together to help promote what we do as a career, and one where, if you work hard, it can be very rewarding."
Plymouth Argyle Football Club is a professional football club based in the city of Plymouth, Devon. Next season, the club will compete in League Two, the third tier of the English football league system, following relegation on goal difference. It is one of two clubs in Devon competing in the Football League, the other being Exeter City, Argyle's local rivals.
The club takes its nickname, 'The Pilgrims', from an English religious group that left Plymouth for the New World in 1620. The club crest features the Mayflower, the ship that carried the pilgrims to Massachusetts.
The club has predominantly played in green and white throughout its history, with a few exceptions in the late 1960s and early 1970s when white was the colour of choice. A darker shade of green, described as 'Argyle green', was adopted in the 2001-02 season, and has been used ever since. Their fans are known as the 'Green Army', a fact brought to the public's attention by an Aviva insurance ad featuring Paul Whitehouse.
Plymouth is the largest city in England never to have hosted top-flight football. They are the most southerly and westerly league club in England.
The original ground at Home Park was destroyed by German bombers during the Blitz on Plymouth in World War II. Having been rebuilt after the war, Home Park was largely demolished as part of an extensive process of renovation, and the first phase of a new stadium, built by Barrs plc, was completed in May 2002.
The new Devonport End was opened for the 2001 Boxing Day fixture with Torquay United. The other end, the Barn Park End, opened on the same day. The Lyndhurst stand reopened on 26 January 2002 for the game against Oxford United. This year will see the completion of a major 18-month renovation of the main Mayflower Grandstand, which will increase the match-day capacity of Home Park to more than 18,000, and provide world class conferencing and events facilities all year round.
The ground is situated in Central Park, very near to the residential area of Peverell. Towards the end of the 2005-06 Championship season, the club agreed to buy the stadium for £2.7 million from Plymouth City Council, releasing the ground from a 125-year lease. This purchase was concluded in December 2006.
In January 2017, director Simon Hallett invested £5,000,000 into the club, along with all other directors, exchanging previous loans into equity, with the intention of using the money for renovating the Mayflower Grandstand. Hallett subsequently succeeded James Brent as the club's chairman.
Later that month, temporary seating was once again put in place on the Grandstand, this time as a one-off for an FA Cup 3rd round replay against Liverpool. The seating was kept in place for the next home match, a League 2 game against Exeter City, but tickets were not on sale to the general public. Shortly after this game, the seating was removed.
What's in the shed
Iseki TG 6375
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 7316
Toro Reelmaster 3100
Infinicut FX34 x 2
Fleet Kombi line marker
Honda HRD 536 x 2
ICL fertiliser spinner
Various hand tools