Tony Bolton explains how his interesting career path has led him to work at two high quality sports venues in Lancashire; Sedgley Park RUFC and Rawtenstall Cricket Club.
I'm nearer 60 than 50. I was born and brought up in Blackpool, and I hate the place - garish and cheap - and what about those trippers and holidaymakers! I always liked sport and started playing rugby at grammar school. I left school and joined the Police Service, and was subsequently posted to Bury in Lancashire, which then became part of the Greater Manchester Force. I served in uniform and on the C.I.D., but continued to play rugby at Sedgley Park RUFC in Whitefield, North Manchester.
Unfortunately, I seriously damaged two vertebrae in my back - hooking can be a precarious business - and, as a result, I was forced to retire on ill health grounds. I did various jobs including pub landlord, bus driver, agricultural work and ended up as a security officer with Asda. I progressed my career within Asda on the retailing side until, some seven or eight years ago I was the Deputy Store Manager at their flagship Trafford Park Store in Manchester. Further problems with my back and three operations later Asda offered a retirement settlement I couldn't refuse.
Not wanting to lie idle, I returned to Sedgley Park RUFC. In my playing days I had often helped out on the ground, mowing, marking out etc., so I offered to help out on the pitches. Within weeks I was asked to become the sole groundsman.
The equipment at the club was very limited, a 70hp David Brown Selectamatic on agricultural tyres, the biggest Sisis threepenny bit style spiker I had ever seen and a set of three Lloyds trailed gangs, all in pretty poor condition. When driving the tractor you had to decide which gear was needed before you started, as changing gear in motion was out of the question. If the spiker was lifted on the hydraulics 95% of steering was lost and the gangs chewed rather than mowed!
At the end of my first season an external contractor was brought in to do renovations on the club's three full size pitches and a smaller junior pitch. The standard of work and results were very poor and very expensive. The pitches remained partially devoid of grass cover and, although well constructed only a few years earlier, were compacted and poor draining.
There followed a meeting with the President and Treasurer where I explained that "I could do a better job if I had some decent equipment". Initially, we purchased a new Iseki 21hp compact, a much smaller Sisis slitter and a set of three Hayter Beaver hydraulic gangs. We also got a pedestrian spreader for seed and fertiliser. I swear that little Iseki had more power than the David Brown. A regime of slitting, seeding, top dressing (levelled with a towed aluminium yard gate) began to improve the playing surfaces.
The club's first team had just been promoted into National Legue Three North, and were to become a semi pro outfit. Concerned about the over use of the club's main pitch - four or five games a week plus training and pre-match warm ups - I had a meeting with the Chairman, a former playing colleague, and a set of ground rules were drawn up. Limited matches at my discretion, no training and no pre-match warm ups. The playing surface showed real signs of improvement.
In my second season at the club I was asked to assist with the management of the first team, not on the playing or coaching side, but logistics and looking after kit etc. I accepted this offer and now travel all over with the team. The team gained two further promotions and have been playing in National League One for the past three seasons. It's quite an achievement as we are now one of the top thirty or so clubs in the country, playing against the likes of Harlequins, Leeds, Bristol, Coventry and London Welsh in recent seasons.
We continued to invest in equipment and I now have the use of a New Holland 27D with mid mounted mowing deck and loading bucket, a Richard Long 1501 Scarifier/Collector, an Allett Regal 36", a Ransomes Mastiff, a 2.5m three point link turf brush, Proseed seeder/top dresser, Blec 2m overseeder with hydraulic brush, Greentek Aeroquik slitter/aerator with hydraulic top link and a towed Toro 1800 Topdresser. We recently purchased an AFT Sandbander and were awarded a Deutz Fahr 60 HP tractor and Southern Green Soil Reliever from the RFU.
All groundcare functions are now carried out in-house, with the exception of spraying. Richard Rainford of Amenity Contract Services, in St. Helens, provides an excellent and economical spraying service.
As the pitches have been improved so, too, have the club's other facilities. A 400 seat covered stand has been built, match quality floodlights on the main and training pitches have been installed and improvements to the club's three bars and dining facilities including air conditioning and, with the help of one of our partners, the gym has been enlarged and fully equipped. Plans have been submitted, and passed, for a floodlit all-weather training area. This will be our next major project.
Sedgley Park run four senior sides and minis and juniors from U9s to Senior Colts U19s. It's not unusual for us to have three senior games on a Saturday and 400 kids of various ages turning up on a Sunday morning. Training takes place most evenings, Tuesdays and Thursdays for seniors and Wednesday for juniors but, invariably there'll be someone doing a bit of extra work on Mondays and Fridays.
As our playing surfaces and facilities have improved we have been asked to host numerous representative matches, including two England Student Internationals, several Lancashire County Championship games, Lancashire Cup, Trophy and Plate finals and many more prestigious games, including the local BARLA age group finals. Yes, I know that's Rugby League, but I'll come to that a little later!
We are also the training base for current County champions, Lancashire. I've had a couple of memorable trips with the Lancashire side, seeing them beat Cornwall at Redruth in front of 6,000 Cornishmen - Lancashire supporters just about made double figures. In recent seasons they've lifted the County Championship trophy twice at Twickenham.
Our links with Rugby League are entering their fourth season, initially we were approached by Swinton Lions RLFC a National League Two side about a groundsharing arrangement. A suitable, and beneficial to both clubs, agreement was drawn up and The Lions now rent our facilities for all their home games. The down side of the agreement is that they play most of their games during the Union close season, so a suitable 'no play' window of four to five weeks in May and June has to be drawn up for pitch renovation.
This has worked reasonably well but with good cup runs and home draws the window has been reduced to just three weeks in two out of the past three seasons. Union and League overlap at the beginning and end of the Rugby League season and it's not unusual to get back to back fixtures, requiring timely changeover of pitch markings.
Thankfully, the Sedgley Park President is a dab hand with a string and linemarker and I get some good assistance.
Super League side, Salford City Reds use Sedgley Park's facilities during the day, Monday to Friday, as a training base. This is for about ten months of the year and they use our training pitches, gym, conference and video room and dine at the club three or four times a week. Great Britain and England Rugby league sides, with their respective coaches, Brian Noble and Karl Harrison, have had team runs on the main pitch prior to important matches. In recent years, local, national and Sky television cameras have become commonplace at the club.
Sedgley Park are a real 12 months a year, 7 days a week operation, employing full time General/Commercial Manager, Bar Manager and Catering Manager. Pitch care is ongoing and all suitable windows are used for remedial and renovation work. Good equipment, best practices, a well controlled weed and feed regime and quality materials in the form of sand, topdressing and seed have all helped in allowing the pitches to improve despite continuous use and, more recently, some very wet weather.
My biggest problems at the club are lack of a good irrigation system and annual meadow grass. However, when I started, that list would have been a lot, lot longer!
I live in The Rossendale valley at the foot of The Pennines, one of Lancashire's rainiest areas. This coming season will be my fifth as groundsman to Rawtenstall Cricket Club, my home town side. They play in the Lancashire League, reputedly one of the best leagues in the country.
Former Rawtenstall professionals have included West Indian Franklyn Stephenson, Australians Colin Miller and Michael Bevan, South African Andrew Hall and, this season, the paid man is Indian all rounder Sanjay Bangar. Professionals who have plied their trade in the league have included Sir Viv Richards, Peter Sleep, Chris Cairns and Kartik Murali amongst many many others.
I don't really now how I got the job, I sort of fell into it. Four years ago I was reading the local paper when I saw an impassioned plea by the Club Chairman. The groundsman had left the club just before the start of the season after being offered a similar position at his home town club, and local rivals, Burnley.
The new season was looming and this was a cry for help. I knew the chairman slightly, one of my sons had played at the club years earlier. I offered my services on a part time, voluntary, temporary basis! I knew the ins and outs of a Mastiff, had a little spare time and agreed to cut the outfield.
My offer was somewhat misinterpreted. Within days I was offered the groundsman's job on a part time, hourly paid, basis. Despite my protestations - I had never even played cricket let alone maintained a square - the Chairman and his committee insisted I was the man for the job and asked me to give it a try. I was given little alternative but to agree and, for a couple of weeks, a local firefighter and former groundsman gave me some tutoring and advice, I was then thrown in at the deep end.
I spent hours reading up on wicket preparation, I even bought a second hand PC so I could gain the relevant information from the Internet - another learning curve, as I knew little about computers as well! The former groundsman, Derek Carter, was a great source of advice, and still is, despite being with rivals Burnley.
A now retired groundsman, Gordon Horrocks, also offered very good advice. Gordon had worked at several cricket clubs, including Rawtenstall, and was a former head groundsman at Gigg Lane, the home of Bury FC. Following an IOG level 1 cricket course at Middleton CC I acquired another mentor in the form of Ian Brewster-Mather, the Middleton groundsman and local ECB pitch advisor. He is also chairman of the Manchester IOG branch, so we meet quite regularly, much to my benefit not his.
The equipment I inherited at Rawtenstall is pretty basic and old, but very functional, well maintained and serviced annually. It includes the aforementionied 36" Mastiff, a 182 Auto Certes, an 18" Marquis, both with 11 blade cylinders, Blue Bird Lawn Comb pedestrian scarifier, Robin pedestrian verticutter, Pattinson spiker/sarrell roller, Scottsspreader, Sisis Ferret, Tru-lute, 3' Truspread and Auto Turfman, a 3' Auto Roller with recent Honda engine and numerous hand tools and bits and pieces.
This close season we bought a Toro Triple with boxes. It is proving a time saver on the squares and outfield. I've got a couple of germination sheets, each covers a full strip, and three flat rain covers. My wish list would be roll on/off wicket covers and TTS Climate Control sheets. My covers are difficult to handle alone and, if left on too long, encourage disease, in particular Fusarium. I also have an old 48" ride on rotary, great for collecting leaves and scarified matter, but not used for mowing.
The Worswick Memorial Ground was bequeathed to Rawtenstall Cricket Club by local businessmen, the Worswick brothers, in the early 1950s. The ground is situated on the main road through the centre of Rawtenstall. It is probably the smallest ground in the Lancashire League; passing motorists have suffered many a broken windscreen and dented side panel.
There are fifteen strips on the senior square but only five, or at a pinch seven, are able to be used by the first team because of league fielding restrictions and short boundaries. There are also eight properly constructed practice wickets on the outfield, at the Kay Street end of the ground.
Two practice strips are prepared at a time and the nets, a type of cassette system, are erected by the players before practice on a Tuesday and taken down on Thursday after senior practice. Minis and juniors practice on Wednesday evenings. The junior square consists of seven properly constructed wickets on the other side of the outfield (U9s to U17s) with strips measuring from 18 to a full 22 yards.
During the playing season six or seven wickets can be on the go at any one time. The second and third senior teams play on the main square either side of the first team tracks. Junior games are played most nights Monday to Friday and it's usual to have two senior games - Saturday and Sunday.
We also host the local primary school soft ball competition, two Local Authority Summer Camps and a week of floodlit 20/20 style competition between ourselves and the three other Rossendale Valley Lancashire League clubs. We import diesel powered floodlights from a local plant hire company.
Rawtenstall are probably one of the best supported teams in the league. The viewing facilities are excellent with bench seats situated on a ten tier terrace running the full length of the field. Adjacent to the bar and tea room, the terrace is south facing and always in the sun. Liquid refreshment is essential in good weather to avoid dehydration and, in more cloudy conditions, it tends to lift the gloom and enhance the spirit of the game. Local derbys encourage large crowds and some amusing banter.
The club also has a player's pavillion with full changing facilities, a sponsor's lounge and balcony, umpire changing rooms and a scorer's room and score box.
Into my fifth season at the club I'm a little more confident. All three squares have wintered well and have a healthy sward of Barenbrug Bar Extreme. I've started some light pre-season rolling, when weather permits, and begun to scarify the outfield with the Richard Long Scarifier/Collector. I forgot to mention I have a Land Rover Defender 110 and a 20' Ifor Williams tilt bed trailer, so I can move tractor mounted equipment between sites with no problems.
I cannot believe the amount of organic matter I'm removing during scarification; it can't have have been done for years! I will overseed using the 2m Blec with 100kgs of fescue/bent mix.
The first league game was due to be played on 21st April, so wicket preparation will have started about three weeks earlier. Juniors start later on and practice wickets will be prepared as the ground dries out - it rains in Rossendale!
By the way, three operations and a healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle seem to have cured my back problems, or am I just too busy to feel the pain?