John Huxley has been Head Groundsman at Crewe Alexandra for the past thirty years. He claims it is "the best bloody job in the world". Not averse to the odd expletive, he talks to Pitchcare's Laurence Gale MSc about his time with The Railway Men.
Crewe Alexandra Football Club were formed in 1877, as Crewe Football Club, when they separated from the successful Crewe Cricket Club. They reputedly added the name 'Alexandra' after Princess Alexandra, The Queen Consort to Edward VII. However, many believe that they are named after a pub that, itself, was named after the Princess. The club were formed out of the needs of the working men of this famous 'railway' town and their nickname, not surprisingly is 'The Railway Men'. The ground is situated adjacent to the main line station. They played their first ever match at Gresty Road against North Staffs drawing 1-1.
Gresty Road is still their home although it is now, officially, known as the Alexandra Stadium. However, few fans call it by its new name. In 1926 a record crowd of 15,102 packed into the ground to watch Crewe entertain local rivals Stoke City. This record was surpassed in 1955 when they took on Spurs in the FA Cup. 20,000 watched them hold Spurs to a 2-2 draw. They were to lose the replay 13-2, still their record defeat.
Crewe are renowned for producing players that go on to play at the highest level. Amongst them are Stan Bowles, Neil Lennon, David Platt, Robbie Savage and Dean Ashton. This breeding ground of success has seen the club gain official status as an FA Youth Academy.
Much of this recent success has centred around long-time manager, Dario Gradi, who managed the club from 1983 until 2007 when he moved sideways to become Technical Director. He is one of the most respected men in the Football League.
Equally respected is their Head Groundsman, John Huxley, who was appointed in 1978 when he was poached from Stoke City where he had been groundsman for nine years. He is one of the longest serving groundsmen in the industry and is regarded as a 'bit of a character'.
John has no official qualifications but has learned his trade by 'doing the job'. "The best bit of advice I was ever given" he says "was 'learn as much as you can, as quick as you can and you'll be alright'. I've been here thirty years and I still consider it the best bloody job in the world."
He recites fondly some of the tricks managers got up to win games and make the pitch more difficult for the opposition. This often centred around leaving too much grass on or over watering. As John says, this was not difficult in the days of heavy soil based pitches.
After beating Bolton on a very heavy pitch John recalls, "After the match the then assistant manager of Bolton, Phil Brown, came up to me and said 'I hope you've got a lot of money?' I said to him 'no, I'm skint, why?' 'Because,' he said 'we've had to call the club doctor to two of our players who are suffering from crocodile bites!'
One of the biggest problems he has is warm ups. "Often the opposition teams do not play ball (excuse the pun) and they tend to abuse the pitch with fast feet routines" he says. "Also, goalkeepers seem to take particular delight in digging up the pitch for place kicks and marking out their territories. Even our goalie does it. At the end of the season I'm thinking of putting a sign on the offending area saying 'Some bird brain did this' but, I bet, not even that would stop them. Even with the FA directives they still do it, but then, there's nobody prepared to tell them to move on."
So, John has devised his own methods. "I use various techniques to control the players, such as roping off goalmouths or, if they are doing warm downs, I'll put the sprinklers on. That soon gets rid of them!" he says with a huge grin on his face.
"I bet there wasn't a groundsman in the land that wasn't running around his living room whooping for joy when that goalkeeper from Tottenham missed Gary Neville's back pass that hit a mound he had made and bobbled over him into the goal. Players need to understand the effort that goes into preparing a quality surface for them to play on."
"In the end," he says "it comes down to trying to educate both players and managers about the needs of the pitch."
John is responsible for overseeing the work at both the training ground and stadium. The club employ two other groundstaff, Andy Walley, who works mainly at the training ground, and Andy Warham, John's assistant at Gresty Road.
John generally spends the mornings at the training ground and returns to help Andy on the stadium pitch in the afternoons.
Machinery is pretty standard, with a 42 inch Allett Regal and a 36 inch Allett, bought with some of the proceeds from the sale of David Platt, used on the stadium pitch along with a ride on Honda rotary for mowing the perimeter areas and cleaning up debris.
All the pitches at the training ground are cut daily using a triple deck rotary Husqvarna mower.
Last year, John began applying Primo Maxx at the training ground to improve the density of the sward and to reduce cutting frequencies. It was applied to the U18's and the first team pitches. "I went to see a demo of it at Haydock Park" says John. "I saw the video of Arsenal's training pitches and I thought, something's not right here.
They don't work any harder on their pitches than I do on mine yet they look ten times better. Well, it turns out it's all down to Primo Maxx! I did suggest to the Primo guys that they should trial these new ideas at the smaller clubs such as Bury, Shrewsbury or Crewe. All the other small clubs would be thinking 'if Crewe can afford it, so can we'. Everyone knows that Arsenal have got Arabs flying over the ground on a daily basis throwing pound notes at the pitch! Therefore, groundsmen at smaller clubs see the product as elitist."
However, the results have been so good that John is now applying Primo Maxx to the main stadium pitch.
The stadium pitch is a Fibresand construction installed ten years ago. The pitch was stripped down to a depth of 600mm and topsoil and subsoil was removed from site. A new primary drainage system was installed at five metre centres and covered with a 150mm gravel layer. On top of this went 100mm of 6mm clean grit, then 200mm of medium washed sand and, finally, 100mm of Fibresand.
John then had to learn how to manage his sand based pitch, with the art of watering and feeding being crucial to its performance, together with the need to aerate on a regular basis to prevent the pitch becoming hard.
For the past three years, end of season renovation has involved the koroing off of the surface vegetation, applying new fibresand materials to maintain the top 100mm and oversowing.
However, this year John changed his end of season renovations preferring to keep some of the existing grass. "At the end of the season, the grass is just coming into its growing period and is looking the best it has for probably four months, so why take it off" says John.
So, this year, Beryn Evans from ALS came over to carry out the work. This involved mowing down the sward, scarifying out unwanted debris, collecting and disposing of the arisings, topdressing and overseeding with Bar 7.
The results have been good with, no doubt, the copious amounts of rainfall throughout the summer helping out.
The stadium pitch is mowed on a daily basis through the growing season using the Allett mowers, striping in traditional six metre bands.
The perimeter of the pitch, behind goals and up to the touch lines, is mown at 30mm. This helps protect the grass, especially through the winter months. The playing area is maintained between 22-25mm, depending on the time of the year, with grass in the goalmouths kept between 25-27mm.
During a typical week, work usually begins straight after a match when the three groundstaff spend around ninety minutes repairing any large divots and scars. Andy comes in on the Sunday morning to sort out the smaller divots and to mow the pitch.
On Monday hel mow again and overseeds any divot marks.
There is often a match on Tuesday evenings, so Andy and John spend the day mowing and marking out in readiness.
Wednesday and Thursday is spent mowing and, on Friday, mowing and marking for the Saturday game begins. Line marking is carried out with a Kombi linemarker using Pitchmarker C paint. String lines are used every time.
On the morning of the match the staff arrive at 9.00am, check over the pitch and erect corner flags and practice goals. The pitch is watered prior to the game using the pop up system that was installed at the same time as the drainage.
Feeding is carried out based on the condition of the pitch and soil analysis. Regular NPK feeds are applied throughout the season along with some applications of liquid iron and trace elements.
The pitch does have some shading problems down one side with the new Railtrack stand casting a shadow across the pitch during the winter. Even in the summer months the shadow covers a third of the pitch. This, obviously, affects grass growth and recovery.
"I'm considering trialing Barenbrug's Bar 50 SOS" says John, "which, they claim, will germinate at temperatures down to 3ºC. If it works it will be ideal for us and will also help with winter repairs."
John Huxley is a one off. As he approaches the statutory retirement age he sees no reason why he won't continue doing the job he loves. "The wages could be better and the hours are long" he states bluntly, "but, as long as I've got a pound more than I need, I've got enough, haven't I."
He has an earthy way with words that puts a smile on your face as he relates one more reminiscence. "Pitchcare, John Richards? Oh yeah, I remember that Johnny Richards. Pretty good player he was. When I was with Stoke I went to Wolverhampton to watch Shilts' first game for Stoke, it was John Richards against Peter Shilton. Shilts kept everything out that day until the last five minutes when he was eventually beaten by John Richards. Oh yeah, good player that Johnny Richards, he had to be to beat Shilts that day! Happy Days."