If you know anything about football in Northern Ireland, you will undoubtedly have heard of Glenavon FC and the popular stadium which the club calls home. Chris McCullough talks to David McClure, Head Groundsman at Mourneview Park at Lurgan in Northern Ireland.
With a capacity of over 4,100 fans, Mourneview Park near Lurgan is steeped in history, having been originally built in 1895. Glenavon FC was formed in 1889, but didn't find their home until 1895 when they rented a field from a local lady in Lurgan.
There isn't a lot of information about any work on the pitch, but it seems that drains were installed in 1990 with gravel drains put in sometime in the 2000s. Between 1992 and 2011, Mourneview Park underwent a number of significant renovations, including the building of three new seated stands.
Over the years Mourneview Park has been used by other clubs due to construction work and repairs going on at their own grounds. In 2014, Mourneview Park was nominated by Belfast club Linfield to be their designated home ground for their home matches in the UEFA Europa League after their normal home ground, Windsor Park, was undergoing redevelopment.
Mourneview Park was chosen as the venue for the 2015 Irish Cup semi-final between Glentoran and Crusaders due to the unavailability of Windsor Park ahead of a Northern Ireland international fixture. Back in September 2020, Glenavon FC unveiled a new 5m x 2m digital LED screen at Mourneview Park, which was the first of its kind anywhere in Ireland.
The person tasked with keeping Mourneview Park in tip top condition is head groundsman David McClure who has worked there for the past four years. Explaining how he got into the industry David said: "I've always wanted to be involved in football in some way. When I was 16, I went on work experience at Windsor Park, not knowing what I'd be doing and ended up being passed onto Gary Thompson, the head groundsman. One week later and I was hooked. For the next 13 plus years, I worked at Windsor Park as a part-time general dogsbody before becoming assistant groundsman and eventually became head groundsman. I left there in 2013, spending five years away from the industry before being tempted back by Glenavon FC in 2018," he said.
Head Groundsman David McClure
As anyone who works in the industry knows, ongoing training and gaining experience is very important to keep ahead in the job. David said: "Most of my training has been done on the job. Working at Windsor Park, I was preparing the pitch for Irish League, European games and international football. I had to learn on my feet and with the help of people around me. I have also completed winter sport pitches courses from the GMA."
"When I started out at 16, I knew absolutely nothing. My first boss, Gary Thompson, taught me a lot and helped me in my new career. Since then, I've been inspired to try and achieve the best playing surface as possible."
David is responsible for all work carried out on both the main pitch and a training pitch, also located at Mourneview. He decides on what work needs to be done and draws up budgets to cover it for the season ahead. A board of directors, who David reports to, considers and agrees to the yearly budget. "I am the sole full-time employee at Mourneview Park. I am the groundsman, the cleaner, and the maintenance man," said David. "My father comes in to help lift litter and empty bins after games, and every summer I try to organise a volunteer group to tidy the stadium, paint wherever is needed, for the incoming season. For everything else, it's just me."
"I can and do take advice from a couple of outside sources. Kyle Irwin from Irwins Sportsturf Limited is a great help. I also use Haffey Sports Grounds as contractors as I have very little equipment for major work. The grounds do not need any special type of treatments. I have learned what works here and I do things my way. It's a system I've perfected over the years, although I'm sure what I do is very different to what others do."
The pitch at Mourneview Park is used by the Glenavon FC first team, under 20s and, on occasion, underage teams. Mourneview Park is also used by the Irish Football Association for minor international games and semi-final cup matches. There are also charity games played at the end of the season and Academy days or weeks at different times of year.
The main pitch itself is 100m x 66m with surrounds making it 7,000 square metres, or around 1.7 acres. There is a training area behind the pitch that adds another 1,800 square metres. David also has a training pitch that is off site.
Discussing how the climate can affect his work, David said: "As Mourneview is close to Lough Neagh, it would get quite high winds at times. This can be a blessing as winds from Lough Neagh keep the worst weather away, but it also dries the pitch out quickly especially in March and April when the weather can be dry and cold. And with no irrigation system available to me, this is a massive problem. Frost can be a problem down one side from shading by the main stand."
"As part of my work schedule, I try to get as much water as possible onto the pitch. An aeration programme is also important, as is top dressing to try and keep the levels. But this is quite difficult as March and April are busy times with little space between games to get work done. And quite often the budget doesn't stretch for sand."
"Poor airflow in certain parts cause an issue up one side of the pitch because of the position of the main stand. During the winter, the sun doesn't make it over the stand and causes a shadow from inside the 18 yard box to the side line. If there is a heavy frost, this side becomes unplayable and impossible to thaw out. During the summer, the same side doesn't get the same light as the rest of the pitch," he said.
Glenavon FC also uses the local high school's rugby pitch as a training ground, which David also maintains. He said: "This can be very difficult as I can only get onto the pitch at certain times as it's being used by the school. Another massive problem is, as it's the school's rugby pitch, the school board mark the lines with weed killer killing any grass. Over the year, these lines then dip and can cause injuries."
Every sporting venue has its own maintenance programme uniquely devised to suit the individual needs of the grounds. David has drawn up his own tried and tested regime that keeps Mourneview Park in the best condition it can be. He said: "My weekly maintenance consists of divoting regularly and cutting. I cut using a Baroness LM331 and Dennis G860 with a height of 18mm to 24mm depending on time of year or density of grass. I mark the pitch the day of every game using a spray line marker. Spot divoting with sand and seed mix is carried out through the season."
"The monthly maintenance is based around matches. Aeration is really important throughout the season. This is carried out by Haffey Sports Grounds as I don't have the equipment. I carry out regular spraying of liquid iron and seaweed, which is a great soil conditioner and provides nutrients needed for a strong plant. It also gives the grass a great colour. Seeding and overseeding jobs takes place from May to September and depends, like all work, on the budget for that season. Again, this is carried out by outside contractors. Weed control is carried out by hand during the growing season but, as long as they are kept on top of, weeds aren't a problem I have. As I am the only staff member at these grounds, it's all hands-on deck for me to get the pitch and stadium ready for every game."
Ensuring a well presented pitch and stadium is ready ahead of all the games is a major goal for David, as that is what the fans see first when they arrive. He said: "Presentation ranks very highly as it's what impresses fans. It is what people talk about, more so than technical stuff like how healthy the leaf is. People want to see green grass. I want a good playing surface and healthy soil and grass, but being pleasing on the eye is important. It can also deflect away from any problems that only groundsmen can see!"
"Our end of season maintenance is all down to budget and time. This season, we will run a very small programme consisting of using an Earthquake machine to break up the soil, then 100 tonnes of sand will be added, followed by seeding. Seeding is also carried out throughout the summer. Last season, the pitch was heavily scarified which was needed. Unfortunately, due to a very dry couple of weeks, and an extended season, meaning less time, the grass and roots didn't establish quickly enough. I didn't get the same coverage and the grass was kicked out very quickly. It was a difficult season," he said.
Of course, any renovation jobs are affected by budget availability and that has to be assessed at the beginning of every season. "Yes, budgets massively affect any proposed work," said David. "That and time. I have a very small budget that has to be stretched the whole season. As I don't have the equipment, I have to spend a lot of the budget on outside contractors."
Weather patterns are changing across the world, with negative effects. Northern Ireland is a small country, but the weather can be different every few miles, which plays havoc with maintenance programmes. David said: "The weather can be my best friend or my worst enemy. I am reliant on the weather for my irrigation, but when that doesn't come the pitch can get very hard. Irish weather is very unpredictable, and I have to plan, as much as you can with weather, around that."
"We don't take regular soil samples. I've learned, and am still learning, what works here at Mourneview and what doesn't. It's important to know your pitch. Every pitch I've worked on is different, therefore different programmes are needed. But I'm on that pitch every day and have found learning on the ground is better than what's in a book.
Right: Jonathon Bunting, representing Killeen Hardware inc. Hillocks, presents David McClure with a new strimmer
"Currently, we do not have any special projects under construction, but there are plans in the pipeline for new training facilities and an academy. No budget is in place or exact plans made as we are only at the beginning of this project and funding is still needed for the long term. Money is not free flowing in the Irish League and pitches are not very high on the priority list, probably somewhere nearer the bottom. We get by on what we have when it comes to pitches," he said.
Any machinery required for Mourneview Park is purchased either second-hand or perhaps an ex-demo machine, if available. More recently, a Baroness mower was purchased from local dealer, Cyril Johnson & Co Ltd. In fact, this particular mower purchase has proved to be a real useful piece of equipment at the grounds as David explained: "The Baroness machine is a fantastic mower with a super cut. The main benefit is that it is less time consuming than the Dennis. It frees up time for me to do other things around the stadium. Also, it means I can cut both pitches. The training pitch is not on site, so I have to travel to it."
"All servicing of the bigger machines is carried out by the local dealer, and we use the local lawnmower service company to work on the smaller machines. If I was given one wish, it would be that I can be self-sufficient here. In terms of equipment, a seeder and an aerator with something to pull it would be a great start. However, most of all, I need an irrigation system," he said.
Pests and diseases are the scourge of all groundcare professionals and David has not escaped the perils of nature fighting against his work. He said: "We have a bad pigeon problem here and I'd love to take any help to get rid of them. As for weeds around the ground, I use Roundup to control them. I also have a problem with worms and worm casts at different times of the season. The best method to control these is by using a soil conditioner."
Groundcare staff play a vital role in the sports sector, but all too often their work is very undervalued and taken for granted. David has his own opinion on how groundcare staff are perceived around the industry but believes changes can be made for the better. He said: "I believe the industry is in a strong place. Outside of Northern Ireland, the industry is growing with an expanding profile, better pitches, better training, etc. Inside Northern Ireland, the industry is really non-existent. Pitches are very low on the priority list for clubs. There is no funding for grass and many clubs have, or are turning to, artificial pitches, seeing the financial benefits they can bring in. There is funding for artificial pitches. Most clubs train on the main pitch, which is also used for U20 and U18 games. I'm really not sure what the future holds for grass pitches in Northern Ireland."
"I really do believe we are undervalued in the industry. I think that many clubs and societies just expect that pitches are ready for matches, no matter the weather or damage done during training or matches. Personally, I hate attention or the limelight. I'd rather stay in the shadows, and even being interviewed for this is giving me the sweats, but at the same time I don't feel like people understand or appreciate what goes into preparing a playing surface with the weather and lack of money or equipment or any support."
"In order to raise our profile, I think what the guys at Leicester City are doing is excellent. They have made good plans to get more people into the industry. Social media has been good for groundstaff as well, as they can show their skills, although this can also put pressure on us as the season goes on, the pitch needs to be as good as last week. I would love the opportunity to learn from groundstaff and see what I can do to improve my pitch and myself. There isn't many of us in the Irish League to talk to, so it would be nice to be able to talk to others. I think this would give others encouragement to know we're not alone in our struggles or anxiety in getting things right," said David.
What's in the shed
Baroness LM331 cylinder mower
Dennis G860 cylinder mower
Hayter 24 inch push mower
SISIS outfield slitter