"We're the second highest ranked university for sport in the UK, behind Loughborough only. We haven't finished outside the top ten in the last decade, which is testament to what we've tried to build here"
Durham University has maintained its status as a top-ranking institution where academia is concerned; often seen as the second choice for Oxbridge hopefuls who fall short. Durham's sporting heritage isn't as well founded as traditional heavyweights like Loughborough, but the last twenty years has seen England's most northerly Russell Group university rise in prominence to the position they are in today; second in the national rankings behind its East Midland's counterpart.
Durham's sporting prowess is no accident - it's taken a concerted effort to be able to compete at the level it does now, through a programme built on elite participation and community work, which has not only seen sporting alumni balloon but also has resulted in it forging closer links with professional and amateur community groups and many of the UK's leading governing bodies of sport.
In our recent interview with Lancing College, it was clear that the root of success lay in synergy between all departments, sporting and academic. The grounds team was a central cog in the whole operation - one valued at the top level. The same is true at Durham, so it's little wonder the university is enjoying the levels of sporting success it is.
"We're the second highest ranked university for sport in the UK, behind Loughborough only," explains Peter Warburton, Dean of Experience Durham. "We haven't finished outside the top ten in the last decade, which is testament to what we've tried to build here."
"A large part of our growth is due to a more professional approach in the staffing and in the way we recruit students. Unlike many universities, we don't offer any reduction in grades because of a student's sporting prowess; they have to excel in the classroom and on the pitch to attend."
The ability to excel on the pitch is shaped by the abundance and quality of sports facilities on offer at Durham, which manages natural and artificial surfaces, allowing the university to cater for all abilities, from a myriad of inter-college fixtures to elite level.
Chief amongst its provision are two 3G synthetic pitches, two full-size synthetic hockey pitches (water and sand-based), eight natural turf rugby pitches, innumerable football areas and four cricket squares (one all-weather) - not a bad performance for a university with a 15,000 student body - one dwarfed by the likes of Manchester and Birmingham.
"Over fifty sports are played here; not all have an elite link," explains Peter. "We pride ourselves on our ability to offer students a huge range of sporting opportunities, with the more popular ones, like rugby, cricket and football, fielding sides running into double-figures."
Most of the university attenders participate in sport. Because of the intercollegiate league system, the demand for high quality playing surfaces is extremely high, with some 66 football teams, 35 rugby, 48 netball and 36 hockey - among others - amounting to some 6,000+ students taking part in the various leagues every week.
Servicing such a welter of fixtures will inevitably take its toll on the quality of provision if not managed correctly so, alongside the evolution of sport at Durham, the skills set and demands on groundstaff has also grown dramatically.
I interviewed Deputy Head Groundsman, Steve Brown, in the absence of head Paul Derrick, who was away from the university. However, Steve knows as much as anyone on site as he is the team's longest standing members, joining aged just sixteen in 1974.
Steve is accustomed to the dramatic changes in Durham's sporting provision - the sheer volume of fixtures is one of the most notable. "There's only five of us, so it can be a tall order at times, especially when we have the unpredictable climate to contend with," Steve explains.
Durham's northerly location means staff are often at odds with, what can be, severe weather conditions. If our last two winters are any barometer, the pattern of heavy rain and snowfalls and continued sub-zero winter temperatures are here to stay. For groundstaff, such extremes can often put pay to the notion of yearly planning, as delays in fixtures mean delays in renovation works.
"The football and rugby seasons officially end in March, but we're forced to keep a few pitches back if they [the university] are playing catch up with fixtures lost over the winter," says Steve.
"We like to start seeding in March if we can, but much depends on rainfall as only one of our natural pitches has the facility for irrigation; and that one is reserved mainly for use by Hartlepool United FC. For all others, we're forced to rely on nature to play its part."
Due to the restrictions with irrigation, the team must have the right seed for the job, stresses Steve. "We've plumped for a dwarf ryegrass mix for a while now; we find its drought and disease resistant qualities serve us well." When quizzed over his brand preference, Steve opts to keep his cards close to his chest. "We've never shown a preference for one particular brand," he says. "We tend to follow the BSPB rankings quite closely, which gives us an excellent breakdown of which products best suit the needs of the site."
One of the university's real strengths - and a key reason for its success in enhancing its sporting pedigree - is the recruitment of leading high-performance coaches, many of whom have strong links with the governing body structures of sports like rugby, football and cricket; making Durham an even more attractive prospect for students who excel outside the lecture halls.
"Because we've looked to the professional elite for our staffing, many of our coaches have performed at the highest level," explains Peter. "Alex Keay - our senior rugby coach - played for Saracens over 500 times. He also coached at Manchester and Preston Grasshoppers before joining us."
Some of the other coaches on the Durham roster include: Graeme Fowler, cricket; Wade Hall-Craggs, rowing; Lewis Butler, hockey - all of whom bring the elite level expertise that students want from their university sports coaches.
Durham is also an LTA Development Centre, a Junior Performance Centre for Hockey and holds First Class County Cricket status. It is also the only UK university whose women's football team plays in the Super League (they will compete in the FA Women's Super League (FA WSL) for the first time this year).
University students good enough for the ladies first XI can take full advantage of the link as the university season and Super League season don't overlap, so those deemed good enough can play for both sides.
Their male counterparts also ply their trade at the highest level for university sports, fighting it out with the likes of Loughborough for the crown of the best university football team.
Top league status sees Durham et al play against some of the top professional academy sides as well. Sports like lacrosse and fencing have also flourished in recent years, with lacrosse enjoying the highest levels of participation of any UK university. Durham is also home to the British Fencing centre in the north.
Working with a university of such a high global standing has its own set of challenges, with the university fixtures and the many external events ensuring staff are kept busy all year round. The recent hosting of the annual week-long ESCA Bunbury Festival (cricket) is just one example of the prestigious nature of outside events hosted here.
"In its history, sixty players who've competed in the festival have gone on to play for England, including the likes of Ian Botham and Andrew Strauss," explains Peter.
Bookings like this keep groundstaff on their toes; to deliver the standards that young players of high quality expect. "We do things a bit differently from other universities where maintenance is concerned," insists Peter. "It's always been my view that the grounds team should be part of the sports department, not estates. Paul and his team report to my team only; they're an integral part of our department. Operating in this way allows for a smoother operation and budgeting, and planning is much easier as their work is intrinsically linked to the fixtures and our schedules."
"This arrangement also fosters a greater team spirit, I believe. Paul and the team not only feel like a valued part of the sports team but, also, there's more scope for quality control. If an issue arises that needs addressing, or a budgetary concern, we can better resolve it quickly and effectively."
The close of the university season and preparations for external events, like the Bunbury Festival, mean there's no let-up in workload for Durham's skilled team and, this year, Steve tells me, prolonged bouts of dry, hot weather have not eased the pressure.
"The wicket has bleached in the sun and the effect of the lack of rain has taken its toll," he explains. "That said, we're working with what is generally very hardy soil, so we're lucky that we can withstand the lack of moisture for longer than most, but cricket is by far the most labour-intensive of all our duties."
The Durham sports pitches are laid over two sites: The Racecourse - home to the main cricket square - and Maiden Castle where the artificial pitches and the Graham Sports Centre and Boat House reside.
Major renovations to the square had not been tackled since the mid-1980s, which prompted the university to begin investment in 2009. "Over the last five years, we've fast-tracked our renovation plans for cricket," Steve explains. "The aim is to complete a new wicket every year; we're up to five now and some of the first of those are only just coming into play."
"The wickets at the Racecourse have slowed a lot since renovations in the eighties, so we're looking forward to the time when works are complete (a decade). We've had to undertake plenty of hand watering this summer as we're anxious that the new wickets settle in well. This, coupled with preparations for the Bunbury Festival, has kept us busy."
Cricket is one of Durham's key sports - alongside rugby - ranking as the UK's number two outfit. First team captain Chris Jones had a choice to make this year following a call-up from Somerset County Cricket Club, which meant he would either attend his graduation ceremony or open batting for the West Country side - he chose the latter and joined the ranks of prestigious alumni who have entered the professional game following graduation.
Despite the obvious challenges, Steve recognises that his team is more fortunate than their school counterparts as they have substantially more time at the end of term to carry out renovations; the university sporting season ends in March, giving the team until May to make necessary repairs and improvements.
"Our normal routine is to start preparing the wicket ten days before play. We roll, rake, thin out the sward, soak and then roll some more," he explains. "Our two-tonne roller sees plenty of action. We like to keep the wicket wet in the run-up to a fixture to retain good moisture levels and bind the wicket."
Preparations for cricket are certainly more hands-on compared to winter maintenance duties, which are routine by comparison. "Fixtures for winter sports are played on the weekends and Wednesday afternoon, so preparations follow the same pattern each week. We'll cut on the Monday and Tuesday and spend Thursday and Friday repairing any damage," Steve says.
"All our pitches are of a traditional construction, and most are located at Maiden Castle, which is where we are sited. It's an expanse of land that we do our best with, considering our manpower and resources. Football participation is high, so our remit here is to raise pitches to the best standard possible for a high level of use."
The split site brings with it unique problems, not least logistical ones; the River Weir runs between the two sites and the facilities sit on its flood plain. Whilst the pitches are rarely overwhelmed with water, thanks to the Environment Agency's flood bund positioned to prevent such an occurrence, it's not uncommon for it to break its banks and flood, which naturally puts paid to fixtures.
"There's not much anyone can do about flooding, but we'd like to be able to do far more topdressing than currently," Steve says. "We only apply twenty tonnes of sand at present, but sixty tonnes would make a real difference as we could topdress all the main pitches."
"Most of what we do now is done by hand, which is also time-consuming when you think we have seventy acres of sports pitches to maintain. More topdressing would of course make the pitches hardier and prolong play when the weather is bad - important bearing in mind the flood risk."
Another dilemma for Steve and the team is the fact that The Racecourse site is accessible to the public and is not monitored seven days a week, which has led to one notable issue arising.
"The Racecourse has always been a popular haunt for metal detection enthusiasts," Steve reveals. "It's puzzling, as we've never heard of anything significant being found, but they seem to like it there."
"We have no problem with the public using the site, which they do, but when people start digging for metal, it starts becoming an issue and it's been the case, on a few occasions, when we've had to fill in holes. With a staff of only five there's little we can do to prevent it, so all we can do is notify walkers and hope they stop."
Steve isn't going to lose sleep over a few amateur metal detectors but, where flooding is concerned, matters are a little more serious. Guarding against that risk, while not at the forefront of design, was a key consideration when the university once again brought in a synthetic turf developer and contractor to undertake the construction of its second artificial 3G surface, unveiled at the end of August, installed with drainage at 5m centres (like its predecessor) "just in case", according to Will Roberts, the university's Projects and Technical Assistant for the Estates and Building Department.
The second 3G surface boosts Durham's already expansive sporting programme, enabling it to stage college, community and national fixtures. Impressed with Newcastle Falcons' synthetic training pitch the club had installed in 2007, Peter Warburton had wanted to up the ante of the university's sporting prominence and outreach across all levels of sport, from elite to grassroots.
Since its construction in 2009, the rubber crumb full-size floodlit facility, funded totally by the university, has become one of the most intensively used pitches in the country, along with other aspects of field sports provision on site.
Work began in early June on the second artificial pitch, being laid alongside the first, and was completed in time for this new academic year and the start of a packed schedule of rugby, football and lacrosse fixtures.
Rugby is one of Durham's biggest sports, with significant investment to the sports facilities in recent years, allowing play to increase across the board. The first team lays claim to only being bettered once in three years of competitive fixtures, a statistic that isn't so surprising when you discover that six of this year's (2013/14 season) team have won professional contracts upon graduating. Training with the Lions this year must have proved an unforgettable experience for Durham's players.
This time, Sport England has match-funded the 3G facility under a performance partnership that will see Durham extend its involvement with community sport.
"As part of the community outreach programme and commitment to Sport England, we aim to keep hire prices as low as possible," Peter says.
Durham's outreach projects are as important as their elite sporting provision, which work in tandem to help produce students that not only excel in sport but are armed with training and coaching skills that will stand them in good stead upon graduation.
A host of professional and amateur outfits, including Durham City Hockey, Durham City Athletics Club, Durham City Striders and Hartlepool United FC all use the university's facilities to train or for competition.
'Performance, participation, community' is Durham's unofficial sporting mantra, and the fusion of elite and community appears to be working well, both in terms of the university improving links with the community, generating enough income to fulfill its aims and to maintain the high calibre of sporting staff that entice new students.
Durham has a team devoted solely to the various outreach projects, with an ever-changing body of eight staff members tasked with delivering the work on the ground. "We're always on the look out for new opportunities to generate income or exposure," Peter explains. "We don't always charge for use of our facilities if both parties can benefit from supportive arrangements."
"It's getting tougher for universities to access funding," Peter adds, "but if you keep delivering great programmes that have a visible benefit for the community, you'll be viewed as a trusted and reliable investor, which stands you in better stead to continue gaining financial support through grants, former students, commercial partners and sponsors. You live and die by what you deliver."
Working under senior project manager Ian Tubman for both 3G schemes, Will Roberts adds: "The second 3G pitch will be tested to IRB and FIFA 2-Star standards, allowing top-flight rugby and football, as well as lacrosse, to be played on it. The surfaces are retested annually for characteristics such as head impact and ball roll to ensure they remain at the required high standard of performance."
Engineering solutions have advanced since the first 3G pitch was installed, he adds. "Different shockpads and technologies could have been introduced, however we decided to, once again, specify a Brock Shockpad due to the proven playing characteristics on the previous pitch."
"The university has learned much from managing the first pitch, which has certainly proved its worth," adds Peter, whose grounds team will maintain the synthetic surfaces year-round, after responsibility was passed to them following an initial 'proving' period of six months. "We've specified a few things differently with the second pitch, such as full 500 lux floodlights, flags drilled into the ground and redesigned dug-outs," he says.
The introduction of more synthetic pitches into the sporting environment is just part of the big developments Steve was talking about, as the role of the grounds team moves far beyond turf confines.
"It was all natural back when I started; there was no real maintenance involved with artificial at all. That's all changed. Synthetic turf is becoming an ever more important part of things here, certainly with the need to meet the level of fixtures we have, some of which - elite level fixtures in particular - simply wouldn't go ahead during the wet winter months. The technology has moved on so much, so the maintenance of it has become more sophisticated," he explains.
"3G is a big investment, so it's our job to ensure the expected lifetime of the carpet is met. We'll brush the carpet once a week to prevent the debris build-up which comes with such high footfall," he continues. "We dress the sand-based pitches monthly and clean and brush our oldest water-based hockey pitch. For a deeper clean we use a national contractor, Peter Day, who comes in annually to mark the lines and professionally clean the synthetic turf and refresh the rubber crumb."
Construction of the artificial pitches has allowed Durham to host far more sport than they would otherwise have been able to - football alone is played seven days a week.
"We've been able to extend our fixture capacity overnight so, on any one day, we can play up to five competitive rugby fixtures whereas, before, we were restricted to five a week because they had to be played on natural turf. We also train all our own staff through the RFU system, so staging College fixtures is rarely left in the hands of outsiders. We have the wherewithal to call the required amount of RFU qualified referees every weekend, which would be a tall order if we didn't train them ourselves," Peter explains.
Rugby isn't the only elite level sport benefitting from the new additions; the future of lacrosse is also bright as a result. "Women's lacrosse has always been strong here, and our men's team is arguably the best in the country," Peter explains. "England men's lacrosse train at our new facilities now, which will only serve to improve the level of the game and participation in the sport."
Every one of Durham's seventeen colleges now has its own team and the current head coach - appointed last year through England Lacrosse - joined following a stint as Assistant Coach for the German national squad.
The strengthening links between Durham and sport on all levels can only bode well for the future, as Peter's team bids to attract more sporting high-flyers to strengthen the university's prowess, whilst attracting national squads to base their centre of operations in the city.
As far as Steve and the team are concerned, as the profile of the university grows, so too will their workload, and it's likely that, in another ten years, the nature of their daily duties may again look markedly different.
The Bunbury Festival
Paul Collingwood helped launch the 27th Bunbury Under-15 Cricket Festival at Durham University, welcoming the cream of young cricketing talent from all over England to the North East.
The Durham and former England skipper greeted the players, appropriately enough, at Collingwood College, to welcome the four teams from the North, Midlands, London & East and South & West, and to present their Bunbury caps.
The festival, the brainchild of Dr David English CBE, is renowned for nurturing the next generation of stars - Collingwood himself is a former Bunbury player, having played in 1991 with the likes of fellow emerging talents Marcus Trescothick and Graeme Swann - as well as educating the boys in the spirit of cricket and camaraderie.
Of the current England squad, only the South African-educated Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen missed out on cutting their teeth at the five-day event. On average, two cricketers a year have emerged to become international players.
In the twenty-seven years of the festival, sixty boys have gone on to play international cricket, whilst 306 have played first-class cricket.
Many current Durham CCC players have also represented their region in the festival with - as well as Paul Collingwood - Graham Onions, Gordon Muchall, Chris Rushworth, Phil Mustard, Ben Stokes and Scott Borthwick all Bunbury's in their junior days.
Collingwood added: "Being picked to play in the Bunbury Festival and having an opportunity to represent the North was something a little bit special. The experience of playing in the festival gave me an insight into what it would take to be a professional cricketer."
"Looking back on it now, it also taught me that, as pressure mounts, it is important to remember that, at the end of the day, it is still the same game you used to love playing with your mates back home."