Graeme Glen is the new (ish) head groundsman at Stirling Albion, the Scottish Division Two football club known affectionately as the Binos. Their recent history has, according to Wikipedia, included 'the yo-yo years' and they have avoided relegation from the Scottish professional league system by the 'skin of a haggis' on a couple of occasions.
The Forthbank Stadium has been their home for the past twenty-three years and the club ground share with Stirling University FC, who play in the Lowland League.
Stirling Albion was founded in 1945 after the town's previous football team, King's Park, had failed to survive the Second World War. Their ground had been damaged during the war, having been hit by a German bomb on 20 July 1940. This was one of only two bombs to fall on the town during the Second World War.
The new club was the brainchild of local businessman Thomas Fergusson, a local coal magnate, and the 'albion' suffix was reputed to have come from the make of the coal lorries used to transport the mineral. This, though, is believed to be an urban myth.
The Forthbank, not surprisingly, sits close to the banks of the River Forth as it meanders its way towards Queensferry, Edinburgh and the North Sea. It has a capacity of just 3,808, with 1300 hardy souls having to brave the Scottish weather in the standing position.
Graeme joined the Binos as the club's sole groundsman in April 2015. He had previously had a career in greenkeeping so, whilst the move to groundsmanship was not a complete change of tack, he has, by his own admission, been on something of a steep learning curve; but one that he appears to be thoroughly enjoying.
In this question and answer session, he discusses his role at the club.
PITCHCARE: How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position?
GRAEME GLEN: I started greenkeeping at Deanwood Park Golf Club in Berkshire thirteen years ago. I had office based jobs prior to this - Customer Advisor with RBS among others - and realised, quite quickly, that I had to work outside. I stumbled into it when I went for the job at Deanwood. I knew nothing about the industry prior to this but, being a keen golfer, it made sense. From there, I moved on to Newbury and Crookham where I left as Deputy Head Greenkeeper. I then returned to Scotland to work at Gleneagles for a few years.
What training did you undertake?
NVQ 2 and 3 at Sparsholt College, Hampshire. PA1, 2 and 6, John Deere machinery maintenance at Langar and Hunter Grinders sharpening courses, along with various first aid and fire safety courses.
Was there one person who inspired you?
It would have to be Alec MacIndoe, who was my Head Greenkeeper at Newbury and is now the course manager at West Surrey. Alec would always encourage debate and would welcome people who wanted to challenge his ideas. For me, this shows someone who has confidence in his own ability. An all round great guy and mentor, despite his Rangers allegiances!
Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else?
I am answerable to my Facilities Manager, Kairn Campbell. We have a tight budget but, if I can justify the spend, Kairn does what she can to help me out. She has been great since I started, having complete faith and trust in me to produce a surface to be proud of.
As a sole groundsman, who do you call on for additional help?
I have developed a great working relationship with Alan Wright and the Terra Firma guys. We had next to no machinery when I started, so I have had to beg, borrow and steal from local golf, football and cricket clubs who have all been a massive help.
How would you describe the soil profile?
The pitch is built on Tay sand, which appears to be quite fine in its composition, meaning compaction is a battle. When forking the ground, I would hit a pan at about 4" which was like hitting concrete. Thatch is a big problem - 2" in places - which has given me a lot of black layer. The smell was awful the first time I aerated the pitch.
Does it require any special maintenance techniques?
With this being my first season here, it's been a steep learning curve. Through the summer and autumn I verti-drained every other week and have had my mate, Chris Pearson, over the pitch a couple of times with his Air2G2 which has helped massively to relieve the worst of the compaction.
I've been slitting when the opportunity allows, trying to keep the thatchy surface open.
Do you have any additional equipment or systems at your disposal - for example, undersoil heating, drainage, lighting rigs, covers?
I've got an irrigation system - it doesn't get used much!
Are your pitches used by the community or hired out to outside agencies?
In the summer, the pitch is used for local schools to compete in the 'Junior Games'. The pitch is played on alternate weeks between Stirling Albion and Stirling University - in the Lowland League. Stirling Uni are currently flying, best of luck to them in making it to the football league.
We have also accommodated several development league fixtures and a few Scotland youth matches, hopefully with more to come. The number of games played this year is racking up. Many people seem to think this riles me, having so much traffic on it, but that's where I find the job satisfaction. There is little point in presenting a good sports surface for people to stand and look at it!
Does the facility suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive snowfall, frosts etc?
Being in central Scotland, all of these are an issue. We had a freakishly bad spring last year where I didn't get any real growth until July and, now, in the depths of winter we are breaking records for the wettest November and December - 300mm in November, followed by 400m in December. As I am answering this, I have noticed the local News are forecasting that the temperature is to fall to -10OC through the night.
How have you coped with such excesses?
Aeration, aeration, aeration. I've been really pleased how the pitch has taken the combination of traffic and weather, but it feels like I've been fire fighting with it on a week by week basis. I'm looking forward to remedial work in the summer so I can enjoy more consistency from the surface. This will allow me to plan ahead far better and gain trust in its tolerances.
Are there any issues with shade and air flow?
Due to our low stands, airflow and sunlight are good. I do have an issue with the south goalmouth though as the sun doesn't get high enough to peer over the wall. This goalmouth sees no sun through the winter.
Do you have any artificial surfaces at your facility?
A 3G pitch (UEFA 2), six 3G 5-a-side pods and an international standard, water based hockey pitch.
Tell us about your maintenance regimes?
In the growing season, I kept the height of cut at 25mm. This winter I've been sticking to 35mm using a Dennis G860. Through the autumn and winter, I do like to give the small rotary a run over the pitch, but this is a bit of a luxury due to it taking eight hours. It does help clean up the surface of any debris.
I have been carrying out regular slitting with our Sisis Multislit and verti-draining (Charterhouse 7212) when weather allows.
Through the growing season, I verticut every week/other week. I'll only carry this out if I get a dry opportunity as it makes a great job of cleaning the surface. Religiously, every Monday is spent divoting and forking. It's a monotonous job, but I have found it to be one of the most important. Just get the earphones in and get on with it! I divot with a 70/30 rootzone, MM60 seed and 8:12:8 pre seed fertiliser.
When cutting in the summer, I take a small spray bottle of selective weedkiller and just spot treat as and when required. With the pitch constantly being divoted, and overseeding pre-season, I prefer not to blanket spray.
I try to get everything ready for a game on the Friday to avoid any surprise problems on Saturday morning. This normally involves a cut and mark out but, as everything else, it's weather dependent. If it's a wet Friday, I'll shut the shed and put the hours in on Saturday to get the prep done.
In the spring, I start to put down a 12:6:6 and carry this on through the summer as required, supplementing with seaweed to try and aid root development. I also trialed Maxstim and found great results in root development, although I'm unsure how much credit should go to improved aeration.
When growth is at its peak, I apply a few doses of growth retardant to thicken the sward as much as possible in preparation for the cooler months. I didn't really enjoy my first summer on the job because I was always thinking of what January and February were going to bring, even in the middle of July!
We don't have edging boards around the pitch so I'll need to get the edging iron out over the winter. I've not done it yet, but anticipate a slow tedious job, however it will tidy the whole place up.
Where does presentation rank?
Aesthetics are very important - it's satisfying taking a seat in the stand on Saturday and being proud of what I'm presenting, not only to the players but also to fans. However, due to the weather we've had, it's been challenging just getting games on. There's nothing worse as a fan, when you spend the week looking forward to Saturday, for the game to be postponed.
When I've been working into the night under the floodlights, the Binos manager Stuart McLaren has made a point of coming out for chats about the significant improvement he is seeing on the pitch. Commenting on how much the players enjoy playing on the surface is where I get the real job satisfaction because, ultimately, these are the guys I'm doing the job for.
What end of season renovations do you undertake?
In my only pre-season so far, I dressed with 80 tonnes of coarse Devilla sand, then verti-drained with one inch tines to a depth of 10" with 15 degrees of heave, brushed, then overseeded with a drill with nine bags of MM60 seed. Prior to this, I carried out my only blanket spray with a selective. Due to the thin coverage, there was quite a bit of clover creeping in. I fed with 8:12:8 and dropped my HOC down to 10mm to help work the sand in.
I'm quite fortunate that we've managed to agree a deal with Campeys, where we will be hosting their 'Grassroots Pitch Renovation Tour' at Forthbank at the end of the season. However, with the Scottish League Cup restructuring for next season, I only have eight weeks from Koro to game. It's far too good an opportunity to pass up, given the thatch and compaction issues, however I am apprehensive about getting another spring like last year.
The chairman of Stirling Albion, Stuart Brown, is working hard to try and rearrange some early fixtures to give us the best chance of getting the surface back up to speed. In Scotland, I think the vast majority of us are in favour of summer football, but it will make renovation windows very tight. I guess that's where we need to be adaptable. I wouldn't think there'd be much protest if it's for the benefit of Scottish football.
Are renovations affected by budgets?
We are very fortunate in reaching an agreement with Campeys as there is no way we could consider this work normally. In return, they'll be staging their show at a terrific venue in the heart of Scotland.
Are renovations affected by outside pressures - for example, concerts and corporate events?
Nothing this year. Due to the above, there will be no friendlies or junior games.
How have changing weather patterns affected what you do?
In all my years greenkeeping, I can't remember a poorer spring than last year. It felt like the growth was at least six weeks behind. It's great having aeration equipment at my disposal but, this winter, the biggest issue is getting a window when I am happy taking machinery onto the pitch. I don't think I could have picked a worse year for my first season in football!
Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required?
Yes, and I drop these off to the European Turf Laboratory (ETL), conveniently just round the corner.
How do you look after the artificial surfaces?
We have very little equipment for the artificial surfaces, so I try and make do with a dragmat and dragbrush. Not ideal, but it helps.
What about ongoing training?
My boss Kairn has been very encouraging regarding any courses I might like to attend. She is a big believer in personal development and actively encourages attending short courses.
Have you considered employing an apprentice?
It is something I am looking into. The pitch and stadium is manageable with one but, when the surrounding grounds and pitches are included, it becomes too much.
I'd be grateful for any help I can get. The more help I have, the more attention and time I can put into the stadium playing surface.
What would you consider to be the state of our industry?
Early days for me to say. Since starting in football, I have met some very knowledgeable and passionate people. As long as we've got plenty of them, it'll be in a good state.
I do think there is still an ignorance about turfcare which we will never get rid of. The most important thing is to feel valued by the people you are doing the job for; personally, I do.
How would you raise our profile?
Some of us in Scotland are in the process of building an association for turfcare professionals. The initial idea focused on football groundsmanship but, as it's progressed, we've found interest from all types of turfcare. We have recently established our executive committee which will make it an official association.
The committee include a self employed one man lawn and garden service, through to a grounds manager at a multi million pound sports complex. The common interest is passion for what we do, which makes me very proud to be a part of it. Watch this space.
Thank you for your time.
What's in the shed?
Dennis G860 with 2 cylinders, brush, sarrel roller and verti cutting cassette
Kubota B1700 tractor
Yamaha quad with small 60L spray tank attachment
Countax ride on mower
Sisis drag brush
Kubota 21" rotary mower
Strimmer, hedge cutter and backpack blower
ICL Everris spreader
"I've not managed to buy anything yet, but that decision would be for my boss to make. I just need to get various quotes together and make a good argument for needing the machinery. It's then Kairn's call whether it would be possible!
Although not mine, getting the use of Stirling Cricket Club's verti-drain has been a game saver.
Additional help has come from Chris Pearson (Pearson Aeration) who goes over the pitch with his Air2G2. A great piece of machinery and a great bloke.
Brian Forsyth (BRF Groundcare) based in Blairgowrie carries out the servicing. He's mobile and is able to do any work on site.
As for a wish list, that would have to be my own tractor and verti-drain, plus a topdresser. I would like to be able to tine and dress throughout the season."