0 Talking Cobblers at Northampton Town FC

PaulKnowlesI run a Northants based Landscape and Groundscare Company employing two full time staff and a team of sub contractors throughout the year. I started in the industry around twenty years ago, my first job as an assistant greenkeeper at Overstone Golf Club. I then worked as a groundsman at Northants CCC, before taking on the head role at newly elected Rushden and Diamonds FC (now defunct!) .

I left Nene Park to become Head Groundsman at White Hart Lane, before returning to my roots and running my own business. My company has been trading for eight years now.

One of our clients is Northampton Town FC and, as a League 2 side where cash is vital, I've had to draw on all my experience with my great team to steer the club successfully through its fixture list.

Losing a game to the weather means disrupting cash flow. Balancing what this meant through, what can only be described as a woeful period of weather from mid December-mid January, was no easy task.

SixfieldsStadiumTo start this particular tale, I met with the club's stadium manager, Avril Spraggon, on 17th December (the beginning of the week), as we usually do, to discuss the forthcoming week's arrangements. Alongside the fixture list, the first team generally train on the stadium pitch at least once a week. Looking at the forecast, I had concerns about the weather at the back end of the week. I was being told that there were two weather fronts on the way, one due on Thursday and, more worryingly, the second arriving on Saturday morning when we were due to host Aldershot. At this stage, mid way through the season, the pitch was still in pretty good condition.

The forecast for Thursday had become ominous - heavy rain was on the way and was due to hit us by the afternoon, so we asked the club to underwrite the cost of a vertidrain of the pitch. Such is the 'hand to mouth' existence at these clubs that these decisions aren't taken lightly, whereas my previous life at Spurs, I would have seen the pitches spiked anyway, just to be safe.

CobblersPitch2With the club's agreement, I called on the help of Dave Saltman (Pitchcare MD) and, within two hours, one of his contracts team had arrived at Sixfields with a John Deere tractor and Wiedenmann Terraspike to 'vertidrain' the pitch in a four inch pattern at an eight inch depth. I must pay tribute to them, because, as the last run was completed, the rain started and continued through the afternoon, evening and night. We wouldn't have got back on without this operation.

Despite reaching our first objective - getting millions of holes into the pitch before it got wet - I was still troubled about the forecast and persuaded the club to give me a second order number for a Bowdry water remover. I ordered this on the Thursday afternoon and it was dispatched that evening.

On Friday morning, the pitch was okay and had taken the considerable rainfall quite well. Thankfully, it stayed dry and the water moved away down through the profile during the day. By 2.00pm I was getting a bit anxious as I hadn't received the Bowdry but, just an hour later, it arrived and I busily put it together. Not bad service on the last proper delivery day before Christmas.

Match day - Saturday 22nd December vs Aldershot

Water AldershotI arrived at the ground at 8.00am and walked out on the pitch. At this stage, the rain was steady. The pitch had taken the overnight rain well, but I could see the water had started to fill the aeration holes at the south end of the pitch, and we were now sitting on a rising water table.

According to the forecasters, the worst rain was due to move through between 9.00am and 12.00 noon and, sure enough, this is what transpired. By 10.30am surface water was visible in some areas. I put my team on standby with forks and the Bowdry. In this scenario, you are always under pressure from the management, match officials etc. to be seen doing something, but also conscious that there are already millions of holes in the pitch, and walking all over the sodden surface closing holes doesn't make the water go any faster!

T Bowdryhe referee arrived and we walked the pitch with Avril. We had a laptop on standby with the latest forecast and satellite pictures. I kept the referee fully informed of how the forecast looked and how I felt the pitch would perform if the rain eased up. He inspected the pitch again at 11.00am. We used the Bowdry on two areas that were causing concern. The referee understood that the worst of the rain would be gone by midday and that the holes already there would then do their job.

By now, the radio was informing us that plenty of other League 1 and 2 games were falling foul of the weather. We had a real push over the next hour and, thankfully, the rain subsided enough for the existing water to drain through sufficiently for the referee to pass the pitch fit for play at 12.30pm. Obviously, I was delighted, but I already knew, at this stage, that the pitch would be a muddy mess come full time.

The game kicked off at 3.00pm, and the players made all of the combined effort worthwhile and won 2-0. I'm eternally grateful to Dave, and I am in no doubt that, without the quick support received, the Aldershot game wouldn't have gone ahead. This would have resulted in a dent in club cash flow and no points on the board for the team.

AfterAldershotSo, all in all, everyone was happy; the pitch paid the price as you can see from the pictures, but we had a gap until New Year's Day when the club were due at home next against Dagenham.

We continued to endure heavy rain the week after the Aldershot game, which meant I couldn't physically get on the pitch to do any repairs and prepare it until Friday 28th. The good thing was that the pitch got the rest it needed (no training either) and the rain washed the mud off the leaf, so it looked better than it had done straight after Aldershot.

CobblersGoalmouthTo be fair, the pitch was still very wet even then but, with more rain forecast, we could only divot and dry the goalmouths with sand. I decided the pitch was too wet for the Allett cylinder mower, believing that it would just smear the top, so I opted to cut with a much smaller and lighter Honda rotary. This gave me presentation without too much damage, but sacrificed firming the ground. Stability would be an issue for the Dagenham game, but that was the compromise I had to make at this stage.

In the end, the pitch played well for the Dagenham match and The Cobblers won 3-1 so, again, everyone was happy.

Pitch FleetwoodGameThankfully, the next few days remained dry and I was able to stabilise the pitch with the Allett mower for the visit of Fleetwood three days later on the 5th January. Yet again, the pitch performed really well, as did Northampton, who recorded an excellent 3-1 in probably their best performance of the season.

Home form had suddenly come good, and our grounds team were pleased with how we had negotiated a tricky period and managed to get the pitch back to an acceptable condition for January.

As the following week commenced on 7th January, I remember thinking that we may get away with a second mild winter in succession - well I was wrong!

By midweek, the forecast suggested that, finally, a cold snap would arrive by Friday. In this situation I always err on the side of caution. Our next home game versus Burton was still over a week away on 19th January. Not one to take chances and risk frost getting in to the pitch, I got the mower out and rolled the pitch on the Thursday (10th January) and sheeted up the whole surface with our frost covers.

RoadClearanceThat weekend was cold, but I slept well knowing the sheets were down. The early part of the following week was very cold, with nighttime temperatures down to minus 8OC. Ideally, I would take the sheets off during the day to let in some air and light, but daytime temperatures also remained below freezing, so I left them down.

With nothing required at Sixfields, I found that the gritting arm of the business was in full flow around the county trying to keep our other clients roads moving and safe. We also gritted the club's car parks, roads and paths a couple of times during the week before the next home match against Burton. The Tuesday and Wednesday nights again went down to minus 8OC. The sheets, with around half inch of snow, just about did the job and kept the frost at bay.

We knew, on Thursday morning, that the pitch would be playable for Saturday because temperatures would hover around zero, and that wouldn't be enough for the pitch to freeze under the insulation layer. However, our next looming problem was the forecast of snow - and lots of it - coming in on Friday evening. Up to five inches (125mm for you younger ones) was being suggested and this, in itself, created another big headache.

We'd been out gritting and ploughing anyway on the Friday night, and I'd arranged for two ploughs to be at Sixfields at 8.00am on match day to start clearing the stadium car parks, internal roads and pathways. I made sure that our gritter and plenty of grit was also on site.

A club call for volunteers was also put out on Friday afternoon because we knew the pitch would be playable if we could get a snow clearing exercise underway with sufficient helpers.

CobblersPitchOn Saturday morning, I got the tractors and a small team of volunteers to work outside the stadium on the roads and car parks straightaway. In total, we had about seventy club members and volunteers who turned up to help.

The ref was due to arrive at 10.30am and I wanted him to see we were on top of the surrounds and that he only had to make a decision on the playability of the pitch. The rest of us got to work on the pitch. Due to the volume of snow, I decided we would push all the snow into rows lengthways on top of the sheets and then get tractors involved mid-morning to get the piles of snow out of the stadium. Even with the volunteers, we wouldn't have had the time to hand board and wheelbarrow the snow away in time and, so, with the sheets down, I was happy for tractors to go on and collect the bulk of the snow.

The referee duly arrived and, as I walked around with him, he was happy with the pitch under the covers and the snow removal, and deemed the pitch playable at 11.00am. I was chuffed to say the least!

VertidrainingAll the snow was either pushed off the pitch or taken and dumped on the grass banks outside. The roads, pathways and car parks were all cleared, gritted and safe by midday. This was an amazing team effort by everyone, and I had the white lines and goals up by 1.00pm. The crowd endured biting wind and freezing temperatures to watch Northampton win, yet again, 1-0.

So, twelve home points out of twelve over the festive period and the club was flying up the table. My own team were also 'pleased' as we headed off for another night's gritting!

As I write this article on the 23rd January, Northampton have just moved into the third automatic promotion spot after winning 2-1 away at Aldershot.

The importance, from the club's perspective, of getting both the Aldershot and Burton home games on was huge. Both games were played on a Saturday, where a larger attendance was received (than would have been for a re-arranged mid week game in February or March), there was no break in cash flow and, fortunately, the team capitalised on the momentum and got precious points in the bag. The team will hopefully also benefit from not having to play lots of additional games in the run in to the end of the season, when their rivals will.

It's times like these when I like to pay tribute to the club for trusting my judgements. Where purse strings remain tight, they listened and paid heed to my advice and spent the money required.

There were around forty fixtures cancelled in the Championship, League 1 and League 2 on those two Saturdays alone.

Now, we have a small break with the pitch and the thaw is on. Looking back, this has been a really tough period for us as we've had to juggle so many requirements with different clients for varying reasons.

We always try and plan well in advance, and I think that's been crucial in succeeding through this period of extreme weather.

At this point, I'm now really looking forward to, and ready for, spring!

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