0 Technicality meets up with tenacity...

Two years ago, Bury Football Club brought in experienced turfcare specialist Gareth Lester as Grounds Manager, to complement the work of existing Head Groundsman Michael Curtis. Gaz's ex-Premier League technical input has met Mike's notoriously tenacious work ethic, and the resulting pitch is so improved that the team is up for an award later this year.

It isn't hard to see why the pitch at Bury Football club is so highly regarded. The dense, green leaves at Gigg Lane would be comfortably at home in the top half of the Championship.

Along with Pitchcare-aided grounds such as Boundary Park and Montgomery Waters Meadow, this is yet more evidence that pitches in the lower leagues are catching up to their big-budget counterparts.

The duo will be competing for the Professional Groundscare Team of the Year (sub-Tier 2), with their bid being made against the staff at Dagenham and Redbridge Football Club.

You can go and not learn anything new in a seminar, but when you're having lunch with some fellow groundsmen and complaining about a disease issue or whatever, one of them might just chirp in and say 'I solved that, and here's how…' They're as useful as the lecturers and stallholders.

On industry exhibitions, the two differ in their opinions. Mike, 47, said: "To me, it's irritating. You turn up and have a day of [he points around the room] 'I can't have that… or that… or that'." Meanwhile, 48-year-old Gaz sees the non-commercial aspect as the key: "I think it's easy to underestimate the value of networking."

"You can go and not learn anything new in a seminar, but when you're having lunch with some fellow groundsmen and complaining about a disease issue or whatever, one of them might just chirp in and say 'I solved that, and here's how…' They're as useful as the lecturers and stallholders."

Gaz was a greenkeeper until deciding to transfer across to groundsmanship for what he describes as a "quieter working life".

"I used to be on my hands and knees daily. I remember when I first started, being in what would become a bunker with a trowel finishing off the edges, covered in dirt."

"That's the beauty of the job, and it requires real graft, but eventually I thought I'd give myself a bit of a rest from all that, and a job came on offer at Bolton Wanderers Football Club."

"I took that and enjoyed the change. There are some groundsmen who are just specialists in cutting grass, but we find a nice kind of middle ground between the two extremes."

Head Groundsman Mike has been a groundsman at the club for a whopping thirty-two years. He was also a Kit Man at the same club.

He has grown up a part of the club's backroom culture, as well as a lifelong fan of the team, and his mother and sister both also work at the stadium.

It has a capacity of 11,840, and is one of the oldest continuously-used football stadia in the world, founded in 1885 and having very little done to the turf since.

Except for base systems, only the stands have changed. The ground is still the same as it was over 100 years ago, based mostly on soil and the remainder sand, more so since Mike's arrival, as he tends to dress with sand frequently.

Except for base systems, only the stands have changed. The ground is still the same as it was over 100 years ago, based mostly on soil and the remainder sand, more so since Mike's arrival, as he tends to dress with sand frequently.

The stands are open-cornered, but the south stand (the 'Les Hart' Stand) looms over much of the turf during much of the day, although it is the same height as the other three.

When the weather in the area proves too frosty, the southern third of the pitch is covered with a frost sheet, which tends to keep its levels of wear on an even keel with the other two-thirds.

Perhaps due to its history, the turf sees unusually heavy use for a mid-sized football ground, and per the club's website, its uses are extremely varied: 'Over the years, Gigg Lane has been used for rugby league, baseball, cricket, wrestling, American football, lacrosse, police athletics and sports meetings, Lancashire Fusiliers regimental parades and a Girl Guides convention.'

Now, the club is also in charge of Manchester City FC's ex-training ground in Carrington village. City still owns the site, but its lease means Gaz and Mike's team of four are tasked with maintaining forty-three acres of pitch space.

Left: Grounds Manager Gareth Lester and right: Head Groundsman Michael Curtis

Gaz described in detail the recent levelling work that has been undertaken on the pitch - again, one of the few transformations in its 132-year history: "We had a virtual rebuild of the pitch. Well… not a rebuild as such; more a reshaping. It was completely redrained, levelled and had a new irrigation system put in."

"All the existing materials were brought back in. Then we had 300 tonnes of lock-sand ameliorated into the surface, and we then top-drained it."

"It didn't perform as expected and required further remedial work the following summer. So, during my first summer here, we put 10,000 linear metres of gravel slitting across the existing drains."

This improved the pitch in time for the 2016-17 season, and only a minor renovation was called for following this, to avoid disturbing the delicate new system. The team only scarified, topdressed, verti-drained and overseeded.

It didn't perform as expected and required further remedial work the following summer. So, during my first summer here, we put 10,000 linear metres of gravel slitting across the existing drains

This allowed the surface to settle, which meant that they could completely Koro the turf this season, "very intensely" verti-drain, and dress with 80 tonnes of sand before overseeding, and quickly initiating an ICL-based fertiliser programme.

He continued: "Up until now, everybody's been impressed. Everyone at the club, and all the visitors, have been very happy with it."

The surface tends not to struggle with many diseases but, in the last few months, they've seen a little red thread.

They fed that at the first sign of danger, and hope to have dealt with it early enough to avoid any real problems.

For this, they used ProTurf 15:5:15 and Sierrablen 18:5:18 fertilisers, after they had already liberally applied the Sportsmaster Renovator Pro 14:0:5.

Weeds don't pose much of a threat there either, although occasionally clover grows around the outskirts, close to the advertising hoardings.

This is only ever plucked out of the ground, and the team seem proud that they can't recall the last time they had to treat chemically for clover, or indeed any other weeds.

On their choices of fertilising products, Gaz said: "They were a bit slow to start with, but that was all due to the weather. We had lovely weather whilst we took the top off and seeded it, but then it proceeded to tip it down for three or four days."

"I know everyone thinks it's fantastic when we get some rain, but when you're stood watching the raindrops and thinking about the game you've got to host in six weeks' time, it doesn't live up to the hype."

"It probably knocked us back by about a week [the rain], or maybe even two, but the fertilisers really kicked in after that."

I know everyone thinks it's fantastic when we get some rain, but when you're stood watching the raindrops and thinking about the game you've got to host in six weeks' time, it doesn't live up to the hype. It probably knocked us back by about a week [the rain], or maybe even two, but the fertilisers really kicked in after that

"After those six weeks, we had three back-to-back friendlies at home to kick the season off gently for us. So, the new-born turf had a game at six weeks, a game at seven weeks, a game at eight weeks. And it didn't stop there."

"These were followed by an open training session on the main pitch the week after, and the season began the week after that. It was intense."

"We were even on the TV for the first of those weeks. It was quite a big fixture for us against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup [also called the 'EFL Cup' or most commonly 'League Cup']."

"With all this intensity of playing schedules, we've taken to using Primo Maxx growth regulator this year because, with all the extra work we've had to do, it helps with management. Instead of cutting six or seven times a week, I'd say it's more like three times."

"You're taking off a substantial amount less growth, but at least the plant's healthy and kicking on, thickening out at the bottom."

"The chairman was happy with it last night, as far as we could tell. That being said… we had just won a game, and it was his birthday."

"But the pitch hasn't been mentioned that much by higher powers recently and we always see that as a good thing. If they're not mentioning it, it's doing its job."

"Although, before each home game they take a picture down across the pitch from the angle of the control box, and whilst the press for the team hasn't been all positive, the pitch has been getting some really good comments."

"Both the Assistant Manager last night - and the clubs that have been visiting in recent weeks - have spoken in private to us about how good the pitch was, so we must be doing something right."

Gaz was unsure of the consistency that referees apply to testing standards from year-to-year:

"The pitch was good last year. Of that, there's very little doubt. But you get your marks in January for the first half of the year, and this year we were marked down when compared with the same period of last year."

"That surprised us, because this year it was clear to us that the pitch was in a far better condition this time around."

"You're tested on three things: firstly, it's an examination of how it's presented in the run-up to the game; then they have a look at speed and playability during the action; finally, they look at the state of the turf afterwards and consider how it's stood up to the game's punishment."

You start thinking to yourself: 'What more can I do?' Because it was good. And it still is. Anyway… the match officials' marks weren't in line with other people's comments. I'd say that if anyone's got a bad pitch at this time of year, there's something that's gone dramatically wrong

"You start thinking to yourself: 'What more can I do?' Because it was good. And it still is. Anyway… the match officials' marks weren't in line with other people's comments. I'd say that if anyone's got a bad pitch at this time of year, there's something that's gone dramatically wrong."

"The only clubs who you'd expect to have a decent amount of wear at this stage of the season are those playing on a dual-use pitch."

"That said, Wigan were playing on theirs at four weeks old. Latics played against Liverpool FC on the Friday night, and then the Warriors played on it too on the Saturday. And already [late September], it's looking perfect again. So, you can't let it be an excuse either."

He went on to say that teams at their level of football have to carefully manage expectations based on the amount of money available, which is often less than others might imagine.

"My years at Bolton were the same. People just assume that, because you're in the Premier League, you have pots of cash."

"And the only difference at this level is that you've got to plan further in advance, because everybody wants a chunk of the cashflow from gate receipts and everything else."

"Whereas, in the Premier League, we could perhaps ask for something and receive it in two or three weeks, here we have to be ready to plan for it coming two or three months down the line."

"The budget that I put in here, which spreads across this surface and Carrington - which is six pitches, with four that are Fibresand-based, and two that are ameliorated sand and soil - is about average for our league."

"There's an undersoil heating system installed, which previously ran all through the winter months. To run that system, literally just on fuel bills and nothing else, is more than the total grounds maintenance budget of many of the teams in our league. We just leave it off."

He continued: "With teams in the lower leagues, I think a lot of the challenge is trying to convince kids getting into the sport that it's not all about watching teams like City, United, Liverpool."

"But, because the budget for those clubs is so high, they advertise and market themselves very well. Because of that, competing for that attention has to be done in other ways. And, whilst that's not going to change overnight, I think it is currently happening, if slowly."

"At places like Wigan, you've even got more fans going to watch the other sport being shown in the dual-use stadium."

"And both factors together mean that, at clubs like Wigan, Rochdale and Morecambe, you've got two generations of fans missing."

Consequently, this makes our job more difficult, as well as those of everybody in the club, because one of the ways we have to compete nowadays is through quality. And, when you've got as many games as we've had recently, it starts to test the difference

"Consequently, this makes our job more difficult, as well as those of everybody in the club, because one of the ways we have to compete nowadays is through quality. And, when you've got as many games as we've had recently, it starts to test the difference."

"But we can also compete on price. So, this season, we announced an initiative for very cheap children's season ticket prices (£25), plus cashback and a voucher for every fan once total season ticket membership reaches 3,000."

The club's website, on its page for this special offer, states: 'We recognise that football in the lower leagues is supported by real fans, who support their teams through good and bad times'.

And Gaz emphasises what incentives like this do for the revenue stream at football clubs: "It's always worth offering the kids cheap football."

"They cheer the team on more loudly if there are more people. But also, when they come in to watch a game, they also want a shirt or a scarf, so it's helpful to get big numbers through the door."

"You've got to link the footballing side with the commercial side. However, our takings from last year don't seem to affect our budget, which remains constant."

"That's why we've gone down the route of this fertilising programme, because you can put your base fertiliser in, then top with fertiliser on time. So, if you are a week late with your feed, the pitch quality doesn't peak and trough."

"It's the same with the Primo Maxx. A lot of people think it's expensive, but it saves you so much time on your jobs that it actually works out to save you money."

Mike added: "When there's no game on, we usually only need to cut around three or four times per week, and now we've put down the Primo, it's even less."

"We do a lot of cleaning, and only really need to get that done three times per week at 23mm with the Dennis G860."

"And the rest of the kit we use often includes our own Verti-drain, ProCore and Air2G2. We perhaps use the Air2G2 four times a season and the ProCore monthly, plus we Verti-drain quite often, the last time being about four weeks ago."

Gaz chimed back in: "You've got to be careful with your aeration, because people can be tempted to overdo it, which make it too soft."

"Then, the only way they can rectify that is by using their rollers and mowers over it again. It just defeats the purpose of both of those tools, and you can end up wasting a lot of time."

"But if you can time it right with a Verti-drain or ProCore just after you've cleaned the surface and you don't have a game for at least a week, there's no need to redo it, and you'll save yourself the need to firm it back up in time for kick-off."

The benefits of the Primo Maxx perhaps make the most sense at clubs such as this: here, four people look after twenty-one pitches of varying size.

This staff includes two other Michaels, 28-year-old Warburton and 48-year-old Steele, both Assistant Groundsman who focus on the tertiary pitches, but work at the stadium on matchdays .

The Primo also helps on unreliable surfaces, like the one with which Gaz and Mike deal - the main pitch is as old as the stadium and has three drainage systems of different ages laid out sporadically.

Mike said that these drainage systems, whilst unusual, work quite well. He recalled a day during the previous season when other local teams had games cancelled, whilst a game at Bury went ahead.

That said, Gaz told us that the team can push water from the surface more quickly than the stadium outlet can get rid of it, perhaps just due to the age of the soil.

This, however, is a problem that shouldn't last much longer. The club chairman has only been around for five years, and the club has already made public its plans to move to a new stadium within the next few years.

Whilst it is confirmed by the club that this new home will be in Bury, their negotiations are still ongoing, and the names of potential sites cannot be released.

In terms of spend on the current site, Gaz and Mike both have a fixed mindset on the intake of machinery and its relationship to contracting.
Gaz said: "We use contracts for hardly anything - except a bit of additional verti-draining work last year - and that is just additional, because we have our own, but we needed some deeper tines to prepare for working extra sand into the profile."

"For me, at this level of football, if you've got the equipment in-house, or you can afford to build it up over a few years, it's a no-brainer."

"It's a massive cost-saver. Of course, you've got the large initial outlay, but when you start adding up the costs for using contractors for some jobs, it overtakes that."

"When you've got as many pitches as we do, it can cost £12-14,000 per season to Koro them off. You can buy a Koro for £21,000."

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