AFC Telford United play in the National League North and, at the time of writing, were involved in a relegation battle with five other clubs. Jake Barrow headed 'just down the road' from Pitchcare's headquarters to meet Micky Conway, their 'temporary' Head Groundsman.
Could you just give us your full name and age first, Mick?
Yeah - I'm Micky Conway, 61.
And you're the…
Head groundsman at AFC Telford United [New Bucks Head Stadium].
How long have you been doing this?
About twelve years now. More or less, the first time I spoke to
Pitchcare in 2005, I'd just started. The previous guy was here for
about one or two days after I arrived, and he left. That's when I
was asked to temporarily take over from him, which of course turned
out to be a long 'temporary' spell. We had lots of issues with the
pitch then, and I was brought in because I had City & Guilds
qualifications. "Hang around until we find somebody else" was the
request. And now it's thirteen years later.
Is this what you've always done?
For a long time. I used to go out to bowling greens, cricket squares, any local clubs or universities to do their pitches on behalf of TWS, who I worked for. They sent me here, because I had those qualifications, and they decided to keep me on, which was great because it's a lot nicer than going around working on small projects for the council.
When you have one major surface that you're dedicating all your time and best efforts to, you can take much greater personal pride in what you're achieving and pin it more on yourself. When a council is sending you to project after project and you never get to spend much time on each, you're a bit detached from it, and it doesn't feel as good.
Anything before that?
When I left school, I started on a farm as a tractor driver and, whilst doing that, they allowed me to go on three years of Wednesday day-release at what is now Harper Adams University, during which I undertook that course in groundsmanship. I live locally, bouncing from Edgmond to Ellenhall.
What's your staffing situation?
We sometimes have volunteers under me, including my lad, George, but no full-time paid staff. George worked with me a bit before Christmas and last summer. He would put the irrigation system out and mow the pitch, which I thought was great. He was mowing seven days a week, because that's what this pitch needs. They paid him for two days' work per week but, being a young lad, he had to move on. I'm hoping that, when the pitch is done again this summer, there'll be room for another groundsman, and that I can bring him back in. I think they will, probably. I expect the need for two groundsmen.
Must be nice to work with your son.
Is he your only kid?
I'm married, with two boys and a girl. The youngest is 24, my other lad is 27 and my eldest, my daughter, is 31.
Do you think they'd be offended, nowadays, about being called 'two boys and a girl'?
Is it difficult working alone, or do you like it?
There are so many jobs you want to do in a day where one is a problem. With two, you get the best of both worlds. But, if there's a problem with the weather and there's only one of you, it can be difficult. You can't do what you'd like when the weather's like this, whereas another pair of hands would correct that problem. It would be better that way, definitely.
But you say ALS Contracts are coming in to help this afternoon. Is that frequent?
Yes. They'll be coming in today [20th March] to do aeration work, and I'm going to book them in for next Thursday [29th March] as well, because we've got three games over Easter, for which we'll need to get some more holes back into the pitch early enough for it to make a difference to playability. That'll be about six times this season, which I don't see as quite enough, but it's better than what we used to get: almost never. Their standard verti-drain offering goes to about nine inches, so that's ideal for us. It's a lot more than we can manage.
And do you have your own aeration equipment?
We have our own little verti-drain too, but that was bought second-hand before I arrived, so that makes it thirteen years old, plus whatever shift it put in at its previous venue, so it's a bit of a boneshaker and bits fall off it. And, of course, with it being so old, you can't get the parts for it.
We've also got a hollow-tine John Deere Aercore, which doesn't go in anywhere near as deep, but if you want to get the water from the surface-level quickly, that's the machine to use, notwithstanding its inability to do quite as thorough a job as the verti-drain if you've got enough time. When I took the paint off that machine, when it was painted orange, we went over the whole thing in blue and can't see the stickers anymore - so I don't even know what brand it is, to be honest with you. I think it's called 'Noah's Ark' or something like that…
How does your budgeting work?
Tight. It's a very tight budget. Because we work so closely with Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, and we have ALS in doing the verti-draining, the first three are paid for, and then we pay for the rest, which works out perfectly for us. I talk to Wayne Lumbard, the head groundsman at Wolves a lot. I talk to him about potential fertilisers, then he orders them, after I've passed the request through the management here at the stadium. Working through Wolves to organise that, again, there is a certain amount of our ALS-bought fertiliser paid for by Wolves. This is all in exchange for them using this pitch for their Under 23 squad. It's their generous method of payment for use of the grounds, basically.
Is there anything you can tell me about the history of the stadium and the club?
The stadium was built in 2003, and it holds over 6,000 people. It's never been returfed, but is reseeded annually, again by ALS. The 14th May is when we're going to begin renovation. We buy most of our stuff from them, whilst I have my own mowers and other small bits of kit.
What does all this contract work free you up to do?
If the weather allows, the pitch needs to be brushed, divoted, cut-and-collected, rolled, and we put on some fertiliser when we can. The last lot of fertiliser I put on was in February, which consisted of thirteen bags of Maxwell Advanced and ten bags of Lebanon ProScape. They're both granular fertilisers and the Lebanon is slow-release, which frees me up more to do other jobs.
Do you get other help; agronomists, for example?
We had an agronomist come in just about three weeks ago, actually. He came at 7:30am and was here until about 10am. Because we've got a little trouble with the drainage of the pitch, everything we do technically tends to be aimed towards figuring out how best to solve that. He agreed that we do have a drainage problem (that's caused a lot of games to be called off). That's the thinking behind the two intense verti-draining visits close together, especially with big games at the close of the season coming up.
What's causing the drainage difficulty?
It's to do with the profile partly, but it looks to us as though a couple of the lines of drainage may have collapsed, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly when. There are also a couple of points on the pitch which form slight saucers, and I think, even with good turf, water will tend to hold towards the surface if the ground dips like that.
Do you have a realistic hope of getting those fixed?
We're all hoping so. It has a chance of being done this summer, all being well. That's nothing definitely in place for this year, but there's been promising talk of it.
Interesting that the profile struggles to drain with the ground only being fifteen years old…
The agronomist dug down through the layers, and obviously we look for thatch as everyone does, but we haven't really got any of that. The make-up of the upper level is a 70/30 loam mix, so should be good really. The first 10-12mm always seems to be holding for some reason and we don't know why yet.
Unfortunately, with the visit being so recent, we're still waiting to hear back from that agronomic report. Anyway, we might find out what we need to know when the result come in.
Can you ever use covers?
We've got frost sheets, but no rain sheets, unfortunately. Naturally, those frost sheets have seen a lot of use over the winter. I've been asked a lot why I don't put the frost sheets out when it's raining and, for one thing, they're porous, so they seep anyway. That's why they're not advertised as rain sheets too. Rain sheets are expensive. We sometimes use the sheets even if there's no frost though, when it's going to snow, because it's a lot easier to push the snow off the sheets than it is the bare grass. It can cause damage, the snow directly on the grass.
How's the cold been treating the pitch?
Dreadfully. Since November, we've had all that snow. I can't believe the amount. Then, throughout the Christmas period, there was a lot of rain too.
It's been a big change from the last few years - in fact, I think in the three previous seasons, I'd only had to use the frost sheets once. It's been quite dry for years. Must've worn out about two or three pitchforks, I think. We don't get quite as much of the harder snowy weather as they get on some of Telford's higher ground, thankfully. That's the benefit of being in the sort of dip in which Wellington [AFC Telford's village, at the northern edge of the town] rests.
Could you talk us through your general maintenance regimes?
I like to do some form of aeration at least twice per month. The cutting season is just starting, but over the winter I very rarely cut it, as even when it does grow, we like that extra length for protection. Through the summer, we're cutting seven days per week with a Ransomes 36" walk-behind, and a Kubota Cut and Collect. We don't do any scarification, because the clippings come off the pitch and is frequently brushed, so nothing lies atop, and the thatch starts off low anyway.
Are there any projects you've got planned besides fixing the pipes?
We've got a bit of work ahead of us, because we're wanting to move the irrigation into the centre of the pitch. We'll have some pop-ups installed there. After those two days, we'll be redoing the pitch, and it has to be ready after a turnaround of about seven weeks, so that doesn't give us very long on a tighter budget. After that, we'll go through an intense period of fertilisation in June/July, maybe three times per month.
How do you deal with weeds and pests?
If there are any major problems with weeds in the pitch, plantain or anything like that, ALS is called in. They spray for it. I've got no storage for chemicals or sprayers, as we run on limited storage, so it's worth the little investment to just ask for a hand in that. We don't have to worry about everything that comes with the materials, then.
And what do you use when you mark out?
I mark out, depending on the number of games, up to twice per week, with a transfer wheel on strings. That's usually white, but we use a blue one when we mark out the little pitch on which the youth teams can play.
Do you prefer it to look good or play well?
I like it to look great, but that's not the most important thing. If the players enjoy the pitch and play well on it, that's an investment and it'll only be good for everyone, including me in the long run.
Is the pitch used for any other purpose?
Those junior games are every now and then, and of course there are the Wolves U-23s games, but we also have the reserve and youth Telford teams playing here. We haven't got any concerts lined up at the moment, but we've had to deal with a few in the past. It's been spoken about taking up again.
Do you approve?
No [laughing]. If they want it financially, though, it will happen and rightly so. Believe it or not, about eight years ago, we had a kabaddi tournament in June, right after we'd redone the pitch at the end of the season. The oils from their feet wrecked the place, because they don't wear anything on their feet. Anyway, if they book in some concerts or whatever, that will help the funds. The one thing is that you have to be careful with how you organise the infrastructure. Last time was just after the drainage had gone in and, clearly undertaking the two jobs the wrong way around, they then brought huge cherry pickers onto the pitch. That's our lead culprit for how the drainage got cracked. Simple things like planning in which order you get jobs done can make all the difference to whether they're successful.