Head Groundsperson Lee Metcalfe has looked after the City Football Academy (CFA) for ten years now. Lee is a household name in our industry, but when Editor Kerry Haywood caught with him to discuss the many challenges over the past couple of years and an increased demand for grass pitches, it's clear that the struggles are real… regardless of how high profile you may be!
Over the past few months, I have started to get back out to conduct site visits and interviews and it's a rather interesting viewpoint in terms of Covid legacy. As you would expect, Premier League clubs are still surrounded by Covid policies and strict entrance rules and it has meant minimised interaction across all levels of sport.
Lee commented: "I think a lot of people have missed interaction during the pandemic and it's been very difficult for new people to come through the door. However, it's nice to now be getting people in like yourself to talk to and we are always keen on talking to new suppliers."
The City Football Academy (CFA) is home to all of Manchester City's teams of all age groups and there are 13.5 pitches in total plus three astroturf pitches. The Academy is situated in the heart of Manchester, adjacent to the Etihad Stadium and forms part of the wider Etihad Campus - a truly inspirational environment for players to train and play.
Day to day maintenance includes cutting with both hand and ride on mowers, fertilising, divoting and marking out with the Turf Tank One - which Lee describes as their best signing. "After having it on trial for a year or so, the team have really bought into it and we have finally purchased one. Rather than have three or four of the team spending a whole day marking out, it's so easy to just set it up and away it goes, leaving staff free to undertake other tasks."
"Renovations are a key part of life here at the CFA. We get specialist contractors in from mid-April through to mid-July who work on all the surfaces (six Desso pitches, one SIS, one Hero hybrid and five Fibresand), then we seed them and take over from there. During the Christmas break, we will have a mini-renovation on the Academy stadium pitch and Academy Pitches which consists of a light scarification followed by 7-8 tonnes of topdressing. Then we will seed with Johnsons J Premier Pitch and cover goalmouths as required."
"We are continually monitoring maintenance contracts for machines and it is always a big question about whether to purchase machines outright or lease them. We are always striving to keep up with the market and new developments with machinery and we are currently looking into LED lighting. There are numerous SGL lighting rigs across the site and we have invested heavily in LU440s, but we are committed to creating a sustainable environment and we are constantly looking to find ways to switch to LED and electric mowers in the near future."
"We work very closely with both ICL and Syngenta and utilise a variety of their products across all pitches, including Greenmaster Pro, Sierraform GT plus many granulars and liquids. There is a trial plot available to test out products in our environment before introducing them across all our surfaces in the field."
Left: Lee's best signing - The Turf Tank One
"Soil analysis and nematode readings are taken every three months, but we tend to stay disease free. If the plant health is good, this should be the case, but the northern weather can obviously make this more difficult at times. We have a preventative programme in place and we hit that as much as we can, but (as with most places), it's a balancing act between lighting rigs and an integrated turf management programme."
"It's a very fast-paced site with lots of challenges. We can get an email informing us of a last-minute game on tomorrow which means we have to adapt accordingly. The team of all groundstaff at CFA (and Etihad groundstaff when they have come over to CFA) have been exceptional, and the club are very lucky to have them… but it's very much a team effort and everyone plays their part from club maintenance and facilities managers to FM managers and directors. We are all working and striving for the same result. There are bound to be challenges along the way, but you have to learn from those and move on."
"The site is nine years old and there is limited space for development, so if that means turning a Fibresand pitch into a hybrid, it's something we need to plan for. There are more teams and more demand for grass surfaces now we have the Women's Development Centre based here, so this will certainly be a requirement at some point. It's something we are planning for, and it might take a few years to implement, but we are always looking to move forward."
"The Women's Euro's is coming up in summer 2022, where we will host three games and also provide a training base. In light of this, renovations will be undertaken early, but there will be a number of challenges. Usually, the Academy team return a week or two before the first team, but we have to keep certain pitches open from a commercial aspect, so we will need to work around all of that."
"In conjunction with Grounds Manager Roy Rigby, Head Landscaper Dan Lewis manages the 80-acre site's aesthetics, along with a team of four others from idverde. They have done a lot to improve biodiversity in terms of badgers, foxes etc, but we can have issues with them digging up pitches on occasion. The site used to be very wet and boggy before we took it on and we also still suffer with Canadian Geese. I'm also certain that pigeons can smell grass seed, as we get them in abundance."
"The site is fantastic, but it can be challenging at times. We utilise TurfKeeper which is paramount to keeping track of what work has been undertaken by our three teams across all the pitches. It's handy to see at a glance when a surface was fertilised or divoted etc and see all the stats. Each team member can populate the system and everything is monitored which it makes scheduling much easier. It's become a quick reference point for Covid outbreaks and we can see where teams have worked etc and draw references from year to year."
"Over the last couple of years staff issues have been challenging, but we have been very focused on the safety and well-being of the team and we are still working in bubbles of three as a preventative. Obviously, our club policy is still in place, as is a covid isolation period, so it remains difficult to manage staff levels. It's certainly been an interesting time, with learning how to manage staff shortages, how to react differently, abiding by new Premier League rules, testing etc., and none of the team were furloughed throughout the entire period."
"The team is split into two; a First Team and an Academy team where we work across dedicated shift patterns. The days can be long and I feel this is a major part of why people are being put off a career in this industry."
"It can be a stressful environment to work in and I myself have suffered throughout the pandemic with anxiety and stress - not all to do with the job, but homelife and generally interacting with people/crowds etc. I still don't like going into supermarkets and I think the long-term effects are going to last a good few years with some people. I can have good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours, but the club have been exceptionally supportive and I know they will listen. It's so important to open up and talk about things, and you generally find that those people who have had their own experiences will open up and share given the opportunity… we can all help each other. Everyone has their own story to tell and I'm so proud of my team and how they have coped throughout the most challenging period I hope we ever have to deal with."
"When Covid started nearly two years ago, we had to make a decision whether we could start renovations (given the governments guidelines) and we had to continue with a significantly reduced amount of staff and resources, but we did it. The pressures of getting those surfaces back in time and still delivering the same service, under very pressured and unprecedented conditions, was tasking at times. Without the help and support of the club and every single team member excelling in their roles, we wouldn't have got things done and we wouldn't be where we are today. It was an ever-changing world and we had to adapt every day, but everybody has played their part, including all our partners. Having said that, the most important part of all this is that there is more to life than worrying about grass, and people's mental health and well-being is paramount."