It is surprising how quickly fortunes can change in football. It was as recently as the 2009-10 season that Crystal Palace were staring administration and relegation to Division One in the face but, after a final rally, a change of management and some good fortune they managed to remain in the Championship.
Following that brush with relative obscurity, the club enjoyed an unbeaten start to the 2012-13 season, resulting in the then manager, Dougie Freedman, being lured to Bolton in November 2012. He was replaced by Ian Holloway who, continuing the good work of his predecessor, was rewarded with a place in the play offs, followed by a win against Watford in the Wembley final to seal promotion to the Premier League.
Formed in 1905 by workers at the Crystal Palace exhibition centre, the club were elected to the Football League in 1920 and, since then, have spent a total of thirteen years in the top flight.
Their fan base includes a number of comedians, amongst them Ronnie Corbett, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand, Harry Enfield and Roy Hudd, but there is nothing remotely funny about the trials and tribulations Head Groundsman, Mark Perrin, has had to suffer since he joined the club back in 2005.
When I called in to see Mark, just prior to the all important play off final, the first team were having a training session on the Selhurst Park stadium pitch under the guidance of their manager. Mr Holloway immediately came over and introduced himself and was keen to praise the work of the groundstaff, stating how good the pitch had been over the course of the season and how it had played its part in allowing the team to play attractive football. He likes to call the pitch his office.
Starting off life in cricket, a sport he admits is his 'first love', Mancunian Mark's first job was in south-west Manchester at Chorlton-cum-Hardy, where he worked from 1989 to 1992.
Passionate about playing cricket since a boy, and developing into a useful all-rounder in the Manchester leagues whilst growing up, Mark was always drawn to a career in the game, explaining that, on leaving education, it was a natural progression for him.
"I was always a better cricketer, but enjoyed watching football far more, so had always considered taking a position at a football club," he explains. After leaving Chorlton-cum-Hardy to seek "a greater challenge", he moved to a post at Manchester Grammar School, drawn there by its many sports pitches, and especially its cricket square, which he took pleasure in maintaining until 1995 when he took his first steps into professional football, joining Stockport County FC as head groundsman.
"I enjoyed my time at Stockport," he recalls, "but, after four years there, I felt it was time to leave. The best jobs in this business will always be in the south-east, so I made the move down here and was lucky to find a very nice post at St Mary's College in Twickenham, where they were looking to develop their sports pitches."
As grounds manager, he was charged with looking after the site's plethora of pitches. Yet, as the position proved to be "more office based than I'd been used to", when the head groundsman vacancy came up at Crystal Palace he leaped at the chance and, in 2005, made the move further south still. And, with true northern grit, he is still there.
Mark is definitely looking forward to the challenge of working in the Premiership, especially knowing he is likely to have better support financially to help improve the condition of the pitch. During the 'hardship years', Mark had to develop a 'coping strategy' and, like other areas of the club, had to cut his cloth accordingly.
Mark likes to build up long term relationships with suppliers and contractors, and it was one of these that Mark remains eternally grateful to for "getting me through the lean years". Keith Kensett, himself a Palace supporter - although not renowned for his joke telling! - and owner of Kensett Sports, assisted Mark with his end of season renovations.
"If it wasn't for Keith, we wouldn't have been able to do many of our renovations, including the koroing, which we have 'off pat' now," Mark discloses. "It's always good to have people that keep the faith, and stick with you. Keith has been one of those guys, and I suppose it helped that he's a Palace fan himself."
Mark has four staff to help him manage both the training ground and stadium pitches, Gareth Read, Dean Waters, Sam Cannon and Niall Watson, along with three others, Tom Clark, Craig Corner and Graham Stobart who help out on match days. Gareth tends to spend most of his time, except matchdays, overseeing the work at the training ground, whereas the remaining staff work at both venues.
The stadium pitch is a soil based construction that has been modified into a Fibresand pitch, with the top 150mm ameliorated with sand and sand fibres to increase stability and make it more free draining. Last year, and for the first time in ten years, the pitch was slit drained at one metre centres.
This year's renovations saw Kensetts koro off, cultivate, vertidrain, topdress with 100 tonnes of Sibelco RH45 sand and overseed with eighteen bags of Johnsons seed.
For the coming Premiership season, Mark will have to widen the playing surface and purchase new goals and nets to accommodate the new Hawk-Eye goal-line technology that comes into play at the start of the season.
In recent years, Mark has taken on board many of the new technologies on offer to help monitor the pitch's performance and apply a range of ancillary products to improve turf quality.
He regularly takes soil temperature and moisture readings, along with a robust Clegg hammer monitoring programme to measure the hardness of his pitch. Using a 2.5Kg Clegg hammer, he takes readings up to three times a week leading up to a match to ensure the pitch remains within a range of 65-80 gravities.
"It is surprising how quickly sand based pitches can firm up, especially after mowing," states Mark, "but we are able to control the firmness by various aeration methods and watering.
"We regularly verti-drain the pitch using a combination of solid and slit tines on a fortnightly and monthly basis. We also use a drum roll slitter and a pedestrian solid tine punch. I've found deep tining to be the most effective method of reducing pitch hardness. However, timing of this operation is key to ensure the pitch achieves the optimum firmness for play, so we usually do this at the beginning of the week prior to a Saturday match," he explains.
"Watering has also become a key maintenance regime for sand based pitches, ensuring they receive enough water to maintain firmness whilst, at the same time, supplying the grass plant with enough moisture for growth."
"Firmness will be influenced by many factors, including the weather, pitch usage and our maintenance regime, whilst some areas of the pitch are more prone to compaction, for example the goalmouths, centre spot and penalty areas tend to have the highest readings. I've recorded that the pitch hardness can go up to at least 10 gravities after mowing!"
Mark has enlisted the help of agronomist Charles Henderson to monitor the pitch's performance and, between them, they have agreed a tailored feeding programme which centres around a granular slow release base feed, top ups with a range of liquid feeds and balanced out with some micro-nutrients and biostimulants.
Also, Mark is trialing a liquid product that is added into the irrigation system prior to watering. "I'm hoping it will help control worm activity. In recent years, we've tried all manner of ways of applying carbendazim to the pitch, but still seem to have a worm problem, so I'm hoping this product will help to improve percolation and make the use of carbendazim more efficient."
"The manufacturers also claim that it reduces irrigation water use, fertiliser use, acts as corrosion protection for the irrigation system and also as a foliar nutrient supplements. It sounds too good to be true, so I await the results."
Once the grass has established after renovations, Mark and his staff will cut the pitch on a daily basis throughout the summer months, maintaining a height of between 26-30mm, depending on the time of the year.
"When I first came to the club, I was fetching off in excess of twenty boxes of grass cuttings (mowing every other day) but, by using Primo Maxx that's down to around ten boxes per cut. Anymore than that and I know I've put too much fertiliser on!"
His staff generally start work at 8.00am but that is flexible, depending on workload, especially at the training ground when players are due to start training at 9.30am.
The build up for a match starts directly after the last game. As soon as it has finished, all the staff divot, pedestrian mow to clean up pitch and put lighting rigs out if required. Then, throughout the week, the pitch is fed, watered, aerated and mown, usually getting a double cut the day before the match.
Typical match day preparations start at 7.30am, when all the staff come in to help get the pitch ready; mowing, marking out and putting out the portable goals and corner flags ready for the referee's inspection at midday. This leaves enough time to irrigate the pitch prior to the players coming out for warm ups an hour ahead of kick off.
As for pest and diseases, Mark's worst problem has been urban foxes. "They are the bane of my life," he bemoans. "We've tried all sorts of methods to deter them. Trapping and shooting has not been successful because, as soon as you've got rid of one, another comes in to take its place. As well as the urine and faeces, they have a penchant for burying food! We've found all manner of food stuffs in the pitch, from savaloy sausages to pies and burgers."
"Now, we put up a portable electric fence every night, which has at least stopped them from getting on to the pitch, but it takes two people half an hour to erect it and, again, to take down on a daily basis, so it is time consuming."
"The grass is often susceptible to leaf spot about five weeks after the post-season sowing. This starts to show up on the sward as grass growth accelerates. It can be tricky to diagnose as the grass appears wilted, and I know that some groundsmen will water and feed the turf, which only exacerbates the problem. So, our solution, once identified correctly, is to apply Primo Maxx first, then Chipco Green, through the spring and summer, and Daconil in the winter."
Mark and his staff are looking forward to the prospects and challenges of working in the Premiership, and he confesses that it is a dream come true.
If the campaign is successful, then maybe the club's plans for a new training ground and revamped stadium will come to fruition sooner rather than later.
One thing is certain. With Ian Holloway back in the limelight, especially as he understands the value of having a committed team of groundstaff, maybe Mark's wish list of a new Desso or Fibrelastic pitch, undersoil heating, additional lighting rigs and pop ups, oh, and new mowers and a tractor, might just be fulfilled.
What's in the shed?
Dennis G860s x 2
Charterhouse Pedestrian Verti-Drain 215-013
Hayter Harrier 56 x 4
Linemarker, brush etc.
Jacobsen 5 units, Kubota 45hp tractor,
Toro SR72 ProCore
Machinery is usually purchased through Ernest Doe Ltd and Mark adds an item or two to the CAPEX budget each year and makes his case!
That Ian Holloway has taken his Crystal Palace team to the Premier League next season will be welcomed by many football fans, if for no other reason than his post match comments will at least bring a smile to their faces, regardless of which team they support.
Here's a selection of some of his more 'off the wall' comments:
"I don't see the problem with footballers taking their shirts off after scoring a goal. They enjoy it and the young ladies enjoy it too. Of course, they'd have to go and watch another game because my lads are as ugly as sin!"
"Every dog has its day, and today is woof day! Today I just want to bark!"
"It's all very well having a great pianist playing, but it's no good if you haven't got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play."
"I couldn't be more chuffed if I were a badger at the start of the mating season."
"It was lucky that the linesman wasn't stood in front of me as I would have poked him with a stick to make sure he was awake."
"If we're talking lookalikes, he's [Avram Grant] Toad of Toad Hall, isn't he?"
"I love Blackpool. We're very similar. We both look better in the dark."
"If you're a burglar, it's no good poncing about outside somebody's house, looking good with your swag bag ready. Just get in there, burgle them and come out. I don't advocate that obviously, it's just an analogy."