"It's always good to have people that keep the faith, and stick with you. Keith Kensett has been one of those guys, and I suppose it helped that he's a Palace fan himself"
An estimated two billion viewers tuned in to watch events unfold at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Even as the greatest showcase of football on the planet played out its final acts, back home, managers at top flight clubs were busy taking note of the emerging talent, ready to launch multi-million pound bids as the 2010/11 Premiership season approached.
While big money deals and hefty weekly wages are now part and parcel of life for the elite few, the operational climate is starting to look markedly chilly further down the football leagues, with a growing tally of clubs unable to withstand the financial pressures of the game.
The penalty is severe for those forced to go into administration but, remarkably, south London Championship side Crystal Palace FC survived a traumatic season - and relegation - to fight another day, as long as they could find a buyer to revive their fortunes and rebuild anew.
After six months in administration, it emerged - safely gathered up into the hands of a consortium of local businessmen - ready for action on the field of play, and sealing the survival of the 105-year old club and its Selhurst Park ground.
In the early 1980s, Crystal Palace had paved the way for, what is now, commonplace - mixed retail, residential and sporting developments.
Nearly thirty years on, however, Sainsbury's continues to flourish, whilst the adjacent housing that lines one side of the ground looks as new as the day it was erected.
In stark contrast, the stadium is tired and played out, a good proportion of its plastic seating suffering the effects of disintegration by the sun's ultraviolet light. Financial constraints, administration and the economic downturn had left Selhurst Park groundstaff with precious little money to spend on operational essentials, such as the end of season pitch renovation.
"I couldn't gain sign-off for even the smallest purchase, it was that bad," confesses Head Groundsman, Mark Perrin.
Survival on a shoe-string was the reality for Mark and his team, as was redundancy, when he was forced to bid a reluctant farewell to one of his staff as administration bit hard and deep across the whole club.
Heading up a perilously slimmed down team of just three, forty-four year old Mark admits there were times when he had to consider his own future amid talk of closure as a buyer failed to materialise.
But, that was in the bad old dismal days, three months ago. Despite all the turmoil around him, as acrimony soured the departure of the previous owner and uncertainty hung over everyone, Mark has continued to produce a playing surface fit for Championship, not to say Premiership, football in the face of fierce adversity and against all the odds.
Starting off life in cricket, a sport he admits is his "first love", Mancunian Mark's first job was at south-west Manchester club, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, where he worked from 1989 to 1992.
Passionate about playing cricket since a boy, and developing into a useful, successful all-rounder in the Manchester leagues while 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 expands. 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.
Since Palace fell from the Premier League in 2004, the budget Mark has to play with has shrunk year on year, to the point where he and his two assistants - Phil Down, who works at the Beckenham training ground, and Gareth Read, who assists him at Selhurst Park, are forced to argue their case for every penny. "An extra member of staff would be great, but I don't see it happening anytime soon, given the recent redundancies and tight budgets," he states with resignation. "We'll just have to cope as well as we can with the three of us."
You sense that he has grown adept at 'coping strategies' in his years here but, as the financial rot set in, other challenges emerged. "We, like other departments, have to cut our cloth accordingly, and we were faced with a few problems last season, finding suppliers being one of our most troubling," he reveals. "Once people find out you are in financial difficulties, they don't want to deal with you."
Some take the longer view though, and Mark is fulsome in his gratitude for the help that one key contractor provided when all seemed lost. Staring at the prospect of an end of season without a pitch renovation, Mark has nothing but praise for Keith Kensett, who set about the task without any clear prospect of being paid for his troubles.
"Luckily, we've been fortunate to have Keith help us out a lot last season. If it wasn't for him, 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."
Selhurst Park has gained notoriety as one of the windiest venues in the football leagues, a dubious honour, due largely to the stadium's history. Constructed in 1922, it was built out of a former brickworks after being bought from the Brighton Railway Company for £2,570.
Designed by Scottish stadium architect, Archibald Leitch, it was built by Humphreys of Kensington for around £30,000 and officially opened by the Lord Mayor of London on 30 August 1924.
"We're exposed to the elements here," says Mark. "But, on the positive side, we don't have any problems with air circulation like some modern stadia."
Years before multi-use venues became the norm, Selhurst Park was playing host to both Wimbledon FC and Charlton Athletic FC, who used the site for home matches at various times from the mid-1980s until 2003. As you'd imagine, when as many as three games were played on it in a week, the pitch proved difficult to manage at times.
Although, by the time Mark arrived, Palace was the sole user and he was pleasantly surprised by what he found. "Construction of the pitch was, in fact, very good when I took over. The dual usage did not have too adverse an effect, but one of the problems I did inherit was a significant proportion of Poa annua in the sward."
He's well versed in dealing with the weed grass now though. "We usually know to expect a surge in the third week of August, so are able to take the appropriate measures," he explains.
Mark controls the invasive species with a treatment of growth regulator Primo Maxx, applying the chemical monthly throughout the season and cutting before the annual meadowgrass has the chance to seed.
The Fibresand pitch he inherited, installed in 2001 by Premier Pitches, is still in place, and Mark believes it is suited to the weather conditions and unique microclimate in the stadium. "As we're an extremely windy site, we have no problems with airflow but, in the summer, the warm winds provide ideal conditions for disease to spread," he adds.
"About five weeks after the post-season sowing, leaf spot starts to show up on the sward as the grass growth accelerates. Leaf spot can be tricky, as not everyone knows how to diagnose it correctly. The grass appears wilted, so some groundsmen will often water and feed the turf, which only exacerbates the problem. My solution is to apply Primo Maxx first, then Chipco Green, through the spring and summer, and Daconil in the winter."
The post-season work begins in earnest after the last home game and the club's various corporate commitments, which include a marquee erected on the pitch for two weeks, hosting both the player of the year awards and local business events.
This year, reseeding was late because of the uncertainty over if and when a buyer would emerge. The process finally got underway on 28th May, using a DLF Pro 81 seed mix, one that Mark favours for its fast germination.
"We only had six weeks to get the seed established before the first home friendly match against Chelsea," he explains. "That was a tough call, but the club needs the money. I tend to stick with what I know when it comes to seed. There's really only a fag paper between the major producers so, for us, given our tight margins, a rapidly germinating seed that turns around quickly will get my vote every time."
He usually aims to achieve a five-day establishment, yet he tends to force the grass through a little in the pre-season preparation, especially if certain areas of the pitch need thickening up.
"The goalmouth at the Holmesdale Road end causes us most problems, as it's in shade nearly all the time, so the grass struggles there - and we cannot run to the expense of grow lamps like Premiership clubs can."
Ironically, the support of the loyal Palace fans merely aggravated the issue, he reveals. "They protested over the possibility of club being liquidated, and all their jumping up and down at that end of the ground resulted in compaction in the goalmouth." If it doesn't rain it pours.
My thoughts turn, once more, to the windiness of Selhurst Park as I note the build-up of litter around the pitch perimeter and, what I take to be, the three-foot high fence erected to stop it blowing onto the playing surface.
"No, this is an electric fence to keep the foxes off the pitch," reveals Mark. "It maddens you when you arrive in the morning to find they have dug up the surface all over the place. Their urine burns the grass too. Urban foxes are a fact of life, so we had to take steps to nip the problem in the bud. I bought the fence from Hotline - the best £800 I've ever spent, I reckon."
I stretch my leg gingerly over the fence and step on to the pitch, before Mark informs me that he only switches the power on when they leave for the day!
The lush, vibrant green forms a perfect platform for, what all of football hopes will be, an upswing of fortune for Palace this season. The topdressing is still just visible - it's another source of weeds, he says. "Seeds are imported in the mix, but an application of Vitax Green Up sorts the broad leaf stuff out."
In terms of mowing, the applications of Primo Maxx has cut the quantity of clippings dramatically, also encouraging development of the rootzone which, Mark believes, is better for the pitch over the longer-term than any need to constantly cut it very short.
"When I first started here, we were taking off more than twenty boxes a cut during the growing season. We've halved that now - any more than ten boxes and we know we're applying too much fertiliser." He prefers to keep sward height to around 28mm in the summer, spraying regularly and "leaving it as high as I can get away with" - a programme that continues into winter.
Slim budgets have offered scant scope for investment in new machinery, yet Mark seems content with the few machines he retains, employing two Dennis G860s with independent cassettes for the "vast majority" of pitch work. "It's a lightweight machine and is particularly good for football pitches as it has a minimal footprint." A ten year old Tym T290 tractor still sees regular duty, whilst Mark spikes with a Multicore MC15 that, "despite its age, circa 1990, continues to deliver the goods."
Other than on match days, the Palace first team and academy sides spend their time at the club's training ground in Beckenham, some five miles south of Selhurst Park, on what was the Lloyds Bank site.
Major redevelopment is set to transform the facility soon, Mark reports, adding wistfully, "I suppose you could say that we were two years into a five-year plan, and it's stayed that way for the last three."
With only two first-team Fibresand pitches, and basic soil ones for the reserve and academy sides, Palace are keen to upgrade further.
"The first stage in the plans will be to replace the soil pitches with Fibresand ones. I'd like to have another two, giving us four in total, but I'd settle for one if that's all I could get - a part construction of the surface only would cost around £80,000 per pitch, as drainage is already installed."
Most of the work at the training ground is left largely to Phil, with Mark visiting a couple of times a week. The machine story is a similar one at Beckenham, with a Jacobsen 250 five-unit ride-on fairway mower and a Kubota L46 the two main machines at his disposal, plus an SR-72 soil reliever.
The critical financial position that Palace found themselves in, and the resulting process of administration, had left many at the club anxious for the future. Yet, for Mark, the whole sorry saga was alleviated for him by one or two important figures at Selhurst Park, whose stance allowed him time to reflect on the job and his position at the club.
"That whole period helped focus my mind far more on what my role is here, and where I want to be in the future," he says candidly. "During the worst time, we we were all in the boardroom waiting to hear our name called out for redundancy, then breathing a sigh of relief when it wasn't - that was stressful."
While former Palace chairman, Simon Jordan, reportedly was viewed, by some, as being part responsible for the downfall of the club, his brother, Dominic Jordan, who ran the club day to day, prior to administration, was praised for his work through the turbulent times. Mark, for one, was grateful for the support he and his team were given. "Dominic was a crucial influence on our position; he always recognised the value of a head groundsman and the importance of what we did. He also understood that being a groundsman, like any position of responsibility, involves taking ownership of it, not just being someone who receives and issues orders.
In turn, Mark appreciates his role in maintaining a tightly-knit, albeit small, turfcare team.
"You have to treat staff like men, not children. The one benefit to having a small team is that we are like a family. We've all bonded much more now, with the financial troubles bringing those of us that have stayed on, closer together."
If he ever moved away from Palace, he's certain it would be out of football altogether, to return to private sector education most probably, where he enjoyed many years of experience and where he believes considerable work is still needed.
"There's been significant under-investment in these sports facilities in recent years and, apart from a few notable exceptions, many are generally of a poor standard, so a position where I could help change things could be an option," he adds.
While Mark recognises that a Premiership role would be the next natural progression for him, he also views posts in the top flight remain "a closed shop." "Few are ever advertised. The most realistic hope I've got of becoming a Premiership groundsman is if Palace gains promotion," he admits. "Whilst a return to the premiership for Palace would be welcome, along with the resulting additional budget, I don't believe the game is heading in the right direction," he continues in typically candid fashion.
Big money is now part and parcel of football yet, for clubs like Palace, in the Championship or lower leagues, it is in danger of fast becoming an unsustainable and potentially damaging aspect of 'the beautiful game', he adds.
"What I've seen happen here has given me real doubts about how long it will all last," he reflects. "We've reached a position where the Premiership is seen as the be all and end all, with clubs striving to get into the top league and, where finishing fourth from bottom of it, is seen as a success, by avoiding relegation and the fall-off in funding that goes with playing in that league. For me, that isn't what football should be about - it's more than just the top league."
The plight of home grown players in the Premiership has been another development that Mark believes will only serve to damage the English league.
Only 38% of current Premiership players were born in England, he notes, which he believes is creating a growing disincentive to nurture home grown youth players, as the big money foreign players take precedence.
"The one good result of clubs like Palace having so little money is that they simply cannot afford to buy in loads of players, so have to rely on fostering their youth sides and scouring the leagues for good deals and free transfers. It's not all about the money, it's about good management, and being able to pick out good players from the lower leagues."
Palace is in a prime position to make the best of that opportunity and help develop the next crop of promising English players. And, whilst it goes about doing that, Mark will continue to produce a Premiership standard pitch on a lower league budget.