Thriving membership at adult and junior levels make The Heatons Sports Club a local and regional draw across south Manchester. Its four sections - cricket, rugby, tennis and lacrosse - offer professional facilities, including high-end floodlighting, and rely on quality turfcare to deliver the spread and depth of fixtures the club stages year-round.
Sale of land in the late 1990s helped fund construction of an imposing brick clubhouse and conference venue, opened in 2008, that splits the two rugby pitches from the square, practice nets and two lacrosse pitches, with four sand-filled synthetic tennis courts sited alongside.
Head groundsman Tim Humpage knows the playing surfaces like the back of his hand. Born and bred a stone's throw from the club, he recently stood down as cricket chairman.
He retired from the internal affairs of Cheshire Police to include groundskeeping among his leisure pursuits. "I thought 'Why don't I give it a try" so started halfway through the last rugby season. Mind you, the game is almost year round now; I'll be seeding the pitches mid to end of May."
Solo practitioner Tim contracts out some of the key services he needs to provide quality provision. "The cricket square was scarified in mid-February and's looking pretty good," reports Tim, who was mowing it with his Dennis pedestrian when I caught up with him for a chat.
Contracted to 30 hours a week in summer and 15 weekly in winter by the club, Tim keeps things ticking over in winter ready for the busy season when he spends proportionately more time mowing and trimming. "My theory on winter sportspitch maintenance is not to overdo it," he states.
"From early November to the end of February, I factor in five hours a week - that's marking out two rugby and two lacrosse pitches in two hours and using the Sisis Quadraplay (my handiest piece of kit), for another two."
"I'm more selective with mowing now, especially in winter when the grass isn't growing too much," he adds. "I was cutting the rugby pitches twice a week last summer but reduced that to once a week, then every fortnight. They've only had one cut since November and just don't need it more regularly."
"Mowing the lacrosse pitches starts mid-September, but I haven't cut them since the beginning of October and I've had no complaints. The Quadraplay's been out several times though." The square gets a cut twice weekly in season, as does the outfield.
Although budgets often don't allow Tim to buy brand new kit, he will enjoy a red letter day soon when his rather tired, leaky linemarker (paint splashes on the shed forecourt provide damming evidence) will retire. "Not before time," he says.
Out have gone his 'temperamental' old blowers and strimmers too. He's 'gone electric' with Honda 36V AXBs. "I'm really pleased with them," he reports. "They come with two batteries, have only an hour charging time and hold their charge for a good hour, which is great."
"My goal in winter is to get games on and never to say 'You can't play' but by the same token 'Don't expect Twickenham next weekend'."
An avid cricketer himself - "I've been a member here since I was a child. My dad was chairman and president and my lad Jack plays first team cricket" - he takes great pride in preparing pitches, using the guidance one of his predecessors, Nick James, bequeathed. "He became an ECB pitch advisor and his 'Bible' tells me what to do when to the square."
After a year in post, Tim's already stamping his strategy on the maintenance programme. The original 19 strips have shrunk to 16 under his watch. "We didn't need that many and reducing the number means I spend less time maintaining them, while saving fuel and line paint costs," he explains. That said, he'll be preparing enough to cater for four senior teams, up to 50 games across 22 weekends.
"Then there are juniors games on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from April to the end of July," he adds. More than enough to keep him busy but it's a labour of love: "I find it so satisfying to prepare nice-looking pitches; presentation is so important, particularly for visiting teams who will judge the quality of our facilities when they play here."
Covid made "a hell of a difference" to the playing demographic, Tim says. "The 30s+ rugby group didn't come back after the pandemic but the juniors section is thriving - we have 250 just playing cricket, almost too many."
Tim has to handle a seasonal issue common across the North West - the crossover from lacrosse (the region's a national focus for the sport) to cricket.
Heaton Mersey runs three senior teams on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from mid-September, one in the National Premier League, with juniors striding out in the mornings.
Most of the two pitches become the cricket outfield across summer, so Tim's renovation work starts in earnest when lacrosse hands over on 31 March each year. "I seed the outfield and lacrosse goalmouths in the first week of April, following scarification of the square."
Add in two rugby teams playing from mid-August to the end of May, with juniors on Sundays, and it's easy to see that maintenance intensity is only going one way, given the rise in women's cricket and lacrosse planned at the club. "A second ground would be Heaven," says Tim. "I looked at a site nearby but it wasn't quite what we wanted."
A self-confessed 'amateur' turfcare professional, Tim keeps his nose to the ground to keep current. "There are amateurs everywhere who think they know better than you do, but I like picking people's brains on ways to improve my maintenance, which exists to provide facilities for sport as a service for the members."
He'll now be reporting to new grounds secretary, Jon Sherlock, continuing the tradition of a sports club that relies on contracting out essential maintenance, while delivering the very best provision it can on a tight budget. The Heatons member strength in depth should ensure there's a ready source of enthusiasts to take up the baton.
Between times at the Heatons, Tim's keeping fit playing golf at his local club, just a walk away, but he likes to monitor his output while tending the ground.
"My Fitbit tells me I complete 20,000 steps a day in summer, and I walk two miles cutting the square, 1.67 miles to mark out the rugby pitches and another 1.27 miles for the lacrosse. The machine itself has chalked up 500 miles."
On that note, we're done and I depart, with the Proclaimers' hit providing today's earworm for good measure.