0 The industry has to change

When Leicester City Football Club launched its Sports Turf Academy (STA) in July 2021, the aim was clear; to be world leaders in the training and education of the current and next generation of sports turf groundstaff, whilst applying that learning to active working environments. Kerry Haywood visited Head of Sports Turf and Grounds John Ledwidge to find out more and take a look around the world-class training centre.

The small details and thought process that has gone into planning the Seagrave site is quite something and is based on aspirational roots. John commented: "We took our inspiration from other clubs who have done this really well, such as Spurs. The construction of the pitches is no different as players progress; they start on fully constructed natural pitches, through to Fibresand pitches for the Academy and then stitched construction for the first team."

Talent, as young as seven, start at the foot of the 'T' and progress through the pitches until they work their way around to the top of the site where the professionals train. The same aspirations apply to senior teams and the long entrance driveway; they go left at the end for the Academy and right for the first team, so again the aspiration is to be able to turn right and make that topflight. Players also progress through the main building from left to right.

Planning and construction

"The Club began the planning process around three years ago, with a vision to create a state-of-the-art elite training centre and I was fortunate to sit on the Project Board from inception to completion. The clubs first team's first training session took place on the 24th December 2020, so we have now been operational for a year. We took possession of the site with a caveat that certain areas still needed to be fulfilled and that work is still underway on some of the landscaping areas."

To put the new site into perspective, it is 7.5 times larger than the old Belvoir Drive training ground at 24 acres (which is now used as the professional women's facility). The 185-acre complex has 21 playing surfaces which includes 14 full size natural pitches and 2.5 synthetic - one indoors in the King Power Centre - and two show pitches for use in selected matches by the club's Development Squad and Academy.

When construction commenced, there was a cut and fill operation across the whole site to ascertain the levels for the various pitches and buildings. "All the pitches were lime stabilised to ensure they were stable enough to build on, and then we built up and constructed the pitches from there. There are four first team pitches that incorporate a Grassmax system; we used a polyethylene fibre, after our research suggested better longevity and structural integrity over the course of ten years."

"The entire site has a connected drainage system, which goes into large and well-constructed attenuation ponds across the site, but at the moment, we can't re-claim the water to reuse it. The design phase moved so fast originally that we hadn't factored it in so, to consider it retrospectively would have pushed the completion date back which had its own potential consequences, but this work is now included in the five year plan and a bid to drive the club's sustainability strategy forward."

Match pitches. Despite not having many games, or uses on the match pitches this month, the guys have maintained presentation levels. Match pitch two has struggled with how thick it is and work is ongoing to thin it out periodically. The use of the Uniscratch has been trialed, which did take out a good amount of material, but we feel a harder scarification is required

"Since being operational on the new site, one of the biggest changes we've had to adapt to is the sheer amount of use. The Academy now has access to a lot more pitches and they, rightly so, have an expectation train and play a lot more of their time on natural grass, so with that, comes a bigger schedule and we've had to adapt our approach. For example we now irrigate for under 11s training to keep the ball moving at an expected speed (which was relatively unheard of before) and we now make our staff available on evenings and weekends to water if required and move goals etc. It also allows us to have a presence on site so that we can manage and rotate the usage, without dictating to them - as that isn't conducive to a good working relationship. We've built a pro-active relationship with all of our age groups - first team included - where there is a level of respect for what we do, but we also work with the respect that we are here to facilitate all the teams. My days of being a grumpy and obstructive groundsman are over - but there were quite a few years I lived up to that."

"All the departments (along with players) realise how lucky they are to be in an environment like this. It will not only help to retain professional players, but also appeal to young talent coming through the ranks, who hopefully won't want to go elsewhere. Those young players won't be on 3G pitches as much, given the main ambition here was to increase grass usage. At Belvoir Drive, that was around 25% grass usage based on the data we collected (predominantly because we couldn't rotate pitches and didn't have the space) whereas now, it is up to 75%."

Teams

The teams consist of eighteen grounds staff, a team of ten landscapers who take care of everything outside of pitches, four workshop technicians, plus four greenkeepers. John continued: "The management structure and delegation is so important. I oversee the Training Ground, Belvoir Drive, The King Power Stadium and the Sports Turf Academy and Callum Allsop, Senior Sportsturf and Grounds Manager manages everything at the Training Ground. There are then four direct reports from the landscape manager, golf course manager, workshop manager and the pitch manager who look after everything logistically. They all ensure each department has enough people in every day, make sure the products are here to implement the maintenance and fertiliser programmes, everything to do with HR etc., which is a colossal job."

"The set up here is great for variation and development in the teams. We can, on occasion, interchange between roles; we can have the greenkeepers working on pitches and groundstaff out on the golf course. It's a USP of the site that staff can come and not only do sports turf, but greenkeeping, mechanics and horticulture too. To give some perspective, the horticultural aspect of the new site is actually bigger than the entire old training ground and they are also responsible for all the ecology on site which means the ten gardeners have their work cut out."

John is the licence holder for Natural England, but together with the garden landscape manager, the team have to monitor and enhance the habitats and ponds. "We are currently de-silting all the attenuation ponds and we have two ecologists here to check each bucket load to ensure there are no newts or species being dislodged and enusre that it all complies with Natural England regulations."

The golf course is surrounded by 12-acres of woodland under a strict woodland management plan. "We have a 5km perimeter fence around the site, however, we have gates and openings where badgers and wildlife could enter, but we have been quite lucky not to have suffered any significant damage to date. In addition, and in line with the Land Ecology and Management Plan, we have a responsibility to encourage wildlife and biodiversity, so the aim is to introduce sheep to graze on the par 3 which, in turn, will help the wildflower meadows. That side of things, isn't just a token gesture; we take it really seriously and the team all take an active interest in learning about everything."

The Academy journey

"A massive part of the journey has been that we can bend and flex and that we can continually adapt. We went through a learning curve of testing ideas and changing certain things if required. It's now the beauty of where we are, that we continue to adapt and pioneer our business plan. We built this facility for the industry, but we are open to ideas of how we can introduce or change things to make it work for everyone and how we can do something good for the industry. I'm fortunate that the club back me and back what we are trying to achieve."

"Ultimately, I still have budgets and targets to achieve each month and that comes from a revenue stream of the four pillars (see side bar). Anything we generate is reinvested, but there are some benefits of the facility that can't be quantified. We recently held an event where people from fifty grassroots clubs, who we had engaged with over the past eighteen months, came in for a seminar and a look around the site and machinery, and that means so much to those local clubs and their learning."

Machinery

As John shows me around the site, the amount of green machinery is obvious as the club have just signed a 32-fleet agreement with John Deere (supported by Farol Ltd). "Knowing that we needed to make a very significant investment in new equipment, we went through a very robust, rigorous and transparent tender process," says John. "We invited all the key players to demonstrate their latest, greatest and best machines, and the whole process ended up taking almost a year to complete - it was extremely thorough."

Machinery includes two new environmentally friendly GPS Precision Sprayers, 8000E and 2750E hybrid electric ride-on cylinder mowers, 7700A PrecisionCut cylinder and 7400A TerrainCut rotary ride-on mowers with TechControl display, a 1600T wide-area rotary mower, X950R rear-collect lawn tractor and Z997R zero-turn rotaries, 2036R and 3038R compacts, and TE electric and XUV 855 plus 855 S4 Gators.

Golf course

Constructed on an 18-hole golf course, the site has been developed through its centre for football, leaving nine holes split into two wings. Golfers play the first four holes on the east wing and then travel 1.6km on a buggy to the fifth tee and the remaining holes on the west wing. It is currently only played by the first team, coaching staff and directors, but John commented that might change over time. "Regardless of how many rounds are played on the course, the expectation of players is that they want to walk off a pristine pitch and play on the same manicured surface, which is a challenge given the indigenous soil. We have identified certain areas for improvement so, this winter, we are starting a tee development programme. This will set the standard for how they all should look, to then secure investment for all the other tees as part of the five-year development plan."

John is looking at trialling robotic mowers on the fairways. "The issue we have is that the course is very wet as it has the original indigenous clay profile and, although we have invested significantly in the course to improve the greens and tees through improved drainage and irrigation, the fairways remain a problem. We currently mow twice a week, but if a robot could cut every day and then we went out and striped them that would be fantastic, and it makes economic sense."

Our industry

"This facility (the STA) comes from a really good place and it isn't just for show. I have been in the industry for twenty years now (I'm thirty-six this year) and I'm proud that I have worked my way through the ranks; I've been an admin guy, been in League One, faced huge budget cuts been labelled the pattern guy and I have been on the young board of the GMA etc. I have been at both ends of the spectrum and, for me, this project is about giving something back. Ultimately, myself and other "high profile" guys are fortunate to have an amazing platform we can use to benefit the industry."

"I strongly believe that part of the issue with attracting new people into the industry is that there is no standardisation for salaries and a clear progression path. It shouldn't matter whether you are joining a league two team or a Premier League club. I feel, potentially controversial, an industry union "type" of structure might be a way of enforcing set pay scales, so that someone with a Level 2 qualification gets a minimum of 'X' and they know exactly what the pay increments are as they progress through their career, skillset and qualifications. With a collective voice, clubs are more likely to listen and members know they will get comfort in union representation, legal support, mental health support etc. It wouldn't be a threatening union, but something like this is arguably the only way we will drive change. I got into this industry because I loved the idea of the job and the money was almost irrelevant, however, twenty years down the line, times have changed and youngsters want to know how they can make their money."

Colour and coverage are bother very good on the first team pitches. The pitch density is slightly high so some verti-cutting has taken place this month in periods with a couple of days break. Pitches are now being cut down at 23mm consistently and will remain at this height through the season.

""As a grounds department, we are beginning to look at the way we view success. Over the past twenty years, success for me has resulted in sacrifice after sacrifice and, up until recently, I believed that is what everyone should be prepared to do. However, recently I lost one of my apprentices after ten months on her course, she had so much potential to benefit the industry. When I asked why she was leaving the industry, she told me that she wanted to be in the same position as me one day, but she was very aware of the sacrifices I have had to make and she didn't feel she could do it! She wanted a work-life balance and that isn't something she could achieve without sacrifice."

"We have to learn from this and have a benchmark which ensures that staff have a balance, have the support they require and get everything they need to make this an attractive career. You will always get individuals who want to go the extra mile and, in all honesty, they are probably the ones who will progress further quicker, but it shouldn't be a condition for success."

"I can't describe the amount of sacrifice my wife Sammi has endured for me to be able to do this job and I am really grateful for all her support. We've been together for ten years and have two children and I have been absent for a lot of their upbringing. I made it a personal target that I should just take my annual leave this year and there is definitely more of a balance already."

"It feels like we are staring down the barrel of a gun and, at some point, the trigger will be pulled and there will be no one coming through the industry to replace those leaving or retiring. I'm pulling all the pieces together and I'm hoping to get more clubs and/or associations on board to drive change!"

Research

"We are currently doing a lot of work and trials within our own on-site sports science laboratory where we are looking at the playability of the pitches and how what we do affects that."

"The laboratory boasts cutting-edge research facility and has the flexibility and capacity to conduct a number of impactful research projects that we hope will better inform the industry with best practice. It is also so handy when it comes to our own surfaces and any issues we may have; we can take a sample, put it under the microscope, identify it and be treating it - all within half an hour."

"One of the big areas we are currently working on is fertiliser inputs and whether we can reduce those levels to rely more on biostimulants, but still maintain the same quality. We have a 1000m2 fully constructed USGA spec trial plot on site, which is fully irrigated and drained and includes many different species of grasses. It is ideal for whatever research we need to do, both internally and independently, and we are currently working towards Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) and Good Experimental Practice (GEP) accreditation."

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