It seems hard to believe that Alan Ferguson has been at the FA's St George's Park for well over two years. Considered to be one of the finest groundsmen working in football, for many years he was at Portman Road, the home of Ipswich Town FC, where he won many accolades for his stadium pitch. It is this high standard, along with his attention for detail, that made him the obvious choice for the Burton upon Trent facility.
In this question and answer session, Alan explains how things have moved on since his appointment and the FA's plans for the future
How long is it since you came to St George's Park?
I came up here in August 2011, it's amazing how time flies, and we are busier now than we have ever been.
St George's Park is a very impressive place. People are blown away by its size. It's not like a training ground on a fifty acre site with four or five pitches. We have 330 acres with the potential to grow further.
What facilities do you oversee?
There are ten grass and two synthetic pitches.
Club England teams, the three lions, have five elite pitches. These are the ones with heating, lights and irrigation and can be played on morning, noon and night.
I believe you already have development plans in hand?
We have already spent £105 million getting the park open, and we've already upgraded one of the two Fibresand pitches to Desso, which was absolutely essential. The Board has given approval to upgrade and consolidate the other pitches. That is to see the upgrading of four out of the five natural pitches to become Fibresand, and the remaining Fibresand pitch will become a Desso.
There is work already being done in the hotel to ensure we get more private dining areas for teams that visit, along with private meeting rooms for the elite teams coming in. If we have a few teams on site, each will need to have their own private facility to sit down as a group in complete privacy, so all of that has been expanded.
What sort of usage do you have?
The key users of the site have increased their activity by a third since we opened. That includes all levels of England football, corporate and community teams that come to use this facility.
We have a good number of charity matches to accommodate, such as Help For Heroes, Cerebral Palsy and Partially Sighted days. In 2015, we will be hosting the Cerebral Palsy World Cup Series.
We have now graduated to playing a number of UEFA development tournaments where all the teams actually stay on site and we have even played matches on our main pitches.
I think the landscape on the football side is changing slightly. We were only ever supposed to be a training environment but, because of requirements, some of the pitches are having infrastructure built into them to put small stands that can accommodate up to 500 spectators.
And, because it is such a wide open space, and with the weather and climate we have, we need somewhere for them to sit and, of course, toilet facilities. So, as soon as we have identified which pitches, we are going to have small spectator boxes added on to them. That is in the planning stage just now.
As an example of our regular usage, all twelve pitches were in use this last Sunday. On the grass pitches, I would reckon about sixty hours a week between them. Then, about fifty-five hours per week on each synthetic pitch. And, periodically, that spikes quite high, especially around about the international breaks. So, when we have the international teams here, that can rise by up to twenty hours on the grass pitches.
How many staff do you have?
There are fourteen altogether, including me. We recently took on Ed Mowe, who joined us from his role as Head Groundsman at Leicester City; he is still finding his feet and working his way into the position, because it is a completely different environment to club football.
What are those differences?
In my opinion, it is the commercial operation that underpins the park for its funding. That's the huge difference. League clubs don't have that; they have better corporate use at the end of the season, but we get that every day of the week. For example, we had a massive commercial event here recently and we have another McDonalds mini world cup event here soon. And we have to factor that in around professional use.
It is like plate spinning; that is the best analogy I could give you. Sometimes, you come in at half seven, get the first plate up and running, then you go to the second one, then come back to the first one, then you go to the third one, then come back to the second one, and our day just goes like that all the time.
What's the daily routine for your team?
We generally report in for a 7.30am start but, sometimes, it may have to be a little earlier, depending on what we have on that day. We have a staff meeting every day where I brief the lads on the day's work; what's going on and what the likely impact on the department might be. I will give them a heads up on the development, so they are on board with what we are doing all the time.
There is no set finishing time. We should finish around 4.30pm but, very often, we have two or three staff who work on in the evening, so they may start a little later the next day, or they may bank these hours and get them back later down the line.
However, if there are clients out training, we have to have a presence here and, if there is a team client out on the park, there has to be one member of the team with them. If there are two or three team clients, then it follows that there will be two or three members of the groundstaff out there.
Do you have enough time to do all the maintenance?
That has always been an issue. If I'm honest, we don't always get the time we would like as groundsmen, but I think one of our biggest challenges is being able to cope with the corporate/commercial workloads and balance this work with our professional clients' needs.
I think the boys deserve credit for the way they have kept the pitches in remarkable condition under both the pressure of fixtures and last winter's challenging weather conditions.
Do you liaise with other venues?
We are trying to network with a number of other facilities that have been set up as elite sports facilities, like Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall. At the end of the day, we are all looking at elite athlete provision.
There is nothing in England to compare to St. George's Park. It is on its own. There are lots of academies and training grounds, but none of them has the vast commercial operations that this place has.
I am also going out to Spain to see Paul Burgess at Real Madrid. Paul and I know each other from old, so I will swap notes with him and what his club is doing down there. Likewise, we have a similar relationship with Darren Baldwin at Tottenham and also consult with Steve Braddock at Arsenal.
Are the artificial pitches well used?
We currently have one outdoor and one FIFA 2 Star indoor artificial pitches. The FIFA 2 Star is one of the unique selling points for the commercial side. It is also rather essential because a lot of the youth age groups now are played on synthetic. So, giving them the opportunity to go out and play on that type of surface before they leave here is really important. I am quite pleased with that.
Ideally, we could do with another artificial pitch, and that has been identified, so I wouldn't be surprised if we put another one on site. And, as part of phase two, it will be another FIFA 2 star.
When we set up the indoor facility here, we looked at the FIFA licence and how we would maintain it because it has to have an annual re-test. If you are having fifty plus hours of usage a week, it becomes very difficult to keep the ball characteristics of bounce, roll etc. consistent with your initial registration.
The message I am trying to get over is that these surfaces are not 'maintenance free' as is often considered the case. I'm from a grass background and I am 100% natural. I am passionate about that. But these pitches have a place and you can no longer ignore the developments and improvements that have been made in recent years.
The Ladies 2015 World Cup in Canada, for example, will be played on synthetic pitches. Our ladies team has qualified for that, so a large part of their preparation will be on our Desso IDNA carpet, which is the same carpet they are going to play on in Canada.
And their maintenance regimes?
A lot of brushing, a lot of hygienic cleaning, keeping the fibres stood up and keeping the infill at the right depth, and just monitoring things like the ball roll. We have our own measuring equipment here so we can monitor that. We have also come up with a brushing plan that we drew up with our contractor, Technical Surfaces. We have two members of staff trained and designated to work on these pitches.
The re-test is like a giant MOT and it's done by one of the testing houses. We have a sports laboratory on site here and they regularly test the synthetics for us and, because of that, I think we will never be too far away from meeting the licence standards. You are always going to have to do it; it is like sending your car for a service.
I can't leave without asking if you will have any involvement in England's World Cup plans?
I think, initially, our involvement will be the very first step, when the squad assemble here in May for a few days before flying out to Miami. There, they will be getting their first chance to acclimatise themselves to the humid and hot conditions, which are similar to those in Manaus where England's first game is being played.
The squad arrives here in the third week of May, for three or four days, training on the Desso pitch.
We are currently renovating this pitch now [March 11th] to ensure it is ready in time for them. We have already completed the fraise mowing and are topdressing and aerating the pitch as we speak.
A final comment?
Since St George's Park opened, we have had over seventy different clubs using the facilities, plus eleven national teams which have come here from different parts of the globe.
The FA has also been here with various development teams to train and play, and every one of them has had nothing but praise for the facilities.
The FA deserves enormous credit for what it has done here at St George's Park.
Staff photo caption: A few of the St George'sPark groundstaff, l-r: Reece Venning, Stuart Thomson, Harry Roe, Matt Arnold, Ed Mowe, Stephen Bradley and Dan Oliver