This first in a new series of interviews with some of the sports turf industry's leading individuals features someone who is considered by many to be the groundsman's groundsman.
Eddie Seaward MBE has been the Head Groundsman at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon since 1990; he is due to retire later this year following the staging of the Olympics tennis tournament at the venue.
A groundsman since he left school at the age of 16, Eddie has been an active proponent of groundsmanship and the industry, and is held in the highest esteem by his fellow professionals. His service to sport was recognised in 2008 with the award of an MBE.
It is an unprecedented year ahead for Eddie and the club, but he is facing the change and the challenge in his calm, inimitable way
Pitchcare - with the Olympics at Wimbledon this year, I don't suppose you'll have any time to put your feet up?
Eddie - I wish. We're all really looking forward to the Championships and the Olympics. What a great honour it is. There's only a couple of weeks in between the Championships ending and the Olympics starting, so it's going to be quite a challenge to get the grounds and the grass ready again. However, whilst I say there is a two week gap, in reality there is only two days before we have players practising here, plus we have to keep members going at the same time. It's going to be quite a juggling act.
Also, we have to deal with all the logistics of the two events, which is what we are going through at the moment - new security fences being erected, changing the marquees, cameras being installed etc., whilst we are busy working on the courts. That's a nightmare as well as a challenge. As you can imagine it's all go. Neil Stubley, our Head Groundsman Designate, is certainly coming in at the deep end, but we work well together.You can't knock it, it's going to be great fun.
Pitchcare - What sports were you involved with in your younger days - were you a tennis player?
Eddie - No, I played football and cricket; I never really got the opportunity to play tennis at school. Some people may consider it ironic that I have ended up at the home of tennis, but you don't necessarily need to have played the sport, it's all about understanding what the sport needs. When I first came to Wimbledon, I worked with the referee Alan Mills and I learned a lot from him. I was very lucky in that respect.
Pitchcare - How did you become a groundsman?
Eddie - I got interested in groundsmanship at school. I used to help out the caretaker at my secondary school, marking out the pitches and whatever else was needed, so I developed an interest and went straight from the school into the industry. We had a sportsmaster who doubled up as the careers master, and he knew me better than I knew me. He recommended that I go for a groundsman's job to start with, at a local public school, which I did. And so it went from there.
Pitchcare - What would you consider has been the highlight of your career?
Eddie - Going up to the Palace and getting the MBE, without doubt. It has to be at the top. Being appointed here at Wimbledon was also another big moment in my life, and that was in 1990. I was appointed Head Groundsman Designate which, incidentally, is what Neil is doing now.
The MBE was a total surprise, just not something I was expecting. I received the letter, and it was my wife who recognised that it was from the Prime Minister's office. I didn't, it was a brown envelope and I thought it was probably from the Inland Revenue! It was a wonderful feeling. On the day, the Queen presented me with the medal, and she was absolutely phenomenal. Obviously, there are people reminding her of who I was, but immediately she was asking me questions about the job as if she knew what it was all about. It was a very special day, and one I will always remember.
It was also nice meeting so many other people, in particular an elderly lady in her seventies who had done a lot of charity work. She was getting an MBE at the same time and she was absolutely incredible, a very bright spark.
Pitchcare - How has the sports turf industry changed during your time at Wimbledon?
Eddie - I think the industry has changed an awful lot. It has changed from the individual's point of view, conditions are a lot better now for staff, in general terms. I think they get better paid and better recognition, and deservedly so. From the actual grounds point of view, there have been impressive developments in machinery and plant breeding. I think everything has moved forward; for example we are getting plaudits for the major improvements in football pitches, they're far better than they used to be. The science has moved forward. I remember when I first came to Wimbledon, there was a lot of Poa on the courts, but now there is very little. It is not a criticism of those who worked here before me, but it's a fact that modern techniques have helped us treat and eradicate a lot of the Poa, and that has made a big difference to the playing facilities.
Pitchcare - What additional pressures are put on your work by being in the media spotlight?
Eddie - You have to be constantly on guard. Even when you give talks to groundsmen, you still don't know who may be there in the audience at the time, so you're very careful what you say and how you say it.
I have to say, however, that I have a very good working relationship with most of the media, and they have been very supportive. I don't really have any problems with them, which I know some people tend to have. There's the odd occasion when you get misreported, but sometimes that can be misunderstanding rather than anything else. It's a case of making sure that you are understood, and many of the journalists let me see the article before it goes to print, because they want to get it right as much as I do.
There is a difference as well between what I call the trade media and the general media. For the general media, it's sometimes more difficult to get the message across, because one day they are writing about a war or the financial situation, then they're writing about turf culture, and it's totally different.
Pitchcare - You have always been considered as an ambassador for our industry. Is it in a good place right now?
Eddie - I think it is in good shape at the moment. It still needs to move forward and, dare I say, within the industry and with the individuals within the industry. One thing I would like to see at some point is more emphasis on research, and more particularly coordinating and monitoring the research. It needs managing, rather than all of us going our own way and spending a fortune on reinventing the wheel. There are many of us doing research work, but we don't necessarily know what everybody else is doing; a lot of money can be wasted, which could be better spent on other things. I think the industry needs that coordination, and then it needs to publish the papers somewhere where they are readily available to everybody.
We are doing some research work here at Wimbledon, for example, but it doesn't mean to say that someone else isn't doing similar research and spending a lot of money unnecessarily.
Pitchcare - Is there anything you would have done differently, professionally and personally?
Eddie - I think we all have things we would have done differently. Many years ago I got very close to walking out of the industry because I was very disillusioned with it. Instead of getting involved, I became marginalised and disillusioned, not thinking that I could change it. I needed to get involved, as I now have done, but I'd liked to have got involved earlier.
Pitchcare - Any regrets?
Eddie - None at all. I've had a wonderful life.
Pitchcare - What relationship did/do you have with the players?
Eddie - We tend not to have a lot of involvement with the players; I do meet them in the week before the Championship when they are here practising; and it's at that stage you talk to them about the courts. It's generally their coaches who talk more about the courts, there are one or two who will give you a very straight and honest opinion. They're not particularly knowledgeable about the surface, but they know what they want. However, I won't have any of them influencing me; I did have that many years ago, a player who wanted me to fix a court for him; my answer was "Of course I'll do it for you, but let's go and get it cleared with the referee first." As soon as I said that, he dropped his request straight away. He knew what the referee's reaction was going to be!
Pitchcare - Is there one player that has made an impact on you?
Eddie - There are many players who impressed me, the ones that worked hard. And most of the top ones have an incredible work ethic. That's the thing that impresses me most; players who have played and won at the French Open, then the next day they are out practising on grass for the Championships. They don't rest on their laurels, to be at the top of their sport they know they've got to work at it. One or two of the top male players have impressed me with their modesty, big players who are at the top of their game, but it would be unfair to name them. These people are professionals and they work hard at the game. And you never have any problems with the top players, in any sport, because they haven't got anything to prove; they've done it all. It's the up and coming ones that give you the problems.
Pitchcare - what is the most difficult problem you have had at Wimbledon?
Eddie - The worst situation I've probably had to deal with was in 1996. Day one of the Championships was lovely, it was overcast, but we played. Day two, it came on to rain and continued for seventy-two hours. In those days, we had different covers to what we have now; we had a very dark cover on Centre Court and, of course, the grass went looking for light. When the cover came off, the grass was lush and light and I knew we were in trouble. Players were slipping all over the place until we could get it dried out again. That was the most difficult time.
Also, a couple of years ago, we had an interesting situation; we normally spray the courts with a preventative fungicide just before the tournament, and before the covers go on, because we are creating the environment for these diseases to come in. For whatever reason, and I never got to the bottom of it, I found out that one of the courts had been sprayed with a systemic fungicide rather than a contact fungicide. It was a very warm day and the stomatas hadn't opened up to let the systemic into the leaf, so it didn't have any effect. On the Saturday, a week before the Championships, the court looked good but, the following day, it was covered in leaf spot and the grass was dying. We had just a week to get it back again, but we did, so nobody knew any different.
Pitchcare - What do you plan to do in retirement?
Eddie - Nothing in the short term; my wife has a couple of more years before she retires, so we will stay here until then. I might even try relaxing, read a book or something like that. I intend carrying on my work with the IOG and the Land Drainage Contractors Association. Then we'll see what happens from there. I've been asked numerous times about consultancy work, but I'm not really interested. I've worked for fifty-three years of my life, and it will be nice to go on holiday and do some travelling at a time when I want to. I'd like some time off, I'd like to have a rest.