Chris Bennett visits BT Murrayfield to catch up with Head Groundsman, Jim Dawson, and discovers that working at Scotland's largest stadium brings plenty of headaches, but also plenty of accolades
Picture the scene - the New Zealand All Blacks are performing the Haka, nearly 70,000 Scotsmen are belting out the Flower of Scotland anthem; battle is about to commence and the atmosphere is electrifying. In the midst of all that infectious patriotism is a man who possesses the biggest smile in the stadium. He soaks it all up with a sense of pride knowing that this game is about to be played on the pitch he has laboured over… and it looks fantastic.
"It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," says Jim Dawson, Head Groundsman for Scottish Rugby at the BT Murrayfield Stadium. "I mean, who wouldn't want to be here? It's the biggest stadium in Scotland and, when it's busy, it's one of the best places in the world to be."
The man from Isle of Bute originally learnt his trade by working on golf courses and attending college one day a week to obtain the necessary qualifications. At the age of twenty-three, he swapped greenkeeping for grounsdmanship and became head groundsman at Falkirk FC - a move which threw him in straight at the deep end.
"It was just me, myself and I, so I had no option but to adjust very quickly. The very first game I had as the head groundsman was against Rangers FC and that was an experience. I'd never lined a pitch in my life - my very first time was before that game."
Not daunted by the pressure of preparing his first ever pitch for one of the most legendary football teams in Scotland, Jim passed his initial test with flying colours. He eventually went on to win the Scottish Football Groundsman of the Year Award twice, and he also picked up third place in the award for the Professional Football Groundsman of the Year - an award which takes into consideration the work of every groundsman in the UK.
It is accolades such as these which made the dream move to the largest stadium in Scotland possible and Jim admits that he owes a lot to the club where his groundsmanship journey began. He still speaks fondly of Falkirk and it appears that the club are still in his heart. His wife Susan still works on reception at the club's stadium and he is also full of praise for his old apprentice, 'little' Bob Lochhead, who is now a full-time member of the groundstaff at Falkirk FC.
Nurturing the future generation of groundsmen is something that is incredibly important to Jim. Under his guidance is a new apprentice, Callum McMillan, who originally started at Murrayfield in a work experience position.
"Callum has worked his backside off to get where he is now. He has his Level 3 Greenkeeping qualification and I believe he has a great future ahead of him. What an arena for him to work in and learn his trade."
"The best advice I'd give to an aspiring groundsman is to talk to your peers. Talk to anyone, whether it be clubs in lower leagues right through to groundsmen at the top teams - just go and talk to them. I'm more than happy to pick up the phone for Callum if he's got a problem I believe someone else will be able to solve for him. I'm quite content to send him to other grounds and have other apprentices come and see me here."
Perhaps the beauty of this industry is that everyone is just that one phone call away. Everyone shares the same passion and is always willing to help a fellow colleague, as Jim notes.
"Everyone is close in this industry, which is good because someone may currently have the same problem as you had two or three years ago. You can then help identify the problem and help them fix it - which is great. I'm not sure if you would find that in a lot of other industries - everyone that I've encountered is always quick to oblige."
It is this kind of help and support within the industry which has raised the level of groundsmanship at a much needed time. With the increasing amount of money being generated by sports such as rugby and football, whether it be through TV rights or investments, groundsmen are coming under more pressure than ever to perform. Fortunately, the level of groundsmanship has raised significantly enough to be undeterred by this new found pressure, according to Jim.
"I think the industry has changed during my career. The machinery has got a lot better; so too has the grass, the fertilisers - everything has changed since I first started. Groundsmen are hitting their peak, which is excellent for the whole industry."
"There's a lot more venues installing higher quality pitches and the likes of the Desso hybrid surfaces are becoming a regular sight now. You just have to look at the state of the pitches in the eighties - they were nowhere near the quality that they are now."
Jim himself is a proud owner of a year old Desso GrassMaster pitch, which was a result of an ongoing nematode issue on the previous Murrayfield surface. A common problem throughout the UK, nematodes, better known as roundworm, burrow through the roots of grasses, draining the nutrients and weakening the entire plant. Jim and his grounds team had to rush to the field of play after every scrum in order to repair the carved up surface.
"It was a major headache - an absolute disaster. The whole pitch, especially under scrums, couldn't sustain any stability. Scottish Rugby decided to install a new surface. The new Desso GrassMaster came in and what a difference it has made from the previous year to this year."
It is a hybrid grass pitch which is 100% natural sport grass, reinforced by millions of artificial turf fibres. Already installed at Twickenham and football clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, the pitch is said to take three times as much playing time than a normal, natural grass pitch - something which suits a widely used pitch such as BT Murrayfield.
Not only is BT Murrayfield the home of the Scottish Rugby Union but it plays host to Guinness PRO12 and European Champions and Challenge Cup matches. Rugby aside, it has also held seventy-three events in the past year, which equates to approximately 230 hours.
"The amount of events that we have here certainly has an impact on what we do, because we have got to take into consideration what we are doing before the event and then after the event."
"If it has been a concert, then there will be a lot of staging which creates quite a lot of work. We try and get everything clean and we'll go out there with the brushes and then magnetic bars to make sure there are no pieces of metal left. No nuts, no washers, no bolts can be left on the pitch - that's the biggest headache."
However, it appears that Jim doesn't get too many headaches from being the head groundsman - he genuinely loves his job and, even though he grew up with football as his main sport, he is pleased that he made the switch from football to rugby.
"The atmosphere in rugby is great and the fans are fantastic. The difference between football and rugby is that you can have a beer sitting beside each other enjoying yourself. There is a lot of bad blood in football, unfortunately."
So, with Jim feeling like the cat who got the cream, is there any other job out there that could tempt him away from BT Murrayfield? What does the future hold for the groundsman Jim Dawson?
"Personally, my goal is to just present the pitch to the highest standard possible. As long as the players can perform to the best of their ability on the pitch, then I'm a pleased man - their compliments are the biggest accolades I could ever receive."
"I'm really, really happy here. If another job came up, it would need to be abroad, somewhere hotter. It wouldn't happen though, because my wife wouldn't want to move!"
Article author: Chris Bennett, Fusion Media