The superb facilities offered by the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sports Association, at The Pavilion complex, are the responsibility of Head Groundsman Philip McCormick and his team. Still in his 'first' job, he is enjoying the challenges the forty-five acre site throws at him, as he tells Chris McCullough
After a hard day's work, civil servants in Belfast have a wealth of sport and leisure activities on their very own grounds at their disposal in order to wind down.
Northern Ireland's Parliament Buildings are based at the Stormont Estate in East Belfast, which is also home to The Pavilion, where all the sports facilities and grounds are located.
It is also the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Sports Association (NICSSA) which is the largest public sector sport and leisure organisation in Ireland.
The Belfast venue offers its members a choice of facilities via a health club, and a number of sports grounds for tennis, hockey, football, rugby and cricket. The grounds are also open to outside clubs and teams who wish to avail of the pitches and sports facilities.
There are forty-five acres of sports grounds within The Pavilion which, with the variety of sports on offer, take some looking after.
The man with the unenviable task of taking care of the facility is Grounds Manager Philip McCormick, who has spent the past nineteen years knocking them into shape. For Philip, the job is a labour of love as he has worked at the grounds since being taken on as a summer helper all those years ago.
As it's his 'first' job, he takes the day to day running all in his stride. With a small team to help him, Philip must ensure the daily chores run like clockwork and that the transition from one sporting season to another is smooth.
This in itself can be a real challenge, depending on the weather, ground conditions and if there are any public events being hosted there. But he has it all covered and the place runs like a well oiled machine.
"It has been a super nineteen years working here since being taken on as a summer helper. I have to really thank my father William, who got me started in this industry, and my first boss, Tommy Hamilton, for giving me such a great opportunity here."
"The variety of sporting activities available here means there are some transitional periods that we need to plan for; between the rugby and cricket seasons, for example. Then we have the third generation pitches, which have FIFA approved synthetic grass surfaces featuring the latest monofilament fibre. These pitches are suitable for a variety of sports and can cater for large groups, depending on the activity and age-group."
Philip continues; "All pitches are fully enclosed with netting to ensure that the ball remains in play at all times. There are six five-a-side pitches and one seven-a-side pitch at PlayBall. They are always very popular and booked well in advance."
The new PlayBall facility, which has been developed with the support of SportNI, aims to make a significant contribution to getting people of all abilities and ages to participate in sport, from grass roots through to higher level competition. Everyone is welcome to use the PlayBall facility.
"In particular, we want to welcome community groups, charities, youth groups, schools, universities, NICSSA members, affiliated clubs, hockey clubs, both professional and amateur football clubs, corporate and public organisations and the general public."
"The international standard water based hockey pitch is FIH (International Hockey Federation) certified and has been designed specifically for elite level hockey. An identical surface was used during the Athens Olympic Games, so you can see the standards we aim for here!"
Philip has received ongoing training to assist him in his job and keep him up-to-date with modern techniques and new products. He studied the NVQ Level 2 in sports turf in 1999 and the Level 3 diploma in sports turf in 2014.
Philip is also responsible for the day to day running of the overall budget to maintain the grounds each year, including his staffing needs. "We are quite a small team here. I have three full time staff and two part time people when I need them."
"The full time staff consists of Ian McMeekin, who is fifty years old and has eight years service with us. Then we have Matthew Reid, who is twenty years old and in his first year at the job. We also employ Simon Perry, who is twenty-one years old and is also in his first year. And, for the past month we have used Andrew Culbert, another twenty-one year old. We make a good team and work well together."
With such a large site to maintain, it is understandable how busy Philip and his team are. "All told, there are forty-five acres making up the grounds here. We have seven five-a-side 3G football pitches, two hockey pitches (one water and one sand dressed); two cricket grounds, three football pitches, three rugby pitches (part of main cricket outfield), a bowling green and four synthetic tennis courts."
The main obstacle Philip and his team face is with the unpredictable Northern Ireland weather. "Excessive rainfall gives us no end of problems," said Philip. "The Stormont weather station regularly records the highest rainfall levels. And what is bizarre is that it does so especially when someone mentions that the international cricket is on!"
"However, we do have contingency plans in place if the heavens do open. The main outfield is superbly drained but, if poor weather is forecast, we would vertidrain before any high profile game. The grounds are quite open here, so we have no real problems with shading and airflow."
One of the other bigger concerns at the grounds is with the general public, and those who walk dogs in particular. "We do have continuing problems with dog walkers," Philip said. "As it's an open estate, members of the public can come and walk their dogs here. The issue we have, and it's one we need to try and solve, is that some dog walkers are irresponsible and do not clean up after their dog. It's a hard one to police though."
The maintenance regime at The Pavilion is quite varied, but Philip tries to adhere to a programme that coincides with the sporting seasons. "We are currently in the middle of cricket season, so weekly cutting of the square at half inch height with a Dennis pedestrian mower and a John Deere 235d with boxes on. We also scarify the square on a three week basis with a Sisis mark 5 scarifier."
All of the staff help out in all the areas when required to do so, so training is ongoing to allow them to be familiar with the various tasks. "It's all hands to the pump here, combined with training the new staff in all aspects. Matthew Reid has taken over responsibility for the bowling green and has done a fine job so far for us."
Presentation of the grounds is of the utmost importance for Philip and his staff. "How the grounds are looking is the first thing people see, but a quality surface is what is needed most."
At the end of the cricket season, there are a number of tasks carried out. "The main cricket square (fourteen wickets) is cut down to four millimetres. We then also give it a light scarify in three directions using a Sisis Supa Rotarake, with a final pass at a depth of five millimetres."
"We then overseed with two bags of a perennial ryegrass mixture seed, which is then brushed in. The square is then watered and covered for a day, before using a Groundsman spiker with seeding heads."
"This runs in two to three directions at a depth of five millimetres, with a final bag of seed brushed in and topdressed with eight bags of GOSTD Supernatural loam from Surrey Loams Ltd. The loam is spread using a Sisis Truspread topdresser with around eight bags per wicket."
"The same process is applied to the smaller square (seven wickets) and four practice wickets."
"The bowling green renovations include a light scarify in three directions, with a final, more severe pass with the Rotorake, then two passes with seeding heads and two bags of bent fescue mix brushed in and four tonnes of local sand dragmatted in."
However, when it comes to the rugby pitches and the transformation required to the cricket outfield, this provides the biggest challenge for Philip and his team. "This is one of the hardest parts of the job, as there is usually only one or two weeks between the end of the rugby season and the start of the cricket preseason games around the second Saturday in April."
"Normally, we would spread about twenty bags of 16:16:16 fertiliser onto the rugby/cricket outfield in mid March. This is followed by Primo Maxx growth retardant."
"We would start cutting and rolling the rugby pitches with a Major 8400 roller mower cutting deck at the start of April, depending on ground conditions. The deck has two rollers and plenty of weight, so does a good job of levelling, before we would vertidrain to a depth of 8-10 inches."
"Contractors then apply 120 tonnes of sand and direct seed with ten bags of a rye blend seed. We then spend a day brushing and dragmatting the sand to try and disperse it into the profile."
"I have found, over the last three years, that the Primo Maxx works well at this time of year by controlling the amount of cutting required while the sand is still on the surface, thus reducing wear on the machines."
"Obviously, with finances being stretched, finding other products is a constant dilemma but, so far, the standards have not dropped, which is something we are very pleased about."
But all the team's good work faces its own challenges with some of the events that are held on the pitches throughout the year. "We have a few events each summer, such as the UK and European pipe band championships, which take place on the main cricket outfield. If they aren't monitored properly, the machinery used to set up can damage the turf, as we have found out to our cost on a few occasions!"
Changing weather patterns do not really affect the team and their work. "There's no global warming in Northern Ireland, I can assure you," Philip laughed.
Philip takes cores of all grass surfaces twice a year to check on root depth as part of his maintenance regime.
However, on the artificial surfaces there is, of course, a different programme in place. "We operate a weekly brushing programme of the 3G pitches all year round using a drag brush, and use a Wiedenmann sweeper to lift debris - on a two week basis in summer and weekly in winter."
"We also top up the levels of rubber crumb in the autumn and spring seasons. However, the most difficult time is in autumn, when the leaves are falling. The playball facility (hockey and 3G pitches) are surrounded by trees and hedges, so it's a constant battle to keep the surfaces clean and tidy."
There are some projects ongo
ing at The Pavilion, including work on the cricket square. "Relaying of the cricket square has been going on for five years, with two club wickets being relayed per year to a depth of 3.5 inches using GOSTD 125 and Supernatural loams.
"I started this on the club wickets with no experience of relaying wickets. I was just going on some information from Tom Flintoff, Len Smith and the ECB's Chris Wood, plus various websites. I wanted to get some practice on the club wickets, before starting on the main first class and international wickets nearer the centre of the square."
"In the past, we have dug a ring drain around the square with smaller drains down each wicket, which has made a huge difference, especially in such a wet climate."
Philip usually works from 8.00am to 5.00pm in the summer months and 9.00am to 4.00pm in the winter months, "but, with such a small team, there is a lot of overtime required to keep the place in shape," he confirms.
Further plans are afoot if funding is forthcoming from SportNI. This could include a new cricket school, a new 3G pitch and expanding the current clubhouse on the grounds.
It does not matter how bad the weather gets in Belfast, Philip and his team are sure to battle through the elements and maintain the grounds as best they can.
What's in the shed?
Kubota L5030 tractor
Kubota BX2350 tractor
Kubota B1550 tractor
Sisis mk5 and Rotorake 600 scarifiers
Dennis pedestrian cutter with various attachments
Wiedenmann Terraclean 120
John Deere 2653a fairway triple
John Deere 22 greensmower
Groundsman 345 aerator
Toro Procore SR72