Queen's University Belfast is one of the finest universities in the world and is well recognised for its ability to provide sports facilities for the tens of thousands of students enrolled at its Belfast home.
Chris McCullough talks to Head Grounds Officer Gary Thompson about the working practices at this jewel in Northern Ireland's crown
Queen's University is situated in the southern area of Northern Ireland's capital city, Belfast, and is home to thousands of local students and others from around the world.
Sport plays a vital role in Northern Ireland in bringing people together, no matter whether it be rugby, Gaelic football, football or hockey.
For years, the University has operated its own sporting facilities and one of them, Queen's Sport, is located at a different venue on the nearby Upper Malone Road. This is a centre catering for all variety of sports and contains ten main pitches and other side fields extending to around 65 acres.
The man in charge of this superb facility is Head Grounds Officer, Gary Thompson, who has spent the last nine years "getting to know the place well."
Gary leads a team of three full time staff and two students, and the University also offers seasonal work to its enrolled students to help out at Queen's Sport.
His career is well documented in the gardening world and in the care of sports pitches, and one that has seen him work at some of Northern Ireland's top sporting venues.
Gary said: "I started my career as an apprentice gardener with Belfast City Council (BCC) in 1982. After a four year apprenticeship studying all aspects of gardening, which included working in Belfast Botanical Gardens, I then specialised in sports turf maintenance, working on bowling greens and sports pitches within the properties owned by BCC."
"After twelve years with BCC, I moved to Windsor Park, Belfast, as Head Groundsman in 1994. Windsor Park is the home of Linfield Football Club and also the National Stadium for Northern Ireland. I remained there until 2006, when I then moved here to Queen's."
In all of his jobs, ongoing training has been of major importance to keep Gary up to date with the latest innovations or technologies.
He has completed a number of training programmes including; Foundation degree in Horticulture/Sports Turf Management; City and Guilds qualifications in Horticulture; Pesticide competency PA1, PA6A; NTC in Turf culture and Sports Ground Management.
He has also undertaken various accredited certificates in sports turf and fine turf maintenance; First Aid qualification and a number of University training and safety programmes including Purchasing/Procurement, Diversity and Equal Opportunities, Appraiser training, Selection Interview, Asbestos training, Accident Reporting, Oil Spill Training, Environmental Awareness, Risk assessment, NPTC Chipper/Shredder Operations, CS30 Chainsaw Operations and many more procedural, training and safety courses.
The well trained Gary also holds the purse strings to the budget for the sports facility.
"I work for the University Estates Directorate and have responsibility for spending within a budget which is set each year as part of a Service Level Agreement with our colleagues at Queen's Sport," he explained.
"Within my structures, I report to the Head of Estates Services, and regularly meet with him as well as the Head of Administration and Resources."
Ongoing redevelopment plays a major part in Gary's running of the complex. Adding to the new synthetics put down in 2007, there has been a major development programme undertaken from 2009 to 2012.
During that programme a new pavilion was built, along with the sowing of three new grass pitches, the installation of two new synthetic pitches, floodlights, irrigation system and improved drainage.
Gary is proud to lead a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been there for ten years.
"I have three full time members of staff: Andrew Wray (32) lead hand, ten years service; John Tumilson (50) ten years; and Mark Crawford, who told me to say he was twenty-one, but he's had a tough paper round and is really thirty-nine. He has been with us for six years."
If outside help is required, Gary has a list of contacts he can call when needed. "We can call upon our gardening department if additional staff is needed for assistance. We have a great set-up between the groundstaff and University gardening department, which gives us flexibility when extra help is needed."
"It would be remiss of me not to thank Paul Wallace, the Head Gardener, for all the help and support he gives me. He does though like to think we are the 'B team', but I humour him."
"We employ up to four summer placement students from the University each year from June to September. Consultants or agronomists would be considered for major programmes."
"We use contractors on demand for specialist work such as topdressing, or when deep cleaning on the synthetic pitches is needed. We are striving to become a self-sufficient operation for regular maintenance tasks."
The grounds at Queen's Sport are a mix of different profiles providing Gary and his team with real challenges to overcome. "We have it all," said Gary. "Sand based, soil based, sandy loam, heavy clay and, of course, synthetics such as 3G, sand carpet and water based hockey pitches. We recently installed a Fibresand pitch on the arena."
"With high usage levels and rotational options for changing sports on various pitches, there's a lot of TLC on both a preventative and reactive basis."
"Aeration programmes are essential to ensure the playing surfaces remain open and free draining to ensure minimal disruption to bookings.
Our arena pitch in particular facilitates rugby, Gaelic and football, all of which overlap in the same season, so there's multiple changes to the pitch, such as line marking, goalpost changes and areas of high wear to manage."
"The Fibresand pitch also has its own requirements. Additional aeration and fertiliser applications are essential to maintain the sward. Irrigation is also critical, particularly over the summer period."
"As part of a major renovation to the site, which started in 2009, new pitches were constructed and the remaining grass pitches received an overhaul, which included main drains and additional lateral drainage installed to assist water movement through the profiles."
"We do not have any undersoil heating, lighting rigs or covers. We do have floodlighting systems on all of our synthetic pitches, as well as the main arena. We also have floodlighting on our main rugby and Gaelic pitches to cater for matches and training."
"Plus, we have irrigation options on site with our own bore hole supply and underground storage tank providing a main line supply to the grass pitches via two portable Speedy Rain 505 sprinklers. We also have pop up sprinklers to the main arena pitch and automatic sprinklers to the water based hockey pitch."
"As well as the multiple student teams and clubs using our site, we hire out the facility to the general public and sports clubs. We have multiple external users which include local community teams, schools, summer schemes, various sporting academies, and other major sporting bodies, such as the Irish Football Association."
"The senior Northern Ireland football squad train here prior to international matches, as well as various junior and development squads."
As mentioned, the site at Upper Malone extends to sixty-five acres. This consists of two enclosed grass arena pitches with grandstand seating, four synthetic pitches and a further nine grass pitches for matches and training.
"We also have a trim trail which extends around the facility to around 2.5km. Our main changing pavilion and reception area with function and meeting rooms is complemented by a secondary changing block further into our site which caters for overflow and weekend activities."
"Thanks to Northern Ireland's unpredictable weather, we have more than our fair share of wind and rain. Thankfully, with our aeration programmes, we try to minimise any closures by rotating play onto other areas when possible. We do suffer from frost, with the biggest casualties usually being the synthetic pitches. Thankfully, we generally escape the worst of the snowfall that other sites in the UK suffer from."
"We have a range of heights of cut to cater for the variety of sports played. Rugby pitches are cut at 40-50mm; football pitches cut at 30-40mm; Gaelic cut at 30-50mm; main football pitch cut at 25-40mm and main rugby/Gaelic cut at 30-50mm."
"Our main arena pitches are cut two to three times per week with a combination of a Toro 3100D and a 34" Dennis G860 pedestrian cylinder mower. We also use the cassettes to interchange for brushing, grooming and scarifying."
"Our remaining grass pitches are cut twice a week with a combination of a John Deere 1905 mower, a Toro 3100D and a Major 8400 deck roller mower, attached to one of our tractors."
"Aeration is carried out monthly on all of our grass pitches using a Wiedenmann XP8 with a combination of 20mm and 25mm tines. We also use a Sisis 1.5m multi-slit and a Blec 1.6m groundbreaker."
"Currently, we are awaiting delivery of a new Toro 648 ProCore, which we intend to use more frequently on our prime pitches, as well as other areas of high wear, including goalmouths and access points."
"We have a John Deere X740 rotary mower with collector, which is used on our general grass areas, and this is backed up by two Kubota tractors; a B1550 and a G1700."
"Overseeding is carried out as required with our Blec 1.8m disc seeder. Additional hand seeding is carried out on goalmouths when ground temperatures allow."
"Small areas, such as pathways and site perimeters, are hand sprayed with a combination of CDA and knapsack sprayers. Weed control on the pitches is a twice seasonal programme using our own tractor mounted sprayer."
"We also use this for pesticide applications and liquid feed supplements. Some spraying is still outsourced, if necessary, particularly for maintenance on synthetic pitches."
"Linemarking is carried out weekly and 'on demand' if additional matches or tournaments are scheduled. For this we have five linemarkers; a collection of lasers, transfer wheel marker and electric varieties. We regularly need to change the markings between sports, so the variety of machines allows for the different colours we apply."
"Synthetic pitches are all brushed on a weekly basis, and checked daily as part of our site inspections and litter collection."
"Topdressing is carried out annually as part of our end of season renovations and also on demand during the season on areas of high wear if resources are available. We use two specific types of sand on particular pitches, which is supplied by Irwin's Quality Aggregates."
When it comes to who does what at the site Gary says his staff are trained in multitasking. "All of our staff are experienced and are meticulous in their approach to the maintenance tasks required on such a busy site. At times, when demand is high, it is a case of tackling the next job with whoever is available. However, in general, we do utilise the skill sets of each individual and, for the most, we keep the same member of staff on certain duties."
"This not only gives a sense of ownership to the guys, but also pride when the job is completed. The added bonus is that maintenance of machinery is also easier to monitor, with each person taking greater responsibility for the maintenance and performance of equipment, particularly with mowers."
"Playability and performance is our main target, but we also place a high demand on ourselves for presentation, particularly on our three main showcase pitches. Pitch aesthetics, such as linemarking and quality of cut, are just as important, especially when attracting major competitions and professional organisations to our facility."
At the end of each playing season, all grass pitches at the site are verti-drained, topdressed and seeded. On the key pitches, the team carry out jumbo hollowing coring and scarifying.
With pitches only having short rest periods between seasons, there's a big demand on resources and staff to carry out as much renovations as possible over a small window of opportunity.
Gary added: "Like all things, budgets have an impact on all aspects of maintenance and renovations. I'm fortunate to the extent that my budget is agreed in advance of each season and it's therefore up to me to programme and manage expenditure over the course of twelve months."
"If something unexpected does require further expenditure, I make allowances in other areas to accommodate any costs. If there is a major issue, I can go to the Head of Estate Services to ask for help, but thankfully that has never happened."
"Our main pressure comes from the various sports all having less time between seasons. With organisations such as the IFA running their coach education programmes at Queen's, we sometimes carry out our maintenance programmes in two parts to allow the pitches to remain open."
Major events have also been a factor, but the University is no stranger to hosting these.
"In 1999, we hosted the IAAF World Cross Country Championships; in 2007, we were the U19 Rugby World Cup venue; in 2013, the World Police and Fire games venue and, in 2014, the GAA Festival venue."
"In 2017, we will be a venue for the Women's Rugby World Cup and, later in the year, the UEFA Youth finals venue."
When it comes to the synthetic pitches at the venue, Gary has another maintenance plan. "All synthetic pitches are checked daily, as are goalposts and fencing in high impact areas. 3G surfaces are brushed every week and the sand dressed and water based hockey pitches slightly less frequently, as required."
"Linemarking on the synthetic pitches is outsourced and usually once a year is sufficient. The water based hockey pitch is usually deep cleaned annually and this is outsourced to a specialist contractor."
"In the future, our next programme will involve the replacement of our main 3G pitch and the water based hockey pitch. These are set to start in 2017 or 2018."
Machinery forms a vital part of Gary's day to day running of the facility and, of course, affects his budget. "We have a machinery programme schedule, with equipment proposed and added to the list when identified, and approved if additional resources become available."
"The University has already invested much needed funds to replace outdated equipment that is no longer fit for purpose, and this will continue when feasible. Depending on the costs, the University has a robust purchasing and procurement policy which allows for local and national distributors to submit quotes or tenders when the occasion arises."
"Due to the investment the University has recently undertaken, we have managed to purchase a new Kubota 9960 tractor, a disc seeder and a ProCore 648 pedestrian aerator. This new kit will enhance the ability of our staff to continue in-house maintenance operations as well as increased productivity on certain tasks. Particularly with our arena multi-use pitch, being able to seed and aerate on a more regular basis will increase playability and surface recovery."
"For any equipment not at our disposal, we have a great working relationship with both of the primary contractors we use; Clive Richardson Limited and Tony Patterson Contracts. This relationship allows us to hire or borrow equipment at short notice, which takes the pressure off contractor availability."
"My boss would say that I'm addicted to asking for tractors but, to become more self-sufficient, my wish list also includes a topdresser."
"I'm always checking the industry for the latest advances in equipment, so I've already seen a few to choose from. I have been lucky though over the last few years that the University has invested here at Upper Malone, and I'm also realist so, until the current financial climate improves, we will get on with the job and wait for our opportunity to add more equipment to our machinery pool, whenever that may be."
The Queen's facility is not free from pests as Gary explained. "Weed and pest control is carried out in-house most of the time. Luckily, the two biggest issues on site are usually Red Thread and chafer grubs. Red Thread we treat with our fertiliser programme and spray late September for the latter."
"We have our fair share of grey squirrels on site and are plagued by seagulls. They tend to roost early morning on our synthetic pitches, which does create increased cleaning maintenance between May and September, but it's just one of those situations when we have to grin and bear it. A hockey coach did try using an artificial predator - a wooden Barn Owl - to scare off the gulls, but this was quickly removed as the gulls used it as a perch!"
Gary and his team always have the environment in their minds around the site. "We have started a new project with the RSPB, incorporating the Woodland Trust to create wildlife corridors which will hopefully link up with neighbouring projects, such as Lagan Valley regional park," said Gary. "This has been led by our Estates Environmental Officer, Sara Lynch, and assisted by the Head Gardener Paul Wallace."
"We have an environmental policy in place and these projects will complement the approach taken by the University. We are also in the early stages of creating wildflower areas and installing bird boxes."
What's in the shed?
Massey Ferguson 360
Renault Pales 210
2.2m Wiedenmann XP8
Major 8400 roller deck
Blec 1.8 m disc seeder
Sisis 1.5m multi-slit
Front loader/forks/snow blade
1.6m Blec groundbreaker
Perkoz 600L Sprayer
Sisis Litamina sweeper/collector
Sisis Quad brushes x 2
6m folding brush
John Deere 1905
John Deere X740
Kubotas x 2
Husqvarna pedestrian mulch mowers x 2
John Deere XUV 855d utility vehicle with snow blade
Portable pitch irrigation units x 2
Toro ProCore 648
Husqvarna blowers x 2