During a typical Friday in June, the final preparations would usually be being made to the square at The Victory Ground but, instead, it is routine mowing and watering that is the order of the day. Operating the Toro Reelmaster 5410 is Head Groundsman, Mark Flack, with his father and Grounds Director, Bobby Flack, hand watering. Their involvement in this proud Suffolk sporting institution has spanned decades, and their passion and love for 'The Vic' is shared by many. Blair Ferguson reports.
Head Groundsman, Mark Flack
The Victory Sports Ground, located in the historic Suffolk town of Bury St. Edmunds, should have been celebrating its centenary in style during July, showcasing a proud history of hosting Minor Counties cricket, including welcoming some of the greatest names in the English game including Sir Alastair Cook, Ian Botham and Alan Lamb. Instead, like so many in June, they were unsure when cricket would return and were trying their best to be ready for when the green light was given.
The Victory Sports Ground was created to commemorate the employees of Greene King - who have been brewing beer and running pubs from Bury since 1799 - that served in the First World War. Many died in the conflict, and twenty-one of the brewery's employees were amongst them.
It was Managing Director, Edward Lake, who came up with the idea of a permanent memorial; he himself had six sons serve, all of whom remarkably returned home. Edward convinced Greene King to purchase twenty-six acres of land and open a sports ground for the returning members of brewery staff.
So, in July 1920, it was opened along with a plaque that read; "Edward thought nothing could be more appropriate than a large recreation ground where men of the present and future generation could join in those manly sports which have made the English nation what it was".
Over time, the ground built a fantastic reputation whilst being maintained by Herbert Hargreaves, who had played cricket for Yorkshire alongside some great players, including Sir Len Hutton. In 1975 it was purchased by St Edmundsbury Borough Council who operated it as a community facility. The quality declined, and the pitches were deemed unsuitable for Minor Counties cricket. In 1995, a group of individuals took over the running and maintenance of the site.
The quality steadily increased and, in 2007, discussion commenced concerning improving the pavilion and changing facilities. The old pavilion had served its purpose and was badly in need of replacement. These discussions involved Bury St. Edmunds Cricket Club and South Lee School, who were seeking to provide an indoor sports hall but had insufficient space on their adjacent site.
The discussions, negotiations and fundraising culminated in the creation of the superb new indoor sports centre and community pavilion which was built in 2013 at a cost of £2.25 million. The old pavilion was taken down in 2014. In it were memorial boards containing the names of Greene King employees who died in both World Wars and these have now been returned to the company to be displayed in their museum. The ground is now owned by The Victory Sports Community Interest Company (CIC) who purchased the ground from St Edmundsbury Borough Council on January 1st, 2013.
In its current format, the ground has two cricket squares (twenty-nine strips) in the summer, nine football pitches used by Sporting 87 FC - who have 750 members from four years old up to seventy - and a croquet lawn that is looked after by the club. Having three stakeholders funding the ground has been pivotal in the development of the site and will be a crucial part of the future with all parties needed to ensure it thrives.
Maintenance of the fifteen acres is undertaken by Mark Flack and his enthusiastic group of volunteers - Bob Flack (his father), John Hargreaves, Keith Bishop, Roger Howlett and Chris Winning - who have an average age of seventy-two. Mark makes it clear that without the help of these men - whom he refers to as his dad's army - the site wouldn't be in the superb condition it is now, and that, without the guidance of Bob and John, he wouldn't have the skills or knowledge he now has.
Mark explains: "I'm a solicitor by profession and remain a solicitor. I had been in a law firm for twenty years and was just looking for something different to do. I think life is about making changes, doing different things and learning new skills, so I was looking to do something else, the groundsman here left and so the planets sort of aligned."
"Dad was working here with John, whose dad was a great professional cricketer and the original groundsman, who everybody looks up to here at The Victory Ground. Dad and John were running the ground between them on a voluntary basis, and they said why don't you come up and see what you think to it, and I've been here ever since."
"It was lovely to spend time outside, notwithstanding some of the awful weather that we got. It was a completely different skill set to pick up, which was great. It was a real learning curve - and I'm still learning, even though I've been doing it for ten years. I was very lucky in that I was working alongside people who had so much experience. I don't think you can really teach this job. You have to suck it up like osmosis, the more you do it, the more bits you pick up."
"Nobody can really sit you down and say 'right, this is what you do today, and this is what you do tomorrow'. So I think I was very fortunate to be able to do that. Although you could say the level of volunteer assistance naturally starts to tail off a bit as these guys get older, I have been fortunate that my knowledge and skill set has increased as some of them haven't been able to spend as much time up here as they used to."
"On the volunteer ground staff, we had more minor county cricketers than Bury St. Edmunds cricket club for most of the time I've been here. It's lovely to work with those guys who have such a passion for not just cricket but this ground. They have all played a high standard of cricket together, so it's great to spend time with them and hear their stories about cricket and the ground, and that's what it's about. Not just all the hard work that comes with it but being able to enjoy their company and the contribution that they make."
"Providing and maintaining sports isn't cheap, and often it is the contribution of volunteers that make the standards possible, and sometimes that contribution can be overlooked. We host semi-professional cricket here where players are being paid, and sometimes I think the distribution of the funds, be it on the grounds or elsewhere in the club, needs to be carefully considered because money isn't easy to come by. People putting back into the sport after they have finished playing is very important at grassroots level and for a number of reasons you see less of it nowadays, but it is vital to a lot of clubs and sports as it is here."
"So many people that I know have a real love of the ground, dad in particular, and it was important for me to try and do all I could to maintain that at the highest level we can. But it's true, without the volunteers, the ground wouldn't look half as good because it's only through their assistance that I'm able to keep it at a certain level. I don't feel responsible for the way they look at the ground, yet I do in a way. I feel as though I've been handed the baton, and it's now my responsibility to try and maintain the standards that they have worked so long and hard to get it to. I do feel that if it doesn't look good or a wicket doesn't play well that I'm letting them down."
Meeting the standards of the three interested parties is something Mark has to contend with constantly. The needs in terms of quality are much higher for Minor Counties cricket than they are a school sports day, but there isn't an option to flit from one standard to another; the default setting is always as high as possible. Ultimately, the aim is to give everyone a bit of what they want while working within the collective financial means of the CIC because everyone contributes to the running costs of the site.
Usually, this is achieved with a tried and tested formula, but a visit to Edgbaston last year gave Mark inspiration to experiment, with time being the only restricting factor. The punishing schedule that swings from cricket to football within days doesn't give time for experimentation, but a complete cancellation of sport has allowed for some tinkering and pitch improvements without the worry of ruining a pitch for a matchday.
"The pinch point for us is the changeover between cricket and football," Mark explains. "That is the time that you're putting the squares to bed, footballers are screaming for their pitches and a lot of people at that time are talking about reseeding pitches. So we never close. I appreciate that everybody wants to get on and people want to play longer and sooner so we tend to get squeezed in the middle there, which can be a bit of an issue for us. So we try and work around people as much as we can, and we try and get people to come and help us during that time so we can get the goals up and the work done. The guys from the football club give us a hand during that time, and they'll happily help us put the squares to bed, even though they don't play on them and that's something I really appreciate."
"But it is difficult to find a good time to do major pitch renovations. This year, we would have been quite fortunate, and I've done some on the football pitches myself. Initially, I thought great, there will be no one on it so I can do some reseeding, but it's been too dry. We're quite lucky with irrigation, we can irrigate practically anywhere but it is one source of water, and the pressure is about two bar, so it's not great. We are able to get some water out, but it is cost as well."
"There are lots of things I'd like to do, but we have to be realistic about the resources that we have. We are always open to new ideas like the little training wicket that we've cut out in the last few weeks, just to give the guys a chance to get out on the grass and it's been great. I think the ground staff have been just as excited about it as some of the lads that have come up and used it."
"But it's difficult because you want to give things like that a go, but you don't want them to go wrong and impact the Saturday. This year, in particular, it's been great to have a little tinker out there. With our little practice strip, we've started trialling some different techniques, and if it does go wrong the guys are terrific, they won't mind because they are grateful to have something to use. It's been a good opportunity from a fairly negative situation."
"Through Bob's County Cricket connections [he is a level 4 cricket coach], we were fortunate enough to spend some time with Gary Barwell, Head Groundsman at Edgbaston, last year and, in many ways, he opened our eyes to the science of preparing wickets and was a catalyst for our experimentation here. For example, he suggested far more brushing up of the grasses during preparation, not cutting the strip down until much nearer match day and looking at the effects of varying cutting heights. He was so generous with his time and understood the trials and tribulations of ordinary groundsmen at lower levels - he really spurred us on to try and put some of these things into action."
"We always used to really rip out our wickets and really rip out the grass with a manual scarifier. This time, what I've been trying is to verti-cut it really low instead, and I'm finding that it is preserving a lot more of the grass and the finer grasses. We aren't ripping as much of the good quality stuff out, and I think it will mean that the wickets will come back quicker because we have to re-use them and that's always a big challenge here. We need to get them off the wicket that they've played on, even though they want to keep training on it all week, because we need to get water on it to be able to re-use it later on in the season. This new method of preparing the wicket will mean there will be more grass left on it and makes it easier for us to get the wickets back to re-use, so that's just a little thing that we've tried."
"We've also made the training wickets slightly narrower, and that has saved us a bit of time because we can roll them easier. Obviously, we can't do that when they are playing, but it's quite interesting to see how things change when you try something else. We always have to look at ways we can save money or use what we have better, and I think that really is the key. We use the rotary mower to cut the outfield on the second pitch, and there was a big resistance when it was first suggested a few years ago because we always used a cylinder mower. But we gave it a try, and it's been great because it's been much quicker and the quality of the result is good. So that's saved time by using more modern technology."
Baz is ten and a half years old - or seventy in human years - making him the youngest volunteer!
"It's working around things and trying to find constructive solutions to the problems youve got without saying I need more money. We all need more money, but is there a workaround and will it compromise the quality, and that's the issue. But so far with the help and budgets that we get and the support we have from the voluntary workers we're sort of there."
Finding a balance that suits everyone has been a process, and one that Mark, along with the CIC, has been able to find. There is longevity in their thinking and an appetite to ensure that, in the year 2120, those in charge speak fondly of how the site progressed. One way of ensuring that is by diversifying the site for additional income. Though not a big town, the demand for sport in Bury is large and other clubs, such as Bury St. Edmunds Rugby Club, operate floodlit midweek football leagues.
Although the history of The Vic is built on cricket, it is somewhat ironic that its future may be supported by football. Through Sporting 87 there is a plan to construct a floodlit 3G pitch that can be used for training and rented out to local schools and clubs. There have been countless examples of football clubs sharing space with cricket clubs and eventually edging them out of the site but, as with everything else here, it's the combination of clubs that makes the operation work.
"The Victory Ground has always been associated with cricket, and nothing will change there," Mark said. "But, from a financial point of view, in many ways football may turn out to be a significant part of the future. A lot of cricket grounds have found that to their cost in that football has taken over, and cricket has been put in a corner or disappeared completely. We are very keen that shouldn't happen here, and I'm sure it won't, but the income that a 3G pitch can generate is something we cannot ignore."
"We're not all so stuck in the mud to think that we can't dig up a bit of The Victory Ground and put a 3G pitch in, very much even my hardened volunteers who lived on the ground and were born here see it as the right thing to do. I thought there would be quite a bit of resistance, but everyone sees it as a good thing. You've got to move with the times and, to preserve what they like about the top of the ground, you maybe have to give a little bit at the bottom."
"The different stakeholders have worked together and played together for years now, and I think that has helped them not feel threatened by each other, and they see the way it's going and see how expensive and difficult it is. So, they understand that a floodlit 3G pitch is a potential solution to the problem. It's looking to the future, and for us as well it is about trying to bring everyone together. There are a lot of partisan issues, but the future of the ground has got to be a collective thing."
"We have to be more together, and there needs to be a better synergy, we've all got to respect each others' positions and support each other and, from a ground point of view, that's what we try to do. You can't live on memories, we need to create new memories that resonate with people today, and I think there is definitely an enthusiasm to do that."