In the affluent North London borough of Barnet, football has always been a major concern. The area is known around the world for its consistent concentration of world-class players. Less publicised is the area's grassroots and non-league pedigree, and still flying that non-league flag is well-supported Wingate & Finchley Football Club. We stopped in to watch a Saturday fixture, and speak with their Head Groundsman, Andrew Ward.
Andrew Ward is the Head Groundsman at the Maurice Rebak Stadium, home of Wingate and Finchley Football club in north west London. In this question and answer session, he talks about his day to day work, his career to date and his hopes for the future, both for himself and the industry.
How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position?
When I left school, I didn't know what path to take into further education; on my gap year I was offered a job at my school as a groundsman. That year led to me realising I enjoyed it and pursued it as a career.
Whilst at university, I was approached by the club chairman Aron Sharpe to take over the grounds at Wingate, where I had played as a youth player. This was the start of me starting my contracting company Award Amenity, which manages grounds around London, though Wingate has always been considered my home. I also worked on the seasonal ground staff at the All England Lawn Tennis Club for two seasons, and I can honestly say that I owe a lot to Neil, Grant, Will, Leighton and Scott for the time and opportunity they have given me over the years, not only at their top-class venue, but with advice for me.
What training and education did you undertake?
I studied at Myerscough college, completing two years of a BSc in Sports Turf Management, which I will be completing the last year online, due to work commitments.
Was there one person who inspired you?
I think that Paul Burgess, through his time at Arsenal, was a massive influence on me as I was growing up watching the standard of pitches improve.
How long have you worked here?
I started at the end of the 2012/13 season.
Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else?
The budgets are ultimately defined each year by the Chairman and Vice Chairman. Our club must run sustainably, and I am a big advocate for this. I am fortunate enough to be able to make proposals every year which they are very receptive to, but we must be realistic with what we spend.
What additional help do you get (part time, consultants, agronomists, contractors etc.)?
Rob Kendle at AT Bone and Sons has been an important contact for me throughout my time at the club, undertaking renovations primarily, but more than that he has always been at hand or at the end of a phone if there is every anything that I would like to query.
How would you describe the soil profile and does it require any special maintenance techniques?
A sandy loam. I think that decompaction is key for the pitch as it tends to get very firm very quickly, especially if we are using heavy mowers.
Do you have any additional equipment/systems at your disposal - for example, undersoil heating, drainage, lighting rigs, covers?
The pitch was fully drained back in 1991, and this system is still very functional today. We also benefit from a pop up irrigation system, though it is more appropriately an irritation system, as it is starting to age, and there are certainly areas that it doesn't reach that require hand watering.
Are your pitches used by the community or hired out to outside agencies?
We are very much a community based club; the first team pitch during the season is primarily used by the first team and under 23 squads, though towards the end of the season there are usually community cup finals that will be hosted at the ground.
What is the total acreage and how is this split up?
The ground itself is almost two-and-a-half acres. Two acres of this is attributed to grass, be it the pitch or the banks surrounding, and then the last half-acre is made of three five-a-side artificials, which were relaid as 3G this year.
Are there any issues with shade and air flow?
The south goalmouth does not see sunlight from November to February due to the proximity of a stand behind it; although this is only a minor issue, it has caused a few games to be cancelled due to player safety in a key area.
What are your weekly/monthly maintenance regimes?
The club has always strived to have a surface that is conducive to playing football on. They like the pitch to be cut short and play fast. Most of the year, we aim to keep the pitch at about 26-27mm, which is a little lower than I like and, as a result, we do end up with the pitch thinning out a bit quicker than ideal, especially if we do not raise the height slightly during the winter.
For mowing, I have a Dennis G860, which is the club's mower, bought two years ago to replace their old G860 which was broken. I also have my own machinery, which is very useful, and have a Dennis Premier which is heavier and helps to put the pitch back when it is a bit choppy. I also have a Jacobsen Greens King 5, which is great for mowing in the summer months, though during the winter months the pitch is almost exclusively cut by hand mowers. I am fortunate enough to have a verti-cut cassette for the G860, which allows me to groom the surface, keep it cleaner and control our levels of organic in the surface. This is done at least monthly and, in the summer, it will be done even more frequently, weather permitting.
As a contractor, I have my own verti-drains - a 7521 and a 7316. These are put to good use on the pitch and it is aerated every month/six weeks, depending on the fixture list. Whilst I am a big appreciator of keeping pitches open, I am also mindful of aerating too heavily too close to fixtures, because it can cause us to destabilise the surface too much.
I also have my own sprayer. Weeds are sprayed at least once a year. Worms have become a big problem after the removal of carbendazim, however we are currently trialing a new product. This summer we trialed Primo Maxx to help the pitch develop, and it really made a massive difference. I was amazed by the effect it had and will certainly be experimenting more to get our happy medium between budgets and inputs of chemicals.
Overseeding is generally budget-dependent, and frequently we won't see much more than a couple of bags a year other than at renovations, but when conditions and finances allow, I do like to drill seed into the pitch in the spring to bring the pitch back after the winter.
Do you have specific tasks for specific staff or is it an 'all hands to the pump' approach?
Only two hands ... lots of pumps.
Where does presentation rank?
Presentation for the club is key. The club are proud of having one of the best pitches in the league and like to see it kept that way. For me, it is a balance between keeping the grass strong and presented well. I like to keep the grass working for its water and nutrients. If you make it too easy, then I believe the plants won't root as deep, and you only suffer for that in the winter.
What end of season renovations do you undertake?
Our renovations are strictly controlled by finances, with an average budget of £4,000 a year for renovations, it is difficult to decide where best to use the money, however our normal renovation would include; 60 tonnes of sand, overseed at 40gsm - these will be undertaken by AT Bone - and then I will scarify the surface prior, normally with an Amazon. However, this year, I have purchased a Koro scarifier which I am excited to put through its paces on the pitch, and then vertidrained and fertilised.
Last year, both goalmouths had dropped quite significantly, so we put on 20 tonnes of sand and replaced that with a rootzone, of which 10 tonnes was spread heavily over these low areas and the remainder spread out with the sand.
Are renovations affected by budgets?
Of course. Ideally, the pitch would require a fraise mow and laser level due to the pitch being slightly out of level in areas, though we are unable to afford this.
Are renovations affected by outside pressures?
Our only pressures are end of season tournaments and then bringing it in for pre-season as soon as possible.
How have changing weather patterns affected what you do?
With the spring coming later for the past few years, we haven't really been able to successfully overseed the pitch in the spring and bring back any meaningful coverage to the pitch. This has been frustrating, however as the weather stays warmer into the winter there is more going on in November and December in terms of cutting and maintaining the surface.
Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required?
We aim to take samples every three years, at a minimum, to make sure that our fertiliser plans are concurrent with what is going on in the soil.
Artificial surfaces - what ongoing maintenance/refurbishment is carried out?
The artificials are brushed weekly, and de-compacted and deep-cleaned six times a year.
What projects have been undertaken in recent years?
We have been upgrading sprinkler heads and outlets. Last summer, a custom manifold and valve were made part of the system to allow us to run two sprinklers at full flow off one outlet, which has improved our ability to keep the pitch watered throughout.
Do you source additional help or is the work done in-house?
I think around 95% is done in-house. Only AT Bone are brought in when necessary.
How do you purchase machinery - e.g. outright, five-year replacement deal, second-hand etc.?
Nearly all my machinery has been bought second-hand. Having grown up around machinery and always tinkering, I have found that buying second-hand produced the best value for me as I am able to repair machinery and keep it in running order.
Most machinery I source from the internet, be it eBay or other sites.
Are you loyal to one manufacturer, where possible?
I wouldn't say I tend to stick to one manufacturer. I am a big believer in the fact that there is a correct machine for every job. Some manufacturers have better machinery specialising in certain jobs than others, and you have to pick the right machine for the right job.
Are there any new pieces of kit that have significantly helped to improve your playing surfaces?
I think realistically it is a balance of having the right machinery in the right place at the right time. I would say that the machine that truly made most difference to the surface, other than mowers, was our standalone sprayer.
Do you hire in machinery for specific tasks?
Very rarely. Buying machinery has almost become a part of my life, and I like to be able to buy any machine we are looking to use.
Who carries out your servicing?
I carry out my own servicing. Growing up around machinery, I learnt a lot about engines and mechanics from my father, and I spent many evenings in our home sheds rebuilding Ransomes Mastiffs, some of which I am still using to this day. This taught me so much about machinery, and I am fortunate enough to have brought that forward into maintaining my fleet of machines. I purchased Bernhard cylinder grinders to keep my mowers in tip top shape at all times, and will fix virtually all problems myself.
What would your wish list include?
I think my main wish list for the club includes the new Dennis 34" rotary mower, which would make a big difference to cleaning up after each game ... I can pray. For myself ... a loader tractor and topdresser would certainly not go amiss.
How do you undertake pest and weed control?
I spray for them myself.
Does your facility suffer from specific disease outbreaks?
Irregularly. Predominantly, we find red thread, though last year had a large outbreak of fusarium.
Are rabbits, badgers, foxes, geese, chafer grubs, worms etc. a problem?
Rabbits, foxes and worms are our main problems. The rabbits and foxes we are unable to do much about, but for the worms we are preparing to trial everything under the sun to find a successful treatment.
What would you consider to be the state of our industry?
I think we are in a tough spot. There is a lot of pressure for people to get the surfaces right, however there really isn't the recognition from the public of the amount of work that truly goes into maintaining pitches to such a level. Whether this is because of a lack of education from our groups or a general ignorance from the public I am unsure.
Are we undervalued?
I feel this is probably a fair question. There are so many people I know that work themselves silly to make sure that their pitches are in the condition the clubs want them to be in. And I don't think that people understand the pressures that can accompany maintaining these surfaces, especially at the highest level. You are at the mercy of the weather and sometimes there is very little you can do when it goes against you.
How would you raise our profile?
That's a tough question to answer… I think a lot of people still view groundsmen as a group of pipe-smoking lads who irregularly sit on a tractor towing a set of gangs and occasionally marking a white line, whereas a lot of the true groundsmen of today are intelligent, well-read and intuitive people who are genuinely trying to improve the standard of pitches.
Do you attend industry events?
I attend BTME and all other important dates in the calendar where possible.
What's in the shed?
The club owns:
Dennis G860, 8 blade cutting cassette and verticutter cassette
4" wheel to wheel marker
I supplement this with;
Dennis G860, 6 and 8 blade cutting cassettes
Dennis Premier 36"
Ransomes Mastiff 36"
Jacobsen Greens King V - 7 blade cylinders
Ransomes Bobcat banks mower
Hayter Harrier 56 rotary mower
Broyhill self-propelled sprayer (one of only 3 in the country)
New Holland TCE 50 tractor
Charterhouse Vertidrain 7316
Charterhouse Vertidrain 7521
John Deere 5090R
Koro Field Topmaker 2000
Vredo disc seeder