Pete Marron is off on one before we even sit down for our 'formal' interview. "There's a guy I know down the road who runs this junior football side called Broadheath. Every weekend he must have 150 kids playing football on park pitches - they are basically dog tracks! If he had a decent place to go, how many more kids could he keep of the streets?"
Pete, in his soft Lancashire accent, is having a bit of rant about the state of public parks, coupled with the high class facilities at private schools that could be better utilised.
"This bloke has to go and beg and borrow to get money, yet private schools, where money is no object, provide high spec pitches that could be used by these kids. We have a few lads who come and play on my pitches for a kick-about. The members told me to kick them off, but they are not bad lads, and I told them that, as long as they didn't do any damage, they were welcome to use them. They've been good as gold."
"My general view is, give clubs and schools the money to put their pitches right and let the general public use them. I listened to FA Chairman, David Bernstein, going on about lack of facilities and I thought, you're doing it all wrong. Councils will not spend money on pitches. They've got no money. Get the kids playing on decent surfaces, get them off the streets, tackle obesity and antisocial behaviour. Start building from the bottom. Put a politician in front of me and I'll tell him where he's going wrong!"
"When I was growing up, all the kids used to know the two council groundsmen that looked after our local pitch. They were part of our community. Now, you'll get some bloke turn up, occasionally, with a set of gang mowers to top the grass and burn in lines, and that's it. There's no sense of community."
"And there's no interest in cricket. It's too time consuming and expensive to prepare correctly. And there's bikes, horses and dogs running all over the place. That's why I allow the local schools to use the wickets here [more of 'here' later]. They won't play on much better wickets outside Old Trafford. What a start for them; that's how to bring on the cricketers of the future. It seems common sense to me"
As you might have gathered, Pete Marron has some strong views and, coupled with his passion for grass, would make an ideal candidate to help improve the state of the UK's pitches. I suggest that he, and some other recent high profile 'retirees', could be utilised by the ECB and other governing bodies to act as consultants. "I doubt that the ECB would want me, or Frosty [Phil Frost, ex Taunton Head Groundsman], because we are too, how shall I say, forthright in our opinions, but I could see Bill Gordon doing it, and maybe Steve Rouse, although I think he's done with cricket."
After ten minutes, and having made his point succinctly, Pete is ready to talk about life after Old Trafford. He is now the groundsman at The Bowdon Club, which caters for cricket, hockey and squash, and now football, as I am soon to discover. The facilities include two synthetic pitches, four squash courts and the cricket oval. In addition, he looks after Altrincham Grammar School for Boys and Bowdon Grammar School for Boys.
"I look after more acreage on my own now than I did at Old Trafford with three staff," he muses. "Some people would say this is a step backwards, but I thoroughly enjoy being hands-on again. At Old Trafford I was just a manager. I've learned to mark out an athletics track, which I never knew, as well as preparing rugby and football pitches; there's a lot more going on."
"Management has gone out of me. I don't want to look after people anymore, or talk about budgets but, if you give me a ground and say, 'bring this back up to standard', I'd jump at the chance. That's what I'm doing now. I'd work for anyone, I just don't want to be a manager again. I'm past that."
I ask whether the ECB directives put too much constraints on groundsmen? "Let's face it," says Pete. "We are a nation of reporters. We'll prepare a report on anything, given the chance. Where cricket is concerned, I think the 'goalposts' have been moved too many times over the years. In the end, I just kept my head down and did what I thought was best. I was usually right. Of course, I made mistakes, we all do, but that's how we learn; as long as we don't make the same mistake twice."
Pete remembers how, when he took over at Old Trafford, the pitches were marked by the captains. "That was complete nonsense," he suggests, "because, if the captain had a bad day, his marking would reflect his mood. Now, they are marked by the umpires. The majority of them have played the game to a high level, so have an understanding of what is required. I found that most of them would come and talk to me about the wicket and discuss why they were going to give a particular mark."
"At league level, it's a waste of time, in my opinion. I had one umpire who, when I told him I was digging up some of the wickets, said that he couldn't see the point. In truth, most of them at league level are more concerned about how it looks than how it plays. They just want to see green grass!"
"They are obsessed with marking. I know one contractor who was told by the club he was looking after that, if they ever finished in the bottom half of the markings, he would be thrown out. Who would work under those conditions? So, he quit the contract."
"I recall one time when Essex were docked twenty-five points for a poor pitch at their outground in Southend. It cost them the county championship that year and, yet, the Essex groundsman at the time had no say over that pitch whatsoever. The board told him that he was responsible for overseeing the ground but, in truth, the Southend groundsman wouldn't let the county groundstaff anywhere near his square! I felt that was very unfair."
"We didn't get enough time between games to prepare wickets. For example, we might have had a Test match, followed almost immediately by a county championship game. How could we do final preparation for the championship wicket when there was another game going on? Umpires marks on the championship track didn't take that into consideration."
Having been in the media spotlight for a good number of years, Pete has had his fair share of 'comment' about his wickets. "All the pundits have played at the highest level, so they do, in the main, know what they are talking about. Boycs [Geoff Boycott] is always straight talking. He'd tell you anything about anything! But, I did get on well with him."
"To be fair, groundsmen don't always read wickets correctly. There were a number of times a wicket would surprise me by how it behaved! At the end of the day, I was always treated fairly. You have to take the rough with the smooth but, in general, my pitches attracted good comments."
"I do think that a programme explaining what we do would make good TV. When the general public see cracks, they just think the wicket is going to fall apart! Harry Brind and I discussed this some while ago, and suggested to Sky Sports that they should explain, with our assistance, how a wicket is prepared, and how and why every ground is different. A half hour slot before each Test match would be good viewing in my opinion, and help educate the public. It never happened."
"There's been some talk about 'doctored' pitches. Before the rules were changed, that did use to happen a bit. I had one coach who wanted the track prepared to suit his bowling attack. I obliged, of course, but it backfired, and we lost the game. On the flip side, another coach just used to say 'prepare me the best wicket you can and we'll bat on it'. He was an Australian, and the difference in mindset was quite surprising. Viv Richards never used to look at a pitch before the toss. His attitude was, 'I've got batters, I've got bowlers, so it doesn't really matter'. That's very old school, I guess. Now, we even have physios who look at the pitch and decide what it is going to do!"
Working hours are a bone of contention with some cricket groundsmen, what's Pete's view? "We all come into this industry knowing what the working hours are. When I first joined, my contract stated 'dawn to dusk' but, with the introduction of day/night cricket, that obviously went out the window, even though my contract probably still stated it when I left Old Trafford! I was a strong believer that, if the lads put in the hours during the season, then they would be rewarded in the winter. Don't come into this line of work if you think it is going to be eight 'til five."
"In the old days, during the winter the groundstaff would be painting fences, decorating the changing rooms and even knocking down stands! Now, most grounds have their own maintenance teams and, given the additional summer hours worked, a degree of flexibility in the winter is a good thing."
With the loss of some high profile groundsmen in the past few years, is Pete worried about the lack of youngsters coming into the profession? "Interesting one," states Pete. "At Lancashire, I believe they did the right thing by promoting Matt [Merchant] to head groundsman. After all, he had worked under me for sixteen years, so was more than capable. You must promote from within, otherwise those lower down won't feel there is any possibility of career development. And, of course, it opens up a vacancy on the first rung of the ladder."
"Colleges have their place, but you can't beat learning the job on the ground. I used to work under Bert Flack, and he always said, 'you'll eventually get a feel for the ground. It will become second nature. You'll make mistakes, but learn from them.' I always say you can get your certificates, you can know the basics, now learn the job. I don't care who you are, I reckon it takes at least two years for a groundsman to understand a new square."
We return to the subject of league cricket - Bowdon play in division one of the Cheshire league. "I now prepare tracks for 55 overs-a-side games. The main requirement is a good track that provides even bounce and comes onto the bat nicely. These guys are not professionals and simply want an enjoyable day's cricket. I've got one track here that misbehaves a bit, with the occasional shooter. I'll get to the bottom of it in time."
"I don't know whether people expected me to arrive here with some magic dust. To be fair, the pitches were worse in the second year, but improved a bit last season. We've relaid three tracks and I expect to see improvements in the coming seasons. In fact, I expect them to end up like Old Trafford wickets, as I followed the same principles. We dug down a foot and rebuilt with Gostd loam from Surrey Loams. It's got a high clay content and will crack like canyons, but will settle down eventually. I want the best for the lads playing here."
"The square here is bigger than it needs to be, in my opinion. The 1st team will, eventually, play on the six central tracks, whilst the 2nds and 3rds will use the others further out. I also want the under 15s and 18s to play on the central tracks. If, as I expect, the new tracks are as good as a county wicket, that's exactly what they should be being brought up on. The tracks will take it."
"I've also been advising a few local groundsmen on relaying squares. They had seen it as a daunting task, and were considering hiring in a contractor to undertake the work. Once I had explained the processes, and offered myself as back-up, they were confident enough to have a go. At the end of the day, all it is is digging out to depth and filling it up again. I'm not suggesting that a contractor shouldn't be used if circumstances suit, but it's not as complicated as it might appear. If done correctly, it should be possible to get three or four games out of each track where, previously, they were only getting one. And there's the satisfaction of having done the job themselves."
Pete suggests a Blec Seeder, a Sisis Truspred and a good lute are 'must have' equipment for cricket groundsmen. "I thought there was too much equipment on the county trailers. The only thing I would hire in would be a tractor mounted scarifier for end of season work. I use a Toro triple for the outfield and a Paladin for the wickets. I love the Paladin, always have, although I recently bought a Dennis and was impressed with that too."
"I've been asked, a number of times, about glueing tracks. I've said all along that it is not for everybody. At Old Trafford, where the tracks were rock hard, it was a useful tool in my armoury, but it is not for league clubs; not unless they have concrete tracks, and very few do."
There is no magic formula. Every club will have different requirements, yet, the ECB sets out specific guidelines for those clubs to be able to receive funding. I don't think that's right. The ECB can give me a spec for my pitch, but whether I think it is good enough is up to me."
Having said that, the ECB funding streams appear to be pretty good. We've just had a four-lane net system installed with ECB funding. I would like to see some of their money put aside for funding machinery and tools for groundsmen though, and that principle applies across bowls, football and rugby. All the talk is good but, when it comes down to keeping pitches and greens going, they are completely off track."
Pete is now back on his favourite subject. "The governing bodies need to talk to us, we'll tell them where they are going wrong! Look, if the pitches at grassroots level are improved, for any sport, then those pitches will attract more teams and, therefore, more revenue for the club."
"I suggested to my committee that they should let our outfield be used for football during the winter. They were reluctant at first, but when I explained that any damage would be repairable, they agreed. So, now we have teams from the local prep schools using it. It has helped to increase the club's profits, and the young lads do very little damage to the surface. We had six games played on it in one day recently, without any ill effects."
And what of 3G artificial surfaces? "They have their place, certainly for football, but we took a some young lads to Italy recently for a rugby tour, and the burns the kids got on their skin were horrific! In the end, the referee had to tell the kids not to tackle each other hard, and put them down gently for risk of injury. That's not rugby anymore, is it!"
"You can water a grass pitch in summer but, if you water a 3G, it will dry out really quickly and become rock hard! I can see the financial benefits for lower league football clubs, and it's certainly the best it has ever been with regard to playability, but it's not for me! And, if you install a 3G, you can't play hockey on it."
As we round up the interview, I ask Pete who his favourite players have been. "My first year in charge here was when Ian Botham came to the fore. He was captain for a one-day game, and the weather was awful. I asked his opinion as to what to do, and he said call it off. I'm not sure if Manchester United playing at home had any bearing on his decision, but that's where he ended up. I had to back Ian up when my chairman begged to differ. He's a great bloke and still a great friend. Along with Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd, who was a great servant to Lancashire cricket, those were the players who, when they came to the crease, would empty the bars. Andrew Flintoff, in recent times, had the same effect."
"Bowling-wise, Michael Holding was a joy to watch. Richard Hadley was another."
And his favourite ground? "It has to be Lord's, it just oozes cricket. Abroad, I enjoyed talking to the groundsman at Christchurch, New Zealand about drop-in wickets, but my favourite would have to be the old Kennington Oval in Barbados, which had such a fabulous atmosphere. The groundsman, Beau, was a tiny little chap who used to mow the wicket with a rotary mower, damp it down in the morning and then spin the roller on it, then let the sun dry it bone hard! It was like a road. It would have been nice to have had sun at Old Trafford occasionally!"
I ask one final question - what advice would you give to cricket groundsmen? His answer was short, "Go into golf!"