Mansfield Town Football Club was formed in 1897 and, since the end of the First World War, have played their football at the 9,186 capacity One Call Stadium. Nicknamed 'The Stags' (after the old borough's coat of arms) the team compete in League Two of the English Football League and, at the time of writing, were languishing close to the relegation zone. However, as any good manager will tell you, there's plenty of time to go and the club remain hopeful of retaining their league status. Lee Williams caught up with Head Groundsman Michael Merriman over the phone to chart his twenty-two years' service.
After leaving school, Michael Merriman undertook a two-year youth training scheme in construction but, when the bottom fell out of the industry and no houses were being built, he had to find another career path. "I took up painting and decorating, which lasted just six months after I found out I was not a fan of the double ladders when working on the gable end of a house in 80mph winds! I knew there and then that it wasn't the job for me. I then went to Metal Box, making biscuit tins for Marks & Spencer and Glenfiddich, but that was only a temporary position.
I then got a job at Simpson Wright & Lowe Ltd packing tights on nights for Marks & Spencer. It was good money to be fair, but the company moved its business abroad as the labour was cheaper, leaving me to go and sign on. I saw an advert for football coaching and I thought, I play a bit of football, I will see what it is all about. The position was with Football in the Community at Mansfield Town. I had been doing that for a year and a half when the club took on Rob Sprigg as their new head groundsman and my name was put forward by the community coaches to be his assistant. I started with Rob on £70 a week. Back then, it was just a matter of cutting and divoting the main pitch, and the training pitch at the back of the ground, as we had very little money for feed etc."
In the days when Michael first started his career in groundsmanship, the team would get changed in the home team dressing room for daily training. "One of my jobs was to fill up the big bath as there were no showers. Once the players had spruced themselves up and left for the day, I had to empty it and scrub it out for the next day; and that is how my journey at the club started! I was with Rob for seven years then, when he left, the chairman at the time gave me the Head Groundsman job, which I have now been in for the last fifteen years."
In my days at Oldham Athletic, I would often see Michael and have a chat in the tunnel about his turf, but also see him setting out the kit for the players. I asked him how he ended up taking on the kit man's role as well as being the head groundsman. "At about the same time I was assistant, names and numbers on the back of the players shirts came in, and there was a meeting at the club between the managers about who would be responsible for the kit, and basically they decided between them that I was to be the kit man. Back then, I did not travel. I packed the kit ready for them to take to away games and the physio would put it out once they'd got to the ground. Eventually, I ended up travelling with the team to away games, but this came to an end three seasons ago when Steve Evans became manager. He wanted me to look after the grass full-time, so my son Scott, who works with me on the grounds, became kit man full-time. It made a lot of sense as, if anything was wrong with the pitches, I was there to sort it out, and vice versa with Scott and the kit. Plus, it got me out of travelling around the country which I'd had enough of at the time, especially when I had to be back on the pitches first thing in the morning."
Things have changed again this season, and Scott is now back on the grounds full-time alongside his dad and James (Jimmy) Gillet.
Michael works closely with Mark Robinson from Rigby Taylor when looking at the agronomy of the pitches and their fertiliser requirements. "He has been a massive help to me since I became head groundsman fifteen years ago. I would also like to mention Mark Pearson from Lightwood Sports Groundcare Ltd. When the club dropped into the Conference, we did not have two pennies to rub together. I was stood on car park duty one day when we had the local kids' finals, and I was charging the parents a pound each to park, from which I made two hundred and fifty pounds. Mark came in scarified, reseeded and put some sand on the pitch for just those pound coins I had collected. So, after that, Mark has always done our renovations, but for a few more pound coins than we gave him the first time! He has been a godsend to me."
The stadium pitch underwent some improvements three years ago, when Steve Evans became manager. "I don't know how he managed to get it done but I was allowed to get in some Fibresand, which I had been after for ages. Obviously, it came at a cost - £70,000 in the end - and I was amazed that Steve had got that for me. So, we put 50mm of Fibresand concentrate on top of the existing 100mm of sand/soil already in the pitch. This was then ameliorated in and levelled. We also installed new drainage, which was put in every three yards across the pitch."
Michael tells me that the sizeable West Stand causes him a lot of problems with shade and frost in the winter months. "This time of year (November) I have no sun on the pitch whatsoever; I might get an hour if I'm fortunate. The shade caused by the stand takes out the whole of the pitch, which is far from ideal. We have a full set of frost covers to help get games on when frost is forecast and an SGL MU18 lighting rig which we use on the bottom goalmouth."
Michael talks me through the seasonal maintenance of the stadium pitch from cutting heights to aeration. "We have an Allett Buffalo and an Allett C34 which we use to cut the pitch in the summer months, cutting at the height of 22mm seven days a week, depending on the weather. Then, around November time, I will lift the height of cut to 25mm for winter, and I tend to cut the pitch three times a week. At least once a month, I go over the pitch with our Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain - with 22mm tines at a depth of seven inches - to help relieve compaction in the surface and to get some air down into the profile. I also borrow a Toro ProCore 640 from another local club when it's available to us."
Michael with Scott (middle) and James
"This year, I have made use of the verti-cut unit in the C34 and the Allett scarifier for the back of the tractor in the early season. We took four full trailer loads of organic matter and debris out of the pitch, and you would not even know we had done it as it was so thick the sward. We then gave the pitch a light verti-cut once a week up until recently to keep the surface clean. Three weeks ago, I overseeded the pitch with five bags of a ryegrass mix with the dimple seeder to help us get through the winter months.
The club buys their machinery outright, whether that be second-hand or new, when they require an upgrade or a replacement. PS Marsden in Nottingham carry out servicing and regrinds on the cutting machines. I asked Michael if he could buy any one machine right now to help improve the pitches, what would it be and why?
"A Toro ProCore 648, one thousand percent; it is an incredible piece of kit. It is light, fast, smooth and causes no real damage to the surface, even when it is wet. Let's say we had a bit of a damp patch the day before the game and again on the day of the game, you can quickly nip over with one of them, whereas you can't with the tractor mounted equivalent."
With the unprecedented times we are currently living in, I was interested to know how Michael had been affected. "At the start of lockdown, we were all furloughed for three months, and I was only working two days and quickly nipping over the main pitch. I am now back to full-time, but the lads are on thirty hours. It has been a nightmare trying to look after the training ground with its three full-size grass pitches, warm-up area and a full-size 3G, plus the stadium, with staff on reduced hours. It has tripled my workload. Groundsmen know how it works though. We get paid for forty hours, but end up working sixty as we end up doing stuff off our own bats, because we need to. We are managing to keep on top of things, but I could do with lads back full-time."
Covid has affected what Michael has been able to spend on pitch renovations as the club (like most others) finds itself struggling for income with fans still unable to attend matches. "We had no outside contractors come in this season to carry out a thorough renovation on the stadium pitch. I scarified and raked the pitch myself, then Ulyett Landscapes spread just twenty tonnes of sand on the top. The pitch is now starting to struggle, if I am honest with you. There are all kinds of grass species in there. It is horrible. All different colours; it is not a pretty sight. It had played pretty well up until one weekend recently when the pitch took a bit of a battering as we had a torrential downpour just before the game. This seems to be happening every single matchday for some reason."
With the introduction of a new CEO, Michael is hopeful that he will get the funds to carry out a full renovation before the start of next season. "David Sharp has recently joined the club from Wigan Athletic Football Club. He is Dave Whelan's grandson and is a proper football man. The first day I spoke to him he asked me if we had taken the top off the pitch. When I replied no, he said that is the minimum we should be doing, surely? That was refreshing to hear; someone who does not just see green grass and thinks everything is okay. I genuinely believe that, if David had come in a few months earlier, we might have found the funds to do a full renovation this season."
Michael believes pitches in all leagues have improved dramatically since he first started his career in the sports turf industry, but many groundsmen and women still do not get the praise they deserve. "Many people still think we just cut grass for a living, but if you look at the pitches from now to ten years ago, it is amazing how much they have come on.
Do not get me wrong; some of that comes down to machinery and other products that have come along to help us. But we still must use our brains to apply science and use our knowledge and experience to help provide these surfaces."
What's in the shed
Toro Reelmaster 5500D
Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain
Honda Pro rotary mowers x 3
Huxley triple mower