Kidsgrove Athletic FC in Staffordshire currently play in the Northern Premier League Division One West. The club's award-winning groundsman/director is Ian Cooper of Coopers Pitch Care. Taking a well-earned break (at the pub he owns with the Chairman of Kidsgrove FC), Lee Williams met up with Ian to discuss how he juggles his time and how he built up his business, before moving on to look at the ground.
Ian Cooper still likes to describe himself as a groundsman first and foremost, even though much of his time can be taken up working on many other projects with the contracts side of the business. His love for the sportsturf industry started at the age of seven when he would follow his dad around with a child's mower at Hanley Town FC - where his dad was a volunteer groundsman and on the committee. "My dad would cut the pitch with a Ransomes hand crank mower. I got a real buzz when I followed him and I would also help put the divots back; more than likely, I was probably doing his head in, as it would take him twice as long to do the job."
For over twenty years, Ian carried out voluntary work at Hanley Town FC. He subsequently became a player, the manager and even the secretary, whilst still tending to the pitch in his spare time and putting endless hours in. When his dad was made redundant from Michelin Tyres, they saw the perfect opportunity to set up a groundcare business together. "My dad got another job at first working in a warehouse which he hated and I was fed up with working for NTL (now Virgin Media), so I suggested going into business together, which we did in 2004. We started out doing gardens and nursing homes and then a pitch maintenance contract became available at Northwood Stadium, where my best mate was the manager. The groundsman who worked for the council let him down before a big event, so he asked me to come in and carry out the work. When the manager came in, he said the council had done a great job this week and that is how we got our first contract."
"We had no actual budget to work with at Northwood and the pitch we inherited was shocking. So, there was no money for renovations, topdressing or fertiliser applications. If I'm being honest, we made our own feed from nettles we brewed in the boiler house, which sent an unpleasant smell throughout the building. Once we were happy, we would drain it using a filter and spray it onto the pitch; it worked a treat. The colour we got was unbelievable, but I wouldn't recommend doing it as it stung badly."
Word started to get around about how good the pitch was playing and looking; it went from the worst pitch in the city to having Port Vale Academy play their games there (which they still do today). "Other clubs started to contact me; one of them being Mick Fitzjohn, the Chairman of Kidsgrove Athletic FC. He kept badgering me to go up to Kidsgrove, but I told him I wasn't really bothered about being associated with a club on a volunteer basis, as I had just given up Hanley Town; it had become a job rather than a hobby. As part of my work, I also had the maintenance contract at Abbey United's pitch and Kidsgrove played them in a friendly. Whilst at the club, I bumped into the Kidsgrove manager Pete Ward (who I knew from my young Hanley Town days) and their chairman and long term friend, Mick Fitzjohn who told me they had a big FA Cup match against Boston at home and they would be grateful if I prepare the pitch for them."
"I thought to myself that they had no chance of winning that game, so I told Mick and Wardy that I would do the pitch for free until they got knocked out of the competition; the deal was done and I fully expected to be there for one match. They got through and made it to the fourth qualifying round, so I ended up there for a few months and then I decided to see the season out."
At the end of that season, Mick stepped down as Chairman to focus on business and Wardy moved to Leek Town FC, where again he was asked to work miracles on their pitch. "The pitch was shocking - a good summer pitch, but come October it was horrendous, with no drainage sitting below the water table. It was so bad that, even though they were the best side, they probably should have been kicked out of the league for the state of it.
After every game, myself and my dad (who was semi-retired by then) would apply five tonnes of sand in some areas of the pitch that were just mud. We tried all kinds of aeration equipment to help the drainage but, literally, nothing helped. I will never forget when we hosted both Scarborough and Market Drayton over Christmas (within the space of two days); how we managed to play those games I will never know? Just as I left to come back to Kidsgrove (with Mick and I as Director and part owner), they got a grant and replaced the pitch."
Ian admits it can be difficult juggling his time between the club, which is his passion, the maintenance contracts and the pub - which him and his wife Janet opened in April with Mick Fitzjohn and his wife Donna. He also tells me it has become much more difficult around the area of Stoke on Trent to make the business work, as there is very little money around and you are constantly being undercut. "In the past, we could charge about £400 to Verti-Drain or Shockwave a pitch, but now people are doing it for around £200. The cost of the machinery and tines are not cheap and it's hard to cover expenses at those prices. Within an hour, these companies have undertaken the cheap equivalent of deep aeration - where it will take me over four hours to do it properly, reaching depths of ten inches."
Ian enlisted the help of Chris Peat two years ago, who is a life long fan of Kidsgrove Athletic and would often volunteer to work on the pitch on matchdays. "Since working with me on the pitch, he has become obsessed with groundsmanship, which I told him would happen."
We turned our attention to Kidsgrove, which was formed in December 1952. The team, nicknamed "The Grove", play their home games at Hollinwood Road, Clough Hall. Ian has tended to the pitch for the last seven years and dedicates a lot of his time and own money. I started by asking him how the pitch is constructed? "At the back of one goal is an old pit face, so basically, it is all pit waste underneath the pitch. It is absolutely awful and there are no visible drains underneath, although we did find a drain last summer when we were working on a bad area. Previously, someone had put in an excellent significant drain, but then covered it up with debris so it wouldn't work. Having discovered it, we knew we had to make the most of it, so we dug out the debris, replaced it with pea gravel and topped it off with sand. The pitch is on a natural slope which helps it dry out after heavy rainfall."
"In 2015, I brought in Greener Grounds from Liverpool with their Air2G2 to help alleviate some of the compaction deep in the profile. It did a fantastic job and allowed the water to pass through the pitch much quicker. Since then, I have gone over with the Verti-Drain and Earthquake machines as much as possible."
Ian tells me all the work he had previously carried out on the pitch had been undone when he went back and the pitch resembled a cabbage patch. "I had worked hard on removing the weeds and I would cut using a cylinder mower as often as possible, to help encourage the ryegrass sward to fill in. I heard the new chairman would cut with a Flymo and never collect the grass, which encouraged the weeds to come back."
"It was a matter of getting back to basics. I sprayed the weeds with a selective to kill them off, applied one hundred tonnes of sand, verti-drained, overseeded and applied a pre-seed fertiliser. Then followed the most straightforward maintenance requirements, alongside a structured verti-drain programme. Our efforts paid off as, two years ago, we got to the final of the Pitch of the Year for the Northern Premier Division, which Trafford won. It was an outstanding achievement, considering the pitch has no real drainage system to speak of and we certainly don't have all the kit we need; most of it is mine."
This year, Covid-19 has proved to be a challenge for both Ian and the club, especially when it comes to the renovation and maintenance of the pitch. "Unfortunately, with not knowing what was going on with the pandemic and the budget, it will be the first year we are unable to carry out a decent renovation. I now have both a groundsman's hat on as well as a director's hat; I want eighty-tonne of sand and everything else that comes with it, but my director's head says we have bills to pay. Therefore, all I can do is concentrate on getting air into the pitch and let nature do the rest."
Ian is hopeful that, throughout the remainder of this year, football will be played at all levels without any disturbances and he will be able to welcome crowds back into the stadium. He told me he could not wait to get back to the normality of maintaining and preparing the pitch for the players each week, even though it's hard work at times. "We cut the pitch three times a week with an old Dennis Premier, which is on its last legs and we are looking to replace it this year. During summer, the height of the cut is 25mm and then, in winter, I lift it to 28mm to help protect the turf. Generally, by Friday, I have the pitch all prepped and ready to go for the game on a Saturday; if the weather is nice we may give it a cut in the morning. After the game, if we have the time; we will give it a brush, then use the rotaries to pick up the debris and divot. This brings us back to square one, ready for the game on a Sunday. It is demanding fitting all the work in that needs to be done on this pitch as well as doing my day job. We can have up to four games a week being played on the pitch; the season before last, we had a total of eighty-eight home games."
Andy Jackson, the Grounds Manager at Stoke City, will visit the ground once or twice a year to advise Ian on ways to improve the playing surface. "He will recommend what fertilisers we should be using within the budget I have available. We always apply a conventional granular fertiliser in both the winter and summer. Then, I will bring in Pete Jones of P2 Services to spray a liquid feed alongside ICL's Primo Maxx to help tiller out the turf and reduce the amount of growth, which helps reduce the amount of time we need to cut the pitch. Andy has started to use more organic-based fertilisers at Stoke and he has advised that I should consider doing the same, but when I look at the price, it is not something I can afford to do - as much as I would like to give it a go. Steve Speed from Port Vale is also always only a phone call away and his advice and knowledge is invaluable."
The local council has just been handed a £16.9m regeneration boost. Amongst other projects, the Kidsgrove's Town Deal will be used to refurbish the town's mothballed sports centre. Ian hopes to speak to the local councillor soon to see if funds will be available to help the club. "I would hope that, as the local football club and the work we do with the local community, they could help us replace our floodlights and improve the pitch. We have never asked the council for anything and it would be great if we could replace it or at least Koro it off and install a proper drainage system … fingers crossed."