Vicarage Road has been the home of Watford since 1922. In addition, the stadium was also home to Wealdstone FC between 1991 and 1993, and to rugby union side Saracens from 1997 until they moved to their new home at Allianz Park in February 2013. It is an all-seater stadium with a current capacity of 20,900 following the completion of the new Sir Elton John Stand in 2014, expansion work in 2015 and again throughout 2016 and 2017. It is here Lee Williams met with Scott Tingley, the club's Head Groundsman.
On a sunny day in Watford, I sat down with Scott Tingley in one of the stands overlooking the recently renovated pitch to talk about the challenges he has faced since joining Watford, and the future for him and the club.
Scott first got a taste for working in the sports turf through his dad. "He was head groundsman at Wembley, so I think I was always destined to it. I wasn't the greatest at school and working in an office never appealed to me, so I guess I leaned on my dad a little bit; I just thought it made sense."
"Straight from school, at fifteen years old, I started working for my dad's contracting firm, where I helped with various pitch construction jobs. A position then came up at Chelsea. My dad just happened to be working there that day, when Jason Griffin suddenly turned around to him and said; 'I'm looking for a new groundsman, do you know of anybody?' A few months later I started at Chelsea, which was a stroke of luck on two counts; one because, well, it was Chelsea, and two, because it was approaching winter when the work slowed down, and dad was probably going have to let me go anyway!"
"I was at Chelsea for six years where I went through an apprenticeship, and also took my NVQ Level 2 & 3 in sports turf. In May 2009, I went to Arsenal working under Steve Braddock. Whilst there, I did my spraying certificates and I progressed to a more senior role where I would manage projects throughout the day with a team of three to four groundsmen, set up on renovations, construction or general maintenance and make sure the work got done. After seven years at Arsenal, I came to Watford after Paul Burgess was brought in on a consultancy basis. Paul was asked about me by the club and approved of my appointment."
I started at Watford in February 2016 and, for one reason or another, the pitch wasn't great, and they had turfed over the Desso! So, at the end of the season, the turf was removed and we went back to Desso. The first few months where definitely a baptism of fire and the only way was going to be up."
Scott's inspiration and love of turf hasn't just come from his dad's influence. "My initial interest comes from my dad but, in terms of inspiration, it is definitely Steve Braddock. The guy is unbelievable; he just has a relentless nature to want to improve. I have never seen anybody work as hard as him. When I say this, you have some people who are there to dig holes and people who are there to cut grass and stuff, but he will do anything and get stuck in. There are not many head groundsmen you will see washing their own machines down at the end of the day, and they are spotless; it's almost like he went over them with a toothbrush. He is just so exact about what he does. But it's one of the things you don't understand and get that full respect for him until you leave. You then realise, on a daily basis, that you are doing all those things he taught you."
Since Scott first joined the club, he has been responsible for his budgets each season. "Our budget has not changed for a few years, but we have managed pretty well with what we are allocated. Anything extra is a capital expenditure purchase and I will put across a business case to justify my reasons."
"Since I have been here, we have been quite progressive. When I first came here, we had no machinery and, on my first day, I had to buy two Hayter Harriers as they were the only thing I could get to get the pitch cut, which sounds crazy at a Premier League club, but that was where it was at. I was allowed to go and buy whatever I wanted. The club basically said to me whatever you need just go and get it, we want to try and give you the best opportunity we can to help you succeed with the pitch. It was great; I got to handpick everything. So, straightaway, we got a Toro ProCore, Dennis G860s and Dennis Premiers and we built up from there. The year after, we bought a tractor to give us more flexibility."
Left to right: Bradley White (recently moved to Brighton and Hove Albion), Cameron Hutcheon, Gregg Noakes (The Premier League), Scott Tingley, Harry Volland Butler and Marcus Lilley
Scott and his team won the Premier League Pitch of the Year award for the 2017/2018 season, which is a significant achievement, given what had gone before. I asked how he felt when it was announced. "The awards don't really mean a great deal to me; I come to work to produce a good pitch and the pride element comes on matchday when all the hard work pays off. Even though we won, it's not the be all and end all. You can't get carried away by it or you would end up winning none of them. Winning was great for us, knowing where we had come from which, in theory, was the worst pitch in the Premier League to, within two seasons, being named the best pitch in the league. It was a testimony to how hard the lads had worked, the planning and the hours I put into it myself, and the investment the club made in us. It was something the whole club could be proud of."
Scott has four additional members of the team: Cameron Hutcheon, Deputy Head Groundsman - NVQ Level 2 and 3 plus spraying qualifications (3 years and 2 months served); Marcus Lilley, Groundsman - NVQ Level 2 and 3 (3 years and 2 months); Harry Volland-Butler, Groundsman - NVQ Level 2 (2 years and 8 months); and Conor Liddell, Groundsman - currently studying NVQ Level 2 (10 months).
The stadium is a Desso, which was reconstructed in 2012, and is the club's second Desso pitch. The original was one of the first Desso pitches constructed at the time. The original irrigation system, fitted in 2012 with Rain Bird heads, has been changed this summer to Toro Infinity around the perimeter of the pitch, with Hunter I80s in the middle. Scott tells me this will give him extra flexibility in terms of being able to water under the lighting rigs due to the trajectory adjustment, enabling him to be more accurate. This, he believes, will help the team maintain the pitch to an even higher standard. They now also have undersoil heating and the addition of six SGL MU360 lighting rigs, two SGL MU50s and an SGL IQ55, which they bought this year after successful trials.
Scott uses Mallinson's for his end of season renovation work. "We only use a contractor for the initial part of renovations. They strip the pitch off with a spiral rake and topdress for us. The reason they do the topdressing is due to the bulk of sand. I have toyed with us putting the sand down, but it makes sense for them to do it as they are in and out within two to three days. After they have applied the topdressing, we do everything else; working in the topdressing, the verti-draining, procoring, ameliorating any nutrients and correctives we are putting down and overseeding."
Whilst at the ground, I noticed a lot of building work taking place and work being carried out around the pitch. I asked Scott if this had affected his preparations for the new season ahead. "Yes, it's provided something of a challenge to get the pitch renovated and ready for the season. Access is quite difficult; my staff are having to wear hard hats and hi-vis vests to move around the site. It's not been easy thus far, and I don't anticipate it getting any easier before the season starts. We are currently having artificial surfaces installed; one side of the pitch will have a rubber crumb infill where the players will warm up, with a non-fill on the other side. We have moved all of the irrigation boxes to suit and moved sprinklers forward to keep them away from the digital advertising boards."
Scott talks me through the general maintenance of the pitch once the season starts. "We cut at 22mm all the way through the season using the Infinicut mowers, which some will say is quite short, but it was something that started with Marco Silva; he wanted a quick passing surface. When the new manager, Javi Gracia, came in last season, we had a discussion and it was decided he wanted everything kept the same."
SGL lighting rigs
"I like to ProCore every two weeks with 8mm tines at a depth of 4 inches, then deep aerate with the verti-drain. We will use the verti-cut units in the Dennis G860s, almost once a week to groom through it, and we use the Dennis rake cassettes as well, which we use for the same sort of process but tend to go in a few directions on a lighter setting. They don't take as much material out. Between each game, we will also use the Campey UniRake - all the way through the season if we can.
If the weather doesn't allow us to in the winter, we will go to a stiff brush and pick up the debris using the Honda rotaries; it's just a matter of picking and choosing your moments. We use a SISIS Variseeder to overseed the pitch, which is set up to put just two bags of seed over the whole pitch. We do this once a month from the start of the season. To help us with germination through the winter, we will run the undersoil heating on auto so the soil temperature never drops below ten degrees and, as soon as we start to get constant temperatures again in the soil, it will be turned off."
Scott puts his own fertiliser programmes together and doesn't solely rely on soil samples when making decisions on inputs. "With a sandy rootzone, we are always having to apply granular fertilisers. When I first came here, we were doing about 35g/m2 per month. Now we are up towards 45-50g/m2, but we use low analysis nitrogen feeds and just drip feed them on regularly with liquids in-between. I never used to take soil samples because we would find that, once we got them back, we would have applied something else anyway. So we now do them quarterly to make sure we are on the right track. You can do leaf tissue analysis and other tests, but they are just giving you a snapshot of that moment in time. I don't like being too reactive to soil samples.
I think a lot of the time you can look at it and think we are deficient in calcium, potassium, magnesium and organic material, but you are always going to be as they are the hardest elements to keep in a sand-based Desso pitch. I believe as long as you are keeping your eye on it and not getting any major peaks and troughs that's fine, but obviously the more balanced you can keep it the better. I have written the fertiliser programme for the pitch each year, which is now built upon the previous year's results, so I now have a good idea what the pitch needs, when it needs it, and we can be reactive from there."
Scott uses a fungicide programme to control disease throughout the season but tells me the pitch suffers mainly with brown patch in the summer months. "My understanding of brown patch is that, once you get it, you are always susceptible to it, until you change your pitch out. I think we suffer more with it because of the heat and humidity. I put it down to the pitch spending most of its time in the sun, so it's the heat stress that allows it to come on.
We used Instrata Elite as a preventative last year. Then, depending on the disease, we went with Banner Maxx (now discontinued) and Medallion, depending on the temperatures."
"Fungicides are available, so we are using them, but we are also looking at other ways in terms of correct maintenance, aeration, regular verti-cuts etc. We are big on surface hygiene, so providing the right nutrient balance is just a matter of finding different ways to control disease. It is an objective we have set ourselves for this year, both in the stadium and at the training ground."
Sir Elton John Stand
This year, Scott is in the process of putting a scheduled replacement plan in place for machinery. "To date, we have bought everything outright, but a replacement plan will safeguard both myself and the club so that we know what the outgoings are each season, plus they will be aware when machinery is up for replacement."
"We have had so much to deal with here and so much to plan since I came in, but we are now at a point where we can look at other things and implement new ideas."
What's in the shed
Toro ProCore 648
Kubota STW40 tractor
Team Vixen Sprayer
Dennis G860 cylinder mowers with 8 blade cassettes, verti cut and rake cassettes x 2
Infinicut 34" cylinder mowers x 3
Honda HRH536 rotary mowers x 4
Pitchmark hybrid line marker
Scotts (ICL) SR2000 rotary spreaders x 2
Campey zigzag brush
Sisis Variseeder 1300
SGL MU360 lighting rigs x 6
SGL MU50 lighting rigs x 2
SGL IQ55 lighting rig