Today, the notion of joining the turfcare profession as a rank amateur, with little or no knowledge of the business or, indeed, any qualifications, seems absurd, especially so for someone turning to groundsmanship later in life. The increasingly scientific slant of the job these days largely rules out such an entry route.
Yet, for one groundsman, still as active as ever at one of the Armed Forces' key sportsgrounds, the route to taking up a head groundsman's position was surely one of the most unusual you're ever likely to encounter - one driven, however, by the kind of passion that characterises the sector.
RAF Vine Lane sits in the leafy West London suburb of Hillingdon; still a peaceful corner of England sited near the end of the Uxbridge branch of the Metropolitan Underground line.
The official home of the Royal Air Force Cricket Association (RAFCA) for nearly a century, the ground has witnessed noted servicemen from across the UK travelling to play at Vine Lane, which has remained pretty well unchanged throughout its history.
For generations, upkeep of this modest, five-acre site, with its charming period pavilion, has been a two-man task - one handling catering, the other managing the cricket square and its twelve wickets.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Doug New has looked after everything green at Vine Lane. At 73 years young, sprightly Doug is set to celebrate his 25th year at the club in a momentous year for sport - 2012.
Joining the profession in his middle years, Doug began from 'ground zero' via a steep learning curve that has seen him progress from a self-confessed rank amateur to seasoned professional.
For most of his life, turfcare played no part in a career that saw him start his working life in Fleet Street, the then hub of Britain's newspaper world. After leaving school at fifteen, Doug became an apprentice in the printing industry, working as a Linotype operator with The Daily Express and The Sunday Express, a position that required the compositional skills that marked the golden age of 'hot metal' and the printing press.
After completing National Service from 1958 to 1960, he returned to the newspaper world, where he stayed until the 1980s. "It was a unique system we had back then," says Doug, "and, looking back, working with a plate of hot molten lead would be unthinkable today," he adds, referring to the method of composing newspaper type as slugs or 'lines' of hot metal, which, when cooled, were assembled as a page of the paper into a metal frame, ready for the next stage of the print process.
"With the inevitable move from hot metal to computers in the late 1980s, I, and many others like me, were offered redundancy. I took mine in 1987, and exited from a business that had been my life for over twenty-five years," he continues.
His role at The Daily Express was a highly respected one: he was in charge of handling the wages, submitting them to management for agreement, and was head of the National Graphical Association, the union that represented Linotype operators and compositors.
After setting his last word in Fleet Street, Doug prepared to take his first steps into an industry he'd eyed for a while, but one that was a world away from the heat of newspaper production: "Shortly after taking redundancy, I started a small garden maintenance business. It was really just cutting lawns and a few plantings, but I enjoyed it immensely: it kept me busy, and allowed me to pursue something I had always wanted to," he explains.
Vine Lane first came into the picture after Doug struck up a friendship with then head groundsman, Bill Garner, whom he had met while walking the dog. Bill mentioned that his wife, who ran catering at Vine Lane, wanted to leave. Would Doug's wife Rose be interested in the post?
"Bill's wife, Lil, wanted to stop working and was keen for them both to retire, but Bill was determined to stay on until his replacement could be found. In the meantime, he needed help on the catering side of the club, so I sort of volunteered Rose for the job. I didn't have the courage to tell her at first, realising she had no knowledge of catering," Doug confides.
"The following year, Bill and his wife had found a new home and were preparing to leave, so completed the 1988 summer season and left in the August, still with the September fixtures left to play.
RAFCA was left in a position of having fixtures to fulfil but no one to maintain the square. Association member, Group Captain Maurice Short, approached Doug and asked him if he would maintain the grounds until they could find a suitable replacement.
"I never had a clue about groundsmanship, only good presentation, but I'm someone who always likes a challenge, so decided to take on the task."
Doug was happy to take the reins temporarily, yet ringing in his ears were the parting words of Bill, who insisted that he should not apply for the job permanently because of his lack of experience in turfcare.
"Bill thought it would be dangerous for me to work on the square with no knowledge, and I'd end up doing more harm than good. He also said that dealing with machinery was potentially hazardous. That said, I started my temporary role and, in only a short time, had received positive feedback from Maurice, who felt I had done a good job with the wickets."
Doug's 'greenness' on the square had shown through early on however. His son popped in one day, saw the square and gasped. 'Dad, what are you doing? You don't cut the wickets like that'. "I was striping them in the same way as I would my lawn. Paul, who is also a keen amateur groundsman, showed me the error of my ways," reveals Doug.
"As I said, I really had no idea what to do, but when you're learning on the job you realise fast what you should, and should not do. I had to learn very quickly in those early days."
With a little help from his family, the wickets started to improve - all the while Maurice Short was busy interviewing for a permanent groundsman, to no avail.
"Towards the end of my first month in charge, Maurice approached me and explained that, after fourteen interviews, he hadn't found anyone suitable. That was when he offered me the full-time post. Based on what Bill had warned me about, I refused immediately. But, Maurice was persistent and asked me to think it over for a fortnight before giving my answer."
Doug took up the gauntlet, joining formally in October 1988 to start a new career at the age of forty-nine. In spite of his age, Doug insisted that he should be given training opportunities and be allowed to carry on tending to some of his gardens. RAFCA duly obliged and whisked him off on two courses.
We all remember influential teachers in our life, yet for Doug, his mentors proved to be two neighbouring groundsmen, brothers Richard and Ian Ayling, who worked at Uxbridge Cricket Club.
"If I was to take the job, I had to produce a top quality wicket," recalls Doug. "I couldn't fail here, so was determined to gain as much quality support and knowledge from the right people. Ian and Richard acted as my guides and mentors for many years, and I owe them so much for what they taught me."
When Doug took over Vine Lane, the ground staged twenty-eight days of cricket. That has now risen to seventy days as the variety of club fixtures has increased dramatically from what was primarily RAF teams playing there.
The pavilion's long room upstairs pays homage to the decades of servicemen who have passed through the doors of Vine Lane to take the field. A scorecard from 1928 testifies to an inter-War fixture, whilst Ashes souvenir bats adorn the corners - just a few of the memorabilia that document the ground's rich sporting legacy. Doug lifts a framed picture taken in the 1940s of one of the RAF service teams. Seated front row, a familiar name springs out at me - Douglas Bader, the RAF fighter pilot ace who lost both his legs in a flying accident as a cadet, and who overcame almost insurmountable odds to resume what became a memorable flying career - one of Winston Churchill's 'The Few' who led squadrons in The Battle of Britain.
As the condition of the playing surfaces improved under Doug's care, so word about Vine Lane grew. Middlesex Seconds (and the occasional first team player), MCC young cricketers, the Combined Services, RAF ladies, RAF seniors, RAF Development and local side, Hillingdon Manor, all played there.
It's also home to the Adastrians - "once only the elite of the RAF were eligible to join," says Doug, "but, recently, it has been opened up to any RAF ranking as a way of building a foundation for RAF representative cricket."
"I met the Ayling brothers quite soon after landing the job, and they agreed to work with me in turning the square around, and putting in place the improvements that we felt were needed," Doug continues.
"I would manage the square how I thought best and they would check my work, which was sometimes met with a firm disapproval. The best way to learn fast in this game is to make mistakes. You soon learn what not to do next time and, as such, it makes you better at your job."
After only three years, the square and wickets had been brought to the standards that Doug, Ian and Richard wanted, without having to reconstruct any of the original strips.
"There was some talk of starting from scratch, but I rejected the suggestion," states Doug stoutly. "The wickets have never been reconstructed in our history, yet we showed that good could be made of them, and the results were clear with the number of sides that wanted to use our facility soon after. Today, they continue to get a good reaction from whoever plays here."
In Richard and Ian, Doug had found excellent teachers. Since the days helping Doug, they have both moved to pastures new - Richard is now Grounds Manager at Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood, Middlesex, whilst Ian is assistant head groundsman at Rugby Football Union headquarters, Twickenham.
Doug has continued his links with Uxbridge CC, after becoming friends with new head groundsman, Vic Demain, who was to become another important role model in his development.
In his twenty-five years at RAF Vine Lane, Doug admits that little has changed in his approach to regular maintenance: the tried and trusted methods still work today, he insists.
Built over cement ballast, the ground enjoys free-draining. The square has not undergone any major works in Doug's time - only a reworking of the outer two wickets to accommodate women's cricket, he says.
On the day I visited Vine Lane, Doug had just finished overseeding the outfield (a job he plans in once every five years) with eleven bags of bents and fescues mix. He never feeds the outfield, he says.
Ryegrass is reserved for the square, as is the Surrey loam he applies. Fencing was lying close by, ready for Doug to erect around the perimeter. "Foxes are a real problem."
With a small budget and an extremely modest maintenance fleet, Doug prefers to hire equipment to complete most of his end-of-season renovation work, although he falls back on some ageing, though still handsome, stalwarts to see him through the other maintenance tasks.
Once more in reflective mood, he adds: "The great thing about this industry is that there's always people willing to help you out, give advice, and pass on their knowledge to make your job easier. I've been jolly lucky in my career to have met some truly talented groundsmen, who have made me the professional I am today."
"My renovation regime is simple but effective," he explains. "I cut, scarify, sweep, soak, seed and topdress, applying a pre-seed fertiliser to the square. Nothing on the outfield. Job done, ready for the next season. Fortunately, we have few problems with disease - a little fusarium, which I treat with Daconil."
The RAF decorates its flying heroes (the RAFCA Presidents board above the catering counter in the pavilion is sprinkled with names sporting a string of honours), but has also chosen to commemorate the distinguished endeavours of one of its ground 'crew'.
As a tribute to his achievement in transforming Vine Lane's playing surfaces, Doug was awarded a Commendation in September 2007 by the Royal Air Force for his "meritorious service".
"The RAF awards only a few Commendations a year," says Doug proudly. "It's only one notch below an MBE, I'm told."
Few groundsmen can lay claim to such an achievement, especially one who had come so late to the industry, yet Doug knows what a major part a strong support base has played in his development. "If I didn't have such a supportive wife, I simply wouldn't have taken the job in the first place. This, coupled with the great mentors I've had over the years, has allowed me to create what we have here now. It's been an obsession for me since I started. I'm constantly trying to improve the ground."
Doug is quick to praise the efforts of his current bosses, Group Captain Ian Atkinson and Air Commodore Barry Boggitt, striving to meet his requests for resources at Vine Lane. "They are excellent to work for," says Doug, "and always try to come up with the goods when I've asked for something." Recently, the period pavilion was in need of additions and refurbishment, and, said Doug, "it was through Ian's negotiations with Serco that he was able to secure the necessary work, which included a new ceiling, fire escape system with lights and alarms, and for the ground, sheets for the roll-ons, plus the whole refurbishment of the balcony."
To say Doug's maintenance fleet is modest is perhaps to understate the case. Minimal would more accurately describe the extent of it. His "antique" entourage includes a Kubota mini tractor, Allett wicket mower, Pattison scarifier, and a two-tonne, four-foot Auto Roller, now entering it's 50th year, and Vine Lane's longest serving member, although Doug bought it second hand.
"They're all antique pieces, but have served me well," he remarks fondly. "I've had a few problems with the roller lately, the gearbox has stopped working and there's no clutch adjustment, which can be a real headache at my age.
"The current Briggs & Stratton engine replaced an Ayling & Barford one, which I had to crank into life. The shaft kicked back on one occasion and broke my right thumb - very painful."
Still nimble on his pins - "I had a hip replacement two years ago: it worked wonders" - Doug is eager to oblige my every request for assistance, which only serves to evoke an era of courtesy and manners some say has long since disappeared.
His manner and bearing bring to mind the RAF motto, inscribed on its insignia - 'per ardua ad astra', which, loosely translated, means 'through adversity to the stars'.
With his meagre budget to purchase new, and with no help from an assistant to call on, Doug has become a master of making the best of what he has. "Modifications to the roller alone would cost us upwards of £7,500, money that we just don't have. Budgets have been cut in the RAF like all the Armed Forces, but I hope Vine Lane will survive. After all, it's the centre for RAF cricket."
Despite the long list of notable service and ex-servicemen who have enjoyed cricket at Vine Lane, I'm shocked to discover that the ground received its first bequest only this year. "A sum of £30,000 was donated by Old Adastrian, John Buckley. We put it to good use with the purchase of new sightscreens and electronic scoreboard," Doug reports.
As his 25th year beckons, Doug hopes he can pass on his knowledge to someone who can take over, what he sees as, the privileged responsibility of maintaining Vine Lane. His son, who first helped him establish solid foundations a generation ago, might just be the one to succeed him.
A pilot qualified to fly in the USA, but not in the UK yet, his son has long held a love of groundsmanship and may well apply for the role if Vine Lane's long-term future is secure, says Doug.
"I'd love him to take over after me. I've been here a long time and never stopped learning, but there comes a time when you have to call it a day. I just hope that I'll be able to impart my knowledge on to the next generation, like my mentors did for me when I first started."