To get an idea of what the new normal is like working for a top Super League rugby club and the challenges a groundsman now faces getting a pitch ready for a COVID secure game, Lee Williams met up with the Warrington Wolves dedicated and long-serving head groundsman Melvin Jones who celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday in October.
It has been an extraordinary and challenging time for all rugby league clubs and groundsmen around the country this year. The Betfred Super League started with their season opener on the 30th January between Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves. This meant that, unlike football which was three quarters of the way through their season, rugby league clubs had only managed to play a handful of games before the coronavirus pandemic halted their season.
The Super League resumed on the 2nd August with the first three rounds of fixtures being played at the Emerald Headingley Stadium - the home of the Leeds Rhinos - behind closed doors. On the 29th and 30th August the tenth round of fixtures were to be played at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, the home of 'The Wire' (in reference to the wire-drawing industry in the town), which meant Mel had to prepare the pitch to cope with five matches over two days.
Mel talks me through what the situation was like when they were first told that no more rugby league games would be played for the foreseeable future. "Two things happened more or less straightaway. The squad had been playing and training leading up to lockdown. So immediately, this stopped the first-team training on the stadium pitch, which in a way was a positive as they train here a lot. Then the brakes were put on financially, and I had to work my way around having no fertiliser, seed etc. My assistant was furloughed, so this meant a lot of my plans had to be readjusted and re-thought through, because you cannot do what two can do on your own."
Mel was hoping to carry out a full pitch renovation on the pitch this year, but that will now have to be put on the back burner until next season. This, combined with the lack of funding, is causing him some real headaches. "I now have to rely on my instincts and the experiences I have picked up over the many years I have been in the industry. I have been here on my own working on the pitch, and there has been no one else in except for the stadium manager. I am glad of that in a way. The fact that I was kept on has meant I at least kept myself sane but, on the flip side, we are all very uncertain where we are going with it all."
The furlough scheme is due to end at the end of October, and Mel is worried what it will mean for the many staff and his assistant who work for the club who are still on the scheme. "I am unable to get a straight answer about when I will get my member of staff back. It is a worry for all sports clubs around the country, not just rugby league."
I asked Mel when he first heard that he was to hold round ten of the Super League season and what challenges he faced having to prepare the surface for five consecutive games over Saturday and Sunday? "The RFL was tinkering around with different formats, and I heard at the beginning of August of the finalised plans for the restart. I had managed to keep the pitch ticking over since March with minimal inputs of fertiliser, using what I could get my hands on and running the pitch lean. I had already started to bring the pitch back at the beginning of August when I was given the funds to get some fertiliser. It was at this point that I heard we would be holding the five games at the end of August."
"Working on my own, I have had to adapt the way I work by putting more hours in; starting earlier and finishing later."
The week leading up to the games seemed strange to Mel going from being on his own each day with not a soul in sight to a hive of activity around the pitch which meant extra work. "An example of this was we had the electronic signage being put in for the televised games. At the last moment, on the Friday night before the first game on Saturday, I had to alter all the pitch lines as the original markings did not give enough room for people to agree there was a three-metre gap between the touchline and the signs. So that meant both sides of the pitch and the dotted lines all had to be moved in and the original lines greened out. I have found that you have to give yourself that little bit of leeway for those incidents that crop up but again, with experience, you know how to work around those things."
Mel explains how the weekend went from starting early on a Saturday morning until the end late on Sunday night. "Until I arrived Saturday morning, I was unaware that I could not go on the pitch for three hours before the game. With the first game set to kick off at 1:00pm, that meant I had to be off the pitch by 9:30am, factoring in the warm-up period."
"It was hard work getting the pitch ready in a such short space of time as well as disinfecting all the posts, post pads and flags with Huwa San from Agrovista Amenity before and after the games. After the last game at 8:00pm, we had to prep ready for Sunday's games. Luckily, I had my assistant Adam Jackson, who came in on a volunteer basis, and my son Damien helped us out too as he understands you cannot let people go through this on their own. Sometimes, it gets too much with the physical expectations of the job, especially when you are getting older. We worked until 10:00pm that night with divoting, then Damien rolled each side of the lines whilst I followed behind double marking the lines back in."
"On Sunday morning, we arrived at the club at 6:00am and rolled all of the pitch as that was all it required. With three games being played, we were not able to do much in the way of maintenance on the pitch. It was a matter of getting the posts, post pads and flags disinfected and, no sooner had the Huwa San dried, they were back on the pitch. Apart from the long days away from home, and whether certain people appreciated the hard work that went in to get the games on, I was pleased with how everything went and how well the pitch played."
The next fixture at the Halliwell Jones Stadium was on the Friday 25th September against the Catalans Dragons, but this was supposed to be the second round of five games to be held at the club. Luckily for Mel, this was held at the Totally Wicked Stadium, the home of St Helens RFC. After this set of games were played, the schedule went back to one game a week.
Mel has been in the sportsturf industry for many years and is now at a point where he is considering retirement as the job is taking its toll on him. "I got into the industry in 1976. It seems a long time ago; forty-four years now. I came out of a football career with a bad injury and found myself working for Cheshire Education in the Warrington area. We looked after all the school playing fields, and I learned a lot about the job and different aspects of life in my fifteen years there. Then suddenly, the Conservative government of the time put everything out to contract. I found myself unemployed for a short time until I was offered a job with the contracting firm that had taken over. I worked for them for ten years, and that was a real eye-opener. It was all about money and speed, which was not the right thing for me."
"At the end of that ten years, I was seconded to look after Warrington's original stadium pitch at Wilderspool, whether I liked it or not! I was not too pleased as they had no equipment and would use the pitch frequently for training and games. But then I thought well this would test what I had learned at Reaseheath College when I did my City & Guilds in Sportsturf and a Management Studies course in Crewe all those years ago, which I had never had the chance to put into practice."
"The people that ran the club, and the coaches, were very kind and respected me, so I actually jumped ship in 1999 and worked directly for the club."
Five years into Mel's career at Warrington, they had a new stadium built which was partly down to pressure from the Rugby League who were not happy with the health and safety aspect at some of the old league grounds. Being from the area, I heard Tesco had something to do with the new ground which is situated right next to the stadium. I asked Mel could he clarify this for me. "Yes, it was all to do with trying to get a Tesco retail park built by BARR Construction who built this stadium as part of the deal but, in all honesty, I wouldn't let them build me a toilet. The land which was allocated for the stadium build was on the site of the old Walkers of Warrington Brewery."
"One of my jobs in 2003 was to monitor the new stadium build, and it broke my heart watching them construct the pitch. You do not construct a pitch in the way they did and, since opening the ground, we had many issues with it."
Mel has been instrumental in solving the problems faced by the pitch from the start, whilst taking BARR to task alongside the club. "You don't build pitches like this and get away with it, something I have learned being at the forefront of trying to solve these construction problems. With the help of John Mallinson and the STRI, we were able to highlight the problems that existed. We kept records of all their findings, which proved to be very important and enabled me to help the club haul the company over the table before it went to court to say 'this is wrong and here is the evidence'."
"The club then got funding to re-establish the pitch so, in 2007, John Mallinson came in with his team and put in a proper drainage and irrigation system. Since this work has been carried out, we have been on the up. It still needs monitoring and things doing like any other stadium pitch."
"Coming back to Covid-19, this has put a block on what I wanted to do this year and could easily affect what we do next season."
Mel wanted to mention the man that he looked up to when he was first starting his career and took a lot of inspiration from. "I was lucky to know a lovely old chap called Arthur Hindley who was an old craftsman, one of the best, who always pointed me in the right direction. I have a lot to be indebted to him for. Sadly, he is no longer with us."
With all his years in the industry, and with his experience as Warrington's long-serving head groundsman, I thought it was only right to get his thoughts on the industry. "One thing that always concerns me about this industry, and it all started when I was asked to look at Desso pitches at a couple of Premier League grounds, is that something is driving the industry that I am not quite comfortable with. We must have a pitch like this, we must use this piece of equipment, we must use this particular fertiliser. Where does it all end? You can have a circumstance where you have a pitch that is top class in construction, with the very best equipment at your disposal... and then your budget gets cut! Then you are left worrying about how you are going to manage people's expectations."
"One example is the amount of money that goes into watering pitches because of the free-draining nature of pitches we have now. If the Wolves did not have access to borehole water this March and April, our pitch would have been dead as we could not afford to run the irrigation system from the mains. I am concerned we can see good pitches now as sport gets back underway, but we all must start wondering how far this goes."
"Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. It has given many people a shock, and those who are running the budgets may be thinking about where to make cuts. My experience tells me the grounds department will be one of the first places they look, unfortunately!"