Junior footballers are pitch perfect

Junior footballers are pitch perfect: A former premier league groundsman is working his magic on Barnard Castle FC juniors’ pitches.

Read the full article from The Teesdale Mercury here

Junior footballers are pitch perfect

Junior footballers are pitch perfect

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So, how are we doing?

So, how are we doing?: By Ian Mather-Brewster, Key Account Manager/Regional Pitch Advisor at the Grounds Management Association.

This year has been particularly difficult for everyone. Sport clubs and organisations have dealt with sudden openings and closures, along with furloughs, adverse weather conditions and relentless uncertainty.

So, how are we doing?

So, how are we doing?

However, throughout the upheaval, grounds staff – whether volunteer or professional – have continued to work hard each day, holding sport together by ensuring pitches are ready to go at a moment’s notice. At the GMA, these challenges are the reason we felt that this year was the perfect time to launch GroundsWeek.

This inaugural celebration week was an opportunity to give all those in the industry the much-needed credit they deserve, while welcoming others into the sector. Here’s a run-down of how the sector’s doing as sport begins to unlock, and why grounds staff are so central to making sport possible.

Volunteers at the helm

The importance of outdoor exercise has been hugely emphasised as a result of Covid-19. While gyms and other indoor sport facilities have been closed, outdoor facilities have acted as a lifeline for the public to go out and exercise during this turbulent period. Grounds staff have played a pivotal role in making this happen.

Volunteers at local clubs have used their permitted daily exercise to ensure these local pitches continue to be ready to be used at a moment’s notice, giving the public a place to exercise and play. It’s no secret that sport has a transformative impact on our wellbeing – after the past year, the need to supercharge both our mental and physical health is going to be paramount. With the pandemic having had a devastating fallout on mental wellbeing, it’s essential that the public have access to outdoor sport facilities once we’re permitted to play.

After the initial national lockdown was announced last year, volunteer grounds staff had to get surfaces back to a top standard after facilities had been unused for quite some time. Volunteers had to suddenly adopt different skills and learn new ways of working. With industry guidance about how to return and when it was safe to do so, grounds volunteers across the country were able to get back out there and provide high quality, playable surfaces.

Getting the professional game back on

Professional sport resuming during the pandemic has also been a lifeline for many – something to focus on and enjoy, it has also acted as a conversation starter for many who’ve been sat at home with very little to do or talk about. While many are keen to get back to playing themselves with their local teams, friends and family, being able to watch your favourite team play on TV has been a welcome distraction from the outside world. With professional sport having the power to lift us up in times of turmoil, grounds managers and staff’s role in making that possible has been pivotal.

Some staff have worked completely on their own throughout the pandemic, without the help of volunteers or a team, yet still have managed to produce immaculate surfaces which have been televised for professional games. They’ve also had new, additional responsibilities: sanitising all equipment before and after large-scale games in huge venues – many have miraculously managed to do this single-handedly. Reduced budgets from the previous season have meant smaller renovations for many professional sport facilities, however, grounds managers and volunteers have still managed to produce top-standard playing surfaces, despite the condensed season leading professional sport grounds to be used far more often than usual, multiplying the workload for grounds managers and volunteers.

Due to the pandemic, clubs and organisations within professional sport have also had to increase the number of areas used for training to comply with safe distancing rules, with some lower league clubs having had to train at bigger stadiums to reduce risk – this has meant grounds staff have had an even bigger job to do in making sure all these areas are ready for use, time and time again.

At cricket clubs, grounds workers have had to start preparing and covering practice areas far earlier than usual – usually, cricket players would get flown overseas for international fixtures, but currently they are stuck in the UK, meaning these pitches need to be in top condition consistently.

The unsung heroes of sport

Despite the strain put on grounds managers and volunteers at a grassroots and professional level, they have continued to keep facilities in top condition so that we can continue to play after lockdown. Grounds staff are the overlooked upholders of sport, without whom, the game simply could not go ahead.

Among furloughs taking place, budget cuts and a lack of investment, as well as the shorter seasons but the same number of games on the pitches, the grounds industry has had to put more effort than ever before into keeping sport pitches playable, and have managed to do an incredible job. Without grounds staff, sports pitches would be non-existent, compromising the future of sport as we know it.

Grounds staff have also gone beyond keeping sport pitches immaculate – to giving up space at their grounds to allow for Covid-testing to take place, and local clubs have helped set up food banks as well as assisted in delivering food to the vulnerable. The grounds community has had to become more resilient than ever, sticking together in the face of unwanted criticism, and
keeping sport going through these difficult times.

Joining the sector

Despite this, we know the sector is facing a crisis – without a new generation of grounds staff and volunteers, there will be a knock-on effect both for the public wanting to get active, and on professional games. Grounds maintenance requires considerable knowledge, time and dedication to provide a pitch that meets rigorous standards set out by professional sporting bodies, with year-round attention to detail, and intensive labour to ensure surfaces get enough care.

GMA’s new research* shows that young people aren’t considering grounds management as a career, and the grounds sector is facing a significant skills gap as a result. Our research shows that 40% of the workforce is over 50, and 9% of grounds managers and volunteers will be retiring in the next five years. If things continue the way they’re going, unfortunately, 5,120 pitches across the UK could be left without a grounds person soon. However, hope is not lost: 6,000 young people are needed to join the profession, to help the turf care sector get on the road to recovery.

#GroundsWeek was a call on the nation to celebrate the vital contribution of grounds staff, while urging young sports fans to consider the profession. The week was set up to celebrate the vital role that professional grounds staff, volunteers, and the turf sector plays in making sport possible. After what has been a really difficult year for the sector and beyond, we wanted to use this celebration to showcase grounds staff and the brilliant work that they do – and have continued to do – despite sport stopping and starting. #GroundsWeek, which will continue each year, is an opportunity to celebrate our sector, and emphasise the vital role grounds staff play in driving sport forward, from grassroots to a professional level. We’re hoping sports fans and the general public have been inspired to consider volunteering at their local pitches or joining the sector as professionals in the future.

*(Data gathered from Sport England’s Active Lives report, GMA’s Sports Vital Profession Report and Back to Play)

PNE boss says pitches are suffering

PNE boss says pitches are suffering: Preston North End manager Alex Neil thinks pitches are starting to show signs of wear and tear because the shortened close season prevented repair work being done on them.

Read the full article from The Lancashire Post here

PNE boss says pitches are suffering

PNE boss says pitches are suffering

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Thunderbirds are go!

Thunderbirds are go!: Ask Darren Baldwin about some of the technical innovation contained within the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and his answer brings a smile to the face of many of a certain age.

“It’s very much Thunderbirds stuff, if I’m honest,” explained the man who has seen it all during his 23 years as Head of Playing Surfaces and Estates at the club.

Thunderbirds are go!

Those of us who can remember the booming countdown voice of the Thunderbirds narrator not to mention the wobbly puppetry, will immediately know where he is coming from. Floors sliding open to release International Rescue vehicles from the Tracy Island headquarters, each piloted by a member of the Tracy family.

I’m not sure if Darren sees himself as any one member of the cast, but given what he has to deal with in terms of the above and below the pitch technology, he could quite easily stand in for Brains, but minus the big glasses!

To replace the Tarkett PlayMaster surface, which Spurs play their matches on, with the artificial Turf Nation pitch for the NFL matches, which will be regular features at the 62,062 capacity stadium, the natural pitch is split into sections, slides out and parked in what is otherwise a car park under the stadium, where the LED grow lights, fans and irrigation ensures it thrives in its unfamiliar temporary environment.

The NFL pitch is therefore revealed to create a perfect theatre for a sport which is becoming increasingly popular on this side of the pond.

The NFL pitch is six feet lower than its natural turf brother, meaning those in the first few rows of the stadium can see the play over the plethora of six foot five tight ends and line backers, coaches, physios etc who spend so much of their time on the touchline.

Thunderbirds are go!

That is just an example of what goes on at what must be currently the most talked about stadium in the world of sport, never mind the UK.

Talking to Darren, as we stood level with the halfway line, mid-way up one of the fabulous and imposing stands, you can feel the pride and sense of achievement which he, along with everyone involved in Spurs, feels.

The initial vision for a replacement for the old White Hart Lane, with its capacity of 36,284, came with the arrival of the new Chairman, Daniel Levy, way back in 2001.

“He had a vision that we needed to improve facilities, both for the fans and the players, so he looked at everything from the stadium to the training ground. We also needed to increase capacity to be in the 60,000 plus bracket alongside other top European clubs,” recalled Darren.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have been here that long so I have also lived that dream from day one, following it through to where we are today.”

It’s fair to say that any vision, no matter how “Blue Sky” would not have come close to living up to reality of what the stadium eventually became.

“It started out as a 60,000 seater bowl and progressed with options and revised visions before it became a multitude of different challenges to overcome. The word that was never to be used in any environment whether that be in the Board Room or on the construction site was ‘No’. What was always said was ‘How can we make it happen?’.”

With Darren’s focus on the playing surfaces, that positive approach was never tested more than the day when a Concert Consultant explained that to put on a full scale concert he would need the venue for 10 days, meaning that Darren’s pitch would have to be parked up under the stadium for all that time. At that time even the best case scenario was that a pitch could only survive under those circumstances for a maximum of three days.

Thunderbirds are go!

“After picking me up off the floor we went back to work to find a way of parking the pitch for 10 days and now, having done extensive testing, and thanks to our friends at SGL lighting, we can park the pitch in the Pitch Pocket for 14 to 15 days,” explained Darren, who worked closely with Julian Franklin, Head of Horticulture and Controlled Environments, at Rothamsted Research, on maintaining turf in the dark.

As a man who grew up looking after turf, being heavily involved in the concrete and steel of a major stadium meant that Darren was well out of his comfort zone.

“To be honest, I’d be in some of the meetings looking at plans and talking to senior engineers and all I’d want to know is what button to push to make it work. It was mind blowing science.

But it has given me a great insight into what goes on in an engineer’s world, as well as the groundsman’s world. It was also important that they knew and understood what we wanted from a turf maintenance perspective and how we wanted things to work.”

The air systems, vacuum systems, undersoil heating were all areas in which Darren could make sure what he and his team would be working with over the next few seasons was the best it could be and that any potential issues were ironed out before they had a chance to become a problem.

“What we have with the natural pitch is a series of trays containing 500mm of pitch build suspended three feet off the ground. We did a lot of vibration testing because what we couldn’t have was a situation where we had seven or eight players jump at a corner, all land at the same time and have the pitch vibrate. We’d be known as the Wobbly Pitch!”

The work done with SGL has been equally state-of-the-art and seen grow lighting taken to a new level at the stadium.

“A lot of design went into the wheeled rigs and, based on the experiences we had with lighting rigs we worked on the things which we felt could be improved. For example, lugging cables back and forward and having cables lying or suspended above the grass. Our system now has about five metres of cable which connects to the main power supply on the perimeter wall and that’s it. No part of the six trusses we have touch the grass – they span the width of the playing surface and operate on tracks to move up and down the pitch. We wanted the option to raise them so we could work underneath the lights while we also wanted the ability to irrigate from above them.

“In the past we’d have occasions when the lights were operating, and the irrigation has come on. Sodium bulbs don’t like the eight bar pressure of a sprinkler hitting them and they tend to shatter. So now we have an irrigation system built into the top of the trusses,” said Darren, of the trusses which are stored under the pitch when not in use.

Truly Thunderbirds indeed! Darren also ensured that the stadium had sufficient space for the machinery and equipment required to maintain the pitch.

Thunderbirds are go!

“With the new stadium we had one chance to be the kid in the sweet shop and get what we wanted and although there wasn’t a bottomless pit of money, by any stretch, we did look at what we wanted and have the machinery to carry out the job. We’ve got a mix between electric and petrol mowers – ATT on electric and Dennis Premiers for the petrol. We use the electric ones most of the week and the petrol for the last cut before a game to get the defining pattern, with that little more weight, for the finish.

“We also have storage space for the SGL lights, the fans and the mists, which we needed last summer when when it was 42 degrees pitch side. It was absolutely scorching and rye grass doesn’t like it that hot.”

The desire, and “can do” attitude at Spurs, does come with a downside, however, and that came in delays and a mind-boggling final bill for the stadium – it is probably currently the most expensive stadium in the world – a reported figure in excess of an eyewatering £1 billion is not denied.

“It took three and a half years to build and we ended up eight months late on our target date. That was frustrating for everyone, none more so than those of us at the sharp end. But it was important that we got it right.”

During that period the team played their home games at Wembley, so the team didn’t have the rush or routine of match day preparation.

“I worked at Wembley on match days for the first year and also sent two guys to Wembley full time to work with the maintenance team there. It was a bit different for Karl (Stanley) and his team as they were having to deal with us as well as the international teams.”

The big day came on April 3rd with the first match – against Crystal Palace.

“I’ve been asked many times about my emotions on that first match day, and indeed, the whole project and I say ‘Give me an emotion – I’ve had it’. Excitement, nervousness, stress, worry, lack of sleep. I’ve had them all.”

On that first matchday, with the opening ceremony and the fireworks, it was a fabulous launch to the new Spurs era but Darren remembers one particular element of the day.

“We had a hail storm an hour before kick-off and the whole pitch was white – on April 3rd! I told the guys that we were going to need blowers and snow brushes, but we didn’t know where they were stored,” smiled Darren, as he recalled the bizarre situation.

As we stood in the most modernistic stadium in the world it was a good time to find out what brought Darren, a two-time Groundsman of the Year, to the industry in the first place.

Thunderbirds are go!

“I started out as a three year-old on my dad’s lap ‘steering’ a Land Rover and trailing three sets of gang mowers at Buckhurst Hill Football Club in the mid 70s. About 10 years’ later, like most groundsmen at some stage or another, my dad got the hump when the team started training in the goal area. He threw down the keys and walked off. I picked them up and, at the age of 13, carried on looking after the pitch from then on.

“In October 1988 Steve Braddock gave me the chance to do three weeks’ work experience at Arsenal and he then took me on full time in 1990. I owe everything to Steve and I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He gave me six great years before I got the phone call and asked if I’d be interested in coming here – one of the less publicised transfers between the two north London clubs!”

Without wishing to make him sound like a reality show contestant, it has been a “journey” for Darren and one which he has embraced since he arrived in 1996.

“Back then the club had just opened the training ground at Chigwell and it was regarded as a state-of-the-art training ground although there was no lights or running water in the grounds maintenance facility. Now we have our fantastic new training ground at Enfield with aspirations to expand it to take on Tottenham Hotspur Women, who have turned full time professional this season.

“What really scares me, given how far we have come in 23 years, is what the industry will look like in 23 years from now.”

Who knows what life will be like for ground staff, or anyone else for that matter, in 2042. Safe to say Thunderbirds will remain a fond memory for a diminishing few.

Watch Scott’s interview with Darren on the Turf Matters YouTube channel

Memories Are Made Of This

Memories Are Made Of This: Scott MacCallum returns to a place where he has spent quite a bit of time and created many wonderful memories, as he talks with Angus McLeod at The Belfry.

There are some places with which you just have a connection. Somewhere which see memories reignited or future memories created.

Memories Are Made Of This

The Belfry is one such place for me. I visited for the first time in 1985 when my younger brother and I drove down from Scotland to watch the final two days of the Ryder Cup. It was the furthest I’d ever driven and remarkably at that time you could just pay at the gate for the Ryder Cup.

On the Sunday afternoon we shouted some words of encouragement to Sam Torrance as he played the 10th, three down to Andy North. We were the only ones lining that particular fairway and I reckon Sam heard. He did look over, somewhat disconsolately it must be said.

Anyhow we know what happened after that and we were positioned alongside the 18th fairway when Sam clinched the Cup for the first time in a huge number of years, raising his arms in that pillar box red sweater.

I suppose my brother and I could claim some credit for that pep talk and turning Sam’s fortunes around, but we have let Tony Jacklin take most of the plaudits for the win.

Since then I have won a Pro-Am over the Brabazon, winning a lovely print of the 10th hole; I won a raffle for a fourball which ended up costing a small fortune as we stayed for two nights and racked up quite a bill.

I also chatted with Ryder Cup Captain Bernard Gallacher while we stood alone on the 18th fairway, watching Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie narrowly lose their Saturday afternoon fourball to John Cook and Chip Beck during the ’93 Ryder Cup. It was a nice memory for me, not so much for Bernard.

It is a place with so many recollections for me, for sure.

So, it was great to visit once again and catch up with Director of Golf Courses and Estates, Angus McLeod. The chat was videoed and we had the privilege of sitting in the Ryder Cup room, overlooking the iconic golf course to conduct it.

Memories Are Made Of This

Angus has been at The Belfry for seven years and while he still pinches himself that he is in charge of such a world renowned venue, he is also extremely comfortable in his surroundings.

So much so that he and his team tackled a re-design of that very 10th hole, the one where Sam received those words of wisdom from two young Scottish lads.

It is probably the most famous short par-4 in world golf but Angus believed that, by undoing an amendment that had been made earlier and returning it to something more closely resembling its original guise, an improvement could be made.

“When you look at YouTube videos of the original 10th it had three bunkers on a plateau on the right side of the green. That changed with one massive bunker which went right up the bank. In all honesty it didn’t look very good and it was a nightmare to maintain. So, we took the bold step of taking it back to the three bunkers again. We wanted to reinvent it,” explained Angus.

The hole came to the golfing world’s attention when Seve famously drove the green – there is a plaque on the tee to commemorate the feat – and Angus didn’t want to stop big hitting visitors from attempting to emulate the late lamented Spaniard by reducing the size of the green.

“We wanted to encourage golfers to have a go, so we wanted to keep the width the same and put in the three bunkers towards the edge of the green,” explained Angus, of work which was done entirely in-house.

“Dave Thomas one of the original architects is sadly no longer with us, while the other, Peter Alliss, is now retired from course design otherwise we would have involved them,” said Angus, who met the world famous commentator at a recent awards’ ceremony in Portugal and had a long chat with him about The Belfry.

Memories Are Made Of This

“It is something we do following consultations with our bosses and we always have the architects’ original intent very much in mind. It was something we did for playability reasons and I’d like to think that we have helped the course.”

They have also worked on the 11th, adding in three new bunkers and realigning the green.

In truth, has been quite a bit of work done on the course since that Ryder Cup back in 1985. Then the notably holes were the 9th, 10th and 18th, each with water adding to the jeopardy. Those holes are still superb but they have been joined by many more outstanding holes.

“There is no weak hole on the course. My favourite is the par-5 3rd with the lake on the left hand side. The green used to be tucked up on the right and it was a fairly benign hole but now there is a real risk and reward and it makes us such a great matchplay venue.”

As a place which many people aspire to play and perhaps only have the opportunity to visit once the onus on the greenkeeping team to ensure championship conditions every day is very much at the forefront of minds.

Essential work still needs to be carried out to achieve standards but that explanation won’t wash if it is being carried out on a visitor or corporate guest’s one and only visit.

“It is very tough to achieve. I have a fantastic team and standards and expectations are high so we try to produce a golf course to tournament condition every day – not easy to do.”

So how is it done?

“We’re like Ninja greenkeepers,” laughed Angus, whose role is very much now strategic but who always makes sure he divots the tees each morning.

“It allows me to see the golf course but my friends say that I’m the most highly qualified divitor in the history of greenkeeping,” said Angus.

“We try to do everything sympathetically, whether it be renovation work or aerification because we know we are a 365 venue. We try never to close the courses. We are lucky that we have 60 greens on site which are all pure sand and are very free draining.

“The level of intense aerification has reduced over the years. We still punch holes but it is very much with a small tine and we roll straight away afterwards. Also we aren’t too wet – 600mil average – as most rain comes from the west and it usually dissipates by the time it gets to us.”

A man of Inverness, Angus moved south from his local club to Wales and Newport Golf Club before entering the world of Resort Golf when he took over at Belton Woods, in Lincolnshire.

“I set goals for myself over the years and that is something I do with the team here. There are so many parts of our industry that you can diversify – turf management, workshop, irrigation etc. You can find a niche and there is a defined career path.”

Memories Are Made Of This

“I tell the boys that there are opportunities out there for them but that they will have to get out of their comfort zones.

Angus is a prime example of somehow who practices what he preaches. He pushed himself to go to college when he felt he needed qualifications to make the next step on the ladder.

“I went to Pencoed College, in South Wales and did a two year management course. This was a mandatory requirement for this job. It was tough as I was still running a golf club and as you get older it’s tougher to retain information.

“I had a really good job at a really good club and could have retired there but I needed another challenge and it opened the door to moving into working at big resorts.” And it has paid off. A couple of days before our interview Angus and colleagues from The Belfry had been in St Andrews where they picked up the top award at what are the equivalent of the Oscars – the 59 Club.

“We were judged on all aspects of the Resort with 60% of the overall rankings down to the golf course and it’s marked on a mystery shopper basis. “We won a Golf Flag for the PGA National and the Brabazon courses for venues over £75 and then picked up the Ultimate Venue Award at the end of the night which was fantastic.”

It looks like The Belfry is continuing its reputation for creating wonderful memories!

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