Groundsmanship – A career worth having

Long, unsociable hours, working in all weathers, at least ten years experience needed before you reach the top of your profession and start earning good money, who would be a Groundsman?
According to research figures compiled for the IOG in 2007, about 40,000 in the UK, 20,000 of whom are un-paid volunteers. Rod Heyhoe, probably the most visible volunteer groundsman in the land with a string of awards to his name including ‘National Volunteer Sports Groundsman’ and ‘Amateur Groundsman of the Year’ has been giving his services to Lightcliffe Cricket Club, free of charge for over 20 years, both while working for British Gas and following retirement 17 years ago. “I’m in love with the game,” he says. “A lot of professional groundsmen do their job during the day and help out at their local club in the evenings. If it wasn’t for volunteers, often there would be no club.” Like many of his generation, Rod harks back to the ‘good old days.’ “When we were kids we had to get the pitch ready if we wanted to play,” he remembers. “Things are different now and we need more youngsters coming into the industry. I wonder what will happen when the volunteers get too old for the job.”
“It’s an ageing industry” agrees the IOG’s former Head of Professional Services, Ian Lacey. “This is why we set up our Young Board of Directors in 2011 to explore ways of attracting young, would be groundsmen.” Eighteen months ago the Institute began to offer apprenticeships and according to Ian, the scheme has ‘gone through the roof.” “It got to the point where we had to exercise control of numbers,” he says, “and I think all the major colleges are finding the same thing. To be fair the apprenticeships scheme is one of the government’s flagships and the £1,500 incentive for employers (taking on an apprentice for the first time) has helped. It’s quite an easy process and we’ve helped quite a few employers through it,” he continues. “Fewer and fewer employers want to send students away from the workplace and so we go out every three weeks and spend one day with the students, replicating what happens in college but using the tools and equipment on site.”
Will Graves, (who is on the IOG’s Young Board of Directors) works at Merchant Taylors School in Northwood, Middlesex and finished his apprenticeship last year having reached NVQ, level 3 in sports turf. “It’s brilliant” he says of his job. “There’s a team of 11 and each individual has different skills. It’s the perfect place to learn. As a private school we’ve got good facilities – rugby, football, 11 cricket squares some artificial surfaces and a small golf course.” Having finished his apprenticeship Will’s wages are within the IOG’s recommended guidelines, which, incidentally compare favorably with the national average. After an unlucky start, his career progress has depended to some extent on being at the right place at the right time. “I left school at 16yrs. and applied to college to do my NVQs, but the course was cancelled one week before I was due to start,” he explains. “I’d been out of school for three or four months and sent off my CV with a covering letter to 16 employers. The boss here was about to put out a recruitment advert at the same time that I had my interview.” By another stroke of luck, re-development at the school provided a permanent job vacancy as Will finished his apprenticeship.
Will’s boss, Grounds Manager Richard Ayling served his apprenticeship in engineering. “My Dad was a groundsman, my brother’s Deputy Head Groundsman at Twickenham, my Granddad used to look after sports grounds and buildings and my Step Brother is Head Groundsman at Benedict’s School. I think my Mother wanted me to get a proper job,” he explains. Having finished his engineering training Richard had had enough. “I didn’t want to be stuck indoors all day in a greasy, grimy workshop,” he continues. Richard joined Harrow’s Parks Department as a grade C gardener and studied Turfcare at a basic level at Old Norwood Hall before going to Uxbridge Cricket Club as Assistant Groundsman and progressing from there. He has recently gained his NVQ level 3 with the IOG. “The ability to do this job takes time,” he says “and you can’t learn the trade in two years, you’re still green. Qualifications show people that you have understanding and help you quantify what you want to do. They help you justify investment for new machinery. Here we’ve got a 10 year recycle plan that has more than paid for itself in lack of repair bills. As a Grounds Manager you’re also an Events Manager but when it comes to groundsmanship I advocate the ‘Spit and Taste’ route. There’s no substitute for experience.”

Jason Booth, Head Groundsman at Headingly, Carnegie Stadium for Leeds Rhinos (pictured left) agrees. “It’s going to take about 10 years” he says, “to learn the profession. There are no short cuts.” In charge of Leeds Rugby Jason has five members of staff under him including three apprentiship trainees at any one time. “Our lads are put on a progression ladder and they spend one week a month during the winter at Askham Bryan College,” he continues. “After two years with us they’re either taken on by the club or they leave to go elsewhere. They have to prove they want to work here, and adjusting from school life to work life is difficult. They need to be totally honest and learn to work in a team. They’re getting paid and if they let themselves down it reflects on the team. During an apprenticeship they grow up.”
Jason famously started on a YTS scheme as a cricket trainee with Yorkshire Cricket Club. “We spent three days a week playing cricket and two days working with the ground staff,” he remembers. “I took to it like a duck to water and when Yorkshire released me I decided I wanted to be a full time groundsman.” Jason worked for Keith Boyce, Head Groundsman at Headingly in charge of both cricket and rugby before the two sports were separated, and then for a maintenance contract business. Having already passed NVQ level 1 and 2 with the IOG he continued to play semi pro cricket and worked for himself with his own contracting business for a year or two. “I rang up Headingly just for a chat and they thought I wanted a job,” he says. “By this time, rugby and cricket had separated and I became Assistant Head Groundsman on the rugby side, in charge of the training ground. A year later the Head Groundsman moved to Leeds United and I took over.” Jason then took a foundation degree in Sports Surface Management at Askham Bryan College.
Dale Frith has taken the academic route. At just 31years he is Head Groundsman for Fleetwood Town F.C. in charge of Highbury Stadium in Lancashire. “I started off in landscaping,” he says. “One of my parents’ friends had a landscaping company and I found that I was far more interested in grass anything else.” Another friend worked at Myerscough College and although Dale was keen to enroll on a sports turf course immediately, he was advised to take his A levels first. He consequently took a full time, four year sandwich course at Myerscough– an introductory year followed by a one year placement (he went to Pinehurst Golf Course in North Carolina) and two further years of study, which resulted in a Bsc. Honors degree in Turfgrass Science. Having helped out at Wimbledon in his spare time, he moved north and worked for Blackburn Rovers before joining the STRI for 2 years. “I really got into stadium management,” he continues. “I worked on the UEFA Cup Final in Istanbul in 2009 and represented the STRI at the World Cup in Mombela at the Polokwane stadium.” Now, with a young family, the travelling was too much, which prompted the move to Fleetwood Town. “I would say that the formal education has been useful along with practical experience,” he says. Far from fearing a lack of young entrants into the profession he thinks there could be a glut. “When I was at Myerscough there were plenty of students there and last year I had five people applying for apprenticeships. We’ve got to find quality people, but I haven’t seen a problem.”
In contrast, the only education that Rob Holtby has received is half a lifetime in farming. Now, in early middle age he combines the jobs of Steward and Groundsman for Malton and Norton Rugby Football Club in North Yorkshire. Although light years away from Leeds Rhinos (the club’s first team are lying mid way in the Northern Division – North One East) they have a thriving mini section with one lad captaining a Yorkshire youth team and a young girl, Tatiana Hurd, in the England under 21s rugby squad. “Every Sunday in season each age group from 7yrs. to 19yrs. and our three senior teams are all playing,” says Rob proudly. Juggling his dual roles of Steward and Groundsman, while continuing to run his farm, Rob is assisted on the ground maintenance side by two lads from New Zealand. “They both played rugby in their home country at quite a high level, and while they’re here they’ll play for us and help coach the mini and junior sections,” Rob explains. An agronomist on the committee organizes spraying and decides when to drill seed.
Reece Watson, Deputy Head Groundsman for Arsenal (pictured above) at the Emirates Stadium spent the first five years of his working life landscaping. “The guy I worked with was a former bowls greenkeeper and he taught me a lot about turf,” Reece explains. “I got talking to somebody I knew who told me that you could apply for a match day job at Arsenal. The club was still at the old stadium then, and when they moved they wanted two extra full time staff. I was Assistant Groundsman for 6 years before becoming Deputy 2 years ago.” Having received no formal training prior to his full time employment at the Emirates, Reece has reached NVQ level 3 and is about to start a degree course in soil sciences, taking advantage of internet based courses run by Myerscough College, and studying in his spare time. “Its fine” he says “but you must have commitment. Last week we had three games here and put in 97 hours. The killer is the ‘Championship’ when we’ve got a home game. The team is training on the pitch the day before so we’re here from 8am. to midnight and on game day we work from until one in the morning.” Given that there are just four staff including Reece and the Head Groundsman to maintain the stadium pitch (a further 17, look after the training grounds with 11 pitches) you wonder about the attraction of the job. “I like to work to a specific project,” Reece continues. “I have that ten minute spell before the game when the pitch is looking perfect, that’s the high. Of course, ten minutes into the game and its all ruined but not many jobs have that satisfaction.”
Reece like Dale Frith is still in his youth although both men have taken strikingly different routes to their present positions. Is this still an ageing industry? Askham Bryan and Myerscough, like the IOG report buoyant and increasing applications for apprenticeship courses and importantly, Andy Taaffe, Head of Greenspace at Myerscough says that not only are sports turf related degree and foundation courses up, but their completion provides 100% employability. “Graduates are walking into jobs” he confirms.
In a sense the recession could have done the industry a favor, especially if it prompted the government to resurrect apprenticeship schemes. It seems as if young trainees are flocking to enroll as well as A level students and although, as Ian Lacey says “apprenticeships are one of this government’s flagships” an influx of new, young would be groundsmen are on their way. They’ll need to be every bit as committed as their volunteer forebears, (90hr. plus working weeks are as common at Headingly and all top stadiums as they are at the Emirates) but they’re likely to have formal qualifications to back up their experience and enjoy a growing recognition of the profession, partly thanks to sports coverage on the likes of Sky TV. While the smaller clubs may continue to rely on volunteers to survive, Groundsmanship looks set for the ascendant. “What we want to promote is the idea that it’s a career worth having,” says Ian Lacey. It always was, but now it looks as if the world at large is waking up to the fact.

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