Scott is a volunteer groundsman at Ashington AFC as well as Newcastle United supporter and a regular writer for TF. We hope Scott’s regular pieces for TF give an insight into the hard-work many like him put into keeping non-league clubs going in the region. This is the first in what we hope will many columns from a side of football not many supporters know much about.
The North East has some strange weather patterns.
Whether it be like a few weeks ago when people in one end of town were in shorts and t shirts and the other half had top coats on because of the mist and Sea ‘fret’ or enough rain for Noah to get the hammer and nails out again.
Being a groundsman you are tied to this thing called Weather, actually not tied, hand cuffed and I’m going to try and explain in this piece what its like to be a non -league groundsman in 2021.
For some people this will be interesting , for some people it will be a cure for insomnia, I get that . But here we go.
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I’m a groundsman at a team in the Northern League Division 1 which is step 5 in the pyramid system, like most things at this level the job is part time and voluntary. If you are one of the lucky ones to do this job as your profession, well done. I do something similar in my real job but I’d much rather be on our pitch where I spend around 12 hours a week trying to get the pitch looking like a premier league pitch with Northern League expectations . The club are massively forward thinking and when I ask (my expectations are not demanding) I tend to get, but generally it’s your own initiative and to be completely immersed in what your doing to the point it becomes an obsession, more than a pitch but a living thing. Weather forecasts become essential viewing to the point where you switch to looking at pornography to save your embarrassment .
Football has been weird for the last year anyway, Ashington have not played a competitive game since October and the general consensus is I’ve had my feet up and the pitch will look like the lawn outside Windsor Castle (minus the corgi mess) it doesn’t work like that. Just a bit background to the club to start with. The first team obviously play, but due to most leisure facilities being closed, they also train on the pitch.
We also have a reserve team who play on the pitch as well on the times when Ashington are away, so generally if you turn up on a Saturday a game will be on.
By far the biggest headache for me is training. You can accept the 48 games we had the year before, games are not a problem. You have your recovery plans and time scales.
The players train Thursday night so if the pitch is in a mess I have that to sort for the Saturday game. The manager and his team use their heads but it’s impossible to predict weather and players. Especially when they are busting a gut to get in the team.
I’m going to start initially with last Autumn when we had unprecedented rainfall. The games started late August and were being crammed in when October came and this month was a big headache for me.
Ashington played Hebburn on a Tuesday after a day of heavy rain and the pitch was badly scarred. Training took place on the Thursday on the proviso that it was a dry day. It was a dry day, but halfway through training came an un-forecasted drizzle fest. This being the worst type of rain as it layers the top like a plastic bag would. The pitch was ragged. The problem was we had Consett at home on the Saturday. After one hell of an effort to get the pitch match fit, looking decent and more importantly free of divots, the heavens opened at around 1030 am and though the game wasn’t affected by rain, the pitch cut up badly.
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As it turned out this was our last home game . I didn’t know it at the time and my head was in my hands. I maintain the pitch was lost for the whole winter at that point. It looked like a January pitch in October with months of non growth to come.
The league teams had problems last year as well. Blackburn, Swansea, Sunderland, Peterborough (burst water main didn’t help) and Rangers all suffering badly. These teams had a lot of people and pounds working on things, I didn’t. The problem with damage this time of year is that is doesn’t recover in the winter months. You can fertilise and try and keep the plant going, but the lack of sunlight and the lack of warmth means the plant goes dormant. Imagine your performance at 230 am when someone shakes you awake. Not great. Playing winter sport on grass is the equivalent of being shook awake at 230 am. Still it’s better than 4G.
So the scars from that week in October only really left last month. A few figures for last winter were eyewatering. December had 21 rain days, October 19 and in February 2021 we had 230mm of rain , in Feb 2017 we had 12 mm. That global warming hitting the Northumberland coast.
The problem for most of the season was I thought we might get back playing. At no point did I just leave it, the pitch was ready for an unlikely comeback days in advance.
Winter saw the pitch cut once a month or when it was dry enough to get a mower on. Brushed weekly to get the dew off and spiked to let air in, before a contractor came and punched holes in to get much needed air in to the suffocated roots.
With the wet weather I was even weedkilling in February. January as expected saw a lot of frosty days which means you don’t touch. Breaking the leaf even by walking on a frosty pitch means damage ,
so it was work on the machine I have . A John Deere 2635 mower which is a cutter and reinvents itself at many opportunity, like a transformer. It even cleared the snow on Valentine’s day.
Before anyone says anything, I went in the morning as Emily lay in.
Football came back in April and the pitch looked still worn from that week in November . The Northern Alliance started so the reserves had games and various junior games took place to give the kids a chance to play at the main ground. Unfortunately this comeback coincided with the lowest average temperature in April since 1922. Frosts were unbelievably consistent. The sort of frosty days you take a big coat in the morning but by dinner time its warm and dry. This weather on a regular basis is bad news for us. The grass is getting stung twice a day, by the frosts then the dry windy weather. No hope of growth and more chance of the grass going back into hibernation than anything. April may have saw a return to football but it was not happening on the turf. The sprinkler put on in mid- April a last resort as frost on wet pitches don’t mix either but at that point it was needs must.
May was a vital month. Football in any form ended and the post season renovations are organised. Ours involved the pitch being aerated , Seeded, Fertilised and top dressed( sand put on to get the surface levels back).
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This costs around £2,000 and that’s a good deal. The FA grant helped fund it this year. If the weather is wrong your investment is wasted. For a club like ours two thousand pound is a fortune and its essential we see comeback on that.
Luckily it poured for most of May!!! The water table in the ground was high and the moisture was good as the seed went in and immediately after so germination was good. Fertiliser only works with moisture and we got it, meaning a good growth spurt after next to no growth in April. The pitch was filling in nicely and I booked the 20 tonne of top dressing for late June.
This brings us right up to date and though May meant our investment was paying off, this month has had me running around trying to keep it this way. We have had no rain of such for around 5-6 weeks now and its at the stage now where its trying to keep the seedlings alive and avoid burn off of the pitch or even worse a disease called dry patch which is a worst case scenario. It takes two hours to water our pitch from a pump and sprinkler so its every other day at the minute which makes it hard work. Our water system is very environmentally friendly from harvested rain but the practicalities maybe not as much. It collects the rain which you put on the pitch. Trouble is when its not raining (when you need it) there isn’t any harvested rain. Aye, I know.
Cutting to encourage photosynthesis and to make it look good continues twice a week with the height of the growing season. Our pitch now desperate for rain. Some of October’s would be decent but I would always whine on about something.
Next time as pre -season kicks in I will tell you about a game day and if your are lucky a fairy ring. Don’t all rush at once.