Last season, it is safe to say, was one to forget for Charlton Athletic FC. As well as narrowly escaping relegation from the Championship, the playing pitch at the Valley fell under heavy scrutiny. However, a total pitch reconstruction means that head groundsman, Nathan Chapman, can now sleep a little more easily
Most home games last season saw Charlton Athletic trying to grind out victories on a waterlogged pitch; a pitch that was originally built in the 1950s. It became obvious that the surface, which had graced so many gifted players over the years, had finally had its day. Drains had collapsed, laterals were blocked and Nathan was losing a severe amount of sleep.
"We were fighting a losing battle. We had a couple of games called off and it was just an absolute nightmare. Bad luck follows you everywhere and every Saturday last season it just happened to rain. The grass was holding so much water, the plant wasn't healthy, it was just sitting in anaerobic soil - it was horrible to work with - you'd just be swimming in water all of the time."
Nonetheless, a change of ownership at the club brought new aspirations and, at the start of 2014, they agreed to a new pitch installation.
Sports surfaces construction specialists, Souters Sports, arrived at The Valley on the 19th of May 2014 and quickly got to work. The aged and deteriorating drainage and irrigation system was removed and replaced before filling and levelling it all off. Eighteen new laterals with a geo-texture layer were then fitted, with the new pipes redirecting drainage to a manhole at the north end of the pitch. Five weeks later and Nathan had a brand spanking new pitch.
"I treat this pitch as my baby now. Last year - and the years before - it wasn't my pitch. But this is mine and it is my baby," says Nathan.
His passion for what he does on a daily basis is clearly evident but, at one point, it looked as though Nathan could have been playing on the pitch rather than maintaining it:
"I played at quite a high level, but I didn't quite make it. I felt that I wanted to be as close to the game as possible and groundsmanship was the next best thing. I have no regrets and I still play occasionally, but my job here needs my undivided attention."
Nathan's journey to becoming a Championship groundsman started at Henley on Thames at the Berkshire College of Agriculture. After his studies, he became a deputy head greenkeeper at two golf courses, before moving to London after landing the head groundsman role at the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC).
His role at the HAC brought mixed emotions. During the aftermath of the 7th July 2005 bombings on the London transport system, the Artillery Garden was used as a temporary mortuary.
"At the time, we were well into the cricket season and someone came up to me and said that the cricket won't be played today, because something is going to be happening. The bombs had already gone off - then all of a sudden, fork lifts came in and started churning all the grass up. Everything just came to a halt and, within twenty-four hours, we had a 4.5 acre site covered in marquees."
"It was a horrible, horrible time and, without doubt, the worst thing I have ever faced in my career. Once the mortuary went, the contamination levels were extreme, so they then dismantled everything and it needed a complete renovation of the ground. We had to wait another six months before it was in use again; it was a massive challenge."
Nathan had the added pressure of bringing the estates back up to an excellent standard for the Queen's Presentation of Colours to the Honourable Artillery which was hosted within the grounds. Yet, what started as the most challenging aspect of Nathan's career, resulted in possibly his biggest achievement to date.
"Bringing it back for the Queen's Presentation of Colours was an extremely high point in my career. She was very appreciative that her grass was looking really nice and she made a lovely comment about the great job the groundsmen had done."
With the Queen's compliment as another feather in his cap, Nathan managed to get that step closer to his beloved football after landing the head groundsman position at Barnet FC. His experience here paved the way for a role as an assistant groundsman at Charlton Athletic FC a year later.
Nathan's dedication to the industry and the sport soon paid off. He began working under the head groundsman at the time, Paul Geary, and quickly worked his way up to the position of deputy head groundsman. After continuing to excel in the role, the position of head groundsman became available, and his predecessor was adamant that Nathan was the only man for the job. Paul put Nathan's name forward and he hasn't looked back since.
"I've now been at Charlton for nine years - next year will be my tenth season. It's brilliant working here; it's a massive family club and everyone pulls together. The new owners are also fantastic; they let me get on and do what I need to do. They never really question anything that I'm doing and they always back me. I've never needed to want for anything - I can't have a bad word said about them."
In those nine years, Nathan has experienced highs and lows, but feels that the industry has changed for the better.
"The sports turf industry has changed; the new equipment that's available for us and the learning side of things. There are a lot of knowledgeable people out there now to speak to on a regular basis - it all makes my life a lot easier."
"It's the kind of industry where you can just pick up the phone to perhaps someone at another club and it's good to pick other people's brains."
Up until recently, and perhaps testament to his ability, Nathan has tended to The Valley without any assistants or deputies.
"I've got an assistant now called Jonathan Jones, who has just finished his apprenticeship at the training ground and now he has moved over to join me here full time. He's very good at what he does, very methodical and just gets the job done. He's still learning and is only twenty years old. I've been pretty much on my own, so it's great to have him here."
At just thirty-six years old, it is as though Nathan is already a seasoned professional and he is keen to offer valuable advice to aspiring groundsmen like Jonathan.
"My advice is to listen carefully and go on as many courses as you can possibly go on. You've got to love the job that you're in and you've got to be willing to put the hours in. As long as you have that attitude and gain the experience that you need, then the world is your oyster and you will reap the rewards."
Nathan has worked his way up from apprentice to mentor and now Jonathan helps him with his weekly regimes and preparations for match day.
"We will start by watering three days prior to a game to get the moisture content right, then it's a case of touching, marking, string cutting, putting the goals in and the practice nets up."
"On a Thursday, I will use a Dennis G860 to cut width ways at 27mm and that will be string cut for precision and then, on the Friday, I will cut length ways and that will be string-cut also. I use the six-bladed cutting cassette because it delivers a fantastic finish - the G860s stripe the pitch perfectly for presentation."
"On match day, I have seven or eight staff just to do the basic match prep, four of those are volunteers who are within the industry - the team is fantastic and I can't fault them."
Nathan's attentions will soon be turned to end of season renovations, which will be made even harder by a month's worth of corporate games.
"Those games will absolutely batter the pitch. So it will be a case of revitalising everything and bringing in about 60 tonnes of sand to topdress. The pitch has sunk in a few areas, so we will also need to bring the levels back up."
So, with an already eventful career to date, what is next for Nathan Chapman?
"Hopefully, my future will be to stay here and see Charlton Athletic in the top flight and become a Premier League groundsman. That's my aim; I've worked in every single league and now my aim is to go that dream step to the Premier League. You've obviously got to have the right team and the right pitch in place, and I'm confident that I'll always be able to hold up my end of the bargain."