"There's no time for celebrations, no time for ceremony, no excuses for jobs not being completed. The job of a school groundsman is a 365 day a year task - there is no downtime!"
As time goes by, I see benefits in having individual ringtones for certain people on my phone. I'm sure we all get calls from people whom we look forward to speaking to, but also from people where we hastily look for a reason to avoid answering the phone.
So, anyway, my phone rings ... Loz ... "Have you done that article for me yet?" A line that I'm sure many of you are all too familiar with, and also a line that forms the foundations of the very magazine that we all read and (hopefully) enjoy on a bi-monthly basis; I think purely on that basis alone, Loz has to go into the "yes, I'll answer the phone" category (just), even if it does mean that I have to go and find another pen!
At this juncture, I always wonder what on earth I am going to write about. I always try to avoid writing about 'the technical stuff' as, quite simply put, that should be left to the technical folk, who can convey that side of things far more aptly than I. I could have a general gripe about the daily (and somewhat repetitive) challenges that we all face, but I figure that we all hear enough of that, so all I am really left with is to share some of my experiences of the past year or so, both good and bad, as it really has been 'one of those years'.
Towards the end of last year, my team and I were extremely honoured and proud to be awarded the Schools, College and University Grounds Team of the Year. As I sit here and write this article, I know the nominations are in, and the finalists chosen for this year's awards; however, by the time this article goes to print, I know that the winners of each award will have been chosen, and the trophies will be taking pride of place in each winner's establishment. I would like to take the time to congratulate each nominee - the very fact that you have been nominated demonstrates that your work has been recognised, and someone thinks that you are worthy of an award for your efforts - you should be very proud.
Further to this, I wish luck to each finalist, and offer my sincere congratulations to the winners of each category. From nominee to award winner, simply being part of this process can serve as a catalyst for you, not only on a personal level, but also as a tool that can be used when negotiating with your employers - use what you have achieved to maximum effect.
Upon our return to the Isle of Man from our 'jolly' to York Racecourse (beautiful venue), reality hit home. There's no time for celebrations, no time for ceremony, no excuses for jobs not being completed. The job of a school groundsman is a 365 day a year task - there is no downtime.
As one season finishes, another starts or, in many cases such as ours, it seems as though one season starts before the other has finished!
As I'm sure many of you feel, there is always increasing pressure to start a season earlier, or extend the end of it further. There are two factors to bear in mind here - multisport sites have more than one sport to accommodate, and we groundsmen also need 'our time' to renovate, to establish, to set up and such like - we, as groundsmen, have to communicate these facts accordingly, and make sure that decision makers back our cause - positive and proactive communications are key in this process.
Secondly, weather! As some readers will be all too aware, I'm an avid fan of collecting weather data, studying it and generally just being something of a nerd when the subject of weather rears its 'ugly front'. Some see benefits in using data, others don't - we all have ways in which we are comfortable in how to approach our work - there is no one size fits all programme! In saying that, and in keeping with the timing of the seasons, I have found it a not infrequent occurrence that seasons shift quite markedly.
There has been a verifiable and demonstrated case that climate change is occurring (let's leave the deeper reasoning for another day) but, in terms of simple seasonal variation, it is not uncommon to see spring come either twenty days 'early', or even up to thirty days 'late' - that is quite some variation, and it does affect us all.
Timing of renovations, planting schemes, pest control, weed control etc. - phenological indicators are a dead giveaway of what's happening in the world in which we work, and these are a far better indicator of what is actually happening than the calendar will ever be able to provide.
Earlier this year, in particular, I actually recall offering a portion of our land to provide a safe haven from four metre high snow drifts for several stricken sheep and cattle - this was in April and, furthermore, followed the wettest winter on record since 1956 - something of a challenging period to say the least!
In the autumn of 2012, we did suffer something of an unfortunate set of circumstances, losing a member of my team. We already operate a small team - four men across two fairly large schools - so this was a loss that hit us particularly hard in terms of the reduction in our productivity - re-allocating one man's work amongst three brings a lot of additional pressure to the remaining team members. However, as always, my remaining team members stepped up to the plate.
We discussed the situation openly between the remaining team members, and our management team - a collective decision was taken to not reappoint until the springtime, and utilise the savings in wages to allow us to add to our fleet of equipment - this is typical of the men that I am fortunate to have working for me - always willing to take on extra work and responsibility if it helps the bigger picture.
As with every cloud, the silver lining was not far away. As promised, we were allowed to reappoint in the spring. Following a rigorous programme of advertising, short listing and interviewing, we were delighted to welcome Chris Preston (and his dog, Tux) to the Grounds Department at King William's College. Despite still being young, Chris brings a wealth of experience, talent, a wide ranging knowledge base and a tremendous flair for his work that any employer would be lucky to have.
Having started his career as an apprentice greenkeeper with the largest local authority on the island, he moved internally through the horticultural division, and ultimately to the arboricultural section, which is where his passion truly lies. We are certainly looking forward to helping Chris further develop his skills, whilst reaping the rewards of his talents at King William's College.
I also have to say that, despite Chris being the standout candidate right from his initial application, I also took great pleasure in the quality of the remainder of the applicants. I firmly believe that the work that has gone into enhancing the turfcare sector on the island in recent years has paid dividends to many employees and employers alike - perhaps the much improved level of applicants was indicative of just how far we have come as an island in the past few years.
And speaking of the development of the turfcare sector on the island, in keeping with our efforts of the past few years, in 2013 we were fortunate to welcome a number of highly regarded groundsmen to the island, along with several machinery manufacturers and dealers, with the aim of further spreading knowledge, and enhancing networking opportunities between the island and the mainland.
First up, in April, we were happy to welcome Dennis and Sisis once again, to repeat their efforts of 2012, by running a two day seminar, incorporating talks on bowling green maintenance on day one, and winter pitch maintenance on the second day. As with 2012, the efforts were very well received, and I have to offer my thanks to the presenters that came along to share their knowledge with us - it was a true pleasure to be in the presence of Alan Ferguson of St George's Park, Dave Saltman of Pitchcare, Charles Henderson of Sports Agronomy Services, and repeat visitors from 2012, Matt Williams from Barenbrug and John Robinson from Harrod UK.
Further to the Dennis and Sisis seminar, we were overjoyed to welcome Campey Turf Care to the island in July, especially having personally attended a number of their road shows on the mainland, it was a great pleasure to be able to host them at our college.
I recall, during a presentation by Peter Craig at the 2012 Dennis and Sisis seminar, he extolled the virtues of the now ubiquitous Koro machine, so it was a delight for me when we were able to deploy one on our cricket squares as part of the demonstrations - something tells me that a seed has been planted in the minds of many and, in time, it will be commonplace to see a Koro being a utilised in Manx turfcare.
Several other machines were demonstrated to great effect, with a number being sourced, which are now available for use to many on the island - only recently, we were able to deploy a local contractor to run an Imants Shockwave across the entirety of our playing fields, something that was simply beyond the realms of possibility just a few short years ago.
Supplementing the machinery demonstrations was a very informative chat by Keith Porter of Leigh Sports Village - along with son Martin - both of whom were happy enough to impart their knowledge and wisdom with anyone who approached them - truly down to earth, nice people. We were also pleasantly surprised to have another highly respected groundsman present - Ian Forshaw from Wigan FC's DW Stadium. We look forward to further establishing and strengthening relations with such people.
Despite huge progress, and the many pleasing events and experiences of the last twelve months, I must say that all were tarnished by an annoying series of events whilst overseeing the largest contract that I have ever personally been involved in, so I will be finishing up this article with something of a rant.
Some twelve months ago, a decision was taken to replace our 2G Artificial turf hockey pitch. The original pitch was commissioned in late 2004. I recall the original installation, though not being directly involved as I was only a junior member of staff at that time, I did take in as much as I could from afar. I do recall the construction being troublesome, with a particular issue with the levels of the macadam base being at the forefront of the problems.
The original layer was a long way outside of the agreed tolerances and, following many negotiations that went on at a level or three above my station, it was agreed that a secondary 25mm thick layer of macadam be overlaid on top of the original layer, and levelled accordingly.
Before long, the secondary layer was laid, the shockpad was laid and, ultimately, the carpet installed. The contract ran a long way over schedule but, ultimately, we were a 'happy customer', or so we thought.
I inherited the maintenance of this pitch some three years ago, and found issues almost immediately, mainly in the form of a slippery surface.
Following a long list of fruitless efforts to restore the pitch to a playable condition, it was acknowledged that it was beyond saving, and would not see out the projected ten year lifespan. The reason for this shortened lifespan was a simple case of poor carpet selection in relation to the dynamics of the site.
A sand dressed, 10mm fibrillated carpet was selected, which brings with it something of an open textured pile - with our site being very windy by its very nature, this was a recipe for disaster - the sand simply would not stay within the carpet fibres, hence the sand levels being insufficient to hold the pile erect, and ultimately leading to 'folding' of the fibres. Once this has occurred, a pitch is done.
No amount of cleaning, brushing, raking, decompaction, dressing, any other task or 'wonder cure' which you are told will restore the pitch will not work - believe me, I have tried. Much like when a piece of paper is folded, once a carpet fibre is folded, it is simply not possible to remove the fold.
So, to fast forward to the beginning of this year, three companies were approached with a view to quoting for replacement of the carpet. The original installer was contacted - a relatively 'young' company, and one of the most respected UK based carpet manufacturers - all with a view to tendering for the work. Through the budgeting process, and somewhat fortunately I might add, we did allocate a primary and a secondary budget - the secondary budget was a contingency, just in case we found the shockpad to be in need of replacement, despite all research and advice stating that one shockpad should last two carpet cycles.
We did actually have the shockpad tested for tensile strength by an independent lab to ascertain if it would hold up to a second carpet cycle - test results came back as positive from three locations, however, a further issue was identified, which I will elaborate on later.
The quoting process is where things started to go awry, and the incumbent issues still leave a bitter taste in my mouth to this very day.
I took a decision to employ EasiGrass to install a Rhino Turf HF18 carpet, based on a number of factors - simply put, the package on offer was superior to the others, in my opinion, and this despite receiving several strong references for the other products.
As a goodwill gesture, I contacted the unsuccessful companies to thank them for their quotes, and offer constructive feedback as to why they were unsuccessful. Somewhat disappointingly, one company, which I shall refrain from naming at this time, were somewhat 'put out' by the news of their unsuccessful quote, and the gentleman (believe me, I use the term very loosely) in question decided to try to mislead me by way of discrediting his competition by using every dirty trick in the book, and then some; "there is a two tier pricing strategy and you were put in the wrong one; that other carpet is not fit for purpose; it has texturisation issues; the strands reform to a blob of plastic before long; poor installations; can't honour the warranty because the technology isn't up to date; pitch is a leg breaker" etc., in addition to sending a very misleading picture to 'support' his case.
Initially, I wasn't sure what to think, so I contacted a number of venues with my carpet of choice, all of whom had nothing but the highest of praise. It soon became clear what was going on. I was dealing with a desperate liar who would sink to any level to win a contract, with no thought for the welfare of the customer, or the integrity of the industry as a whole.
It is with genuine contempt that I speak of this issue, even more so when I am talking of a 'proudly British', market leading company. Needless to say, 'words' were had, that issue put to bed in the hope of now being able to move on to a straightforward installation. Unfortunately however, this was not to be the case.
Upon proceeding with the carpet lift, an earlier identified potential issue became a reality. At each seam or join, glue had either run through the jointing tape, or had been applied to both sides of it during the joining process of the original installation. In effect, this led to a very large portion of the carpet being glued to the shockpad, with no way of separating what should be two completely separate component parts.
Obviously, by the time the carpet had been rolled up, significant damage had accrued to the shockpad. At this stage, and whilst examining the damage to see if there was any way to retrieve the shockpad, a further issue presented itself - what should have been a 15mm thick shockpad, wasn't actually 15mm thick. The FIH (International Hockey Federation) guidelines state that a shockpad should be within 10% of the stated thickness - with the stated thickness of 15mm. I was aghast to find sections of less than 6mm, and other areas approaching 40mm thick! It was clear that we were already significantly outside of FIH tolerances, and I wanted to know how, and why.
A hasty check of the original test report (BS EN 15330) showed that the surface levels of the carpet were within tolerance, so only one possibility was left - the macadam layer could not be within the recommended tolerance. The macadam layer was subsequently surveyed and the results confirmed our thoughts.
The whole contract now ground to a halt, with an ever approaching deadline, and countless emails, phone calls and meetings in an effort to find a solution. Facing the realisation that FIH certification would be improbable, if not impossible to achieve given the fundamental flaws in the construction, and without replacement of the macadam layer, we were left to prioritise safety and longevity, whilst having to disregard our initial aims for the pitch, which was to achieve full FIH National accreditation.
To achieve a safe and durable surface, and thereby comply with our duty of care as a facility operator, it was agreed to install a thicker shockpad across the pitch in its entirety, thereby ensuring the highest areas on the macadam layer did not produce a risk to the safety of the pitch, or a risk of early deterioration of the shockpad due to a reduced thickness of rubber crumb.
Negotiations and changes to the initial contract proved problematic and stressful for all involved, and this goes a way to explaining why, when undertaking any job, it is critical to get it right at the first time of asking. Fortunately, once we actually agreed a solution, and received approval to proceed, the efforts of the teams laying the pitch were first class, and we finally have a product that has exceeded our expectations, given the problems that we inherited.
To summarise my feelings on the job that rendered my summer a stress laden nightmare, of which there was little escape or respite, I could only offer my experiences as a warning to anyone who is considering undertaking a similar task. I'll make no apologies for saying that the artificial turf industry, in my experience, is a dirty, poorly regulated sector which is filled with salesmen of little to no integrity, false promises, poor installations, little accountability when problems are identified and a complete lack of goodwill to customers who often pay six figure sums for what is often little more than a substandard service.
For those that are considering having any installations, be vigilant with your management of the contract, employ an independent lab to sign off work as acceptable at the end of each stage but, most importantly, do not place your trust in those that cannot be trusted. For those unscrupulous few who tarnish the artificial turf sector - sort your act out.
So, to conclude, we have had a weather pattern the likes of which I have never seen, staff changes, machinery demonstrations, seminars, presentations, further developing the infrastructure and support network on the island, three cricket square reconstructions, a natural turf (rubber crumb reinforced) play area construction and an artificial turf pitch rebuild.
That's one season over, now our 'other' busy season begins - landscaping, woodland management, plantations, fencing, twelve winter sports pitches to set up and maintain!
I'll leave you all in peace now with a saying that sums up our last twelve months ... "Improvidus, apto quod victum".