In September 2019, Jim Buttar stepped into Twickenham for the first time as the Rugby Football Union's Head Groundsperson - the man in charge of the iconic Twickenham Stadium. Blair Ferguson went to meet him.
Set in south-west London, the world's largest dedicated rugby venue, with a capacity of 82,000, dominates the skyline and emanates the history of English rugby. Being in charge of this venue is the pinnacle of a career and, when meeting Jim Buttar pitchside in the view of the distinctive British Racing Green seats, you can tell it's a role that suits him.
At just twenty-two years old he became the head groundsman at Rushden and Diamonds Football Club, before moving to Tottenham Hotspur where he spent three years as deputy and eleven as head groundsman at White Hart Lane, winning Premier League Groundsman of the Year two years in a row. A two-year spell with Pro Pitch as a consultant developed a different skill set to his already impressive repertoire before he was appointed in his current role.
With the SGL lighting rigs out and terra-spiking continuing, we venture upstairs to a hospitality box overlooking the illuminated turf and begin with a quick summary of Jim's four months in the job and what drew him back to venue management from consulting on events like the 2018 and 2019 UEFA Champions League Finals and the FIFA Club World Cup 2019.
"It's been four months, and it feels like four weeks, it's gone that quick. But I've loved it, I've loved every minute, it's been good fun," Jim began.
"I was really honest in my interview and said I had to consider if this was something I wanted to go back into because I had a period working at a venue for fourteen years and loved every minute of it, it was a really enjoyable experience. But then I've had two years of being comfortably out of that sole venue position and pushed out of my comfort zone with so many different challenges that I've had to understand and overcome."
"I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about two years ago, and it was one of those 'what sort of job would it be, if it came up, would you definitely go for' questions and this was one of them. I'm very aware within the industry the aura this job has, the venue and working for the RFU. It sits at a level that you think is top of the tree and I felt like that was what I needed to get back into."
"Working at a single venue is different from consultancy and, to a degree, I missed the routine. To be able to tinker with small margins and see the results, change it again, did it work, did it not work. I think you'll find I'm speaking on behalf of a lot of the guys when I say that's what we do. Okay, we're fine tuning all the time, and it's very rare we'll sit and say 'I'm happy now, we'll just keep doing this all the time, and it'll always come out good'. That's not the case, so you're thinking we're at eighty percent, but to get the next twenty percent we'll have to keep tinkering and changing."
"I love that variety, and I've got a lot more scope with this job, it's not just Twickenham. Eighty-five percent of my time will be dedicated to this and the site that it sits on, but I am currently assisting and offering advice to Neil Caldicott at Penny Hill Park to keep the facility there to the high standard expected of the RFU. I'm working with Neil to try and replicate that and building up a bit of a programme, and I'm planning to use that as a bit of a testbed for things that I want to use here."
"I've always approached a job with the attitude that, if you're not going to give one hundred percent, then don't do the job. Everyone is going to have their off days, that's just human nature. However, if your aim is to deliver that and go home and be able to sleep at night because you've done the best you could have done that day to deliver the pitch for an Autumn International fixture, or a Six Nations fixture, Premiership Final or whatever fixture is being played, it is to keep it at that consistent level, and the only way you can do that is by putting one hundred percent in."
"I've done it at all my jobs. I think when you've worked at the elite end for a period of time you're very aware, but I think you have a bit more confidence in yourself after a certain period of time within a role that you can deliver. On the outside, you can give the portrayal of a cool, calm and collected individual but, on the inside, the mind is racing, going through the mental check list and the maintenance schedule. Is everything done to the standard required? If not, identify why not and then see if it can be changed. It's a job at the end of the day, and our bottom line is to deliver that surface."
"Nothing can replicate the pressure you feel to produce the goods. Somebody says I wish I had your problems, but do you? Where they go from the realms of, I've got problems, I can't keep grass, and my pitches are overused etc. there are reasons behind that. But, when all of those reasons get taken away from you because you've been given solutions for them, then you've got no excuses or reasons not to produce. That's where the pressure comes from. And I think, when people look at it like that and think you've been given everything and something goes wrong, what happens then? And the answer is your neck is on the block and some serious questions are asked."
"It's a high-pressure job, and there's the understanding that there are certain elements that are taken out of your control. Ultimately, the weather is a huge factor, but we've been given all the resources and budget that's required to maintain that surface. They've listened to your recommendations, they've provided you with the resources, and you have to deliver."
As previously mentioned, Jim is up for the challenge. His introduction to the job was a steady one. In August he was invited to the Quilter Internationals at Twickenham to see how a match day worked and experience how the grounds team operated. It was then he was able to speak with his deputy head groundsman, Ian Ayling, and get all the information he needed before orchestrating a plan for the transition.
"When you come into somewhere, especially after Keith Kent had been here for such a long time, you know he would have had his systems and his schedules and how he would have worked with the guys. Then, with myself coming in, there's a transition process that has to take place. And that's how I am as a manager; coming in and working my way through that process of understanding how they've done it before, how I like it to be done and slowly making that transition, so it's not me coming in here and rocking the boat and saying 'we need to do it like this tomorrow'."
"It's more a case of 'have you thought about doing this?' It's how you use your language and how you communicate. You're not coming in saying 'we need to do this because that was wrong in the past', it's more of, 'that's okay, but have you thought about doing this'. That's been quite a nice process, and my previous job probably put me in good stead because I was pretty much doing that every four weeks, so I was continually developing my communication skills. I was getting dropped into a new venue and doing the same thing. We'd cover what they'd done before, which consultants have you had in before, here's a programme we can probably try, have you thought about doing etc."
"The guys here have obviously got all the skillset and experience. They know what they're doing. But again, they've always done it a certain way with a different manager, so in this case, it's slightly adapted and changed a little bit. As I said, I've enjoyed that process. The people at the RFU within my department have been absolutely brilliant. I've had lots of support, so it's been quite a smooth transition."
"It's been a good time to come in because it was a World Cup year, so there were no Autumn Internationals, so I've had an elongated introduction into having fixtures here. We've only had two, Barbarians vs Fiji in November and Harlequins vs Leicester Tigers at the end of 2019, so it's been quite nice to see how the pitch reacts to what I've done in terms of inputs and how it performs."
"I'll start dialling it in now and have a better understanding of the environment that it's growing in as well because, obviously, it's a big stadium and it's not the most hospitable for grass growing. Like a lot of others, there are certain microclimates; some are similar, and some are a little bit different. I've noticed, with the stadium being as big as it is, that it's actually quite windy. At this time of year, it's quite difficult for feeding and spraying applications. Again, you start to understand what the boundaries are with regards to working and, at this time of year, we have to constantly monitor wind speeds and directions so we can determine the best time to carry out a spray or feed application."
"I have a fundamental way of working, which is an ethos as it were. I know I feel comfortable working within a certain schedule and I've got a way of personally working with the guys, and things like that, and I'm very happy with how it works. I've been able to replicate it at different places, and it seems to be quite positive feedback in terms of how that's all worked. There will be things that work best here in terms of Twickenham itself as a venue, and some of what I want to introduce won't work as well as planned for whatever reason, so I think there's lots of sharing of knowledge, ideas and experiences."
"It's all part of my management approach and I think a lot of groundsmen kind of adopt the same thing, and it's that we are all trying to manage turf health. We're trying to limit the peaks and troughs because, inherently, you end up getting other problems which will impact playing performance. Normally that's disease, and pitches never perform very well if they're quite lush from badly timed nitrogen input, so you're always trying to work out what the best growing pattern will be for that particular venue. That depends on usage, and again going through that process and that ethos, I've got a very layered approach with regards to the nutritional input, the basis being that it's dialling it in for the right times."
"People can come in here up to two weeks after a fixture has been played and the pitch won't look in great conditions, but there's a reason for that. It's all a part of the recovery, and I won't be mowing patterns in or anything like that, I'll be allowing the grass to stand up and be as natural as possible. And then, as we start working towards a fixture, that's when we start to improve that aesthetic and then it's what we do in terms of turf health, what sorts of inputs we put in specifically for it to be able to handle that usage."
"It's a good venue for that approach because you can give the pitch that time between fixtures. And again, rugby is not hugely in need of moisture management in the sense that it doesn't need it for playability, so again my moisture management is now for turf health rather than the actual playability, so that's really helped. We haven't had to have this whole thing of watering an hour before kick-off and at half-time, all that's gone and, in that sense, being here has been very useful."
Experience and age have contributed to Jim's adaptation from football to rugby. Knowing not to stress about damage and appreciate the time between fixtures has been important, as has getting to grips with intense pitch usage.
"Some periods I might have five or six weeks when I've got no fixture but then, unfortunately, when they do have a fixture here, it tends to be quite an intense time," Jim explained. "With Barbarians in November, we probably had seven hours' worth of rugby physically on the pitch. We had three to three and a half hours of 800 kids playing mini-tournaments and then we had the warm ups and the actual game itself in the afternoon. Whereas I'm used to football, where it might be every other week, or you might have two games in the space of ten days, but it would be for two hours and then two hours. Again, balance-wise over the annual season usage will probably be quite similar, but I'll have very quiet periods and then ridiculously intense periods where they throw everything and the kitchen sink at it, and we've got to try and recover from that ready for the next one."
"Another difference from football is the playability. I think in open play in terms of the damage you'll get from rugby in comparison to football is probably marginal if we're talking about hybrids. The big thing you've got is when we start talking about scrums and mauls because you've got lots of guys in quite a small area and, if there are issues in the scrum and they're reset, they don't tend to move too far. For instance, we had three resets on the West side in the big game, and we can still see the signs of that now, and we're three weeks past it."
"I had to adjust to it because, in football, if I had hair, I would have ripped it out. But it's one of those because you have the 'oh my god, what I am going to do to fix this', whereas now I feel like I'm at an age where I understand there's a process. They've done the game, we've prepared for it and this is what we've got, and now we need to repair and get ready for the next game."
"But the guys have been really great, they've adapted, and they've been very open minded with my ideas. We're working with such small margins. It's not like we're going to do something here and it's going to give us a thirty percent advantage or better quality or anything like that. We're eighty, ninety or ninety-five percent there most of the time, so we're just chasing the small margins, so it's little tweaks here or there."
Away from his main focus of Twickenham, Jim is looking to become fully immersed in Rugby Groundsmen Connected by the end of 2020. Clearly, he is keen to give back to the industry and he speaks enthusiastically about having the opportunity to work within a programme that's already helped a lot of clubs and has the potential to help many more. Along with being an IOG Ambassador, he views this as a chance to leave a legacy.
He explains: "I think it's huge for the sport that there are guys at the volunteer level giving up their time to try and produce and maintain pitches for their clubs. I'd love to be able to help and give advice exactly like Keith's done, and do the workshops. There might be some slight adaptations to how Keith's done it to how I might approach it, but the ultimate goal is to enhance the quality of those pitches at the grassroots level so that players can use them for longer and they can sustain that usage and still have a good enough quality. Again, it's all about sports participation and getting as many people as possible playing rugby on good quality pitches."
"That has a whole legacy ahead of it. Keith is still actively involved in his "semi-retirement" and we will work in tandem for the foreseeable future, making sure we deliver sound advice for all of the volunteer groundsmen so they can deliver pitches fit for play as best they can."
As the interview comes to a close, attentions turn to the more distant future of the pitch and the equipment used to maintain it. The Desso GrassMaster surface was installed in 2012 and is due to be reviewed with a part or full reconstruction the likely outcomes. On the equipment side - an openness to new technology and the RFU's awareness of their carbon footprint will guide purchases in years to come.
For now, the upcoming Six Nations campaign [at the time of writing] is the focus. Jim's feelings on this are a mixture of excitement for a new tournament in a different sport and another day being focused on the job. Whatever his feelings on the day, there's no doubt that, when England and Ireland cross the white line on February 23rd to a capacity crowd, they'll step onto the first of many pitches prepared by Jim and his team that is more befitting of the occasion.
Career challenges ...
I moved from Rushden and Diamonds to Tottenham Hotspur in 2003. It was a steep learning curve and really opened my eyes to how different it is to maintain and grow grass in a large, inhospitable stadium. It took me some time to adapt and re-assess the whole "growing grass thing".
Being robbed of natural resources you take for granted, and the impact that has on your job is, at times, monumental and also deeply frustrating. This, of course, was before the wonders of grow lights, so White Hart Lane was, for its size, a notoriously shaded pitch. The south goal line would only see maybe three hours of sun in total for the year. This would be on the longest day before the shade line made its steady march back towards the north.
We would have fifty games a season at Rushden and Diamonds and it wouldn't have a huge effect on pitch performance or certainly nothing out of the ordinary. At White Hart Lane, it was a different story, maybe half that amount of fixtures would be making us sweat and we would be fighting it to the end. We were aiming for quality and consistency and we did manage that eventually. Technology and products moved along enough for it to be implemented and this, again, needed to have a degree of learning to achieve what we wanted.
State of the industry?
Having been in the industry for over twenty-two years, I have come through the whole process, an apprenticeship scheme at sixteen to where I am today. I absolutely love it and wouldn't imagine me doing anything else.
It's difficult to see and I won't say our industry is struggling, but I certainly would say that it has stagnated somewhat and has been on a slow decline, maybe over the last two decades with having the ability to attract newcomers. This is speaking as a manager who, in previous roles, has been seeking suitable staff to come and work with me and my teams and seen first-hand the issues.
I am very aware of the fact that our industry is not seen in the same light as other "trades" in this country. For example, the plumbing, electrical and engineering industries are recognised with their core skillset and the value they bring; we, most certainly, should be seen in the same light.
I appreciate there is an element of supply and demand for quality trades and maybe that's something that has to happen within our industry too. Having the demand outstrip the supply will naturally raise the stock of hard working groundsmen and women across not only this country but across the globe. If this shift takes place, then there will be a natural attractive quality for youngsters to have a serious thought when looking at their career options when looking at our industry as a choice. Prestige, fulfilment, job satisfaction and value.