"The FA's Head Groundsman at St George's Park, Alan Ferguson, made a number of advisory visits to Telford"
Match day articles are always exciting, having the opportunity to get an insight into an event and how it all comes to fruition is what I enjoy. It is particularly interesting to witness, at first hand, the work required to get a stadium match-ready - and even better when the match is an international, and it is taking place just around the corner!
In November, AFC Telford hosted the opening game in the UEFA European Women's U17 Championship.
The tournament was staged at four Midlands venues, all within an hour's travel of St George's Park where the international teams were being acc ommodated. The stadiums selected for use were AFC Telford, Hinckley, Chesterfield and Burton Albion.
Teams taking part came from England, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Germany Scotland, France and Spain.
Mick Conway is the Groundsman at Telford; he is someone I have known for many years, and he kindly invited me along to see the opening game of the tournament - England v Italy - to record this very prestigious occasion for his club.
The ground is council owned and Mick works for Telford & Wrekin Services (TWS), the council's contractor; he has been there for ten years and is solely responsible for the maintenance of the pitch.
Like many lower division football clubs, investment in the pitch is generally kept at a minimum. Over his years there, however, Mick has managed to accumulate some very useful equipment, including a Ransomes Matador 36 cylinder mower, a compact tractor equipped with a Sisis brush and a Charterhouse Verti-drain. As a result, the pitch is in very decent condition considering the time of year and the number of fixtures already staged this season (about thirty prior to the tournament).
Support has also been forthcoming from the FA's Head Groundsman at St George's, Alan Ferguson, who made a number of advisory visits to Telford. The club was also given additional resources in the form of topdressing, seed and fertiliser to help with their preparations for the tournament.
On the morning of the match, I arrived to find Mick and his helper, Lewis Gough, marking the pitch using a transfer wheel line marker. The ground had been transformed into a UEFA branded stadium, with all local sponsor boards covered over and only official tournament sponsors' signs on show.
Kick-off was scheduled for 12.30pm so, by 10.00am, the only tasks left to complete were filling the sunken pop-ups with topdressing and putting out the corner flags. Stewards, first aiders, police and other officials arrived, having last minute briefings and getting themselves ready for the gates to open at 11.30am.
Whilst waiting for the kick-off, I took the opportunity to interview some of the people involved with putting the tournament and venues together.
My first 'victim' was Chris Falvey from the Football Association (FA) whose role was that of Venue Operations, the man who selected the stadiums and tasked with job of getting them ready in time; "I have been liaising with Telford, Chesterfield, Hinckley and Burton over the last seven months," he said. "All the grounds had to be within an hour of St George's Park, which is our HQ for the tournament. The groundstaff have really enjoyed the help we have given them, and we are pleased that all the pitches are in a really good condition."
Next for the interrogation was AFC Telford's MD, Lee Carter, who was understandably extremely proud of the stadium's selection as one of the host grounds; "It's an absolute honour for the football club, a big honour for Telford to be a host of the tournament but then, secondly, to host the opening ceremony. We started the planning for this tournament back in May and you can see the amount of work that has gone in to get everything up to speed."
Leaving the MD to continue with his official duties, I made my way to pitchside in time to see the opening ceremony, the national anthems and the presentation of the teams.
The match itself was very entertaining, with some excellent play, all the more impressive when you consider that some of the players on show were only fifteen years old! England started strongly, pressing hard and stringing together some very decent passes, however they didn't make the most of their superiority and, at half-time, it was 0-0.
During the break, it was all hands to the divoting forks, and I duly took my place alongside Mick and some other trusty volunteers to tidy up the pitch.
The atmosphere in the ground was loud and different; the crowd comprising hundreds of local schoolchildren with large lungs and highly pitched voices! Over 2,000 spectators in total - a very impressive turnout.
With the second half underway, and England still in the ascendancy, the Italians took the lead when a poor clearance led to a deflected shot which looped over the goalkeeper. Despite some very valiant efforts towards the end, the host nation could not get the goal they deserved.
Not the result the majority of the crowd wanted, but a very entertaining spectacle nonetheless.
As the spectators filtered away, Mick and his team were back out on the pitch with their forks and cylinder mower, preparing for the second match of the tournament - Austria versus Portugal - also being held at the stadium - at 8.00pm that evening!
A long fifteen hours day for Mick, but very satisfying and very pleasing. With two more of the tournament matches due to be held at Telford, he can be very proud of what he has achieved. There cannot be too many groundsmen in the country who have had the honour of hosting four international matches in such a short space of time.