The Groundsman

September 2014

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IOG 80TH ANNIVERSARY 20 the Groundsman September 2014 Visit for more information and digital editions My first knowledge of the IOG or, as it was in those days, the National Association of Groundsmen (NAG), was in 1955 when I was called to a meeting of the 160 or so groundsmen/gardeners employed by Bristol Education Committee. This was at the behest of the newly-appointed superintendent of horticulture, who gave us a pep talk and berated those who had not been looking after their machinery properly. The brief included keeping oil levels correctly topped up, setting cylinder mowers before use and even instances of weed killer being placed in the oil tank of two-stroke mowers. Amazingly, long before the onset of Health & Safety laws, weed killer was distributed in old, unmarked lemonade bottles. I had taken the job of groundsman/gardener in September 1954 and, in those days in Bristol every new comprehensive school had extensive sports grounds that required their own groundsman and with a house attached, it was a desirable occupation. I was not one of the lucky ones, so arrived on my bike each morning. The meetings became a regular bi- annual occurrence and at one Bert Taylor, a council foreman and NAG Bristol branch chairman, invited everyone to attend a NAG local meeting. Quite a few took up the invitation and over the years were kept interested and informed by the National Quiz, as well as enjoyed good talks and demonstrations by various experts in the profession. After attending the meetings over a period of years, I eventually became branch secretary and later was elected chairman, at which I enjoyed ten happy years and met colleagues from all over Britain. I worked for Bristol City Council for 14 Mike Lillington's memories of a Bristol-based groundsman years up to 1968, when a friend spotted an advertisement in the local paper for a groundsman at Bristol City FC. Being a life- long fan of the club, I jumped at the chance and was fortunate enough to get the job at £18 week – a rise of £4 a week. During my early days tending Ashton Gate, farming techniques were still being used for pitch renovation, such as ripping up the surface with spiked harrows towed by a large agriculturally-tyred tractor. S23 was the most refined perennial ryegrass at that time and was usually encouraged by a dressing of 20.10.10 fertiliser. One of the directors, Lionel Smart, became a great friend. He was a farmer and a very generous man who supplied the machinery as well as two men, free of charge. He supported me in successive years when I started bringing in modern methods and machinery. Fortunately, around that time in 1968, the contravator was being developed and seeding became much more successful and improved the percentage of new growth and quality of surface. This was also the period when many new strains of seed were being developed through the combined efforts of STRI and seed growers. I was fortunate enough to win a competition for a trip to Holland to visit the extensive trial grounds of Mommersteeg, a leading supplier of seed at that time. Challenging times Ironically, as pitch surfaces improved, so clubs became more disposed to using them for events other than football. The most damaging of activities I had to cope with in summer periods - when newly- seeded areas were most vulnerable - was the Evel Knievel circus, which involved motor bikes riding through burning straw bales and smashing through huge panes of glass. This necessitated the help of the entire group of 17 apprentice professionals for three weeks, meticulously removing tiny shards of broken glass. Feeling demoralised by this debacle, I requested that the directors looked at the pitch at close quarters. After wandering around the mass of burnt straw, broken glass and large areas of dead grass where kerosene had been spilled, the only sympathy I received was when one said to me, 'Oh, not too bad is it, Mike?' Pop concerts then became the favourite pastime, with one by The Rolling Stones causing deep compaction from the heavy machinery used to build the stage. The pitch was not covered first, and the whole area had to be cultivated to a depth of nine inches to restore it to its original level. A much quieter event was when the Jehovah's Witnesses held a conference with only a small part of the pitch being involved and the added benefit of each group of followers clearing and sweeping the whole ground. It had never been so tidy. Even in a pre-season when Bristol City FC was about to return to the then First Division, for the first time in 67 years, the pitch was used for a whole month filming a television series devised by entrepreneur managers on the theme of training routines, but with a competitive edge. This involved six teams of six to eight players for several hours each day and I had my work cut out continually marking new areas, repairing damage and trying to water parts of the pitch not in use. This went on until precariously close to the start of the new season and unsurprisingly the pitch was less than pristine. My sojourn at Ashton Gate ended when, despite having the development of a training ground added to my schedule without any increase in wages or assistance, the manager told me one day that he wanted me to spend more time there as "this (Ashton Gate) looks after itself". Soon after that I handed in my notice, which was at first refused, but I persisted and eventually left in 1978, having been honoured with a hastily-arranged lunch party by the chairman, office and other non-playing staff. Some nice sentiments were expressed, but suffice to say, four years later when the manager had been sacked and the team dropped two divisions, I was back in the capacity of pitch consultant. I eventually retired in 2000 after 46 happy and satisfying years in a wonderful profession. Mike Lillington Mike Lillington

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