WHEN the FA needed the best football groundsman in the country to tend the pitches that would nurture the cream of English talent for generations to come, they turned to a Scotsman.
Not surprisingly, Dundee supporter Alan Ferguson has had a fair bit of stick from family and friends about how he is helping Roy Hodgson’s World Cup preparations but it’s easy to see why the FA hand-picked the former Ipswich Town groundsman to look after its showpiece centre of excellence at St George’s Park.
Alan has a CV that has taken him from the home of golf, St Andrews, to the highest level in football and he’s a perfectionist who will never rest until every blade of grass on the 12 pitches at the centre is exactly right..
The warm weather has finally arrived and the grass now needs to be cut every day as the growing season belatedly kicks in, adding to the workload for the 14-strong team at St George’s Park.
But it’s a job they love, knowing the task is up there with the best in sport.
Alan started his career as golf green keeper, training at St Andrews, but gradually moved into football.
“I’ve always been a bad golfer but I’m a massive football fan, even if I was never good enough to be a player,” he says.
In the early 1990s he reconstructed Rangers troublesome pitch at Ibrox, before venturing south of the border.
He enjoyed “15 happy seasons” at Ipswich Town, picking up a clutch of awards along the way and was one of a small handful of people invited to apply for the job at St George’s Park two years ago.
“It’s the challenge of all challenges,” he says, about accepting the job as head groundsman. “The centre has been 20 years in the making, so to be the groundsman who has the opportunity to bring these pitches to life is a great honour. It doesn’t get much bigger than this; it’s probably the biggest job in UK football for groundsmen at this present time. “ In the past, Alan has also undertaken consultancy work for UEFA, the FA and leading construction companies, all of which have added to his experience.
“I think it has been a 35-year apprenticeship to prepare myself for something like this,” he says. “When I came here in 2011, the buildings were a shell and the landscapes hadn’t been formed. My first remit was to bring the pitches back to life as they were built in the early 2000s but the project was then mothballed. I had to take 4,000 tonnes of material off the pitches that had just been allowed to build up. By spring 2012 they were ready to go and we had a new build for the Wembley replica pitch.” That special pitch is an exact copy of the one the England senior team graces for home international matches and Alan works closely with the head groudsman at Wembley to ensure that Roy Hodgson and his squad know what to expect.
Alan says: “Wembley is a high profile, multi-event stadium that has everything from rock concerts to American football in its business plan. But the levels of intensity and expectation are similar at both venues and what we both have to get right is the experience for the England team, so what they get here is a nice springboard for what they get there.
They tell me how firm the pitch is, what height they are cutting the grass at and I try to mirror that. That’s why when we created the pitch here we made it a carbon copy of the Wembley profile.” That should ensure perfect conditions for Rooney, Hart, Gerrard and co when they train at St George’s Park ahead of all their international fixtures. If the stars aren’t happy, it’s likely that Alan will be the first to know.
“If players have a hang up with a pitch, they are quick enough to come and tell you,” he says. “The feedback is invaluable.
If anyone experiences tight hamstrings, or pains in joints, it tells me my pitches are too hard. If they are slipping and falling over, I’m overwatering. Or it might be grass length problems. Just as the players are only as good as their last game, we are only as good as our last pitch; so we always respond to feedback.
I touch base with the medical staff after each session and, once the players have showered and changed, we keep a watch on the aches and pains they report. If there are any injuries we are keen to know if it is an impact injury, because it is a contact sport, or if it is pitch related.
“It’s a pressure we expect. We know what professional players want. They have fantastic facilities at their home clubs and we have to meet that level of expectancy.” Alan has 330 acres to look after at St George’s Park, which includes the parkland surrounding the pitches.
“We have some of the most beautiful natural woodland in the National Forest,” Alan says. “Around 90 per cent of the parkland work involves grass cutting, so we felt we could take it under our wing.
We have two dedicated gardeners and one member of staff who flits between that and work on the pitches. We also still have a relationship with the original contractors as we have thousands of yew trees maturing. Now, the park looks awesome when you come down that long drive on a beautiful day.” There are three-and-a-half-miles of protective fencing to help keep the rabbits, deer and foxes off the precious grass but that doesn’t stop the odd stray animal venturing in the wrong direction.
Alan says: “We still have one or two rabbits that find their way in but they aren’t damaging pitches like they did during the period of construction. Before the fences went up we had massive problems. It was a case of taking one step forwards and two backwards. It would take three of us two hours or 120 | July 2013 Sport “Everybody who is close to me realizes that this was an enormous opportunity and that nobody in their right mind was ever going to turn it down. It’s a wonderful place to be.” July 2013 |121 more each morning just to fill damaged holes dug out by rabbits, foxes or deer.
“We have hooked up with the gamekeepers of the landowners around here and they have been an immense help as they know the wildlife and the problems that can cause.
“We want the wildlife and football to be in harmony and we have got there quite quickly. It’s great when you come in the entrance and you see cattle grazing and pheasants on the pitches (even if we have just seeded them).
“We are in the heart of the National Forest and we have a biodiversity action plan that ensures that football and wildlife will co-exist happily for years to come.” Many people still think St George’s Park is just for the use of the elite England teams but the pitches play host to a wide cross-section of the community as well.
Alan says: “It’s great that the local community teams have the opportunity to play and train here – that’s wonderful.
But that high volume of usage has given us another challenge.
“I don’t think we have a bad pitch here at St George’s Park and we have come through one of the worst winters on record. We have five pitches with undersoil heating, so you can well believe how popular they became over January, February and March.
“You can take that level of use for a short period of time but you will lose grass cover. What was good for us was that the pitches stayed flat and were always playable.” There is a difference between the pitches that Alan and his team prepare for the professionals and the community users.
Alan says: “Amateur players don’t have the same levels of fitness and stamina, so we segregate the pitches out. It’s frightening the difference in pace we can put on a pitch. It’s not great for the community to follow the pros or vice versa. Amateur players would struggle to control the ball if they followed the professionals on a fast pitch and that’s not fair.” Alan’s phone is now buzzing, a wellknown football magazine is also looking for his insight, and outside that grass needs tending.
But he can’t leave without explaining again his excitement at the challenges ahead and the benefits St George’s Park can bring to the England team. But will his family and friends forgive this likeable Scotsman if he plays a major part in a future England World Cup triumph? He says: “Everybody who is close to me realizes that this was an enormous opportunity and that nobody in their right mind was ever going to turn it down. It’s a wonderful place to be.”