Groundsman at the leading clubs in the Premier League will tell you the profession has come a long way since the inception of the greatest league in the world back in 1992.
These days no end of money is thrown at the team of groundsmen who work tirelessly on pitches up and down the country, with mowers from Old Trafford to the Stamford Bridge in constant use. It is seen very much as an imperative that the fields of glory are manicured to perfection to allow the planet’s best-paid players to wow fans with superlative skills.
But dig a bit deeper into the history of the upkeep of football pitches and you’ll find a bizarre and often more-bizarre-than-that state of affairs. And the intriguing subject is the theme of an exhibition set to open at London’s V&A museum entitled Stay off the Grass: a journey through time on England’s football pitches.
It reveals that Liverpool, Burnley and Leicester City were the first clubs in the country to actually pay their groundsmen in 1965. The majority of senior clubs followed but did so with much disdain. Before the introduction of a union, groundsmen would make a living by renting out certain areas of the pitch to allotment growers throughout the summer and take a percentage of the rent for such.
It wasn’t unusual for clubs to have fully grown veg gardens on their pitches for months on end, with the groundsmen hurriedly clearing the turf a week or so before the first game of the new season.
And certain clubs were known for the advantageous properties of its soil to suit a particular vegetable. Villa Park was a hotbed for carrots, Highbury (Arsenal’s home before they switched to the Emirates Stadium) was known for being kind to parsnip-growers and the Tottenham area in general — and White Hart Lane specifically — was prevalent for plums.
Exhibition curator James Therat explains:
“The modern game is all about trimmed penalty boxes and whiter-than-white lines with grass as green as green can be. But this hasn’t always been the case. For many years, pitches were merely an afterthought and groundsmen were seen very much as second-class citizens.”
“It wasn’t until a group of disenfranchised pitch doctors formed the Union of Groundskeepers, Line-painters and Inspectors (UGLI) that these people started to get a voice and were taken seriously.”
One historic match that demonstrates just how this process was flawed came when West Bromwich Albion took on Everton in the opening encounter of the old Division One at the Hawthorns in 1973. The Baggies groundsman, a chap by the name of Adam Tactless, had left it late to clear the pitch of the various veggies that were growing on it and the game had to kick-off with a decent crop of cauliflower growing on a third of the field.
“The game ended 4-2 to the visitors and was notable because every time the ball fell in the cauliflower patch there was a mad scramble to unearth the ball — and all that came with it,”
“Changed days now, of course, but this history should not be forgotten and that is why we have the exhibition set to open its doors.”
*Stay off the Grass: a journey through time on England’s football pitches is on at the V&A museum from September 1st and runs through until to September 2nd. Tickets are, unsurprisingly, still available from the box office.