"JD" - Pitch Perfect

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 Looking at him – low slung and built like a brick outhouse,  and talking to him – direct and not short of an opinion, you think what a damn fine scrum half he might have been if he’d played rugby. But RAA Estate and Facilities Manager John Davidson only punched above his weight when he boxed. Another passion was body building, and it shows, to the extent that he once figured in the National Top 15. Nowadays golf is his main hobby, which is a curious contrast to his earlier alpha male pursuits, though he’d always been keen on the game, and it was this interest which started him on his career in ground keeping.

 He’s a very fit looking 46, married to Claire and with two children, and has always worked in sports. He started as an apprentice groundsman at a school in 1984, followed by four years in a similar role at Effingham Golf Club, during which time he gained various appropriate qualifications before 6 months ‘bumming around’ in Australia. Coming back he was Deputy Course Manager at Leatherhead GC then Course Manager at Gatton GC for ten years from 1994.

 Circumstances changed, and he took a live-in job at Moor Place in Esher as Head Greenkeeper, which allowed him to work in the mornings and go off to run Roy’s Gym in Hampton Wick later in the day and to sculpt the physique still apparent now. He then took up a good offer from SJK Sports Turf Consultants to become a director with an initial brief to look after a Polo estate but then subsequently as a consultant to various soccer clubs such as QPR, Brentford, Fulham and Watford, and Wasps and Saracens in the rugby world.

Any consultant in any sphere is familiar with the frustrations which result when solutions proposed are ignored, and John was no exception, so off he went. He started the Head Groundsman job at the RAA in 2011 after seeing it advertised, but only stayed a year (“the place was right but the timing was wrong”) and joined a private school in Ewhurst for a couple of years. Then back to the RAA in March this year to take responsibility for the ground – the pitches, the buildings and the maintenance. It can’t be easy juggling with the demands of a far from straightforward structure – the alphabet soup of  RAA, RFC and LSFC - it’s a lot of people to keep happy, but he manages, he says.

 So what about the RAA ground? What about the 25 acres, the seven pitches and all the buildings and structures he’s responsible for?  Well, he’d like it all to be dug up, knocked down, turned around and a New Jerusalem to arise from the debris. But like anyone who’s given the matter some thought he knows it takes money, and a lot of it, so he’s a realist and will make the best of what he has in the short term. As you’d expect he’d like some new machines and a few more staff, though he’s very complimentary about the people he has and works with, thinking they do a great job. You don’t need a degree in agronomy to know that the pitches are better than they’ve been in some time. The ongoing problem is water and we’re limited to the amount we can take out of our bore hole -  75 cubic metres won’t do seven pitches in a hot summer, managing to irrigate two per day at best.

Another problem is the inert soil under the pitches. It’s fertile but there’s a lot of silt, and this means it doesn’t hold moisture and dries out quickly making it crumbly, thus the top cuts up because it’s not binding. We’re very reliant on the weather in terms of our playing surfaces and a summer drought is a major headache, but even so they’re probably as good as we can get them within the constraints. John says “ the pitches tell me what they want” and I’ll leave it at that because what he went on to say was so technical I couldn’t follow it. What I did catch is that the first team pitch is mowed by hand and takes 4 hours to cut, the others being done by ride-ons.

A couple more interesting points – there’s no such thing as an ‘all-weather’ pitch (heavy snow and you’re done for) and 4G pitches are really only a variation on 3G (3G being 3rd generation). And another quote worth reporting “ Sport deserves natural turf.” He says that because he’s not a big fan of fully synthetic playing surfaces, which according to him still require specialist machinery and careful maintenance.  So waving a magic wand what does he want? A Desso Grassmaster system apparently, which is artificial fibre incorporated into the soil for the grass roots to bind onto thus providing stability so the grass won’t kick out, plus artificial fibres stitched in amongst the grass. Twickenham has one, but then again the RFU can afford the £650,000 bill which goes with it. He’ll settle for just doing the main pitch, but even so it looks like Steve Hill is going to have to sell a kidney. But whatever happens you are left with the impression that John Davidson will cope. It’s what he does.

Paul Grindrod - November 2014

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