Celebrating #GroundsWeek - an interview with Andy Richards

Following a difficult year due to the impact of Covid-19 coupled with more varied and unpredictable weather conditions, grounds management continues to be a significant challenge around the world.

The skills and expertise it takes to keep pitches and turf in pristine condition for our favourite teams to play on each week often go underappreciated. As part of Grounds Week, and celebrating the hard work and dedication that grounds management staff put in week in week out, we spoke with Andy Richards, Grounds Manager at Haileybury School.

Andy, known as a pioneering practitioner of data-driven sports turf maintenance, has over 30 years of in-depth experience in the sports turf industry, having held head groundsman positions at several renowned institutions – including Shrewsbury School, Birmingham City Football Club, and Christ College Brecon.

How did you get started in the turf industry?

Initially, I started out as an apprentice gardener and groundsman for Birmingham City Council, where I stayed for four years working in parks, gardens, sports grounds, and golf courses. I realised quite quickly that I really enjoyed the instant gratification of being able to make and see a difference straightway with sports turf, compared to gardening where the results are much more future-focused.

At 25, I was working at a sports facility when Birmingham City Football Club began training at our facility. When the previous Head Groundskeeper left his role, I was offered the job and I became the youngest Head Groundsman at the time in the football league and for the club that I support, which was a dream come true.

What made you decide to move on in your career?

I loved what we were able to accomplish at the club and I was in charge for over 350-400 matches on the oldest pitch in the country with no drainage! It was hard to leave but I felt like the challenge wasn’t there anymore. You worked from match to match and didn’t have much opportunity to look outside the box – moving away from professional football has let me discover newer and better methods of maintaining the surface with the best technology.

Also, the appeal of managing a multi-sport facility for cricket, rugby, football, hockey, and lacrosse was really exciting and provided more opportunities to diversify my work and continuously learn new ways of doing things.

What challenges have you faced since leaving professional football?

Water-logging, poor quality grass, no drainage, and poor machinery, are just some of the challenges we face every day.

Using handheld tools are great but as soon as you get busy with your long list of jobs, you run out of time and if you miss it for two days, it becomes pointless because you lose all sense of what’s going on beneath the soil. With continuous measurement from Soil Scout, I can sit and look at how things are going from anywhere in the world and make decisions on what we need to do each day. It hasn’t changed my activities but it optimises my time.

How has deploying Soil Scout helped you?

I’m currently working with London clay underneath my soil, and without any historical data, all I know is that it can get very wet or very hard. For me, data is knowledge, and having Soil Scout continuously provide me with moisture, temperature, salinity data, it will give me so much more knowledge and justifiability to my directors to get more money spent in the right places and on the right resources.

For example, I was always under the impression that soil temperature was more constant than air temperature, yet using Soil Scout has shown me that it fluctuates just as much as the air temperature, which I would never have believed otherwise.

This means I’ve been able to adapt my fertiliser application times, meaning I waste fewer resources by applying it at 10 degrees as opposed to 9 degrees where fertiliser has no effect.

What motivates you every day?

My motivation is to continue proving how good I am – I want to be the best and take as many variables out of the equation as possible and show I am the best groundsman in the world. And soon using technology like Soil Scout’s I'll have the data to prove it. I’ll never settle for mediocrity or being good, I aim for perfection.

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James Baylis

Head of Creative Content at Soil Scout. With over 20 years experience in the design, media and photographic industries, James has a passion for promoting the Soil Scout solution through creative content and marketing.