Soil Scout interview - Nick Durkin
Earlier this year, an estimated 31 million Britons tuned in to watch the final game of Euro 2020 live on TV. Millions more streamed the match, and the England Vs. Italy game became one of the most-watched moments in British television history.
But many excited fans likely didn’t think of the professionalism, technology, and data required to make a pitch pristine and suitable for our favourite players to perform at their best.
To find out more about the skill behind the game, we spoke to Nick Durkin, Soil Scout’s resident sports and fine turf specialist and former football stadium groundsman.
After graduating from Myerscough College, Nick worked in some of the nation’s most famous football stadiums. Now, he’s working in the UK team as installer and sales trainee, and has lots of insights and knowledge to share with us.
What inspired you to join Soil Scout?
During my eight-year career, I’ve seen grounds-keeping become a truly data-driven industry. I think Soil Scout is a great tool, and it offers groundskeepers invaluable information. It gives users extra knowledge of what’s going on underground, so they can tie it in with what’s going on at the top to develop a proactive plan. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t want that advantage.
What’s your favourite football ground?
Working with a great team at Wembley Stadium was fantastic. You don’t get more prestigious than that. I’ve been there as a fan, too, and the atmosphere is brilliant. I also worked for my local club Colchester United for a few weeks before the COVID pandemic. I was really hitting my stride there and had a great experience.
But COVID slowed things down dramatically, so it turned out to be a short-lived job. The grounds were actually used for Britain’s first televised football game that aired after the COVID restrictions came into play. I was glad to be a part of that.
Do the opportunities and challenges change with the size of the football ground?
Yes, the most significant differences mainly come from infrastructure and budgets. Wembley Stadium has pretty much all the resources you need, but there are a massive amount of events, and preparation is often about covering the turf.
Smaller stadiums generally have less money and less infrastructure. But you are there to provide a pitch for a football team and nothing else, which is great. I can’t truly compare huge stadiums to a local club, though. They are two very different animals with unique opportunities and challenges.
Which industry trends do you find the most exciting right now?
Technology is fascinating. There are many developments in the turf industry, and more and more football clubs are collecting data. However, it’s no good having data if you don’t know what to do with it. That’s why I’m excited to work with Soil Scout. It collects a considerable amount of data for soil moisture, salinity, and temperature monitoring. With this, users can identify soil variations within one field and develop an effective turf maintenance plan.
No two pitches are the same, and data collection is a long-term project. It takes a few weeks to identify trends like lack of water, etc. Thankfully, Soil Scout enables sports turf professionals to use an all-in-one login to plan maintenance, create a job list, and view data. Everything is all in one place, and everyone knows what they need to do.
What challenges do you think turf professionals will face in the next ten years?
I’m not sure if we have to wait ten years for the next big challenge. It’s already with us. Many new chemical regulations are coming into play, and we really have to work out what chemicals are effective, safe, and environmentally friendly.
That’s not to say farmers are worried about specific chemicals. The opposite is true. Many have been using the same fertilisers and pesticides for decades, and there’s no hint of any health or environmental dangers. What’s more, everyone knows each other in this industry, and people really like to know what’s going on. So if a chemical is found to be unhealthy or is facing a ban, it quickly becomes common knowledge, and people get to work on an alternative. The real challenge is keeping up to date with legislation. Turf managers adhere to similar regulations as agricultural workers. Using professional pesticides requires a certificate, and storing pesticides must be done according to existing codes of practice.
Do people get surprised when they hear how innovative your industry truly is?
Absolutely! It’s a lot more proactive and tech-savvy than many people think. But the industry still hasn’t truly embraced the benefits of data collection yet. I have to admit that I was rather naive to the power of data before joining Soil Scout, and it took me a while to get up to speed with all these fantastic innovations.
Do people have many misconceptions about Soil Scout?
I don’t think there are many misconceptions about the products. But people have to know that data collected from a nearby area is often completely different from data collected from their own grounds. There’s a huge amount of variabilities in data, and everyone will have a different use for it. Football stadiums have more similarities than other grounds. But even uniformed areas differ due to external factors such as shade, sunlight, and even nearby infrastructure.
So, buying a Soil Scout product is not like buying the same car as your neighbour?
Absolutely not! Many people have a pretty good idea of soil conditions on leisure spaces such as golf courses, as they often test the ground. But soil can change dramatically in the six or so months between tests, and conditions differ greatly in relatively small areas. You need 24/7 monitoring to really know what’s going on. And the data you work with will be truly unique.
Do you feel you’re on a bit of a busman’s holiday when you play football and golf?
When I was a groundsman, I often spent time thinking about the condition of the pitch and looking out for problems. But I learned to switch off from that, and I just enjoy the game now. I appreciate the good things without looking out for the bad. But I must add that I have a huge amount of respect for the guys who develop and maintain pitches. They are incredibly busy people, and I can’t believe I used to work under those tight deadlines. Being a groundsman really is a way of life! You’re a groundsman until you retire, and that’s it. You can only slow down when you stop working.