English groundsman Oli Makin decided to take a different career path and join Belgian football club OH Leuven. We spoke to him about this choice and how things are going there.
The majority English groundsmen dream of working in the top flight of English football; so did Oliver (Oli) Makin. Yet he chose a different path. Oli left the UK to become head groundsman at Belgian Pro League club OH Leuven. While he had never heard of the club before, his career took a turn for the better when he crossed the Channel. OH Leuven’s stadium pitch was named the Best pitch of all Belgian leagues in the 2019/2020 season and, on top of that, the Red Devils played their World Cup 2022 qualification matches at the Den Dreef Stadium. Plenty of achievements to be proud of for Oli and his team during his first years at the club. How exactly did he become OH Leuven’s Head Groundsman and what are the reasons for his success?
Oli learned the ropes of groundsmanship during an apprenticeship at Rochdale AFC. “I didn’t think this was something I wanted to do my whole life. But that changed during my apprenticeship, as I very quickly started to love the job. And look at me now, 14 years have gone by like it’s nothing. Quite scary if you think about it!” After carrying out jobs abroad and later at Scunthorpe United, Oli was ready for a next step. He was eager to work as a Head Groundsman in the top of the Premier League, but realised that his chances of doing so were slim. “It’s difficult in England to progress to higher clubs. The odds of a position becoming available are considerably small.”
So instead of waiting for luck, Oli broadened his horizon and came across an opportunity to join the (at the time) Belgian second division club OH Leuven. “I applied for the job, but to be honest, I’d never even heard of the place!” After he saw the King Power connection between Leicester City F.C. and OH Leuven, Oli was hooked. He went to Belgium for three days together with Head Groundsman of Leicester City F.C., John Ledwidge, to see the country, facilities and plans with his own eyes. “From the start I liked everything about the country. And after speaking with John and the club about the overall project, I knew that becoming part of such a big organisation was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. Looking back at it, this was the best move I could’ve made.”
During his first years in Belgium, Oli and his team prepared the stage for the club’s promotion to Belgium’s first division and won ‘Best pitch’ in the 2019/2020 pitch competition. “Winning the pitch competition has been the result of incredible efforts by the team. Especially considering the fact that we maintained an old pitch with a bare construction, no drainage system and no undersoil heating. The pitch had a tough time enduring the Belgian weather conditions in the winter months.”
Their hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Due to the high quality standard of the pitch, OH Leuven hosted two matches of the Red Devils, Belgium’s national team. A big compliment to Oli and his team. They only had five weeks to prepare the pitch for the international matches to come. A mini-renovation was required to present the highest quality to some of the world’s best players. Oli’s team had just enough time to carry out the renovation, partly with the help of grow lights, of which two brand new BU10’s. “In the beginning of the renovation there was no grass left in the goal mouths. We needed small grow lights for these areas to help us grow in the grass in time for the World Cup qualifiers. We looked into the BU10 grow lights and saw that they were ideally suited to aid with the grass growth of small areas, such as corners and goal mouths. We placed one BU10 in each goal mouth together with turf covers at the beginning of the renovation process. We went from no grass at all to full grass coverage in the goal mouths within a few weeks! The BU10’s did a great job.”
When the renovation was finished, the pitch was in excellent shape. Oli and his team set an impeccable stage for the Red Devils and his club OH Leuven to perform at their top level. And with new improvements to the facilities on the horizon and Oli at the helm of his team, Belgium can count on top quality grass in Leuven for a long time to come.
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