From head groundsman
to published writer

Cambridge United F.C. Head Groundsman Ian Darler about his life on and off the pitch.

Ian Darler, Head Groundsman of FC Cambridge United on the pitch

They comfortably stood their ground as newcomers in League One, clinching a very decent 10th place. And even shook the country by knocking Premier League club Newcastle United F.C. out of the FA cup. Safe to say that life has been good at Abbey stadium; home of third tier side Cambridge United Football Club. Underlaying the club’s good performance is the hard work head groundsman and stadium manager Ian Darler and his team put in on a daily basis to, amongst others, keep the playing surface in tip top shape. Something he has been doing for the last 43 (!) years at Cambridge United. But parallel to his work on the pitch and in the stadium, Ian also saw himself become a spokesman for mental health issues and even wrote a book about it called ‘Life’s a pitch’. How does Ian look back at the season and the state of ‘his’ pitch? And how did he end up writing his own book?

A football club is like a wheel

Starting as a groundsman back in 1979, Ian has seen his club go through changes, but is pleased to see how things are at the moment. “When I started working at Cambridge United I was the youngest head groundsman in the country. From the age of 19 I gradually saw the club evolve to where it is now. During that time we’ve had bad seasons and good seasons and alternated relegation with promotion and success in various cup runs. A football club is like a wheel, you know. It never stands still. That’s what makes working at a football club so interesting. We have an exciting young manager (red. Mark Bonner) and new board members who invested time and money in Cambridge United and the facilities. That also means I was able to benefit from SGL HPS grow lights for the first time. The new lightings have taken a lot of the pressure away and helped me maintain pitch quality despite the bad weather conditions all groundsmen have to deal with.”

Because if you combine typical British weather, i.e. plentiful rainfall plus cold and dark days and nights during winter season, with 22 fanatic players wearing and tearing the pitch on a (bi)weekly basis, a pitch quality drop is almost inevitable you’d say. But somehow Ian managed to keep Cambridge’ pitch in perfect shape. “This season the pitch has been remarkably well, despite heavy amounts of rain in short spaces of time. The grass coverage has been outstanding even though we’ve had a long league season and more cup games at Abbey stadium than ever. We’ve had to deal with really, really wet conditions for a long period of time and low amounts of daylight hours. That has been a challenge. But now slightly worn areas have been reseeded and treated with the grow lights, which gets the grass growing pretty quick.”

Loyal to Cambridge

With his 43 years of service Ian has been a familiar face at the club for quite some time. Despite several other clubs trying to poach him throughout the years, his loyalty always belonged to The U’s. “Cambridge gave me the opportunity to enter the world of professional football and I’ve always been a person who values loyalty. I can still remember my first time as a groundsman. At the end of the season there was no grass on the pitch whatsoever. I started a week after the players had left for post season time off and when they came back the pitch was in top condition. Much to the delight of the players, it actually looked like the pitch at Wembley stadium!”

A statement former Coventry City manager John Sillet later endorsed. “I remember we played Coventry City in the League Cup later that year.” Ian recalls: “They had just won the FA cup beating Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium. After our match against Coventry, manager Sillet came out and told the press that, in his opinion, the pitch at Cambridge was even better than the one at Wembley! Two months later they offered me a job as head groundsman at Highfield Road (now Coventry Building Society Arena). But driving back from the interview I had already made up my mind; my place of work was Cambridge. And I stayed loyal for 43 years and counting.”

Life’s a pitch

But there’s more to Ian than ‘just’ his passion for football and groundsmanship. As someone who has struggled with mental health issues, he felt the urge to make mental health a topic that can be discussed within the work environment. So when approached by a publishing company Ian did not have to think twice about writing his own book about both pitch management and the importance of mental health. “The book ‘Life’s a pitch’ contains fun anecdotes about my work as a head groundsman and stadium manager, how things have changed machinery wise and about the banter with colleagues. But it also addresses serious topics about the mental health journey I went through. The publishing company asked me to write somewhere round 85.000 words and it felt like a breeze. It was therapeutic and did not take me long at all. In fact, there are still a lot of stories to add!”

And now Ian is being asked to speak about his book at sports clubs throughout the country frequently, to speak about what he has been through and to create awareness about the importance of making mental health issues something that can be discussed among colleagues. “You have got to give people the opportunity to talk about it. It’s your responsibility to look after the people you work with. I now ask my staff regularly ‘are you alright?’ if I feel something is up. Usually people respond with something like ‘yeah I’m good’ and go on with their day. But I always ask a second time, to give people the feeling that they can open up to me and tell me what’s really on their mind.

If you break your leg and walk around with a cast, everybody will ask how that happened. And then you tell the story. But people can’t see on the outside if you’re struggling mentally. It’s so important to check up on your colleagues regularly. There’s still a stigma on mental health issues. People have the feeling it’s not something you talk about. Here at Cambridge United everyone can talk comfortably about mental health. We talk about it like we do about the weather. What’s the difference?”

Wembley Stadium standard

Meanwhile, Ian’s work as head groundsman and stadium manager also needs his undivided attention. With 46 league games and hopefully as many cup games as they can get awaiting next season, it’s going to be hard work to keep the pitch in top condition. But similar to his battle with mental health, Ian does not stand alone. He has a capable team and the proper tools to rely on so he can keep the pitch conform that Wembley Stadium standard he strives for.