Charlie Still – groundsman rising star at Tranmere Rovers.
‘A muddy pitch’, ‘playable but tricky’, ‘the pitch puts players at risk of injury’. It’s January 2020 when Tranmere Rovers host Manchester United in the FA Cup fourth round. And the state of the pitch at Tranmere park is cause for concern. Groundsmen do their best to shove standing water off the pitch, but muddy goalmouths, worn areas and a cut up surface are inevitable. Now, two years after that disappointing FA cup night, 19 years old head groundsman Charlie Still and his team have completely turned around sentiment as the Prenton Park pitch gets voted 2nd best in League Two. What’s it like to be a head groundsman at such a young age? What’s his secret? And how did Charlies’ love for pitch management originate in the first place?
You don’t become one of the youngest Head groundsmen in the league overnight. It takes hard work, dedication and most important: a love for grass. So how did Charlie’s love for grass originate? “I believe what happened when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, was that I was playing football in the back garden and I pretty much trashed it. Turned it into some kind of football pitch they played on back in the 80’s. My mum always gave me a hard time and one day yelled: ‘You’ve got to stop playing football in the garden. You’re ruining it! Or you can look after it yourself.’ So I thought, I’ll just look after it myself then. So I gave it a cut every week, a bit of a trim. And gradually I became more interested. Started googling things like; what’s fertilizer and how do I use that? Before I knew it I was really interested.
I actually always preferred to be outside. I was always that kind of person. When I finished school I started volunteering at Collins Park in North Wales. By then I had also finished my level 2 in sports turf. A year later, I was 17, a job opened up at Tranmere and I took the opportunity. They had just built a new pitch. Prenton Park is a great stadium and Tranmere is a great club.”
You’ve got to stop playing football in the garden, or you can look after it yourself!
Fair to say Charlie hit the ground running at Tranmere. Two years later and still a teenager he gets promoted to head groundsman, managing a team and taking on more responsibilities. That was quite the transition. “It’s an honour to be honest and it’s something I’m really proud of. But it’s also something I’m not letting get to me. I’m not thinking about it like ‘I’m a head groundsman, but I’m 19’. I’m a head groundsman and I’m going to do the job properly. Regardless of my age. Of course it’s a little bit daunting coming into a new role. I think it would be for anyone, but it’s something I’m getting used to. It’s something I’m enjoying massively. I’m really settling in now. During the season I also do a few matchdays at Liverpool FC. The grounds team there has been working with lighting rigs for years. It’s great to have them for a bit of advice. But I must say that everyone is really supportive within the industry.
At Tranmere we’re responsible for the two sites we have: Prenton Park and the campus training grounds, which contains five pitches. The staff is responsible for the training grounds, while I do the stadium myself with the maintenance team. The main challenge in the stadium is the shade. We usually have four to five weeks with zero sunlight hitting the pitch.”
You don’t have to be an agronomist to know that grass’ main source for growth and recovery is sunlight. Yes, photosynthesis. So what does he do during those cold and dark days and nights?
“Grow lightsare a massive part. We could not have done the job without them. It allows us to keep growing during winter. Previously we’d go into November and December time and whatever grass you had then, you had. You’d lose a bit of coverage every match. It would just get worse and worse and worse. Now we can actually polish the pitch on. They are a massive tool and we could not have done that without it. You can see the differences that investing in the grow lights have made. The things they do for the pitch and the abilities they give us are massive.
A tool the Tranmere grounds team did not have in anticipation of that infamous FA cup match against Manchester United. “That was sort of a doomed pitch in many ways. It was 40 years old and we didn’t have any grow lights to use. After the season, when the pitch was so famously bad, we dug out the pitch and rebuild to a hybrid surface. That sorted our draining issues and playability issues. But we still had serious trouble keeping the grass. We went a season with the new pitch, but no lighting rigs. Even then it wasn’t great. It was only with the investments in lighting rigs that we improved massively. We’ve had 53 games on this pitch. At the same time we’ve done really well. You’ve got to go into games strong, with a good pitch and good management of the surface. It’s a lot better than it has ever been.”
But it’s not as simple as just rolling out the grow lights and flipping the switch. You’ve got to know when, where and how often to use them. And for that you need data.
“That’s an area that still needs improvement. Collecting data is something we’ve seen being effective so massively. Coming into it, two years ago, we sort of thought; we’ll collect data and monitor things for the sake of it. It won’t make an impact that much. But we were wrong about that. It really has made an impact. It’s all about the attention for detail.”
Getting insight via data monitoring on how your pitch is performing can be very useful, but feedback from the end-users, i.e. the players, trumps data. “We’re quite close to the first team and the coaches and physio’s. At the end of the day, as far as I’m concerned, it only makes sense to be close to them. They are the users of the pitch. I might think the pitch is great or bad, but if they think something opposite… Their opinions are more important than mine, because they are actually using it. So we do always ask them questions about the pitch. It’s just having that closeness at Tranmere, that good relationship. It makes that we can approach them and they can approach us.”
So what’s best to sail on? Gut feeling or data? “The industry is moving massively towards data and understanding good data and numbers. It’s a great side of the job. It allows us to actually know what’s happening with accuracy. At the same time there’s always that thing of a groundsman’s gut feeling. Having a walk on the pitch every morning and having a look how it’s doing. You’ll never lose that, there’s always an element of that.
Feedback from the players is also very important. And it can take you by surprise sometimes. You can watch a game from the side and the pitch will look good. You think you’ve done your job well there. And then the players would come off and be like; well actually it was slippery today. Things you won’t realize as a groundsman, because you’re not playing on it. It’s very helpful to get that feedback.”
That the pitch at Prenton Park has been ‘bang on’ last season is without a doubt, considering Charlie and his team clinched 2nd place in the EFL best pitch competition. “It was a great honour to come in second place in a league with some really good pitches. We lost out to Newport, who have a fantastic pitch. Ultimately, as we all said when we found out we came in second, we want to win it next year. We want to be first. We know more than we did last year and we will know more the year after, and the year after. One of the difficulties was working nutrition around the lights; keeping the pitch well fed while it’s still growing in January. That was a learning curve for us all. It’s something we know going into next year. But there’s always things to be improved on and that’s what’s keeping me going. That’s what will always keep me going.”
But even if Charlie and his team don’t win ‘Best pitch of the league’, he can always count on the support of his biggest fan. “That would be my mum, yes. She seems to think I’m some kind of second coming, hahah.”
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