Preceding the Covid-19 outbreak, a sea of AFC Fylde supporters stood on the Mill Farm terraces cheering on their beloved Coasters. They yelled; they cursed; they cheered. Challenges flew in and goals were scored. They waved their flags, held their scarves aloft and drove the lads on. There is ups and downs and everything in between, but at any football club, those moments and emotions wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the arduous work of the ground staff.
The days of preparation that go into a match day is unseen, and it is people like Tony Owen, AFC Fylde’s Head Groundsman, who play a pivotal role in ensuring that the management staff, players and supporters are provided with the pristine playing surface that they have become accustomed to at Mill Farm.
Tony turns 52 today, and as we speak, he is taking cover in a shed adjacent to the Bowker Motor Group Stand, with the sound of the fierce coastal wind and rain swirling around in the background. “I’m used to it now”, he chuckled.
Since taking on the job as Head Groundsman in June last year, Tony has been faced with multiple challenges, such as renovating the pitch during his first month in the role. Reminiscing on those early days, he explains in detail the painstaking process in which he had to follow in order to get the pitch ready for action. “It was hard work, that’s for sure”, he said, “but it was well worth it. To come in and be able to do a £20,000 pitch renovation was key.”
“There was an awful lot of pre-planning and thought that went into it. First and foremost, we installed a new drain in front of the Main Stand to relieve the previous drainage issues.
“With the help and input of Richard Peel, we then took the surface off with something called the Field Top Maker, which ultimately strips off the top of the pitch’s surface. We then added 70 tonnes of fibre sand and rotovated it into the ground which has helped improve the stability of the pitch. To finish we put 18 bags of ryegrass seed down which is a really tough, durable grass seed. It was then just a case of growing it in with the aid of the irrigation system that we have at Mill Farm.”
For anyone that works at the Football Club, they will know Tony as a modest, unassuming man who eschews from any spotlight, and somebody who prefers to do most of his talking on the pitch – as the saying goes. With Wimbledon Tennis Club, Crystal Palace and Arsenal amongst his former employers, it is also fair to say that AFC Fylde’s pitch is in safe hands. The welshman says his journey into the industry stemmed from his love of the beautiful game: “I have always loved football; I was football mad growing up, so that was always my main interest when I was getting into it”, he said.
“I played semi-professionally up in the league of Wales for a short while. My first real job in this line of work was at the age of sixteen at Bangor University where I grew up, looking after all of the sports pitches there. There was football, rugby union, hockey, cricket in the summer.”
After a number of years working localIy, Tony furthered his experience by studying at Myerscough College in Preston, with a memorable placement at the highly-regarded Gleneagles Golf Course being a particular highlight. “Everything was golf in college, so I thought I’d go there and give it a go. It was really enjoyable apart from the early mornings! I did a European Tour event there which was fantastic; the course was in brilliant condition already but it was good to see how they dressed it up for a big tournament. There are things that I learned during that experience that I have taken forward with me over the years.”
A year down in Wimbledon with the All England Lawn Tennis Club came next, before Crystal Palace Chairman,Simon Jordan, persuaded Tony to join the ground staff at Selhurst Park. He said “Within six months I was Head Groundsman at the football club, so it was a really fast rise. The decision was based on the work that we’d done at the training ground which saw the Academy set-up gain Academy status.
“We had Wimbledon playing at Selhurst at the same time and it was a notoriously bad pitch. I remember turning up for the interview and the first thing that was said to me was ‘why are you taking this job with two teams playing on it, are you mental?’, but in my head I knew that if I could make a positive impact on the pitch, make it look and play well, then everybody will take notice. I managed to have a really successful season, and from there I received a call from Arsenal’s Head Groundsman, Steve Braddock, who complimented my work and invited me in to look around the training facility with a view to take a job.”
During his time at The Gunners, Tony witnessed the famous ‘Invincibles” season, a time that he looks back on with great fondness. He explained: “I spent two years with Arsenal, experiencing the unbeaten season. I’ve got a picture of the ground staff with the golden Premier League and the Charity Shield. It brought different pressures from my previous job as the players and management expected everything to be spot on, and usually it was. At the time it was undoubtedly the best training ground in Europe, so being around that sort of environment was great.”
A move back up north for family reasons led to stints at Bolton Wanderers and Oldham Athletic, before AFC Fylde came calling. With almost seven months under his belt at Mill Farm, Tony says he has thoroughly enjoyed his time so far: “There is a really good bunch of people here, from the Chairman, Chief executive, and right down to the coaching staff and players.
“Sometimes as a groundsman you can be a bit of a piggy in the middle, in between the board and the coaches, however, that doesn’t really happen here. The communication between David, Jonty, and Jim is really good. I always try to give them all as much information in regards to the weather to enable them to make judgements on where they can train.
“Communication is everything in this role. A good example is the conversations between manager and grounds person. In my early days at the club, Jim told me that his preference was to have a surface as good as can be and for it to be as wide as possible to allow his team to play football on the ground. That suited me anyway, as that’s always how I have tried to work ,whereas in previous jobs, I have been asked to make alterations which go against my principles. I have been asked in the past to make the pitch long and narrow to suit a direct playing philosophy, and that wasn’t something I felt particularly comfortable with. You do it though, because in this position you have to do as the manager asks.”
Statistics show that on average a grounds person covers 35,000 steps a day ahead of a match and 25,000 on a regular day. For Tony, the hard graft isn’t just for the hallowed turf at Mill Farm, the surrounding greenery is also his responsibility, as well as FSEC and Kellamergh Park which also needs expert attention throughout the year. A lot of us are guilty of underestimating such a role, and the time and effort that is required. Tony, though, has had a lot of time to come to terms with the stereotype that surrounds his profession: “You definitely get used to it. I must say that over the last few years the profile of the role has been raised a lot, but when you look at schools and the way they view careers there is still an assumption that it is a low-skilled job. People look at this industry as one that doesn’t require many qualifications, but nothing is further than the truth. In fact, the football league have now introduced a guideline that makes sure any head groundsman working at that level must be qualified to a certain standard, so the bar is being raised which is only a good thing.
The Club would like to thank Tony for his efforts and wish him a very happy 52nd birthday.