FOR two decades Brian Ellis covered Preston North End from on high in the pressbox. Today he gets down to grassroots to kick off a weekly series as Evening Post journalists try a day in the job of their dreams.
It had been a secret love affair for nigh on 20 years.
But, after gazing longingly at her from afar, there was always the danger she wouldn’t live up to expectations once we finally got up close and personal.
I needn’t have worried.
The grand old lady was even more clipped and cultivated than I hoped she would be.
Football’s oldest professional pitch looked simply stunning as the greenest of greenkeepers gingerly set foot on Deepdale to live the dream as a groundsman for the day.
First words are always the hardest. “Wow” wasn’t the one I expected to come tumbling out. Certainly not from a man who has twice trod the hallowed turf of Wembley.
But this manicured lawn really was that impressive. Surprising, then, that shortly after my one-day apprenticeship they dug her up!
“We like to do that every summer if we can,” said pitch guru Pete Ashworth, well-deserved winner of the League One Groundsman of the Year trophy for the season just gone.
“It might look wonderful right now. But organic matter gets in there if you don’t and that can have an effect next season.
“So we whip the top centimetre off, put fibre sand down and re-seed it. In perfect conditions the seed germinates in five days and we can be doing our first cut in 12 days.”
My shift was on matchday – play-off semi-final matchday, no less.
I joined Pete and his team at breakfast-time to get Deepdale ready for a 5.15pm TV kick-off.
The fact that the game was being beamed live to umpteen different countries cranked up the pressure another notch.
The bacon and sausage barms had to wait, there were 8,470 square yards of turf to be trimmed, almost 700 yards of white lines to be painted and two sets of goalposts, with onion bags attached, to be put in place.
The grass had to be exactly 23 millimetres that day, no more, no less.
Most times two men cut while a third marks the lines.
This day three men went to mow – groundstaff Sam Newton and Dean Ash with their eager helper who kept asking: “When’s it my turn?”
Now Sam and Dean are proud of the job they do. And they do it well – even though it means a six-mile walk every day to keep the pitch trim.
Those arrow straight cuts are what give the pitch its well-groomed look.
So they took some persuading to give the ‘junior’ a go in case he ruined the pattern.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Dean, clearly hoping the nuisance would go away and sweep the concrete apron instead. “These mowers pull one way and then the other. They’re hard to keep in line.”
Eventually they both waved the white flag and Ellis was at the controls, cutting a couple of strips across the pitch either side of the edge of the Town End box. To my untrained eye they were pretty bob on. And I’d like to think it was no coincidence Joe Garner hit his “wonder goal” six hours later from exactly that spot.
Head groundsman Pete, working with a stitched and bandaged hand after an argument with a Stanley knife the day before, took on the job of marking the pitch. Foresaking the latest laser-guided technology, he employed a ball of string.
“I find I’m more accurate using this than a laser,” he laughed.
And when I took the linesman’s view from the corner flag along the goal-line, it couldn’t have been any straighter.
The big enemy of white lines is rain, especially when it arrives in bucketfuls like it did that day. “If the white markings haven’t dried on the grass it can wash them away,” explained Pete looking up worryingly at the dark clouds sitting ominously above the stadium. “It’s also more difficult to cut the grass in the rain.
“Some days part of our preparation is irrigating the surface. Today that won’t be necessary! But we just get on with it. We can’t control the weather.”
As usual Pete and his team are hoping the sun continues to shine during the summer break.
Producing a new pitch in a matter of weeks is no mean feat, especially if the elements don’t want to play ball.
“We used to ask for 12 weeks before they are playing on it again,” he said. “But last summer we got seven – and then along came Liverpool for a friendly.
“We did it. It was playable. But it was really tight.”
Sitting up in the pressbox later – my vantage point for two decades at Deepdale – I confess I squirmed at every slide tackle in case it gouged out a swathe of pristine turf.
The heavy rain, which had been on and off all day, failed to obliterate Pete’s white lines.
But the moment I savoured most from my day on the groundstaff came just after half-time when top scorer Garner chested the ball on, flicked it past his marker and volleyed it into the Rotherham net.
“Wow!” I screamed. “My bit of pitch, that.”