Domino's pizza for tea, broken down generator and using free-kick mannequins as emergency tent pegs - Chorley groundsman Ben Kay talks about his night under the stars at Victory Park

Reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup does not come around too often for non-league clubs like Chorley.

Sunday, 10th January 2021, 12:37 pm
Updated Monday, 11th January 2021, 10:18 am
Chorley groundsman Ben Kay

In fact never in their 138-year history have the Magpies ventured so far in the prestigious competition.

But the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity could have passed the club by if the recent cold weather rendered the pitch at Victory Park unplayable for their third round encounter against championship Derby County on Saturday.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of groundsman Ben Kay and his merry band of staff, who camped out overnight in freezing temperatures at Victory Park, they ensured the Magpies' match against the Rams went ahead.

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Chorley groundsman Ben Kay preparing the pitch on Saturday morning

Their night under the stars at Duke Street was certainly worthwhile as Jamie Vermiglio's men enjoyed a superb 2-0 victory over their illustrious opponents.

Kay admitted there had been a few nervous moments in the lead-up to the match as heavy snow across the north west at the end of 2020 and the beginning of this year had put the game in doubt.

And the pressure on Kay and his men this week was palpable after news broke that Derby would not be sending their first-team squad who were isolating due to a Covid-19 outbreak at Pride Park - instead fielding a team comprising of mainly youngsters from their academy set-up.

If the game had fallen foul of the weather then there was a strong possibility that by the time the tie could have been re-arranged, all of Derby's first-team regulars along with caretaker boss former England and Manchester United great Wayne Rooney would have been available - thus lessening Chorley's chances of progressing.

A huge tent type structure with generators blowing hot air across the pitch had been erected across the pitch to ensure the pitch did not freeze.

Kay felt he had no option but to camp out overnight to make sure the game went ahead, although things did not run smoothly as the generator keeping the tent up stopped working for four hours.

Ironically, the engineer called out to repair the generator had to travel from Derby.

Even minutes before kick-off, the ground staff were pouring hot water and forking the nearside touchline under the nervous gaze of Vermiglio and chairman Ken Wright.

"I was very worried the day before," said Kay, who was once a professional player with Wigan Athletic. "I think even up to 4am on Saturday morning, we had a big frozen patch on the pitch.

"If you saw the game there was big muddy patch around the dugouts where we tried to get heat to the pitch.

"Just a hour before kick-off, we were all panicking when the referee said that the linesman's run needed defrosting.

"That obviously made sense because we didn't want the linesman breaking his leg, etc.

"I think everybody could see the panic set in.

"The added pressure for me was the Covid situation with Derby.

"They were going to field an Under-18s or Under-23s team so if the game had have got called off and the game gets re-arranged for a Tuesday or a Wednesday, then potentially all their first team would have been back and we would have been facing a totally different side.

"So it's probably the most pressurised I have felt as the groundsman at Chorley."

Kay arrived at Victory Park at 6am the day before and spent all day at the ground before nipping back home for a bath and to see his children before bed time.

Then he was back at the ground for his overnight vigil, with just a few slices of Domino's pizza to keep him going.

He eventually return home at 5pm on Saturday.

"We played AFC Fylde at home on Boxing Day and then from December 27, the pitch has been frozen.

"Since then it has been frozen rock solid with two inches of snow on top.

"I had not even had chance to run a roller over it so they basically played on the same pitch which they finished the AFC Fylde game on.

"At 10pm on Friday night, the generator broke down for four hours.

"Then we had to push the heaters nearer to the tent and that's the reason why we had to stay overnight.

"We had to monitor that the tent did not start flapping and sit on the heaters which would cause them to be burnt.

"We had to get the plastic mannequins which the players use for free-kick practice and keep propping them over the heaters, so the tent would not flap down on to them."

Amazingly, he Magpies have a run of five home games in the National League North over the next month and Kay admits he is praying for a huge FA Cup tie against Liverpool or Manchester AWAY from home in the next round.