Having tackled the Beast from the East and Storm Emma to ensure Saturday’s clash with Luton Town went ahead at the Abbey Stadium, Groundsman Ian Darler recounts an eventful last week and thanks those key people involved.

We always work with a 10-14 day weather forecast in advance of any game. For example if we expect heavy rain we can put an aeration program together to reduce the risk of waterlogging, or if a heat wave is forecast we can build up the moisture levels. However on Wednesday 21st February, I could see from the long-range weather forecast that the Beast from the East was on the way, and the very low predicted temperatures meant that we had to be very organised and ready for a battle with the weather.

The decision was made to get the frost sheets on the pitch early on Thursday 22nd February and seal in what warmth was in the playing surface. But before that we had run to the mowers over the surface and get marked out to ensure we were match ready. This was followed by a light application of liquid feed for the turf as we knew the surface was likely to be starved of light and could suffer if the covers were on for nine days.

The volunteer troops that have helped me now for three decades were called in and along with a number of the CFU volunteers, including of course the new apprentice groundsman, we set about getting the sheets laid and pegged down. We constantly monitored the temperatures for the next few days and all was going well until 28th February, when overnight high winds ripped the pegs out the sheets, lifting them off the ground allowing the -11 frost with wind chill to penetrate into the turf.

We recovered the affected areas and reviewed the forecast. Things were still going to be very challenging and we constantly had people coming to the edge of the pitch and testing the surface with their car key. And the normal question…“will it be on? What percentage is the chance of a game?”

We revisited the depth of frost under the sheets on Friday 2nd March and found the pitch to be very hard in a number of places. The sheets were now causing us the problem of insulating the frost in the ground. Another check on the weather gave us hope, bearing in mind we had previously experienced -11, the forecast for Friday evening was just -2 which was a great result, a whole nine degrees better! We also had the hope of 5-10 cm of snow, which meant we had to get the sheets off to stand a chance of getting the frost out the ground and allow the snow to warm the surface. However we still had a couple of centimetres of snow from the previous day that we had to remove from the covers which we tried using rubber rakes, brooms etc. But the job really required a couple of heavy duty back pack blowers, at which point Robert Osbourne and Dave Matthew Jones of CFU, kindly stepped in by offering to purchase them from Ernest Dos, who rallied around to get it organised for us. The blowers arrived and removed all the frozen snow and ice as required.

At this point on Friday another call went out to all the volunteers and they again responded but with the added help and support of the office staff. A very organised operation took place after the sheets were removed, and it showed that the two goal mouths were frozen solid with ice within the surface and a large area of the pitch unplayable. But there were a few areas just about taking a stud when the first pitch inspection took place. Alan Young, who completed the first inspection, was very helpful in giving us his support to let it run into Saturday and another pitch inspection. I explained to him that it would be a lot easier to get the game off than on, but we felt that we had a great chance of a game with the plans we had in place. We therefore set about setting up what could only be described as a makeshift camp in each goal, made up with the picnic tables from around the stadium, some heavy duty canvas tarpaulins and the convector heaters from the offices. Having put these procedures in place on a number of times over the years, I was confident this would work.

We now required help from mother nature and she duly delivered with a blanket of snow, whilst at home on Friday evening I was getting itchy feet wondering if the snow would draw the frost out the ground.

Up and out of bed at 3.15am, checking the temperature in the garden and seeing that the temperature had risen above freezing to 0.5 it was time to hit the road, As I drove to work knowing the pitch had to be cleared of snow for the inspection at 9.30am, my adrenalin was already pounding and I could not get to the stadium quick enough. 

Even after being at the club for nearly forty years it can be a strange place early in the morning/very late at night. There I was at 4am trying to be quiet for the benefit of the neighbours, which is difficult when you have to get the tractor and kit out the store area, and putting on a single floodlight to work under.

It was around 4.10am.when I got my first look at the playing surface, by the time the floodlight warmed up. I brushed away the first patch of snow and knew straight away that we were in business and more importantly the camp we had set up in both goals had lifted the frost out the ground. The task of clearing the pitch started and I could not do this on my own. The first person to arrive at the stadium was the match day safety officer Andy Pickard at 6.30am, who got stuck into helping out with the snow removal around the stadium. I had already sent out texts to my troops at 5am saying “help needed ASAP.”

All the volunteers, along with a number of my fishing mates and club staff arrived from 7.30am onwards. From there they worked like a well-oiled machine, as they have in the past on a number of occasions.It would have been very easy to turn a blind eye and the game would have been off, but I just think you must do your duty. It’s your professional pride at the end of the day.

I was confident our long-term plan gave us a chance of a game, and that could not have been done without the most amazing team of ground staff, made up of stewards, volunteers and friends, the likes of Mick Brown and Dave Mills who was here helping throughout last week, and I have had the pleasure of working with for 30 odd years. They just appeared like the borrowers, knew the process and it was a collective team effort to get the game on.

It’s the challenge of situations like the last week and the team effort behind it, that gives you the chance to showcase your skill. It’s why I am as keen now as I was 40 years ago.

I will finish by saying what my great friend Chris Turner said to me when he was team manager and we had a similar situation…He told me that I was “the best groundsman in the country, BUT NOT IN THE TOWN!” I believe you are only as good as the people around you and I have been very fortunate to have Mick Brown and so many other fantastic people alongside me for so long that make an amazing team.

Special thanks to all that contributed within the past ten days, you are all superstars, And finally to Joe Dunne for popping in everyday to take a look and give the volunteers so much praise.