If one word could be used to describe the winner of the IOG Lifetime Achievement Award, it would be passion - a passion for the industry and a passion for perfection.Steve ‘Brads’ Braddock, head groundsman at Arsenal FC’s London Colney training ground, has not only demonstrated a level of dedication, professionalism and attention to detail that is renowned throughout the industry, but it is also true that he has mentored many groundsmen over the years - and many have benefited greatly from working with him, as Will Collins discovered
Steve Braddock’s passion for groundsmanship becomes clear as soon as he starts to assimilate sports turf with human beings. “If you sat in front of a TV or a computer eating your favourite meal and drinking, you’d soon become obese and lazy,” he professes. “The same is true of turf: too much feed (and too much water, for that matter) is not good for it – turf should always be ‘looking’ for nourishment – yet most believe that if the grass is not lush green then something is wrong. Nothing is further from the truth.
“But of course, sports turf groundsmen, in particular, have to meet the expectations of employers and the players – and it’s usually when things are not going right on the pitch that ‘faults’ are found and questions are asked - so, as professional groundsmen, we often have to compromise.”
Steve Braddock’s innate ability to simply look at the turf and know when and how much to water and fertilise, when to apply herbicides and pesticides, and how short (or long) to cut has not only earned him revered status among his peers, but along with his mentoring skills were also key factors in why the 45-year-old collected the IOG Lifetime Achievement accolade.
That “he’s obsessed with the job and continues to devote a disproportionate numbers of hours to the task,” becomes clear to any visitor to Arsenal FC’s training ground, which has been Steve’s base since 2002. With 14 hectares of fine grass surfaces (football pitches and goal training areas) plus an artificial pitch as well as around 20 hectares of ‘agricultural’ land – all under his remit and all managed with minimal help from contractors, which gives the team a solid grounding in all aspects of goundsmanship and “fantastic experience for the future” - Steve always walks the site first thing every morning and last thing every night, “just to ensure everything is as I want it”.
That said, he is adamant that his team members must be ‘onboard’ with his way of thinking if they are to progress in the profession, “which is the case in all walks of life”, and rather than being an autocrat, he encourages everyone to put forward all ideas and suggestions – however off the wall they might seem, “because without such input we’d never make progress”.
He admits to being very disciplined and finicky, even to the point of obsessiveness – “no doubt to the frustration of my 12-strong team” - and says he’s always been the same, ever since he started in groundsmanship at the Royal Veterinary College before he joined Arsenal as head groundsman at Highbury. Indeed, according to Darren Baldwin, who was an understudy of Steve’s at Highbury before moving on to become head groundsman at Tottenham Hotspur: “I well remember the days before we had germination sheets and during overseeding, when Steve would be at the ground from first light ‘til dusk to ensure the pigeons didn’t eat the seed. Such is his devotion to duty!”
Steve confesses that he thought the interview process for the Highbury job didn’t go too well: “I remember at the end of the interview being asked whether I had any questions,” he recalls, “but instead of enquiring in detail about the obvious ( ie conditions of employment and budgetary control) all I could think to ask was whether David Rocastle would be fit for the coming season!
“Being an Arsenal fan and getting the job was like putting a kid into a sweet shop, but I soon realised I was in at the deep end – I joined two weeks before the start of a new season (1987-88) and was confronted by a pitch that had an eight inch sward. It was only through the help and guidance of Maurice Banham, then head groundsman at Charlton Athletic FC, that I got through those early months.”
The move to London Colney – which then enabled Paul Burgess to step up into the head groundsman’s position at Highbury – has, says Steve, allowed him to feed his insatiable appetite for knowledge which, he adds, seems to be continually tested not only by climate change by also by product developments (“I’m amazed at the advances made in seed types, for example”) and by, for instance, health and safety issues surrounding pesticides and the like: “It seems that as soon as we’ve all just got used to a certain chemical that works well for us, it’s taken off the market!”
He continues: “While the remit here is to have the pitches as good as the stadium surface, and we strive for that, with so much ground I do have the freedom to experiment – with new seed varieties, fertilisers, water applications, growth retardants, vertidraining – you name it
and I’ve either investigated it or am investigating it! I’m continually tweaking and altering things, always challenging convention if you like and using new products to see if improvements can be made.”
That, in itself, goes a long way to explain how Steve Braddock’s 30-year love affair with groundsmanship has been built as much on ‘learning as he goes’ as it has on classroom theory – to the point of working all hours under the sun. But nowadays with a young family he has, however, conceded to spending Sundays at home during the winter months. “But since the wife has had all the garden slabs removed and replaced by lawn, I’ll never be that far away from the job!”