Leading from the front at Leicester City FC

The first team squad are not the only people at Leicester City FC who are league leaders, as head groundsman John Ledwidge has also built a grounds team of premier quality

After arriving at Leicester City FC in January 2014, John Ledwidge explains how he spent his first few days at the club simply watching how people operated, and immediately set about building relationships not only with the existing grounds team but also with the club’s coaches and management. 

“I immediately saw that the grounds team needed to be restructured and that at the training ground certainly, bridges needed to be built between the grounds department and the coaching staff. I adopted a lead from the front approach, demonstrating to my team exactly how I wanted things done while also constantly supporting them along the way.” It was, “an intense period with effectively everyone starting with a clean slate to begin their journey as a grounds team.”

In tandem, John had also investigated the quality of the pitches, particularly those used for training. “Within six weeks I was in front of the board of directors and coaching staff presenting a five-year pitch improvement programme, initially seeking (and subsequently gaining) a £1.2 million investment for the 24-acre training ground. It was effectively a business plan – I made it clear that I was there to manage the expectations of everyone, including those of the players and of the club, and my plan was designed to create training facilities of a standard that matched the attitude and ambitions of the club and its players.”

The training pitches were in need of improvement, continues John. “We dug test holes on every pitch on the clay-based site and it was immediately apparent that the surfaces ‘hadn’t been touched’ during their 14 years’ existence. The pitches had no drainage nor structure and were historically poor during the winter months. The argument for change was based on the fact that well-constructed playing surfaces would mean the pitches would have more chance of being used on a daily basis, to accommodate the heavy use by teams of all age groups, from the under 9s through to the first team. At that stage the first team was at the top of the Championship and while promotion to the Premier League looked likely it was not certain, so it was a major step for the club to sanction such a substantial spend. But the message of ‘proactive over reactive’ now rings in the ears of everyone at the club when it comes to the grounds department.”

John outlines how his boardroom presentation was deliberately designed so that the directors could clearly understand his messaging. “I graded the action points by using colour coding (using green to red, as they do on electrical goods) with bullet points to highlight the challenges and the required changes needed to meet those demands.

“As a result, we invested in more grounds staff and more machinery – including new mowers from Toro (two 3100s), Iseki (three SXG rotaries), Dennis (seven G860s) and Honda (12 rotaries), and set about re-constructing two pitches with undersoil heating, one a Fibresand and the other a Desso Grassmaster to match the surface at the King Power Stadium where, also as part of the five-year plan, growing lights were installed in December 2014. 

“That said, it is essential that every pound is spent wisely – it’s sometimes easy to get carried away with the belief that groundsmen at Premier League clubs have a bottomless pit of money – and that ethos really helped me tailor my plan. For example, I had to fully justify the growing lights, which were initially hired for a year, after which I began negotiations with the supplier, TLS, for the purchase of the lights. We have four sets of the lightweight TLS 400s lights, which are manually pushed/pulled into position because I prefer not to put a tractor onto the pitch.

New mindset
 “Equally important as new and improved pitches and a wider portfolio of maintenance machinery was, says John, the need to get the grounds team on board with his way of thinking – even little things like getting straight onto the pitches after players’ training sessions so that the players and coaches could see that the grounds team was ‘keen’.

“The guys responded admirably; they accepted the changes I wanted to make and the role I was adopting, which was more akin to a grounds management role and saw me increasingly introducing and instilling into each team member a sense of responsibility. For example, every pitch at the training ground is cut and presented to a similar standard to that of the stadium pitch on a match day. Even our gardener ensures that all the decorative lawns at the training ground are striped up and he sows plants using a string.”

Confessing that he loves the ‘due diligence’ aspects of the job, John is currently studying for a business management degree, a five-year online course. “The more professional we [grounds managers/head groundsmen] become, with a level of business acumen, then the more recognition we’ll achieve as an industry,” he insists. “Our role today is constantly being elevated to another level – the job is not just about the playing surface – so we have to progress similarly. I definitely see my role transitioning from producing pitches to producing people. For example, my deputies at the stadium, Simon [Gibson] and training ground Callum [Allsop] are now charged with more responsibilities than ever, and we’re introducing regular training for the team, including IOG apprenticeships (two are currently seeking Level 2 status). The plan is to offer four team members Level 3 training, and one Level 4.

“I’m looking to build a grounds team that will not only professionally handle the facilities we have now but also what’s planned for the future.” Earmarked for year 2020 is a potential new training facility that will incorporate 12 pitches (there are eight at the current training ground, which includes an indoor 3G surface). “My plan is to create a team, for the stadium and the new training ground, of 13 grounds staff plus three gardeners (compared to the current seven groundsmen, including two apprentices and one gardener).

“The training ground is the perfect venue for staff development and progression. While stadium routines can be very repetitive, the size and scope of the training ground gives people more opportunities. The role of the groundsman should not be about job preservation. It’s about progression. My mission is to install a team ethic that develops my staff as people and as groundsmen, offering those who desire it more responsibility. Also, I try to share every aspect of my role, always encouraging team members to learn and develop their own skills.  I once heard the saying ‘train people well enough so that they could leave, but treat them well enough so they won’t’ and I think that rings very true.”

He concludes: “Winning the 2015 IOG Campey Imants Award for Professional Football Grounds Team of the Year is justifiable recognition of the great team ethos that now exists and how the guys realise there is so much more that can be done. They are forever questioning whether we could do things better and, in fact, having them constantly challenging aspects of the job is great to see. Also, the award has been a great way to promote the groundscare industry – it has attracted lots of local and national media coverage, as well as direct enquiries about work experience.

“The pressure of being in the Premier League means that the stadium is also under constant scrutiny. But I have always believed that groundsmen should let their work do the talking – and my guys certainly do.” 

 

This inview was first published in the Groundsman magazine (April 2016 issue) wirtten by Colin Hoskins