Mud, Sweat and Shears
Pitch Publishing, 2017
Softback, 318pp, £9.99
Terry Venables wrote a novel entitled “They Used To Play On Grass”. In reality, they also played on mud, snow and pretty much anything else the British weather could create. Most readers will have watched (or at least seen videos of) matches that tested physical endurance and ability to adapt to a range of conditions rather than the so-called silky skills of today. When the Premier League spends time on pontificating what design grass can be cut in, it really is a cultural shift from an era when pitches were used to play and train on frequently and utility was much more important than appearance.
Roy Oldfield was groundsman at Burnley in the 70s and 80s, a period that saw the club descend from the top flight to Division 4, and nearly out of the League. A turbulent time both off and on the pitch (excuse the pun) and a period that tested his ingenuity, patience and the basic equipment that was available to him. The club was very much the fiefdom of chairman Bob Lord, the legendary butcher from the town, when Roy was taken on with no experience of grounds keeping, having been approached by then manager Jimmy Adamson when working in the council Parks Dept. The onus was on getting matches played, regardless of the problems faced from the weather or as a legacy of previous games (youth team and reserves) or training sessions on the ground. It was not only a matter of pride but of getting cash through the turnstiles when gate money was the primary source of income.
The author uses extensive discussions with Roy to build a narrative of the life of Burnley FC in the period. As much about the merry go round of managers and directors, as well as players, the book is a saga of incremental decline before beginning the climb back. The groundsman’s role brought him into contact with nearly everyone else at the club, as well as visiting managers, referees, and media. There are consequently anecdotes involving some of the best-known people in football – Clough, Keegan, Best, Shankly et al as well as many referees such as Jack Taylor. There’s a backdrop of a character list of players, some assessed by their playing ability others by what they did to the pitch; Steve Kindon had Roy Oldfield in a state of frustration with his slides along the ground creating long divots in the surface.
But some of the stars of the story are buckets of sand, forks, shovels and second-hand lawnmowers. The constant pressure to either get the grass cut or to get it growing, to soak up water or to melt the snow, or “motivating” the apprentices to clean the terraces by letting them keep whatever money they found, are the vital components of Roy’s daily life, ones that are a constant no matter what the league position or who Burnley were playing against. It’s not a glamourous life, nor a glitzy story, but one that was probably replicated throughout the league, like much of football a far cry from the manicured state of today’s game.