RR: As I said to you before we sat down for this chat, I stumbled across you on Twitter by accident and was strangely drawn by the fact you’re a Sunderland fan, but also the groundsman at a Premier League club. How did you end up in that game then?
Jonathan: I was working as a greenkeeper at a local golf course, but always admired the football side of the industry. I was at a bit of a crossroads in my career as to whether I wanted to pursue a career as a greenkeeper in golf or a groundsman in football. I was fortunate enough to get on the match day grounds team at Watford. I did that for one season to see if I would enjoy the football side of the industry and I absolutely loved it. Fortunately a job became available for a full time groundsman there at the end of the season, so I went for that and luckily I got it!
RR: Have to admit, one of my guilty pleasures is watching Ben Foster’s YouTube channel - he’s got a great relationship with the off-the-pitch staff. It seems like there’s a good group of people working there...
Jonathan: Ben Foster is a great lad who has time for everyone. He’s not the only one though, which is great. It’s really good to work for a club with so many good people there. Not just on the pitch, but off it too. Us ground staff alone are a close knit bunch but we have good relationships with people in all departments. Watford pride ourselves on being a great family club, and behind the scenes there is a good family feel to it.
RR: Do you feel any pressure from being a Premier League groundsman this season?
Jonathan: There’s always pressure to provide the best surface possible at any level, but especially at Premier League level. The whole world is watching every week. If there’s anything wrong with the pitch, it will get picked up immediately - and nobody wants their pitch be the reason a player gets injured, for instance.
At Watford we won Grounds Team of the Season in the Championship last season, so we hold ourselves to very high standards. It feels very good when players and coaches of opposing teams come up to you and compliment you for how good the pitch is. We are incredibly proud of the fact that we have one of the best pitches in the country.
RR: Surfaces are expected to be impeccable at all levels, but in the Premier League in particular - just how much work goes into preparing a pitch for the big game on a Saturday?
Jonathan: A hell of a lot more work than anyone would think.
It’s all well and good making sure the grass on top looks good but making sure the plant is strong and healthy underneath it’s just as important. We spend time in between games aerating, which allows plenty of oxygen to get into the profile, which helps keep everything underneath healthy. This softens up the surface though so in the buildup to the next game we look to build up the firmness of the pitch again.
An awful lot of attention gets paid to the nutrition of the plant but also the moister levels. You’ll be amazed as to how quick the grass can go especially with high wear areas such as goalmouths. We overseed those areas every now and then to try and combat that issue.
One thing no one considers is football stadiums tend to be quite tall structures so lots of the pitch doesn’t get much sunlight due to the shade. As we head into the time of year when daylight hours start to drop we get plenty of use out of our grow lights to help keep grass growing, particularly in areas of the pitch that spend most of the day covered in shade as well as high wear areas.
We spend many hours repairing damage from the previous game such as divots. There’s so much more that we do I could go on and bore you to death all night.
Watford’s media team did recently make a video of what life is like in a typical week as a groundsman if you want to watch my boss, Scott Tingley talk you through what we do.
RR: Anyways... enough about Watford. You’re a Sunderland fan! I know you’ve lived down south your own life, so how did that come about?
Jonathan: My dad is from Sunderland. He’s a massive fan himself. He claims to have never forced me into following Sunderland, but he was taking me to games from as young as four years old.
The first game I remember going to was QPR away in the 98/99 season. I saw Kevin Phillips score and Kevin Ball get sent off before half time. At half time I thought the game was over, because I saw everyone going inside to go to get a drink or whatever. I thought they were leaving as the game was over though so begged my dad to take me home. The fact that it was in the peak of winter probably made me quite persistent in saying I wanted to leave.
My dad says he remembers hearing a massive cheer when we were walking away from the ground as QPR scored right at the start of the second half. Niall Quinn scored a last minute equaliser for us that day. My dad still hasn’t forgiven me for missing it.
Despite my first game not going as it should have I still caught the bug and my love affair with Sunderland grew from then on.
RR: When you rock up to Sunderland games do you find yourself critiquing the pitches to the nth degree?
Jonathan: I do. I can’t help it.
It’s second nature for me now to inspect the pitch the second I see it. I like checking out the nets and corner flags we use as well. It’s the groundsman job to pick them. I loved when we had the hexagonal nets a few years back when we were in the Premier League!
RR: How are you feeling about this season then? Fancy us to get promoted and win the Pizza Cup?
Jonathan: I’m quietly confident this season. It’s certainly a lot more fun to watch us nowadays - playing entertaining football and scoring plenty of goals, with a young, hungry squad of players certainly sets us up nicely for a promotion push. Fingers crossed we can keep it going.
The pizza cup, I’m not too bothered about personally. I’d rather focus our attention on the league. Although seeing a young team like the one we put out beat a strong Lincoln side the other night... I can’t help but think we’ll probably go far in the competition again.
I also work as part of the match day grounds team at Wembley, so I was actually there to watch us win the Papa Johns Trophy last season. It was a surreal experience. Something I’d dreamed of seeing us win at Wembley but not being able to celebrate it with my fellow Sunderland fans was a shame.
If you had told my dad back in 1973 that the next time Sunderland were to win at Wembley his son would be one of the only fans there to witness it, he’d never believe you in a million years!
That’s my claim to fame.
RR: Go on, admit it... you’d love to be the man cutting the pitch at the SOL one day, wouldn’t you?!
Jonathan: Absolutely. People laugh at me when I say my dream job is to be head groundsman of Sunderland AFC, mainly because they’re all from London, and think ‘why would you wanna be a groundsman up north?’. But, working for the club I love is something I couldn’t pass up. Being able to watch them every week on top of that would make me very happy as well.