Looking back, I think it was the sight of the pristine, crisp pitches and newly-painted goalposts that did it. At the first game of every season, that would be the image that captivated me - the perfection, the slickness. I didn’t know it then, but it had become embedded in me.
I’d followed Arsenal with my dad, going to games, queuing for hours for cup final tickets, doing everything an ardent supporter did. After leaving school, I became assistant groundsman at the Royal Veterinary College, where my mum worked. It was only meant to be temporary, as I had hopes of being a fireman. I took the tests when I was 18, ultimately falling short in the aptitude test, so continued with my work and was promoted to head groundsman. It was then that I enjoyed the stroke of fortune that would shape my life.
"I remember Mr Friar saying: “We don’t want much from you, just the best pitch in the First Division!”"
A kids’ team played on the pitches I maintained, and its manager, Dennis Morris, was friendly with George Graham. He invited George down to present some trophies at the end of the season, one of which was given to me as thanks for looking after the surface. Cheekily, I asked George whether there were any vacancies going at the club I loved, and he casually replied that they were interviewing for a groundsman.
That was it - I wrote to the Club straight away stating my interest, giving them my mum’s contact number as I didn’t have a phone. A week or two later I went home with the washing one lunchtime and mum, who didn’t know a lot about football, told me somebody called George Graham had been trying to get in touch and had left a number.
I rang straight away, and George asked if I could come up to Highbury for an interview that afternoon. Before I knew it, I was in a room with George, Mr Friar and the pitch consultant, George Gillard. The interview didn’t seem to have gone well, and I thought all was lost. When Mr Friar asked me whether I had any questions, I decided I might as well make the most of the situation so asked whether David Rocastle would be fit for the start of the 1987/88 season! I think George could tell I was nervous, though, and that my coming at short notice proved a decisive factor - for soon afterwards I was offered the job.
The pitch had some long-standing problems and needed reconstructing. There was an improvement in my first season but in my second, 1988/89, it fell apart. I’ll never forget that year. The media placed a big emphasis on our pitch, suggesting that it could be the reason why would Arsenal fail to win the league.
The pressure was huge - I was young and felt that the whole nation was criticising my work. By the time that famous night at Anfield came around, I was feeling quite down. Some friends persuaded me to make the trip, though, and the rest is history. The feeling of relief, both on a personal level and for the team, was incredible. It was a period I learned a lot from, and one that has really driven me to achieve the best I possibly can in my subsequent career.
I remember Mr Friar saying: “We don’t want much from you, just the best pitch in the First Division!” The long-awaited reconstruction took place at the end of 1988/89, and then we really began to deliver it. We maintained the same pitch at Highbury right up until the move to Emirates Stadium in 2006, which is incredibly rare.
I’ve been lucky that the managers I have worked under have taken great interest in my work. George was very particular about the surface and would ask plenty of questions. Arsene Wenger has taken it to another level – he sees the pitch as being equally important as his best players, and is always very supportive.
"This club has always placed great emphasis on its playing surface, and that’s vital to me because I am a perfectionist and demand that we are at the very top of our industry"
Life at Highbury was never dull and there are numerous stories. The youth-team players used to undertake work experience in different parts of the Club, and I remember a quiet lad from Nottingham called Andy Cole helping me spread fertiliser shortly after arriving. Then there was Ray Parlour - he was working with me on the day of his driving test, and spent the morning going up and down the pitch in my tractor. He passed that afternoon, and I still tell him that he wouldn’t have done it without my help!
When the training ground was completed, I decided to base myself there full-time to oversee the grounds at the facility and instil our ethos into the new groundstaff. I was safe in the knowledge that my then deputy, Paul Burgess, knew exactly what was needed at Highbury. The legacy was there, just as it was when Paul handed over the reins to current Emirates Stadium groundsman Paul Ashcroft.
I’m very proud that several of my staff have gone on to great things. Paul Burgess is now the head groundsman at Real Madrid, while another assistant, Darren Baldwin, went on to become the grounds manager at Spurs.
It shows that we have created the right kind of culture here, nurturing some top-quality pitches and, along with them, some world-class groundsmen. Their progress sets an example for all of our groundstaff to follow. On a typical day at the training ground, I’ll have a walk around the pitches at 6.45am to see how things are looking. My deputies and I then go through our tasks for the day, and the rest of the staff begin at 8am.
Everyone mucks in - I’m a firm believer that you should never give one of your staff a task that you wouldn’t undertake yourself. While I’m conscientious about the office-based work I have to do, my real workplace is out there on our pitches. We apply the same standards to every single piece of turf we work with, so that it resembles the Emirates Stadium pitch in every way.
Read more Arsenal People stories in the Official Matchday Programme
This club has always placed great emphasis on its playing surface, and that’s vital to me because I am a perfectionist and demand that we are at the very top of our industry. I think we are recognised as such, and that means a lot – we’ve got there through hard work, honesty and dedication. Those are values that I think apply to Arsenal as a whole – and that’s just a small part of why I’ve been so proud to contribute to the club I support.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.