Ever wondered why the New York pitch and Rotherham United head groundsman Dave Fellowes are the envy of the Football League? Here's why

By Paul Davis | 28/11/2018

Ever wondered why the New York pitch and Rotherham United head groundsman Dave Fellowes are the envy of the Football League? Here's why
Dave Fellowes and his New York domain

MORE than any footballer could ever hope to, he covers every blade of grass.

Up and down, across and back, up and down, across and back.

Dave Fellowes reckons he can clock up 100 miles a week on the pitch at AESSEAL New York Stadium as head groundsman of Rotherham United.

“There's no such thing as an average week,” he says. “Everything changes depending on what's going on at the stadium or up at the training ground. In the summer we can be cutting the grass anything up to eight times a week.”

Such dedication has earned him and his team yet another prestigious honour. Fellowes, New York assistant Mykel Parkin and Roundwood man with the mower Dave Burton have been named the Institute of Groundsmanship's Grounds Team of the Year.

“It's down to hard work. It's a great joint effort,” Fellowes says. “I wouldn't ask any of the lads to do a job I wouldn't do. It's not one individual.

“It's just old-fashioned hard work, looking at the elements and reacting in the right way to that with the tools that you have.”

Visitors to New York step on to the pitch at their peril. Unwanted feet see Fellowes scorching across the turf faster than Millers wingers Jon Taylor and Ryan Williams to deliver a vocal red card.

“I'm a mardy b*gger,” the 39-year-old grins. “The way I look at it is this: say you spend eight hours a day on your front garden getting it perfect then someone you don't know decides to walk all over it, you'd be annoyed and shout at them to get off, wouldn't you?

“The exact same principle applies here. How often does it happen? Too often! Virtually daily, especially with the international match (England Lionesses v Sweden) we've just had.

“There's so much traffic on the pitch ... rehearsals, training sessions, stuff like that. You just have to shut your eyes and think about when you can get it back and put it right.”

Lionesses boss Phil Neville, unaware of the suffering he'd caused, went out of his way following a 1-0 defeat to praise the quality of the surface.

Fellowes is quietly warm with a ready laugh. Unless you're on his grass. Fortunately we meet in an upstairs room at New York looking out on to green, striped perfection. There's a touch of Richie Barker about him. Rain or shine, he has only two outfits: shorts and spare shorts.

Born in Oxford, he moved to Rotherham when he was five and went straight into groundsmanship when he left Wickersley Comprehensive at 16. His first job was at the University of Sheffield and he worked for Premier League Fulham before the lure of the New York new build brought him back to South Yorkshire.

“It's a hard industry to get into, but if you're good you stay in it,” he says. “Groundsmen often stay with one club for life. Sometimes one moves and maybe four jobs come up at once as people apply and leave, then there are no jobs for a couple of years.

“At Fulham, the chairman was Mohamed Al-Fayed. I used to do a lot of work at his personal properties so I knew him quite well.

“It's like any job. It has its good and bad days. Everybody wants to be a groundsman in summer. But winter separates the men from the boys.

“I saw that there was a new stadium on the horizon at Rotherham. Plans had been submitted. I put my CV in, got a phone call from the chief operating officer, Paul Douglas, and came up for an interview. The rest is history.”

He and partner Rachel live in Bramley with the other baby in his life, 11-month-old daughter Eira.

“My front garden is decent,” he reveals. “It has a few products on it. It took a battering over the summer with all the hot weather. We're on a water meter because I'm a bit tight. The back isn't as good because the neighbours don't see it.”

Work for Fellowes and his men begins before 7am and often doesn't end until after 6pm.

Up and down, across and back, up and down, across and back.

Dave Fellowes chats with the Advertiser's Paul Davis

“You can walk a good 100-odd miles quite easily in a week leading up to a game,” he says.

“I've been here overnight when we've defrosted a pitch. The frost sheets came off, the pitch froze, so we had to get a company in to defrost it. I stayed all night for that.

“Quite regularly in my career I've stayed overnight monitoring a pitch when there's been bad weather. I don't sleep on those occasions. I work through the night, checking frost sheets haven't blown off, clearing snow, anything really, just to get the game on.”

Okay, here comes the technical bit ... New York's grass is 100 per cent rye and the pitch's base is fibresand — polyurethane strands in a mix of 80 per cent soil and 20 per cent sand. The roots of the grass grow into and interweave with the strands to give stability.

“Lots of water helps,” adds Fellowes. “It's like when you walk on a beach near to where the sea is and the sand is really firm and doesn't move. That's why we water so much.

“We don't relay it, we just renovate it each year and perform a major renovation every two years, We monitor it for fibre levels etcetera and react accordingly.”

Pitch markings are done by hand: “I can tell if one of my staff has had a drink the night before!”

He claims he's never tempted to kick a ball on there himself and I believe him. “No, no, no, I don't do three keepy-uppys and smack one into the net,” he smiles. “Knowing me, I'd take a big divot if I tried that kind of thing. The pitch comes before pleasure.”

The pitch comes before most things.

“You do all that work and then you watch someone come and kick lumps out of the pitch for 90 minutes,” he laments. “But that's our job, to put it right. That's why we're here. You have to be okay with it.

“I'm a Rotherham fan but I'm the one person in the stadium not cheering if one of our players scores and then slides on his knees to celebrate. I'll go and have a word with them the next day at training. I'll give them a fork and say: 'Here, you might as well dig it up with the mess you've just made'.”

Even Paul Warne isn't immune. The Millers manager stood on the touchline at Ewood Park after a 1-1 draw a fortnight ago and spotted Blackburn Rovers' reserve goalkeeper going through a shot-stopping routine near the centre circle. “We'd never get away with that,” he muttered to no-one in particular.

Groundsman and boss actually work closely together to make sure Warne gets the kind of his surface he wants.

Dave Fellowes and New York assistant Mykel Parkin

“It helps to have the awards on the CV, but I'm happy here,” Fellowes says. “I'm settled with a family. I've worked in the Premier League before so that no longer holds any desire for me. I'm getting no younger, so maybe a warmer climate would tempt me; get some heat into those bones! Working abroad would be a totally different challenge.

“I have a really good relationship with Tony Stewart (chairman) and Paul Douglas. They're very supportive. I can see myself chasing people off this pitch for a few more years yet.”

Up and down, across and back, up and down, across and back.

“It's a labour of love,” he says. “We leave when we've finished. Winning awards makes it all worth it.”

With the interview over, we sit and chat for quite a while. Not about work, not about the pitch, but about family, about Eira.

Don't tell her, but Father Christmas is bringing her a toy mower.

This feature first appeared in last week's Advertiser

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BEST AWARD OF ALL

DAVE Fellowes is no stranger to winning awards but the latest prize for him and his team means more than any other.

The Institute of Groundsmanship Grounds Teams of the Year honour is special because other groundsmen have a say in who receives the trophy.

“It's quite a prestigious one because it's voted for by your peers,” Fellowes says. “That's good because it means people who actually know about grass have an influence on the outcome.

“It's a long, drawn-out process. First of all, you get nominated. You don't actually know who's nominated you.

“I think it was a groundsman at another club who nominated me.”

Nominees are sent an e-mail questionnaire by the IoG and from those a final shortlist is drawn up.

“Then someone comes and checks all your sites and goes through all your paperwork,” Fellowes says.

In the past, Fellowes has been named Football League Groundsman of the Year in League One and the Championship and has finished runner-up in League One and League Two.

“For those, only the pitch is judged,” he says. “The Institute of Groundsmanship one takes into account pitches, staffing, machinery, budgets, paperwork management and health and safety.”

The IoG award recognises the work of Fellowes, Mykel Parkin and Dave Burton in last season's League One campaign and covers every league in Great Britain except the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership.


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