Interview: Steve Braddock, head groundsman, Arsenal Training Centre

It may be more than four years since Arsenal Football Club's players got their hands on any silverware, but the Premiership club's trophy cabinet has been quietly expanding thanks to its groundsmen.

Steve Braddock, head groundsman, Arsenal Training Centre. Image: IOG
Steve Braddock, head groundsman, Arsenal Training Centre. Image: IOG

This month, two new gongs were added, courtesy of the Institute of Groundsmanship's (IoG's) first awards ceremony - one for young groundsman of the year Reece Watson and one for lifetime achievement, presented to Arsenal's long-serving groundsman Steve Braddock.

Now in his 22nd year at the club, Braddock can look back on a career that provides a good example for every young groundsman. "I left school on the Friday and started work as a groundsman at the Royal Veterinary College on the Monday," he says. "My mum used to work there, so it was partly through her that I got the job."

Two years later, Braddock was promoted to head groundsman and rapidly learning the skills that would come to define his career.

His big break came through a chance meeting with George Graham, the then Arsenal manager.

"I used to look after a kids' team's pitch and the manager there was friends with Graham. He knew I was a massive Arsenal fan and he invited Graham to an awards night we were having. As Graham presented me with a plaque for my work, I jokingly asked if there was a job going at Highbury."

A few weeks later, Braddock found himself at his favourite club.

Though his first season, 1987-88, saw a distinct improvement to the pitch - when Braddock started the grass was eight inches long - it was the following season that provided the first big challenge. "The pitch fell apart. It got so bad that the press were saying that if Arsenal didn't win the league then it was down to the pitch. For a 20-year-old, it was quite hard to take."

After this nightmare season, which Arsenal went on to win, Braddock persuaded the club to invest in a new pitch.

During the summer of 1989, Braddock's chosen contractor Hewitts Sports Turf laid the surface that, thanks to the stewardship of the Arsenal team, would remain in place until the club's move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

Three seasons later, the Premier League arrived, marking a cultural change for groundsmanship that would see unprecedented funds flow into the game."I was fairly fortunate when I came into groundsmanship. There was more technology and more money available thanks to the Premiership. There was more emphasis on the quality of the pitch," Braddock says.

The cultural shift suited Braddock, who brought a new professionalism to the job and was rewarded with the accolades that followed.

"My best memory was probably winning groundsman of the year and having a presentation on the pitch when the club gave me the cannon."

After more than a decade in charge at Highbury, Braddock moved on to take charge of the club's 10 pitches at its state-of-the-art training facility.

Initially overseeing all grounds staff, he eventually handed over the reins at Highbury to his former assistant, Paul Burgess, and focused on the training grounds in North London. Burgess subsequently became the first groundsman to be traded overseas when Real Madrid bought him in February.

"When I decided that I was going to give up Highbury and the Emirates for the training ground, I was brought into the interviews for a new groundsman. When I met [Burgess' successor] Paul Ashcroft, I felt great; there is no other groundsman I have met where there has been no question mark from the first meeting."

Braddock says one advantage of his current role is that it affords him the opportunity to experiment, safe in the knowledge that a mishap on the training ground is less consequential than a mistake on the actual pitch.

Through these experiments, he can trial techniques that may one day be introduced at the stadium.

And Braddock has valuable advice for young groundsmen like Watson. "The biggest thing for new groundsmen to know is the unsocial hours. From leaving school to working 14-hour days is a massive leap. Being a supporter doesn't come into it, you have got to want to do the job - although part of the buzz is the build-up to the big game."

Braddock is careful to avoid candidates who appear star-struck. "Youngsters coming on board have got to have the same sort of discipline as the players. A lot of people who look at it as a career think, 'I can't be a footballer, but maybe I can be a referee or a groundsman'. Then they realise it is a lot of hard work and that puts them off. There is only a select few who come through my ranks and go on to become top-drawer groundsmen.

"It does get tiring, but the rewards are there at the end of it all; it is a way of life. It is important to have some qualifications, but there should be more emphasis on work placements. Some people who have studied turf technology for three years don't know how to mark a pitch out."

He adds: "One thing I have learned is the importance of personality and the ability to work as part of a team."

1979-1985 Groundsman, Royal Veterinary College
1985-1987 Head groundsman, Royal Veterinary College
1987-2002 Head groundsman, Arsenal's Highbury stadium
2002-present Head groundsman, Arsenal Training Centre

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