In the first of our articles looking at the individuals who make the national football centre work, Alan looks back on his journey from the putting greens of St. Andrews to the 12 pitches at St. George’s Park.
Q: How did you first get involved in this job?
I started back in 1976. When I left school I studied greenkeeping because I wanted to be a golf greenkeeper.
I started my apprenticeship at St. Andrews. After my three-year apprenticeship I worked a couple of years on the old course before becoming the foreman on the new one.
I have to say that I am a bad golfer but I have always been a massive football fan and there were opportunities starting to come up in the game for greenkeepers.
Q: How did you get involved in football?
The football groundsman of old looked after the stands and the terraces and with any bit of spare time looked after the pitch. But then Sky got involved and the profile of football began expanding. People no longer wanted to see boggy, muddy pitches.
I went to work with a firm of contractors in Edinburgh who had a number of contracts with the top clubs like Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, Dundee.
Through that I got offered the full time job at Rangers, where I was for five or six years.
Q: Tell us about your experience of professional football?
The idea was to go to Rangers to re-do the stadium pitch, which we did in 1991-92 and then to do the training ground.It was a great thing to put on the CV.
I came to Ipswich at the start of the 1996-97 season to sort their pitch out and then build the academy.
It probably put me on the map as a groundsman.
Q: You’ve enjoyed quite a bit of silverware along the way?
I won seven Groundsman of the Year titles with Ipswich. We won it in the Premier League, which is no mean feat because Arsenal and Aston Villa dominate that.
We beat the Gunners that year with a budget that was a pittance compared to theirs. It was probably one my proudest career moments.
We then won four in the Championship and two national titles. We were one of only two clubs who have won that twice. Ipswich was a great period in my career.
Q: Tell us more about the pitches at St. George’s Park?
We are very lucky to have four different pitch profiles, which are the main ones used in the world game.
Wherever England teams are going to play we can offer them that launchpad of preparing on that surface.
Whether it is our Wembley replica pitch or the modern day synthetics England played on in Moscow three years ago, St. George’s Park has them all. We are in a very unique position as far as that goes.
The pitches were built 11 years ago but were hardly ever used and were not maintained. They were cut occasionally but the clippings were not collected.
I was appointed in August 2011 and one of the first things I had to do was strip all that thatch back.
We are now in a very good position with the pitches.
Q: With so much land at St. George’s Park to maintain, what does a typical day hold for you and your team?
The big challenge for any team on a training ground is that you always have more than one activity going simultaneously.
For the last two weekends we have had all 12 pitches here being used.
The challenge for us is getting the daily preparation done. For every team that uses a pitch, I want it cut, marked, watered and everything has to be in place.
Times that by 12 and that becomes a real mission.
Q: Do the pitches need to meet minimum requirement before each use?
We test the pitches on a regular basis. The key characteristics we test are the bounce, the roll and the player interaction.
We also look at the surface hardness. We don’t want players to injure groins, damage knees or ankles.
For the roll of the ball there is criteria laid out by FIFA. We know how far the ball is allowed to roll before it is deemed to be too fast or equally too slow. We also ensure the players are running on a level surface.
Every time we finish working on a pitch I check these characteristics before I release that pitch for its next use.
Q: With so much experience working in professional football, you must have some stories to tell...
I have been very fortunate to work with some of the best managers in the game.
At Rangers I worked with Graeme Souness and Walter Smith, at Ipswich I worked with George Burley, Jim Magilton, Joe Royle, Roy Keane and latterly Paul Jewell.
I think one story that springs to mind is when Rangers were playing in the European Cup against Dynamo Kiev. Graeme had had them watched and they had two wingers who were absolute flying machines.
At that time in Europe they were then just starting to allow teams to train on the pitch for an hour the night before.
Kiev trained at Ibrox and Graeme, who was watching from high up in the stands, thought their pace on the wings was going to be a problem.
When they went back to their hotel Graeme asked us if we could take the lines out and make the pitch narrower.
We worked until three or four in the morning, rubbed the old lines out and brought the pitch in by at least two metres either side.
When it came to the game Kiev were overshooting their passes to their targets.
We won 2-0 and they kicked off massively. They could just see the old markings. They had the pitch remeasured but we had just made the UEFA regulation by a matter of inches.
Visit TheFA.com each Friday for an insight into the personnel working behind the scenes at St.George’s Park, The FA’s national football centre.
For further insight into Alan Ferguson’s role as groundsman at St.George’s Park visit www.TheFA.com/SGP