Offaly groundsman: ‘We only had three days dry in a row from mid-July of last year up until the end of April’

Jim Kelly is the groundsman and chief steward at O’Connor Park, Tullamore. He took time out from mowing the pitch on Thursday evening to chat about preparations for Offaly’s Leinster SHC opener against Galway. Interview by Stephen Barry.

The biggest challenge of the year for Kelly and his team came in March. A double-header Allianz National League quarter-final against Kilkenny and a Football League game against Sligo were postponed due to snowfall and refixed for the next day, bank holiday Monday. Snow drifts across the pitch and in each row of the stand were removed over two days, transforming the white pitch to green in the nick of time.

Q: How did you get the job as groundskeeper in O’Connor Park?

A: I’ve been looking after our pitch in Ballycumber, my own club, for a good few years. I’ve done a few courses on it but I wouldn’t class myself as a groundskeeper. I just love what I do.

I got into Tullamore a few years ago just to help out, took a love to it, and still have a love for it. A serious pride, I suppose, is what you’d put it down to. I’m very lucky with one of the chaps, Michael Hensey. He’s a bonus to me because when my back is up against the wall, he’s the one man who’s there.

There’s no such thing as a clock or a watch. He’s there for every hour because, as you know yourself, you can only cut grass when it’s dry.

Q: How difficult has it been to maintain the pitch through all the snow and storms?

A: This has been a very unusual winter. It ran the guts of seven months since mid-July last year. Conditions were very wet, very frustrating trying to get some sort of growth.

With the new GAA structures, there was a lot of matches played in very bad times. We didn’t get a lot of recovery time and it was Sunday to Sunday.

We had heavy snow. There was a lot of things that pushed us to the limits to get it right this year.

From a farming perspective, there was a lot of pressure on farmers to get fodder. A peculiar year, basically.

We only started getting the soil temperatures [at least nine to ten degrees] right coming near the end of April. Our fertiliser was roughly a month late. Our overseeding and seeding of the pitch was the guts of a month to six weeks late as well. We’re in a catch-up situation now. Any hours that are bright, we work. We just try to keep it right and get it presentable for Saturday evening.

Q: How often will ye be down to the pitch this week?

A: It’s cut midday, maybe 11am. I’m cutting it again at the moment (8pm on Thursday evening). Another three-quarters-of-an-hour will get me off the pitch and it’s just the warm-up area then.

Weather permitting, we try to cut it twice a day but there’s been a lot of rain. Looking at a calendar I was marking, we only had three days dry in a row from mid-July of last year up until the end of April.

That’s very frustrating when you’re trying to make everything look well for county finals or any sort of fixtures.

That’s how we present ourselves — we have to have the pitch looking immaculate if we can at all. It’s been a testing time this year but we have it presentable enough. I’d like it to be another fortnight but I’m not going to get that.

The clock is ticking down for me at the moment!

Q: Is it a full-time job for you?

A: It’s not, no. I do it on a voluntary basis. I’m in and out the whole time. I’ve a granddaughter I bring to school, I fly in here for a few hours, go home and collect her, and fly back in again.

At this time of the year, it’s pressure.

In wintertime, it eases off a small bit. It’s something I enjoy. I like it presented well and we work hard at trying to have it looking good.

Q: Would you be in touch with managers to discuss their requirements for the pitch?

A: We would. We’d have managers looking for different height in the grass. We’d try to keep it suitable for hurling and football at the same time. If there’s a nice flush of grass on it, it’s very easy to hurl on it. What you don’t want is the ball lost in it.

The lower it’s cut, the faster the game is. We’d be priding ourselves on being as good as Croke Park, or near as good as Croke Park. Be it in good weather or in bad weather, we use that as a template to try to get ourselves to that standard every Sunday.

It’s only fair to the players who’re putting a huge amount of time into training over the winter months.

Q: Are you influenced by other pitches?

A: A lot of connoisseurs, I’d call them, looking at matches on the screens — and I would as well — we’d probably be nit-picking. But, at the same time, you have to give praise where it’s due. If a pitch looks nice, we try to come up with a different idea to try to get it as good as that one the next time.

Q: Was there consultation with you in the Faithful Fields development to get that the same as O’Connor Park?

A: That’s definitely getting the same standard because the man in charge of that, Christy Todd, I would’ve learned an awful lot from him when Christy was in charge of O’Connor Park.

It’s an absolute jewel in the crown now. He has it absolutely immaculate down there. You’d stop the car just to look at the pitches, the way they’re marked, the way they’re cut. He’s just a perfectionist.

Q: You’ve a 7pm throw-in on Saturday. What time will you be at the pitch?

A: I’ll probably kick in here for 7 or 8am. I’ll cut the pitch around half 11 or 12 o’clock. We’ll check everything: nets, flags, the whole lot has to be sorted. We should have it presentable for around 4 o’clock. A mug of tea then and take over a job as steward after that.

Q: There’s two photos of you on Sportsfile. One is of you removing a stray dog from the field, and the other is you giving a boost to a Dublin selector to fix a net. It goes to show there’s plenty of odd-jobs that can crop up on the day.

A: I was walking off with a little jack russell that day and we’ve a reporter here with our local radio, Gerry Russell. I heard the phone going in my pocket and I was afraid to go near it because I’d a fair idea there were cameras on me.

But when I got into the back of the stand to have a look at it, I was told I shouldn’t be throwing out jack russell, I should’ve thrown out Gerry Russell! You’ll always get a smart aleck in the audience that gives you some sort of grief on the phone! I enjoy it though.

I’m chief steward for my sins so, between it all, it’s a love for the GAA. It’s a love for everything that goes on in connection with it. I’d rather be in the background the whole time getting everything ready.

Q: How’re you feeling ahead of today’s game? Would you be nervous at all?

A: Weather-wise, it’s was bad Friday, but we’ve put a lot of hours in to be ready. We’ll still have a lot of work to do, but we’ll have to get it done between the showers. We’ll have a lot of marking out, rejigging the pitch.

Q: And the dream finish is an Offaly win?

A: It would be. In fairness, the county has trained two nights here this week and, in my own opinion of them, they’re very sharp. They’re training at a very fast rate, Kevin Martin is doing fantastic work with them and they seem to be enjoying their game. Last night [Wednesday], it must’ve been near 10 o’clock before they headed off home — I was just finishing cutting — after a puck-around and the usual chat close enough to a match.

They’re in flying order and very good form. It’ll be Galway’s first day out too. I know Ed Sheeran is in Galway as well, so there’s a bit of competition on, but hopefully we’ll get 10,000.


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