There are few places as serene as a 27,000-seat stadium in the off-season..
(Jim Barg interviewed Colin Powell back in 2010, and we have great pleasure in publishing his piece below as a tribute to the club's forever present groundsman)
The noise and thunder of the crowd has been replaced by the wisecracking of the grounds crew on a sunny day in South London. The Addicks' play-off failure seems a distant memory as the crew prepare to start growing a new grass pitch in time for the club's first pre-season friendly in July.
Leading the way is Colin Powell, the club's groundsman, who parlayed a long career on the pitch to one off it. Powell's playing career included eight years with Charlton, along with stops at Dartford and in the NASL. After a brief stint managing in non-league football, Powell became the Valley's groundskeeper in 1990 and is still at it today. Powell's interest in groundskeeping began when he played cricket in the summers. “If you ever got out and the wicket was bad, you used to moan about how difficult (the bad wicket) is. That's why I started doing it, really.”“I used to go down to Stevenage and help the groundsman doing the wicket. I've just always been interested in it, really. Even when I was playing professional football, I used to give a hand to the cricket club. After I packed up football, I got a job at Westminster School coaching and doing the cricket ground. The chairman of Charlton was playing cricket up there one day, and asked me to work at the training grounds.”
I was lucky enough to visit the Valley on the day that Powell and the grounds crew laid down the frost covers that double as the germination tarp for the new pitch. Powell estimates three days before the tarp can be removed to let the grass grow.
“It's fibersand, which they race horses on. You mix it with soil, and the root of the grass wraps around man-made fibers, which creates a more stable surface. It's 100 percent grass, but it holds together a lot better.”
The pitch may look perfect in a few weeks' time, but Powell knows players and managers are a fickle lot. “Any job you have, the groundsman always gets criticised for it. You cannot please everyone! When you start, you take it personally. After a few years, you just let it go over your head.”
He can only think of one incident in particular, when a match between Charlton and West Ham was called off on New Year's Day 2003 because of a waterlogged pitch.
“Just torrential rain all morning, and the referee called it off an hour before kickoff,” he says. “That really upset me, but there wasn't much I could do. You look round the league and there were two inspections at Highbury, which is unheard of. So it must have rained a lot. I would have dealt with it a lot better now, but at the time it really got to me. There's just nothing you can do about the weather.”
Powell is proud of his work, especially as the Valley pitch has been more durable than other grounds in Britain. “Over the last ten years, we've been really lucky. We've only lost two or three games, which is quite good. We've played when the Premier League haven't played.”
“Our reputation is quite good, people enjoy playing here on the whole. We've had dodgy times. It's your luck, some Saturdays it's pouring and you're away. You're gonna cop it sooner or later in the season, but if it's later, then you'll get away with it. If it's the first three or four matches of the season, then you're in for a struggle all season.”
Keeping the pitch in quality shape, Powell believes, is still the same whatever level of football you're at. “If it's dry like today, you put plenty of water on it. When it's raining, you leave it. A lot of it is common sense. A lot of groundsmen make it more difficult than it is and get themselves into trouble! I'm pretty basic and don't try too many clever things.”
His favourite moments are the reaction the pitch gets from other managers.
“I remember when Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho both said the pitch was really good,” he says with a laugh. “It was really nice to hear that from them, but Charlton really didn't want to hear that. They figured if Chelsea and Arsenal like it, they're gonna come out and play some football! But it was nice of them to say it.”
As for the future, Powell can't see himself doing anything else.
“My wife says, 'You'll drop dead at Charlton'. They've got a memorial garden here, take me out there and that'll be it,” he says with a chuckle. “I love the club, really. I love the people here, and enjoy coming to work. So many people don't like their jobs. I just like my job, look forward to getting up in the morning and going to work. When you can say that, it obviously helps.”
A word from the author:
In the spring of 2010, I was an MA Journalism student at Goldsmiths College in London. For our final magazine project, my group decided to create an irreverent football magazine. One of my contributions was a piece called 'How To Follow The World Cup Like An American' for our World Cup supplement. (Being a lifelong resident of Rochester, NY, it wasn't a hard piece to write.)
My other writing contribution is a piece more appropriate for this website. We had decided to profile a few people behind the scenes, in the guise of a monthly feature. My memory is hazy now on who suggested profiling a groundskeeper, but I emailed Matt Wright at Charlton that night and he couldn't have been more welcoming in allowing me to visit the Valley. As luck would have it, I went down to the Valley on the day they were seeding the turf for the 2010-11 season – June 4, 2010.
I was able to take many pictures, and chat with groundskeeper Colin 'Paddy' Powell at length. He couldn't have been any nicer, and was impressed I knew about his days playing in the North American Soccer League.
Addicks all over London are set to pay tribute to Paddy this Saturday. As I'm back home in America, I won' t be there. But rereading this piece puts me back in the North Upper again. Thanks to Barnie and the good people of the CAS Trust for offering to post this feature on their site. Enjoy the read.