Orient's groundsman has no such luxuries: if he needs to water the Brisbane Road pitch he asks the local fire brigade to pop in

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
Kevin Keegan may have been feeling the pressure in recent weeks, but perhaps we should spare a thought for the groundsmen who've been feeling under the weather ever since Britain's sporting calendar first fell hostage to the elements.

It's not just football which has suffered: the British Horseracing Board estimates that racecourses have lost around pounds 3m of income. But it's ironic that football, which is so powerful as to dictate our heroes, our memories and our emotions, is still bought to its knees by the most basic element of all. Lady Luck may have a big part to play in football, but Mother Nature likes her say too.

Although several more weekends (not to mention the rest of the week) would have to be wiped out to make this the worst winter on record - that distinction belongs to 1963-64 when the FA Cup third round lasted until the end of March, delaying the final by a fortnight - this has been one hell of a winter of discontent. Not only has it given the lower division clubs a financial headache but it's caused further conflict between managers and referees. Wrexham's Cup tie with West Ham may have given Hugo Porfirio his first experience of football on snow, but referee Mike Reed would have got an even frostier reception from Harry Redknapp had Porfirio injured himself in the process.

There was a certain Irish logic in the words of the commentator who described the Racehorse Ground as being "insulated with a layer of snow''. To paraphrase Brian Clough, if God had meant football to be played in the snow, he'd have bestowed more Arctic conditions on Britain than these.

But to criticise the pitch is not to underrate the efforts of the Wrexham groundstaff who worked wonders in preparing it as best they could. As did the Old Trafford groundsman the following day - at least according to Martin Tyler on Sky Sports. It made Charlie Haslem chuckle. "No sour grapes,'' says Haslem, who has been Leyton Orient's groundsman for 21 years, "but he just had to set his dials, check his thermometer, then put his feet up. And at Chelsea they've got 23 miles of undersoil heating...''

Haslem has no such luxuries: no underground heating, no tractors, no sprinkling. If he needs to water the Brisbane Road pitch he asks the local fire brigade to pop in. Which just makes the fact that the O's went 10 years, from 1983-1993, without a single postponement, and had had just one game called off this season until today - even more remarkable.

Haslem says his secret is "fairy dust... I have a drop of Scotch then breathe on it. Seriously, I work my damnedest to get it ready. After every game we're straight out there to replace all the divots but we don't have a roller: I'm the heaviest person who walks on it. We're lucky there's so much grass, it's formed a barrier against the frost. But our success counts against us 'cos they think we don't need better equipment.''

Apparently the cold weather makes the grass "bleed'', rendering it an anaemic off-white colour. But Haslem maintains that people get hung up on the state of the grass. "You can have beautiful grass but a bumpy pitch, the priority is to get it flat. But it's horses for courses: at West Ham they have short grass 'cos they like to play it on the ground. I remember when Tommy Taylor was a player here, he liked the grass long, so I'd say: `Here, Tommy, I've left the grass nice and long for you,' and he'd say `Terrific'. Our striker Billy Jennings liked it short so I'd tell him it was short for him and he'd say: `Terrific'.''

Groundsmen are a strange breed: working all hours in all kinds of weather. Haslem hasn't had a break in five years, while Les Simmons, who goes out to grass this season after 30 years as Watford's head groundsman, has taken just five holidays in that time. If Simmons had his way, there'd be no football played on his pitch at all. He says it "breaks my heart when I see them kicking lumps out of my pitch.''

By that Simmons means goalkeepers who mark their areas, of whom "that bloody Shilton'' was the worst. According to Haslem, Shilts is still up to his old tricks at Orient, "but I let him off 'cos he's getting old.'' But don't expect Haslem and his fellow groundsmen to show such leniency to the rest of the goalkeeping fraternity. The subject of keepers digging their heels in was top of the agenda at a recent seminar organised by the Premier and Football League's Playing Surfaces Committee where it was decided that the only solution to the problem was to fine a manager pounds 500 for his keeper's action. Apparently, marking the pitch is a bookable offence, but when referee Mike Reed claimed that "it usually happens when we're not looking'', he incurred the wrath of over 100 irate groundsmen.

They didn't exactly come at him waving pitchforks, but these groundsmen certainly don't let the grass grow under their feet when provoked. Tom Porter, who tends the turf at Roker Park, was recently so incensed by a keeper digging trenches in his pitch that he rushed on brandishing a spade. "I told him he would make a better job of digging up the pitch - and he stopped straight away.''

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