Mick Gainsford is a one-man Grassroots Grounds Team of the Year, doing a remarkable and invaluable job for Crawley Wasps Ladies FC.
WORDS: JAMES HILSUM IMAGES: CAMERON MACFARLANE
Mick Gainsford is like many in the grassroots game, tirelessly working away and dedicating their time to ensure that grassroots football players up and down the country have a chance to play the sport they love.
Mick was an unsung hero whose praises are now starting to be sung after winning the Grounds Team of the Year at the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards, and the irony is not lost on Mick, considering that his ‘team’ consists solely of himself along with occasional help from his football-mad daughter.
Mick volunteers for Crawley Wasps – a football club that, despite their ‘grassroots’ status, has a first team which competes in the third tier of the women’s league pyramid alongside the likes of Watford, Oxford United, Portsmouth and Gillingham.
We met Mick at the Ewhurst Playing Fields, a council-owned facility which hosts the club’s junior, development squad and reserve teams, before sitting down over a coffee to discuss his eventful five-year journey with the Wasps and why now is the time to take a break.
“I got involved through my daughter, who was playing for Crawley Town Girls at the time, but found she wasn’t progressing very far there. That meant we decided she would move to their arch-rivals in Crawley Wasps! One of the coaches there called Woody [Emma Wood] managed to bring out the best in her and that’s when I started jumping on the mower, cutting the grass, and I got into it that way,” he explained.
“It began by helping out casually every now and again to taking everything on full-time. Now I’ve been involved with the club for about five years. It’s been a long road, and I’ve had to learn plenty about the pitches in that time. It’s about getting them up to a good standard and it’s evolved in that respect.
“I had no groundskeeping experience so it’s all about learning on the job, which is most of what the volunteers do at grassroots clubs. Even though I do the job on my own, I have had help from my daughter and the reserve team coach, Simon Pavey. I must say that the club as a whole has also given me tremendous support, from the chairman to all the coaching staff and volunteers.
“From Mark Graves who coaches the Mini Kickers team [Under 7s], up to Dave Cole who does the seniors, everybody talks to you and asks if you need a hand with anything. Even our secretary Maz [Graves] puts hours in doing things that are outside her remit. People don’t understand the work that goes on behind the scenes at the club.
“I have to say that Crawley Wasps means everything to me. Seeing the players enjoy their football is what makes everything we do feel worthwhile. That’s very important because it’s only a game, and you have to enjoy it.”
Mick speaks with pride when recounting the journey of his daughter Chanelle – affectionately known as ‘Nellie’ – through the ranks at the club.
“Nellie came here at Under 14 level, where they won the league, the cup and was then part of the Under 15s team that moved into the boys’ league. She’s also played for the Sussex Schools FA and was the captain for their Under 16s side before being selected for the England Schools trials, where she got into the last 64 of the country.
“She’s a lovely daughter to have – she’s out there with the mower, on the roller and can actually line the pitches! One of my pet hates is crooked lines, and she manages to avoid those. She has just broken into the first team, but also plays for Chelsea Foundation too.”
Mick talked through his pre-match routine and revealed the less glamorous parts of the job ahead of a matchday, detailing the most enjoyable and challenging aspects involved.
“I’d get to the ground at around half seven in the morning, pick the pitch and clear up all the dog poo. I’d then set everything up, which includes the barriers around the pitch as well as the nets. Then I’d take everything down afterwards.
“After the game, it will be a case of clearing up all the mess, sweeping up and then waiting for the next game. On Saturdays, we also have two teams from Brighton Girls’ Centre of Excellence playing here, so it’s very demanding and people don’t realise what’s involved.
“I love cutting the pitches and marking them, but it’s all about seeing the girls’ faces if they’ve won the game; it’s lovely. The most challenging part of the job is the rain because we’ve got an underground stream that goes straight under the field. There’s also a house up the road from the ground with a moat, and if that gets clogged up then it affects what goes on here.
“We’ve had to abandon two games because of that over the years, which is very demoralising. But during the recent lockdown, we haven’t had any games so there hasn’t been a matchday to prepare for, although my day-to-day work hasn’t changed too much. As I work on my own most of the time, there isn’t the likelihood of me coming into contact with lots of different people. I’ll only have Nellie with me now and again.
“I still kept the pitches cut during that time because you never knew when football would be back. There is always plenty to do.”
Attention then turned to Mick’s award and how the news of his surprise nomination came to light, courtesy of development squad coach Holly Walker and player Charlotte Barnham.
“They said they nominated me and I said, ‘no, you haven’t, have you?’ and they went, ‘yeah’. I said ‘thanks’, sarcastically, as I didn’t expect to win anything. Then a few months later I got a text to say congratulations and that they would be announcing me as the winner on social media. I couldn’t do much about it at that point!
“In all seriousness, I was pleased because the club has recognised all of the work I’ve done. It was funny that the award was called Grounds Team of the Year, because it was just me, Nellie and a couple of others here and there.
“Holly’s dad Paul Walker told me that this award was recognition of all the hard work I have put in since I’ve been at the club. I take pride in what I do and I have heard so many comments from people who have praised the surface at Ewhurst.
“On the flip side, we played a reserves game down on the south coast, and the pitch was so bad that it looked like someone had taken a load of cows off it just so the game could be played! Someone could have easily broken their ankle on that surface, and I thought to myself, ‘you can’t play football on that.’”
So, with all this in mind, what is the motivation behind Mick’s decision to step down? A combination of needing a rest and letting others come to the fore were the main reasons behind the move, but it seems unlikely that he will completely sever his ties with the club.
“Deciding to step away was more about me needing a break and allowing other people to step up. Someone now needs to come in to take the role on, but it will be difficult to find someone because everyone knows it’s hard work. I need time to have a break, watch Nellie and chill out for a year. I told our chairman that I would leave at the end of the season. I feel relieved because it makes me worry when you have to cope with things like lining the pitch during bad weather. Those little things begin to trouble you, so a year away will do me some good.
“Walking away will be hard because I love this job, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and take some time out for yourself. It will be a learning curve for whoever takes on the role next, but I feel like I can’t just walk away. I will always be on hand to help out and give advice whenever the club needs me.”
Mick’s final word at the end of our chat paid tribute to all of the grassroots volunteers for their tremendous work up and down the country.
“If you didn’t have grassroots volunteers then you wouldn’t have grassroots football; it’s as simple as that. They put in a lot of time and effort, and without them, these clubs wouldn’t be able to function.”