I once spent a late 1970s afternoon in a nine-year-old Burnley fan’s heaven. Freezing weather brought the welcome news that the school boiler had broken meaning we had the Friday off, and boredom and concern about Saturday’s game being called off led me to turn up at Turf Moor and volunteer for the pitch clean-up.
Brian Laws and Trevor Steven were two of the young Clarets, with shovels in their hands, who would go on to have notable careers that I followed with the memory of having shared a Cup-a-soup with them in the freezing dugout.
Almost certainly overseeing that clean-up operation would have been Burnley groundsman Roy Oldfield, the subject of Dave Thomas’s book. In charge of the field during the 1970s and 1980s, the former miner had plenty of cold days trying to get the pitch playable and had two decades of young players under his charge.
Thomas’s book contains Oldfield’s recollections of the famous players, managers and referees who would pop into his room for a “brew”. Kevin Keegan, Denis Law, Brian Clough and World Cup final referee Jack Taylor, with his “little nip of whisky” before the game, were among them. There are excerpts from his diary which are a reminder of the daily struggle men such as Oldfield faced in the days before modern surfaces, at a time when a new mower was considered a major investment for a professional club. Oldfield worked under Bob Lord, Burnley’s famous (to many infamous) chairman, and Oldfield’s recollections of him are fond and deferential. If there ever could be a groundsman’s “kiss and tell” genre, this certainly wouldn’t feature in it.
“Ask a groundsman what his two big problems were back in those days and he’d say weather and pigeons,” says Oldfield – although he might also add, in his case, Steve Kindon’s tearing up the sods on the left-wing every week and directors who ask groundsmen to sweep up and weed the streets in front of the ground.
This isn’t, thankfully, a collection of a groundsman’s moans and gripes, however. The accounts of the monotony, frustrations and few pleasures of the job are accompanied by warm recollection of the people involved in the club, at a time when Burnley were in serious decline. Oldfield comes over as a thoroughly decent, perhaps under-appreciated, hard-working man at a “family club”, albeit for many years a fairly dysfunctional one.
The problem is, that once the daily life of the groundsman is explained, there isn’t really enough to make a whole book of it. Given the account is not in Oldfield’s voice, the author places his recollections and diary excerpts into a chronological story of Burnley’s sorry fall down the divisions.
For the Burnley fan there is plenty of interesting material in those accounts, particularly the boardroom battles, the managerial sackings, the Bob Lord anecdotes. How much of this history is of interest to those not of the claret and blue persuasion is questionable though and there are times when its relevance to the life of the groundsman feels a stretch.
Still, Dave Thomas is to be commended for an account of the dark years at Turf Moor in the 1970s and 1980s which reminds us that, as Oldfield proves, there was plenty of good among the mud and misery.