Most observers are impressed with the quality of the Mourneview Park playing surface and its resilience in the face of inclement weather. This season it has been in superb condition. “Maintaining the pitch is a priority for Glenavon,” said groundsman David McClure. “That means more than employing me. It also involves regularly bringing in outside contractors to verti-drain the soil and occasionally carrying out expensive renovation work.”

David is in his sixth season at Mourneview Park. Before joining Glenavon, he spent 14 years on the staff at the National Stadium, including seven as head groundsman. He has enjoyed the challenge of working at a provincial club.

“Glenavon is very different to Linfield,” he revealed. “Things are more relaxed. That doesn’t mean that the work is easier. But we can plan better, have more control over the use of the pitch and can protect the surface so that it is in the best possible shape for every first-team fixture. At Linfield there was always pressure. Not just because of the bigger scale but also because every match played at the National Stadium is a high-profile event. There is less scope to move dates or even postpone fixtures as sometimes happens with Glenavon Reserves’ games.”

David also reveals that he faced almost insurmountable challenges trying to maintain Windsor Park. “The drainage system, at that time, was very poor, and the soil was really bad,” he revealed. “When there was heavy rain, the pitch always flooded, particularly on one side. There was ‘black layer’ right the way through the soil. It was like having a layer of concrete below the surface. There were times when the water simply couldn’t get away. Mourneview is much, much better. The stadium itself is more open. That means there is better wind-flow and greater exposure to sunlight. In my six years we have not had to postpone a match due to flooding. That tells a story.”

The drains – or shores – on Mourneview Park’s green sward were installed some 34 years ago. The job was overseen by long deceased – and much missed – Glenavon director George Swift. George, a landscape contractor with expertise in the maintenance of playing fields, and then groundsman, Gordon Magowan, were both excellent curators. “Normally the drains would have been replaced after 10 years, but we are still using them today,” said David. “That says a lot about the quality of the work that was done at that time and the way that the pitch has been looked after since.”

George Swift.

During the summer, the Board of Directors, in conjunction with David, embarked on a major improvement scheme. “The pitch was starting to deteriorate, particularly on the main grandstand side. So, we decided to give it a make-over.”

The work began in mid-May with the application of 60 tonnes of sand as part of a process known as groundbreaking. “We brought in specialist, heavy equipment to break up the soil,” David explained. “It dropped slots into the ground and worked the sand in with rotation slitters. The aim was to release compaction and break up the sods. Then we applied 60 tonnes of new, sandy soil to fill in any holes and modulate the overall level of the surface.” The goalmouths received special treatment. “We dug both out and re-established them with sandy soil.”

Then the entire pitch was re-seeded. “We planted fresh, high-quality grass,” he added. “It will make an enormous difference, not just this season, but during the next three or four.”

Supporters will have noticed that the redundant area between the goal-line and perimeter wall at the Glenavon Crescent end has been brought into use. “This is for the players to use for running and warm-ups on training nights and matchdays,” said David. “It should ease the pressure on the near side of the main pitch. That said it will be another twelve months before the grass in the new area becomes fully established.”

These major improvements were also made in preparation for the UEFA U-19 European Championship finals which are scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland next year. The competition will be staged between 15th and 28th July. Mourneview Park has been chosen as a match venue. “There will not be the time between the end of the domestic season and the start of the championships to do the type of work that is needed,” said David. “If we protect the pitch as much as we can this winter, the work we did last summer will stand us in good stead.”

Despite October 2023’s record rainfall, the combination of last May’s overhaul and subsequent maintenance enabled Mourneview Park to host three senior fixtures. All went ahead without any difficulties. “We were fortunate in that we did not have 90 minutes of relentless rain during a match,” said David. “A few times heavy rain still fell, but the drainage is so good that the water was able to get away. Towards the end of the month, we also verti-drained the surface. That always helps.”

David, who confesses to once holding a Linfield season ticket, grew up in Anahilt, near Hillsborough. Now he lives at Maghaberry. Whilst studying at Lisburn Technical College in the mid-1990s it was suggested to him that he might consider visiting Windsor Park for work experience. “I spent a week with Gary Thompson, the groundsman,” he said.” After that, he asked me to help every Saturday morning. Things developed from there. By the age of 17 I was working part-time for Linfield and part-time for Distillery. When the Whites offered me a full-time position, David Crawford heard about it and immediately did the same. So, I joined the Windsor Park grounds staff at 18.”

Over the last two years David has been involved in the development of “The Edenmore Training Facility” at the hospital end of Mourneview Park. “Edenmore is an Academy facility,” he explained. “We did quite a bit of work in the summer of 2022 to build a pitch. The drains are good. I am not as confident about the quality of the soil. But it should improve as time goes on. If the Academy isn’t using it, it is another place where the first team can go rather than using the main pitch.”

The dimensions of the Mourneview Park are usually 100 metres by 66 metres. “The international standard is now 105 meters by 68 metres. So, we are a bit short of that. But it is not an issue,” he said reassuringly. “It will not prevent us from hosting a home fixture the next time we qualify for Europe.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, David is sceptical about the merits of synthetic pitches. “People think that a 3G or 4G surface is a money saver,” he continued. “Not so. These surfaces have to be brushed, watered and maintained in lots of other ways. Plus, they must be replaced after 5-7 years. The cost of replacement is 50%-70% the cost of installation. In addition, concerns have now emerged about the toxicity of the plastic fibres. Research is being done on that.”

The Glenavon groundsman also pointed out that, following the installation of a 3G surface at its Brandywell stadium, Derry City has announced its intention to return to a grass pitch. “Derry found that there was a 55% increase in injuries,” he added. “Not just run-of-the-mill knocks. Career-threatening injuries. Players are much more likely to suffer ACL damage on 3G than grass.”

David thinks that top level football’s flirtation with plastic will come to an end. “UEFA and FIFA are both waking up to the dangers posed by 3G and 4G. The world’s top clubs are moving away from them as training surfaces, let alone main pitches. Yet here in Northern Ireland we are still putting them in. I think our game is out of step. Eventually the penny will drop, and grass will, again, become the norm.”

With a wife and three sons, David does not have much spare time. “With me it is very much family and football, in that order,” he reflects. “The summer, in particular, can be extremely busy, but I still try to take at least one full day or two half days a week off so that I can spend some time with them.”

A self-confessed lover of the local game, David continues to enjoy his “dream job” at Mourneview Park. “I love watching football so being part of the industry is fantastic,” he continued. “Glenavon is very easy to work for. The Board listens to the advice I give and almost always adopts my recommendations. People are very kind in saying nice things about Mourneview. I appreciate their compliments, but I am a perfectionist, so I am never satisfied.”

David working on the pitch at Mourneview Park.