Bury FC’s ’12th man’ groundsman on surviving the rain, boggy pitches and cancellations

“Absolutely horrific! Honestly it’s shocking. It’s doing my head in.”

That is how Andy O’Sullivan, 49, head groundsman at Bury, described dealing with the unrelenting wet weather this season. 

Constant rain is an permanent part of life in the North West but for O’Sullivan, rain causes an extra level of frustration.

The lifelong Bury fan founded North West Pitch Maintenance in 2017 and also looks after the pitches at FC United of Manchester, Stalybridge Celtic, and a host of grassroots sides.

“This year is the worst winter we have ever had,” he said. “It (the rain) has just been non-stop. There’s not been three dry days in a row since September.”

This February, the North West saw 176 millimeters of rain, 65 millimeters more than the average per month seen between 1991-2020.

Since January, fixtures against local rivals Ramsbottom United and Wythenshawe have been postponed twice each. 

But Bury are not alone. Waterlogged pitches and last minute fixture cancellations have plagued lower league and non-league football this season. In League Two, Bradford saw their game against Notts County postponed last Saturday due to a waterlogged pitch. Their fixture against Barrow the week before was also deemed unplayable.

Gigg Lane pitch

It is even more of a struggle for grassroots sides. “They are literally getting nothing done at the moment,” O’Sullivan added.

“Clubs are desperate to get games on, because if they don’t, they’ll lose too much money and go bust.”

Gate receipts and matchday sales of pies and pints are crucial to lower league clubs, meaning the groundsman has become arguably the most important man on the pitch for Bury. 

“12th man? Sometimes I feel like the only man!” said O’Sullivan.

“It can be stressful when you know the implications for the club’s finances are high if you don’t get the game on. But when you do, you feel like you are helping the club.”

O’Sullivan has now been a full time groundsman for seven years. Before that he was a courier, while helping out with pitches part time. 

In 1990, as a fifteen year old, he went to college to study groundsmanship. But living with just a single mother, the course proved too expensive. 

It wasn’t until he had children of his own that O’Sullivan fully pursued his childhood ambitions.

“I was watching my sons play and their pitches were crap. So I said I’ll cut them. Then everybody wanted me. I started doing adult teams and it just got bigger and bigger.”

Despite turning fifty next year, his role allows O’Sullivan to stay more involved with football than ever.

“I haven’t played football for nearly 15 years, but I actually find [groundsman work] more rewarding. You finish and there’s something you can see. It’s a different feeling.”

Heavy rain at the Peninsula Stadium during Salford City vs Gillingham

The first professional club he worked with was Salford City, but mowing the Gigg Lane lawn is “extra special.”

“I thought if the job ever came along I would turn it down, because it was too much pressure on me,” he added.

“But it was my hometown club and it is very close to my heart. That is the only reason I took the job on.”

The never ending North Western downpours, as well as a congested lower league schedule, pose extra challenges for O’Sullivan and his ground-keeping counterparts. 

“It’s so much easier down south. It’s warmer and drier.”

“Everyone says Wembley is amazing. My pitch would be amazing if I had seven games a year on it. They don’t play in the winter on it. The pitch gets a massive break.”

Andy O’Sullivan at the Peninsula Stadium

The carpet-like turf at the latest showpiece event at the home football, where Liverpool took home the Carabao Cup, was a far cry from the astroturf pitch that Bury played their last away game on  – a 0-2 victory against FC Isle of Man, overshadowed by travel chaos, as fog delayed kick-off by 17 hours.

Bury themselves could soon be playing on an artificial surface. 

This morning Bury Council proposed investing £450,000 towards replacing the current grass pitch with a new 3G one.

Phil Young, chair of the Football Supporters’ Society of Bury, whose members own Bury Football Club, said 92% of their members support installing an artificial pitch. 

Despite a career spent tending to grass, O’Connell believes recent rain levels have made grass pitches untenable lower down the football pyramid. 

“I don’t like astroturf pitches but they might be the solution,” he said. “It depends on each club. For some it may be the only way they are able to survive now.”

“But the cost of installing them is ridiculous.”

Bury, who sit top of the North West Counties Football League, have been forced to play their next two home games behind closed doors due to discriminatory language used by supporters in September last year.

It is the first time a British side have been forced to play without supporters since Aston Villa were punished for fan riots in 1982.

The punishment will at least provide Shakers fans with some certainty. They have often been left in limbo this season, with their games frequently called off at only a few hours notice.

With only nine games left of the 2023/24 campaign Bury look set for promotion at the first time of asking, and arguably their man of the season has not kicked a ball. 

“At the moment I am very appreciated,” said O’Sullivan. “But when its normal and all the games go on, no one really thinks about it, they turn up and think its just happened.”

“But that’s life.”

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