Progress is inevitable. Time moves on, people move on and things change. Once upon a time, I prowled the Sincil Bank turf as Poacher the Imp, but after 16 years, that boat sailed.
When I did, I used to find myself being chased off the turf by Phil Kime, often with a rake or garden fork in hand. Phil was part of the ground staff, eventually becoming head groundsman and he was as proud of his playing surface as I was of wearing the suit.
Phil leaves Lincoln City this week after two decades working for the club and I wanted to have a chat with him about his time at the club. After all, what is a football club? Players on two-year deals? Kits? Managers? Grounds? Or, when all of those things change and evolve, is it all about the supporters; me, you and Phil, an Imp through and through?
Phil’s started his Imps tenure in 1997/98 on the back of ill health which has dogged him right up to the present day.
“I joined the club basically when I went back onto dialysis. I’ve been on dialysis all the time I’ve worked at Lincoln City. I had a transplant in 1987 which lasted 9 years, until 1996. I had one year of trying to continue at the job I was in but couldn’t cope with that so had to leave. I had a year on sick then came to City. I actually had another transplant 18 months ago which seems to be steady. In all I was on dialysis for 22 years.”
Throughout his time both volunteering and in full time work, Phil has battled ill-health. Even as someone who spent time with him at the club, I didn’t know to what extent, something I now feel considerable guilt at. Phil takes up the story.
“Anyway, I couldn’t continue the job I was doing so I finished on long term sick. I was missing my football so asked Nigel Dennis if I could come into help at the stadium. It was the 1997/98 season and I started initially doing odd jobs but gradually moved into pitch work. I’m eternally grateful to Nigel for taking me on at the club and giving me that start.”
For the next nine years, Phil worked voluntarily at the club, continuing to build on his knowledge and experience. As management, chairmen and staff all changed, Phil remained and it was only after almost a decade the club finally realised he wasn’t actually a paid member of staff!
“John Schofield was the one who gave me a paid job at the club. He didn’t realise I wasn’t employed by the club. I had been voluntary for nine years at that point and most people assumed I actually was staff!”
Before that happened there was the small matter of the play-off years under Keith and that infamous pitch of sand so heavily criticised by Brian Laws. Phil insists the austerity came both on and off the pitch and is very proud of the work done that season.
“The best season for me would have to be the first play-off season with Keith. We had a great core of ground staff with Nige, Mark Reeve (both of which I learned a lot off) and myself. Ironically the pitch was the worst I have ever seen it. Just the same as the team being low budget and tipped for relegation, we had nothing to spend on the turf but we battled on. We had one working sprinkler, far too little seed and fertiliser and the players were training on the pitch too. The sense of achievement and elation when Simon Yeo equalised against Torquay was brilliant.”
Everything came together that season and whilst the football wasn’t great, Phil sums up exactly how everyone involved with the club, both as staff or fans, felt when that goal went in. Against all the odds, Lincoln City had made it to a major final and Phil’s experiences further demonstrate how each and every member of staff pulled together. Remember, Phil was still voluntary at that time.
“Another highlight of my time with the club has been whilst it has just been myself and Paul (Ash). We haven’t lost a game to the weather in 7 seasons, and all the time we also did all the cleaning, maintenance and kit too.”
Even this season, despite a harsh winter for the surface, the club haven’t lost game when many around us in higher leagues have. Phil explains that those winter months can be tough for a ground staff.
“Winter is always a difficult time for groundsmen. You are playing games at a time when grass isn’t really growing or recovering so it’s all about damage limitation. Mostly the problems occur from heavy use and weather conditions which determine pitch condition. The more grass cover you can take into winter the better chance you have of getting through it. I’ve probably been quite lucky as I’ve not received a great amount of criticism of the pitch over the years and I’ve also had social media to give explanations of issues whenever things haven’t been perfect.”
Like in any job, challenge occur that test an employee’s strength and resolve and Phil’s job has been just the same.
“The biggest challenge has always been the weather and having a limited budget. Much as you get weather forecasts they were never spot on, so I tried to plan for the worst case scenario and give us as many options as possible open to get games on.”
I think many Imps fans will agree that the pitch was in a tremendous condition during the National league win, but Phil thinks he’s seen it better.
“2016-7 was a decent pitch after a ropey start but off the top of my head I thought 2015-6 slightly shaded it.”
Next page – Phil talks training grounds, which other teams he’s helped and what comes next.