From army artillery to preparing Portman Road – part one of our behind the scenes Ipswich Town series
This summer we are going behind the scenes at Portman Road. In part one, STUART WATSON speaks to stadium manager Greg Pillinger.
Ipswich Town’s players were put through a two-day army boot camp in the summer of 2009.
It’s a weekend that still gets mentioned six years later. Then manager Roy Keane made reference to it in his recent autobiography, conjuring images of him sleeping in a tent wearing his Celtic shirt. Former player Gareth McAuley revealed in an interview that everyone’s phones and wallets were taken away ahead of the gruelling experience which aimed to separate the men from the boys.
It’s a fresh management and playing staff now, of course, but there’s one member of the current set-up that recalls that experience fondly – stadium manager Greg Pillinger.
“That was why I ended up here,” explains the 46-year-old. “Roy Keane brought the football team to my regiment, the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, in Colchester for pre-season training.
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“I happened to get talking to Simon Clegg, the chief executive at the time, over a coffee while the players were being put through the regime. He mentioned that the stadium manager (Trevor Kirton) was due to retire and would I be interested?
“He knew I was an Ipswich Town fan and asked me to submit my CV. I went through the application process, got down to the shortlist of three and eventually got the job. I did one last tour of Afghanistan and started in 2012.”
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Having left school aged 16 to join the army, Pillinger started out calculating bearings and elevations for artillery fire, progressed to become a master gunner and then ended up preparing the 16 Air Assault Brigade for tours of Afghanistan.
“I wasn’t at the sharp end dodging the bullets, but I was on patrol and things like that,” he explains. “I had two tours of Afghanistan, two tours of Northern Ireland, a tour of Iraq, Cyprus and various jollies around the world to places like Sweden and India.
“I served with the army for 27 years and loved it, but when this opportunity came up at Ipswich Town it was too good not to consider. I’d grown up in Braintree and used to stand on a milk crate to watch games from the North Stand. It felt a bit like going full circle.”
Pillinger’s role of stadium manager consists of looking after and running Portman Road from Monday to Friday, from safety and security, to maintenance and much more.
“It’s a broad brush,” he explains. “Somebody once described it to me as ‘everything but the pitch’. It’s everything you see from lights, toilet rolls, seats and soap dispensers, to the paintwork, wires, PA system, CCTV and pest control, right up to liaising with the local constabulary over terrorism and the superstructure of the stadium.
“There is a bit of a crossover with my army background because it’s about managing people and resources, just civilian now rather than military.
“What I didn’t have in military life is any training to deal with money. Football is big business and you have strict budgets, but in the military you don’t see or think about money – everything just happens.
“You get your resources, your rations, your ammunition and your equipment. Here you are justifying why you want to spend this or that. That’s been a sharp learning curve for me.”
So what sort of shape is Portman Road, one of the few remaining traditional grounds in country, in at present?
“It does creak and groan a bit,” said Pillinger. “The Cobbold Stand is 40-plus years old now, the Co-op Stand is about 30 years old, but we keep on top of that and they’re in fairly good condition.
“Sometimes we get a burst of rain and about three days later the roof will start leaking. It’s then a case of following the pipe work.
“I remember one game when there was water gushing down from the Co-op Stand. The guttering was blocked and it turned out to be a dead seagull. The next day I clamped on all the safety harness and went up there myself to remove the guilty party.”
He continued: “We work 12 months in advance and try to identify work that is going to be needed in the future. For example, the painting of the metal structure in the North Stand – which is taking place this summer – was identified last pre-season. The guys have been up there five weeks already and, weather permitting, it will all be done in time for the first game.”
What about the potential for a big screen inside the ground?
“We think the best place for one would be in the south east corner, between the Cobbold and the Alf Ramsey stands. What we’d like to do is knock that through, get rid of that corner and put gates in to allow HGV arctic trucks to be able to come in.
“The load in and load out for concerts would become much easier, because at the moment it all has to be handled in. It would also allow us to set up a big screen on the pitch if we ever wanted to. For example, we would have liked to have been able to do that to beam back the second leg of the play-offs recently.
“And above those gates, going back to the original question, we would like to put in a big screen, yes.
“We’ve got all these cunning plans but unfortunately budgets are very tight and it might require the Premier League golden ticket to realise some of them.”
Revealing that Portman Road is ’75 to 80 per cent’ ready for a return to the Premier League – a recent audit highlighting the improvements needed for media facilities – Pillinger added: “You do form an emotional attachment to the stadium, just like you do with a car. You’re trying to keep it spick and span so when you see someone walking where they’re not supposed to, a food vendor setting up in the wrong place or someone sticking a poster up somewhere then you do shout ‘what are you doing?’
“It’s a job that can throw up unexpected issues but you see things, hear things and experience things in the army which means that not a lot else can phase you.”