Groundsman Graham Mapp enjoyed five happy years at Fellows Park tending the hallowed turf with loving care and attention and was the man who had the task of levelling the famous Fellows Park slope that ran some 7ft from the Hillary Street End to the Laundry End and also sloped slightly from side to side.
Graham had been working for the Birmingham Parks Dept at Salford Stadium in Birmingham and with the upcoming World Cup being staged in 1966 he was asked to help prepare Villa Park with that being chosen as one of the venues he helped out at evenings and weekends to help make the pitch bigger. The Aston Villa head groundsman Bert Bond was certainly pleased with his efforts in the race to beat the clock to ensure it was prepared in time. So much so that he suggested he should apply for the role of head groundsman at Walsall FC.
Graham takes up the story..
" I went down to Fellows Park on the Monday evening but everywhere was locked up. I even ventured down Hillary Street but there was no sign of life at all. Bertie Bond asked how I'd got on but I told him of my plight. Next the Saddlers manager Ray Shaw knocked on our door at my parents house in Castle Bromwich. My dad answered it and Ray said, ' I understand you attempted to see about the job at Walsall?' 'Not me, but my son Graham here who is interested' came dad's reply. He said to come down the following night and stated that chairman Bill Harrison and secretary Ernie Wilson would be there, but advised me to take no notice of what anything Wilson says, as he is a bit tight! "
Sure enough those two officials were present and Graham, having been forewarned about Wilson's reputation about being reluctant to part with much money, was prepared.
"When it came to my wage expectation I had to stick to my guns. I was on £15 a week at Birmingham Parks and when asked I suggested £20 a week. 'What?! Wilson gasped, £20 a week?' I insisted, 'I'm not coming for any less, I've got to travel from Castle Brom each day.' 'Bill Harrison stepped in - 'I'll pay you £20 a week but you must be in charge of everything here including organising part time people to keep the ground tidy.'
" Having got the wage out the way I asked to see the gear I was going to work with and was led to an old shed. Wilson claimed he couldn't find the key to open the door for me to inspect what I was expected to work with but despite his lack of co-operation the key mysteriously turned up when Bill Harrison was alerted and all that was in there was a sprinkler, an old mower and a couple of rakes and shovels! Thankfully Walsall Parks Department were excellent in loaning me other equipment."
There were disclosures of not one, but two unexpected pay rises..
"There was a night match where it had rained and rained. Bill Harrison was determined to get the match on . I did my best and we got the match on and he promptly gave me a £5 a week rise! On another occasion, just after he was sacked, Ray Shaw who was then working for Leicester City, asked if I would come over to check the state of Filbert Street's pitch as it had become a bit of a nightmare like Derby's notorious Baseball Ground at that time. I popped over, had a look and gave Ray my verdict. When Bill heard about this he asked me if I was thinking of leaving Walsall. I said I might be and again he came up with the goods and issued me with another fiver a week, even though I actually had no intention of leaving!"
"Talking of Ray, when I heard of his sacking I told him I was sorry to hear about the parting of the ways. He had this to say. 'Never feel sorry for a sacked football manager. There's always a book or a newspaper article to write to make money from.' Shaw's successor, Dick Graham, was the only manager that riled Graham. There was one intense training session that was conducted on the pitch which went ahead against his wishes but the manager had the final word. Bill Harrison saw them training on the pitch and he too was furious as he also liked the pitch to look as good as possible on a match day. So he ordered Graham to inform the manager to stop the session immediately. The manager then issued a 'V' sign towards the main stand where Bill was sitting. Dick Graham was sacked the next day.
Then there was an amazing story regarding manager Bill Moore.
"Bill had quite a long injury list before one game. He had heard the weather forecast and asked me if the game was likely to be called off.. He then asked me if the hose was left on in the goal mouths and down the centre and would subsequently freeze, would the game be postponed to which I replied, 'Yes, but I'm here to get matches on, not off. There's the hosepipe, you can put it where you want, turn it on then turn it off again.' Bill did just that and the game was duly called off."
One of Graham's duties on match days was to collect the match ball from manufacturers Jabez Cliff who were based in Lower Forster Street in Walsall town centre.
"One such day I went down to collect the ball as usual but the girl in reception told me that unfortunately on this occasion she couldn't let me have it as Walsall Football Club had fallen behind will bill payments! On my return to Fellows Park minus the ball a somewhat agitated Ernie Wilson enquired, 'Did you forget to pick up the ball?' ' Forget? Did you forget to pay the bill on time? I replied, You'd better get down there and settle up before they close at noon or else you won't have a match ball to use this afternoon! "
"There was yet another example of how tight he was. Fellows Park was selected to host an England v. Scotland youth international and as a little bonus for me preparing the pitch and marking the lines etc the FA said there would be a payment of five guineas for me. When there was no sign of this payment three weeks after the game I approached Wilson and after a delay he later handed me a five pound note. I pointed out to him that
"no, there's another five shillings to go with it."
Of course Graham will be best remembered for the mammoth task he undertook in 1969 to level the pitch. As soon as the players left the pitch after the last home game on April 19th v. Swindon Town he, along with three other men, set about ripping up the turf and levelling that seven foot slope. The others were John Pate of the Parks Department, his old mentor Bert Bond, the Villa groundsman and tractor driver Les Mason. The first operation they undertook was to plough the entire 9,000 square yards with a single furrow reversible plough. The area was then rotovated to break up the soil and any existing turf very finely.
Next came the removal of the top soil with a caterpillar tractor. This was stored in two large heaps while the bulldozer set about levelling operations, moving a total of 3,000 cubic yards of earth. When this was completed the top soil was replaced and 500 cubic yards of ash was rotavated in to a depth of 9 inches. The ash came free of charge, from Ocker Hill power station in Tipton. This operation so far had taken a fortnight but there was one unfortunate setback - a broken wrist was sustained by the bulldozer driver.
The one large task now remaining was the final grading, which could have been completed in a day. The weather then took over, however, and during May almost 6 inches of rain fell. This meant that it was quite impossible to bring heavy machinery on to the pitch and the entire area had to be raked in by hand, with 10 cwt of superphosphate applied to add rapid root establishment of the young grass plants. The grass seed was then sown 2 oz per square yard and raked in, and as the pitch became green again it was a matter of mowing, rolling and applying fertilizer relaying the running track and hoping that there would not be excessive rain to cut it up on the first match. Graham takes up the story again...
"As it turned out we were most lucky in in this respect. We were fortunate too in having the full co-operation of the Walsall Parks Department in loaning equipment and tools. The Supporters Club along with Bert Bond gave me valuable assistance during a vital period during which I was out of action, due to a bizarre incident. I was lifting a big rock from the pitch with others when I burst an ulcer and ended up in hospital! Tommy Watson and Jimmy MacEwan came to visit me one day but were initially refused until Jimmy piped up, 'We've come all the way from Scotland to visit him can you let us in for my cheek!"
Graham also had various young players to assist him doing various tasks and said, " Bill Harrison sent players like Geoff Morris, Brian Horton, Ray Train, Derek Clarke and Paul Coton to help me and Derek in particular was of great help." When asked which players caught his eye the most his response was "Allan Clarke, George Kirby and Colin Taylor." In 1971 Graham left Fellows Park in to take up a position at the Birmingham Post and Mail sports stadium at Yardley but has fond memories of his time with Walsall FC. likewise those who were at Fellows Park at that time only have good things to say about this first class groundsman.