FOR 24 years he saw his hard work at Wanderers trampled on a daily basis, his prized possession regularly cut down in its prime.

He got harangued in every pub in Bolton, partly blamed for the club’s poor home form in the Colin Todd era and was responsible for muddying the knees of superstars from Jay Jay Okocha to Eidur Gudjohnsen.

It was quite literally like watching grass grow for long-serving groundsman Richard Norton but after nearly two-and-a-half decades in charge of the pitch he has mowed his last blade at Bolton.

When Norton arrived at Wanderers the White Hot era had yet to begin and the club was only just getting back on its feet thanks to the tireless fundraising of people like Alf Davies and Nat Lofthouse.

It was 1991, Phil Neal was in charge and with plans to move to a brand new stadium still in their infancy, the brief was clear.

“When I came in they just said ‘keep us going for six years’ – it was just a case of rolling the mud flat, making sure we could get bums on seats at Burnden Park and keeping games on,” he told The Bolton News.

“We had to try every trick in the book in those days because every single penny was accounted for, nothing wasted.

“The club had almost gone under and Nat had been on the pitch asking people to join the Goldline. But things were slowly changing and I think they knew when I came in that there would be a new stadium on the horizon.”

Hull-born Norton had worked at Wimbledon and the old Wembley Stadium before replacing Alan Whittle, who had fallen ill.

With the club embarking on a move to the new Reebok Stadium there was much debate about the kind of pitch that would be needed in the purpose-built arena.

But as Norton explained it took him almost a decade of arguing with the club’s hierarchy before finally getting the surface the team deserved.

“People ask me has it been a labour of love, well it’s certainly been a labour,” he laughed. “When we moved to the stadium everyone was marvelling at the building but you have to understand grass is a living product, it has to be nurtured and loved. Someone has to be out there every day with it.

“At the time we started talking about what surface would be used, FibreSand had just come in and we were assured by the people building it that the light and the air movement would be okay for us to use it.

“But when they put the roof on the stadium we knew right away we’d have problems.

“It was a steep learning curve in that first couple of seasons. The product was right but the light levels were too low to grow grass on the west wing.

“Subsequently we were proved right in the next few years. It became very unstable.

“We looked into it and ended up laying a turf pitch but we were going through two of them a year – one in the summer after we’d had pop concerts, and then in November-December, hoping it would get us through to the end of the season.

“When Colin Todd was the manager it became psychological, the players came out of the tunnel and we had no grass on the west side of the pitch, even though it was stable. They were saying there is something wrong with it.

“Blame the groundsman! I couldn’t go in a pub in Bolton without someone telling me I’d ruined the pitch.

“Fortunately Phil Gartside was listening to us. When Sam Allardyce was manager and more money was available in the Premier League we invested in the Desso Grassmaster and it cost us £1million.

“We had to invest in the artificial lights as well, and that enabled us to sustain at least 90 per cent grass cover. It took us 10 years to get from Burnden Park to a pitch that the club could be proud of.”

Norton’s first-ever game saw Nottingham Forest provide the opposition and so it proved for his final game last month, after which he took up a position in the Middle East with a British building company.

The Yorkshireman will assist with pitches to be used in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup but hasn’t ruled out a return to Bolton one day.

“I feel I’ve done my best,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll miss it. Even though I’m not from Bolton, people have always accepted me.

“I’ve always been proud to do what I do. And I’ve always pooled the opinion of the players, some good, some bad.

“But I’ve still got a few years left in me and it’ll be nice to see some of the world. You never know, I might be back, and I’ve got a plot ear-marked when I finally turn up my toes!”