The stars start to align

Brian King provides readers with a behind-the-scenes peek of the semi-final stages of the carpet fitter of the year competition.

IT’s a warm Wednesday afternoon and I'm over at the Fita training centre in Loughborough with Fita’s chief training consultant Steve Ramsden and carpet filter of the year compere and judge Ian James. We're putting the final touches on our preparations for the following day as it’s the first day of the carpet fitter of the year semi-finals 2019. This year after an overwhelming application process with double the number of fitters applying, the number of semi-finalists has been increased from 12 to 14.

The materials are measured and checked and placed ready for use in the bays. A selection of grippers and door-bars are placed on display for the semi-finalists to choose from as one of the many tasks they must get correct. They must select the right materials for the two different types of carpets they have to install.

We finished by placing the name badges for the first seven semi-finalists on the front of their bays along with their framed certificates. They also get t-shirts with their names on which they can keep as a reminder of how proud they should be of themselves for making it this far.

After another quick check that everything is in order, we locked up and headed back to the hotel with the notes to have a well-earned beer and a bite to eat and to check and doublecheck everything was on track.

Everything was ticked off the checklist, so we had an early night in order to be fresh and eagle-eyed for an early start. My role over the next two days was to take care of the media side of things. I covered the two days on the NICF Twitter page along with last year’s winner John Wright who was covering the NICF Facebook page.

I was also doing a live feed for UK Flooring TV. Last year I did this by placing the video camera upstairs in the corner looking down on the semi-finalists. That got about 3,000 views. This year, after asking for feedback from fitters who logged in, I decided to do a close-up feed by walking around and getting views of what the fitters were doing. You could literally see their hands and watch them fit up-close.

To our amazement more than 20,000 people logged in and watched the feed. I left the comment button on and although most comments were very positive, there was the odd negative one by the fitters, thinking they can do better. For the final, I’ll disable the comment button.

Thursday morning soon came around and we got there early to wait for the arrival of the first seven semi-finalists. There was first-timer Steve Whitburn from Cornwall with 33 years’ fitting experience under his belt; Peter Kearney from Leighton Buzzard who started out in flooring after leaving school and working with his father 30 years ago; and Richard Long, Jamie Nelson and Tony Newall, all from Scotland, and all in the mix in last year’s competition (in Jamie’s case, he was also a 2017 semi-finalist).

Philip Stock from Bradford and Sam Willis from Cornwall, both semi-finalists last year, made up the first batch of seven competitors.

The judges were the same as last year. Steve Ramsden judges in the semi-finals but not in the finals as he runs one of the fitting demo zones with me at Harrogate. The other judges are the former NICF president Ian James and two independents.

The first independent is Jeff Hardy, former president of the NICF between 1991-1993. Jeff was also an original judge for the carpet fitter of the year when it was in full flow back in the early ‘90s. We call Jeff ‘Eagle Eye’ because literally nothing gets past him. Jeff says this is his last year of judging as he’s retiring. We hope he changes his mind as he’s a fantastic judge.

The second independent is Richard Renouf, who has no connection with the NICF. Back in 2002, Richard set up the fitters’ academy at Carpet Right where he was head of consumer affairs and customer services. He’s now a consultant member for the CFA and a monthly CFJ columnist. I'm sure you’ll agree that just like last year, the judges certainly know what they’re looking for.

Similar to last year, they have an L-shaped bay that needs a join in the carpet. They also have a run of four straight stairs to the carpet. They have a choice of flat or raised door-bars to choose from, small, medium or long-pin gripper-rods and felt paper.

The underlay was a PU this year. Steve briefed them on what they had to do and as soon as the clock struck 9.30am they started. They got their tools in and started to prep the bays, after changing into a spare pair of clean footwear. As I walked around, I noticed the work was to a very high standard; all the grippers had been mitred with the correct spacing. The underlay was spot-on with all joints taped up, all cut tightly up to the gripper with very little gap.

This year there were two different types of carpet to fit. There was a striped loop for the stairs that looked a nightmare to fit (you only had to touch the edges of the carpet and the loop would get disturbed), and a plain 80/20 wool carpet for the flat area that needed a join.

All was quiet with the faint sound of the radio in the background, but they seemed to crack on in good spirits. The allotted time soon went, and the first bunch of semi-finalists grabbed a bite to eat from the buffet supplied by the training centre. They watched on curiously as the judges marked each bay with a fine-tooth comb.

 In fact, the judges spent a good 30-40 minutes or more in each bay looking and marking everything in detail before shaking the semi-finalists' hands, presenting them with their certificates and sending them on their way.

Day two soon come around with the second group of semi-finalists fresh-faced and raring to go. This bunch included Darren Ash from Worcestershire with 37 years’ experience. Darren has been in the finals for the past four years.
The others included:

Michael Beard from Manchester, a 2017 semi-finalist;
Jason Draper who has been a floorlayer for 17 years and also a 2017 semi-finalist;

Dan Evans from Huntingdon who’s been a finalist for the past two years;
Paul finch from Oxford who was a 2016 finalist in 2016;
Dan Jones from Telford, another 2017 semi-finalist and a 2018 finalist; and Ryan Hughes from Luton with 14 years’ fitting experience, and a first-timer.

The second day kicked off much the same as the previous one with everyone in good spirits. They prepped their areas and started to put on their stairs. After the stairs were fitted, they moved on to the flat area. A very low radiator with two pipes that challenged them was removed afterwards by the judges to inspect the fitting beneath it.

After the flat areas were fitted the bays were hoovered up and the carpet care guide that was wrapped in the carpet placed in the bay for the judges.

They approached the judges to let them know they’d finished and were asked a few questions that were generally asked onsite such as: ‘Can I hoover it straight away?’ etc – the sort of things you’re asked on a daily basis by customers.

 After they finished, each one let out a big sigh of relief and after a short refreshment break all stood watching in anticipation as the four judges inspected their bays in great detail. The judges, just as on day one, spent about 40 minutes in each bay, scrutinising them closely. comb. They uplifted the carpet, inspecting the backing for damage, checking the gripper and underlay. I don't think anything was missed.

I managed to grab some interviews on camera with some of the semi-finalists for UK Flooring TV. The social media side of things went down well with several good luck messages and positive feedback.

The finalists who got through this year are:
Darren Ash – Alfrick, Worcestershire
Dan Evans – Huntingdon, Cambridgshire
Dan Jones – Telford, West Midlands
Richard Long - Broughty Ferry, Dundee
Jamie Nelson – Kirkcolm, Wigtownshire
Tony Newall – Coatbridge, Lanarkshire
A massive well done to all who entered and had the guts to give it a go. And huge congratulations to the finalists who get through to the final six. I had a great catch up with some old friends and had the pleasure of meeting some new ones.
The finals will take place in the Kings suite at The Flooring Show in Harrogate over the two days 15-17 September 2019.
You can watch the interviews and live feed on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as well as UK flooring TV.

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Brian King is vice-president of the NICF