Premier Squash League Preview:
A New Den for the Birmingham Lions
By James Roberts – Squash Mad Reporter
Anyone traveling along the A38 Bristol Road to the South of Birmingham city centre over the past 2 years could not have failed to notice an impressive new structure taking shape at the main entrance to the campus of the University of Birmingham.
This is the £55 million new Sports Centre, which replaces the University’s ageing Munrow Sports Centre currently located in the heart of the campus, and which also includes 6 new glass backed squash courts as part of an impressive array of state-of-the-art sports facilities.
As a fan of the Birmingham Lions, who I have been following avidly now for the past 5 seasons, I was delighted to be offered a tour of the new sports centre by Jon Tate, Head Squash Coach and Manager of the Birmingham Lions PSL team, not long after its grand opening in May 2017. I have since visited him again to look back on last season’s ultimately disappointing conclusion, discuss the squad composition and look ahead to the new PSL season as the Lions prepare to play for the first time on the new courts.
Division A last season was very tight and competitive, but what is your assessment of last season with the team unfortunately ending up propping up Division A? After the previous season where the Lions just missed out on qualifying for the semi-finals, you must have been disappointed to not have put in a more serious challenge this season?
Last season was ultimately frustrating for the whole team and we were obviously disappointed with the end result. However the final results do not give the whole picture of the season for certain. Five of the ten matches we played ended 3-2 and unfortunately we only managed to win one of those 5 matches. Even just looking at the away match at UWE, where we lost 3-2, two of the other rubbers lost were also 3-2 defeats for Joel Makin and Jaymie Haycocks. Had we won even a small percentage of those matches then the season could have been very different. With two matches still to play, the players were still thinking that the play-offs were a possibility so it gives an idea of how tight the whole league was last season.
Can you perhaps put your finger on what might have been the main missing ingredient that meant that the team ultimately fell short last season?
In truth there are probably two main contributing factors. One as discussed already was our inability to convert some of those closer matches in our favour, and perhaps more tellingly is the lack of a top 25 male player in our squad. Steve Coppinger was nominated but unfortunately was unavailable for the whole season, and all of the other teams seemed stronger at the top of the order compared with the previous year. In the main, the opposition were able to get their best players on the court more consistently and this obviously has a huge bearing on the strength of the team in depth when this happens. In many of the matches if we are honest we went into the tie as underdogs and the results we had ultimately reflected that.
Who impressed you most from within the Lions team last season and why?
It’s not easy to single out any one player in particular as we are a team and at different times all of the players contributed in their own way to our team performances, particularly in the matches that we won. That said, if pushed I believe that Joel Makin played some superb matches for us at no.1 this season, mixing it at no.1 with much higher ranked opponents like James, Daryl and Chris Simpson and was in my opinion a very deserving British U23 Champion. Additionally Sarah Jane Perry had an unbelievable season where she has cemented herself as a top 8 player in the world, reached the World Series Finals in Dubai, and despite some close 3-2 matches in PSL ended the season once again undefeated for the Lions.
What are your plans for the forthcoming season, in terms of the team?
Next season, we are certainly hoping that we can improve upon our league position from this season, and start winning some of the key matches in ties that can push us over the line. Our players are training hard in pre-season at the moment, and I know that they are still improving so on a personal level I know they will be motivated to go and get some results, both individually and collectively. With the way the league has gone in the last two years and the size of our budget compared to some of the larger teams, it will be unlikely that we will push for the league title but our aim is to win as many matches as we can and see where that can take us. Additionally, we will be playing matches in the University of Birmingham’s new 55 million pound sports centre next season so we are excited to showcase our new venue to players, and spectators alike.
Which current members of the team are confirmed as playing next season?
Currently we have signed almost all of the players from last season, although unfortunately we know for certain that we have lost one of our key players over recent seasons – Sarah Jane Perry, who has quite understandably agreed to play for one of the new teams to enter PSL this season, University of Warwick – Kenilworth, this being a joint venture between the university she attended and her home club. However we have are really pleased to have signed an exciting replacement in the form of Millie Tomlinson, who played for Nottingham last season and is very excited to be joining the Lions.
We are also delighted to secure the services of Ryan Cuskelly, an exciting top Australian player who performed strongly on the PSA World Tour last season and is currently ranked 15 in the PSA rankings. We are hopeful that he will be able to play as many matches as possible over the course of the PSL season and he has already confirmed his availability to play in 2 of the matches before Christmas.
We are also really pleased to welcome a talented young English player to the team, Lucy Turmel, who is one of England Squash’s hottest junior prospects.
Do you feel you will have a realistic chance of making the semi-finals this coming season?
Like I have already mentioned, potentially I think that this is a tough proposition, looking at the squad lists of the rival teams in our division. That said one thing for certain is that our players will always give everything that they have and will be looking to win as many matches as possible! They have proved they are capable of winning plenty of matches in this league so it is definitely all to play for.
In the past, you have used the PSL as an opportunity to give your best undergraduate players the opportunity to pitch themselves against world class players, for instance Joel Hinds, Jan van Den Herrewegen, Miles Jenkins plus I note Jack Turney also got a game recently. Has this helped the development of their games and do you intend to continue with the policy this coming season?
One of the driving factors behind the University of Birmingham’s involvement in PSL is to give its young, ambitious and aspiring players a chance to play squash in a professional environment, with professional players in a professional league. Giving these younger players this opportunity will always form a huge part of our selection process and is really key to our core values. We want these players to be motivated, working and training hard on a daily basis and pushing to be involved in these matches. Next year will be no exception and we have some very exciting and talented young junior players who have applied to come to Birmingham this September who will all be looking for that opportunity to play, so hopefully they can step up to the required level when called upon!
What are the main features of the facilities and how are they an improvement over what was on offer at the Munrow?
As an overall building the new facility is spectacular and has everything that we will ever need under one roof which was not the case when we were based in the Munrow Centre. The 50m swimming pool is superb, the performance gym, sports science labs, treatment rooms, spinning rooms etc are all close to the squash courts and are all fantastic facilities in their own right that our players will be accessing on a regular basis.
We now have 6 glass backed squash courts (3 that can be converted for doubles use as well), and a large area behind these courts for spectator seating. Technology has been built into every aspect of the building and we now have digital screens, integrated music, and the ability to control lighting and heating on every court if we wanted to. The fine details are exceptional and in many ways it is barely worth comparing this centre and these courts with our previous facilities, as they are light years apart. Our players and students are incredibly lucky to have had this exceptional sports facility built at a University, and I know that they are all looking forward to playing and training here.
Do you feel it will help in attracting new players to sign up for the team?
PSL is only one aspect of what we do at the University and in reality I do not think that the facility will necessarily help or hinder in relation to recruitment of professional players to our PSL team. Ultimately if you are a full time player then playing squash is your job, and as such in my opinion all players will go to the place that is best suited to them either financially, geographically, emotionally (e.g. their home town club) or a mixture of all of these. If all of these things are equal then things like facilities may start to have an impact but I’m not sure before that stage.
That said, as an institution we certainly are hopeful that our new University facilities will help to engage with the best young players and athletes from around the world, and that the quality of our facilities and the squash program that we offer here will become a big draw to those players who are considering a route through higher education. Everything they could ever want and need to help them develop as players will be on hand for them here, and I have no doubt that players will be impressed by what they see when they come to look around or play here.
What difference will it make to how you organise and stage the PSL matches?
In reality this is still to be decided and is still in the planning stages, however we will certainly be looking to use all of the modern technology that is available to us to try to give a better match night experience to both the players and the fans. I don’t think lots will change as we have tried to be fairly innovative already in recent seasons, however hopefully if nothing else it will look and feel even more professional, and people will arrive at the venue knowing that it is a PSL night rather than a standard local league match night.
The PSL and university teams have of course played at the Munrow for many decades. Although the centre was past its best and needed replacing, was it still emotional saying goodbye to the Munrow? What are the plans for the site where it currently stands?
Truthfully I am not sure what the University intend to do with the site of the old sports centre. The Munrow Centre is definitely going to be demolished in the near future, however I think it will be the New Year before that gets underway. As you say the Munrow Centre has had some great players who have played at the venue and even in recent times both Nick Mathew and Laura Massaro have played at the centre as World Champions. Despite that though, I think the excitement of our new facility far outweighs any nostalgic feelings that were had in relation to the Munrow Centre, and we hope that this new facility can give us the platform to have many more great players and matches played at the University for many years to come.
What additional opportunities do these new facilities provide to the university in terms of squash activities and events? I hear for example that the BJO and BUCS are to take place there, plus it features as an integral part of the Birmingham bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which has recently been confirmed as the UK’s preferred candidate city.
We are very keen to maximise the potential of this new facility, and very much want to be an active venue that looks to host big events and tournaments. In the main we share a common vision with our events partner Edgbaston Priory Club, and we want to ensure that Birmingham and the Midlands region are an integral part of squash in this country. As it stands, the University will host the World University Championships in 2018, and as you mention Birmingham has been awarded the right to host the British Junior Open for the next three years. This is a joint venture that also includes West Warwickshire Sports Club and Solihull Arden Club, in addition to Edgbaston Priory, and we are all very excited to be hosting this event. As you mention, Birmingham has now been confirmed at the UK’s candidate city to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the University of Birmingham has put itself forward to host both the hockey and squash as part of that games, should the bid ultimately be successful. This brings us one step closer to the dream of hosting the Commonwealth Games squash tournament and one thing for certain is that the University, alongside the whole of the Birmingham bid team, is working hard to secure the Games for the city and the UK.
The Birmingham Lions kick off their 2017/18 PSL season away at Bristol on Tuesday 3rd October. The first match to be played at the ‘new Lions Den’ in the £55m sports centre will be on Tuesday 24th October, which will see the debut appearance in the League of University of Warwick – Kenilworth. One not to be missed match at the new Sports Centre will be Round 6 versus Bristol on Sunday 7th January, as this is set to be staged immediately following the British Junior Open Squash finals, with some of the matches therefore taking place on the all glass show court in the multi-purpose arena.
Here is the complete list of PSL fixtures for 2017/18:
The full squad lists for all the PSL teams is shown below: