Revitalising Squash in Northamptonshire
By James Roberts – Squash Mad Reporter
I moved home to Northamptonshire, a largely rural county in the East Midlands of England, just over a year ago. When researching the squash scene to determine where I was going to play and what opportunities there would be for competitive team squash, I was told unequivocally by those ‘in the know’ that squash in the county was ‘on its knees’. Participation was declining, clubs and courts were closing and indeed, in the town I now live, Corby located in the north of the county and a large ex steel town, we have a population of nearly 70,000 people but zero squash courts! Corby was once known as the largest town in the UK without a train station until the new one opened just a few years ago, but I now make the claim to fame that it is the largest town in the UK without a single squash court and no one has yet come forward to prove otherwise (any other towns wanting to lay claim to this title, please step forward!).
I therefore have to travel 10 miles to the West of Corby and over the border into Leicestershire to play my squash at Market Harborough, a thriving club which has just been named Club of the Year by Squash Player magazine. Being so close to Northants, Market Harborough is fortunate to be able to participate in the squash scene in both Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, so I have been able to play team squash in both counties and thereby get to know the clubs and people in Northamptonshire.
What I have discovered is that amidst the gloom and pessimism, there are beacons of hope in Northamptonshire. For starters, Brackley Squash Club, located at the southern tip of the county towards Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, has been revitalised and was itself named Club of the Year in the annual England Squash Polar Workforce Awards earlier this year. However, the main beacon of hope for the county lies in the county town of Northampton, where in a northern suburb is located Lings Forum leisure centre. This very traditional once council run facility offers 4 courts tucked into a discreet corner by the large sports hall. At Lings, the players have organised themselves to provide a real club feel. There is a thriving junior section, well populated leagues, motivated coaches and several teams more than holding their own in the county leagues.
Step forward Mike Broadbent, one of the most enthusiastic players and coaches at Lings, who has decided ‘enough is enough’ and has recently been elected Chairman of the Northamptonshire Squash Rackets Association. He has thus taken on the immense task of heading up the county wide coordination of squash, with the mission to raise participation and the profile of the sport in the county, particularly through encouraging the young to take it up. Here Mike explains the background to the decline of squash in Northamptonshire, his motivations for getting involved and strategy for turning things around, which got off to a fantastic start at the end of last month with a Schools Festival …
Squash in Northamptonshire, UK, has been steadily declining for some years. It’s a common theme in many counties across England, with significant numbers of courts and clubs lost since the heyday of the 70’s and 80’s. Without the players, a squash court becomes an expensive waste of space and we have all witnessed how often that space has been requisitioned and turned into something more profitable. Northants has seen the best part of twenty courts disappear since the turn of the century, and the number of county teams has fallen from fifty in 2004, to twenty-seven last season. Northants has no junior county teams at all right now… even if it’s only marginally representative of squash in the rest of the UK, this is a bleak prospect for the sport.
There are signs, however, that the low ebb has been reached. There are a few dedicated individuals who, having witnessed the decline, are now at the coalface of turning things around for Northamptonshire and its immediate surrounding area. Possibly just in time too – before the number of closures reaches a critical mass and the county structure disappears altogether.
The first thing that has been recognised is that although the senior county numbers have fallen, the focus on regeneration must come from recruiting young players. I’ve been coaching out of a leisure centre in Northampton for ten years, and in that time we have grown our little juniors setup from just my kids and those of my fellow coaches, into something that underpins the whole club. Without the juniors I doubt we’d still have the senior internal leagues at anything like the same level, along with the five teams that we put into the Northants county leagues. We’re not breeding champions and we aren’t at a high standard, but we are here: if you get kids playing, the parents will follow – this is essentially how it has worked for us. I genuinely think that the situation is reversed from how it was thirty years ago.
I coach at Lings Forum, a 1975-built leisure centre in a none-too-salubrious end of town, that has seen better days but which still boasts four squash courts kept in good condition. The club that runs out of the facility rivals those of a private members establishment, in terms of having an inclusivity and cohesiveness that embraces players of all standards, making it now the most successful club within the Northants Squash Rackets Association.
Lings has been bucking the trend in Northants for some years, and having watched the decline of the sport in the county, I decided that just doing some coaching every Saturday morning in my comfy leisure centre existence wasn’t going to be enough to stem the tide of apathy that was washing over the local squash scene.
There came a point where I just thought: ‘Enough now. I love this game so much, I’m not going to stand here and watch it crumble, end up having to travel an hour or more to get a game, and for there to be no courts for my kids to play on.’ Since I started playing in the Northants leagues we’ve lost nearly half the teams – much of this through court closures but also thanks to an ageing player population, and general malaise. It’s amazing how something previously so vibrant can so rapidly decline.
So I stood for County Chairman at the beginning of this year. I confess that I was initially overwhelmed at the scale of the task ahead – a rabbit in the headlights if you will, not really sure which direction to turn in first. How do you set about reversing a downward trend of such magnitude? But after not too much in the way of outright panic it became fairly clear what we (and by ‘we’ I mean some of my friends and club mates who felt the same as me) could do, so we set up some junior coaching at a club that Lings used to emulate – Daventry – and then got cracking on getting all the county’s kids playing each other.
With their assistance we established a new junior section at Daventry (which is still the best squash facility in Northants with five good courts and the only remaining show court in the county) and then I arranged lots of friendly tournaments with other clubs in the area.
I got in touch with Buckingham, who have done sterling work with their juniors over the last couple of years; and Brackley, who have achieved so much recently it beggars belief. Along with Market Harborough, other clubs in Northampton, and our new little group in Daventry, suddenly I had a “Northants and District” junior league. We ran graded friendlies and really got the kids – and the parents – fired up. It’s massively rewarding to discover how many other coaches and clubs want to be involved when you actually stick your head over the parapet and start shouting.
This was a good first step for those children already playing, but the next thing on the agenda was to reach out to the schools. With Daventry being the club most in need of regeneration, I had a meeting with Northamptonshire Sport with a view to setting up a schools programme. David Hanson, Daventry and South Northants Schools Participation Manager, has this to say:
“Mike’s approach was a breath of fresh air. Every primary school in my area is mandated to form a link with a local sports club – and it’s our job to facilitate that – but there’s only so much football, rugby, cricket, and tennis that you can ram down the throats of children who are going to do it anyway. Squash is different, and it allowed us to put it out to children who don’t traditionally take part in the traditional team sports. I filled all forty places for a festival in five days.” – Dave did a sterling job.
It was a massive opportunity. I just needed enough people to deliver it – not to mention a large number of rackets and goggles. In their usual style my club mates, along with the new coaches at Daventry itself, came through. So we had five courts with eight kids on each, taking part in agility exercises, playing games, and being introduced to squash. There were so many smiling faces. I didn’t see one unhappy child.
We hired a PA for the event, putting on an exhibition match for the children to watch after all their activities, and as they ate their lunch. I got two of the county’s top juniors to play a game. We had rehearsed it quite a bit so they really put on a show – once I got the kids revved up I didn’t need to do much more. It was absolutely deafening – the reaction was terrific.
I sincerely hope that all this effort doesn’t go to waste – people took days off work and we spent a bit of money on the project. We sent each child away with membership and coaching flyers, urging them to come back. But I suspect that like any other business attracting a new audience, it will take a number of these events before we begin to see substantive results. We will have to be resilient.
Other such programmes are planned for the rest of the county. Now that we understand the formula, putting on further “Squash Skills Festivals” as it was proudly announced to the schools (without wishing to get the name confused with Squashskills.com who were massively supportive in providing us with a full playlist of videos to have running during the event) – will be part and parcel of the whole Northants strategy: we’re already booked in for another Daventry event, and I’ve contacted the other Schools Sports Managers elsewhere in the county with a view to doing something similar. We have to just keep chipping away.
And the established junior players? I’ve had a very positive response to all the graded friendlies we’ve been running. On 24th June all the clubs are coming together at Daventry for one big tournament – but it’s not just about the kids. It will be a family day with a barbecue and bar, and a bouncy castle to keep the little ones amused. There will be in excess of sixty children playing, possibly up to ninety: it’s going to be busy! My aim is to get all the county’s stakeholders and participants under one roof in a celebration of squash.
I intend it to be an effective way of driving the community spirit that has served my own club for a number of years: we’ll use the Daventry event to launch the Northants and District Junior Grand Prix that starts in September. It’s not a new idea, I stole it from Alison and Steve Avil at Market Harborough who ran it brilliantly some years ago. It’s time we had it again, and we have the numbers and commitment to do so, albeit by bringing in clubs from just over the Northants border. We’ll also introduce the new county coaching structure that begins in the autumn… You never know, I might have some Northants junior teams in a year or two.
All pictures by Mike Broadbent