Friday, July 12, 2024

How mighty Merthyr keeps squash vibrant in The Valleys

Merthyr Squash Club has a motley cast of players with nicknames such as The Pirate, The Butler and Trolleys. But don’t be fooled – this is a vibrant and highly successful operation which has just won Squash Wales’ Club of the Year award for the second year in a row. 

Led by chairman/coach David Cope, junior coach/fixture secretary Mark Palmer, club pro Lewis Poole and a host of eager volunteers (“We don’t really give ourselves fancy titles, we all just muck in!”) the recently refurbished three-court facility based at Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre in South Wales is well and truly bucking the trend of declining squash participation. 

The club has around 70 adult members who pay just £5 a month to benefit from cheaper court fees. There are 12 internal mini leagues, four adult teams and one ‘development’ team (made up of juniors playing in adult leagues). New starters get free coaching from young tyro Lewis Poole and there are women’s beginner sessions too. 

Mark (left) and David (right) receive the Squash Wales ‘Club of the Year award’ from Commonwealth Games silver medallist Joel Makin, who began his team squash career at Merthyr 

New starters are quickly entered into the internal mini league system. “Some quickly progress, others are still in Division 12 – it doesn’t matter either way,” says 58-year-old David. “Being in the leagues is a big motivator, because once you’ve agreed to play someone, you’ve got to turn up. If it was just going to the gym, you can easily change your mind and say, ‘I can’t be bothered.’” 

Most impressive is the club’s 60-strong junior membership. New starters are given their first two lessons free of charge and thereafter pay just £11 a month to join the programme which includes a racket and a t-shirt. There are discounts for families with more than one child (one family has four children involved). 

“It’s self-perpetuating,” says David, who won the Volunteer of the Year award at the recent Squash Wales awards. “We don’t need to advertise any more because children are bringing their friends along. It grows because they’re having so much fun.” 

Junior finals day at Merthyr Squash Club

Merthyr Squash have trialled a junior league with clubs in nearby Abergavenny, Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend. It’s a snappier alternative format to junior tournaments which necessitate parents and siblings spending a whole weekend at a venue. Instead, this is an inter-club league with fixtures which are over in a few hours. 

David is an ideas man. He’ll try anything to grow squash in the town, get new faces through the door and give members maximum value. “We’ve tried early morning squash,” he says. “I had one person turn up, which doesn’t sound very successful on the face of it. However, his son has now come along and his wife has started coming to women’s sessions, so that one person has become three new members.” 

Fun is the key word – that much is obvious from the hilarious match reports on the club’s Facebook page, which have become legendary throughout the town. “My mate’s wife reads them and she doesn’t even play squash!” laughs Mark.  

Each match reports has a nominated Man of the Match and every player is referred to by his or her nickname (in case you’re wondering, ‘Trolleys’ is so called because he works at the local Tesco and ‘The Pirate’ refers to David himself who is often limping because of his dodgy knee). 

The women’s beginner class at Merthyr

All this success has been achieved in the face of many headwinds: general squash participation decline, decreasing physical activity levels and competition from other sports and leisure pursuits, but also high levels of social deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil and The Valleys. 

“Merthyr has got a really bad rap, but that bad press is undeserved and I am so proud to live here,” says David. “You can look at it negatively or you can see that as an opportunity to make things better. 

“Squash is an absolutely fantastic product. We’re selling it well at our club and using all sorts of ideas to get more people through the door.”   

Merthyr’s success is reflected by other clubs in the area replicating their ideas – the greatest form of flattery. “We want Merthyr Squash Club to grow but we want squash to grow as well, so if people are copying us that’s brilliant. It’s a fantastic feeling,” says Mark. “It was amazing to hear other clubs cheering our success at the Squash Wales awards.” 

The Methyr coaching team (l-r): David Cope, Lewis Poole, Anthony Roberts (aka The Butler) and Mark Palmer

The club has received support and funding from Squash Wales, Sport Wales and the National Lottery and they have a host of local partners (they prefer that term to ‘sponsors’ as it makes the organisations feel part of the club). 

The next major step in its development is moving out of the leisure centre and building their own club. They’re calling it ‘Project 50’ – aiming to open by the club’s 50th anniversary in 2025. 

“I thought about it a lot during lockdown,” says David. “Everybody said we were bonkers and had no chance of doing it, but we are determined to find our own home and preserve the club’s future for decades to come.”

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