Interview by Mike Dale
England’s brightest young talent Finnlay Withington insists he won’t compromise his all-out attacking style as he begins his career in the professional ranks.
The 18-year-old has captured the attention of the wider squash public this year after making the final of August’s World Junior Championship in Nancy, becoming the first Englishman to do so since James Willstrop in 2002.
He was also a quite brilliant winner from 2-0 and match ball down against Karim El Torkey as England claimed an historic and unexpected victory over Egypt in the World Junior Team Championship final – ending a wait of 22 years to capture the title.
To add further proof of his immense potential, Bury-born Withington won the British junior title in October, once again battling back from two games down to overhaul Jonah Bryant.
Just as notable as his ever-growing trophy collection has been Withington’s array of attacking shots which have earned him comparisons with Egypt’s dazzling crop of creative talent.
He told SquashMad: “I know I probably need to stop going for as much attacking stuff because I’m now playing with better players who can cover it, but that’s just how I play.
“If it’s not coming off on a certain day, I have to adapt, but if it is I’m still going to go for it.”
The teenager has been coached by former England National Performance Coach Josh Taylor since the age of 10. Taylor backed up Withington’s approach to the game.
“I’m passionate that all players I coach play the way they want to play,” said Taylor. “At my academy, I don’t have a set mould of player I’m trying to create. I’d hope everyone comes out with their own individual style. I think that’s really important, because I want Finn to continue enjoying his squash. I don’t want every player coming out of Manchester to be a carbon copy.
“With Finn, people often comment on the flashy stuff he produces because that’s what ends the rally and everyone claps.
“Actually, there is a lot behind the ‘flashiness’. Those shots build a huge amount of pressure because he is constantly hitting space and making his opponents do awkward movements. Long rallies against Finn are very painful.
“It’s hard to stay in rallies against him because you’re constantly twisting and turning. I think that’s his biggest weapon – building pressure. That is often the thing that is under-valued when people watch him play because they just focus on the highlight reel stuff.
“In recent years, from the point when Finn went from around five in the country to just winning everything, that understanding of how to build pressure has been the biggest shift in his game.”
Withington turned pro in July after graduating from Bury College, where he studied public services. After the “exquisite” experience of winning the World Junior Championship in the summer, he is now tucking into life on the PSA Challenger Tour. His next assignment is the new Harrogate Squash Open and he’s hoping for a wildcard into next May’s Manchester Open (which Taylor is helping to run).
Withington plays in the North West Counties League and Yorkshire Premier League and trains with Taylor in Manchester alongside the likes of Patrick Rooney, Julienne Courtice and Saran Nghiem (who he calls “the best training partner in the world”).
He says: “At senior level it’s obviously a lot harder, more physically demanding and is pushing me to be a lot more professional in everything I do. I’m getting more quantity and quality into my training and doing all the right things elsewhere in my life, like stretching, gym work, recovery and eating properly. I’m get fitter and strong and I will be challenging the big boys. Pat Rooney watch out!”
It was his grandad, Peter Withington, who first took young Finn to play squash at Fairways Lodge, where he was the head coach. Finnlay calls him ‘the gaffer’.
“Grandad is a massive support and inspiration,” says Finnlay. “From day one, he’s taken me down to the club, to tournaments and paid for hotels. I’ve started paying for a few things myself lately now I’m earning a bit of money!”
Withington was a county-level runner and outstanding footballer at the age of around 12, but Taylor made sure his focus remained on squash.
“I was very aware that he could have gone into any sport and been very good at it – so I had to try to keep him interested and pushing down our path,” Taylor said.
“He’s in a great place now. I have a lot of faith that he will achieve everything he wants to. It goes without saying I am very proud of him. He’s a pleasure to work with and brings a lot to the table. I am excited to just see where this journey takes us.”