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In this article from Squash Player 2020 Issue 2, Greg Pearman tells Rod Gilmour of his deep fondness for one of the world's most esteemed squash clubs after he brings his 30-year spell as RAC head coach to an end.

There will be a familiar face and distinct voice missing when members return through the doors of the venerable Royal Automobile Club in London after Greg Pearman left as head coach following 30 years’ service.

The club is now set to employ just its fourth head of rackets in 100 years in what is arguably the most coveted coaching job in world squash.

Sadly, Pearman’s farewell dinner had been scheduled three days into the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, so he was forced to hot-foot instead to his new home in Devon. “It was going to be a big night and would have been lovely to do it properly but there are bigger things in the world,” the 57-year-old says.

Given that the majority of RAC members work in the City of London and a financial crisis and pandemic were looming, the RAC had begun to take on what Pearman describes as an ‘eerie atmosphere’.

Yet in the last three decades the basement courts at the Pall Mall venue have been anything but. With 1,400 members playing squash, the private members’ club now runs over 50 leagues – surely the biggest internal club leagues in the world - and there can be a four-year wait just to join the ladders. At his peak, Pearman took 1,200 lessons every year, accrued over 35,000 sessions in all and helped orchestrate the club’s debut in the Premier Squash League (PSL) in 2017.

As Pearman recounts 30 years’ worth of tales and stories of the club’s rich history, he does so with a semi-Scandinavian lilt you wouldn’t be able to place unless you knew he was born in Stockholm, to a Swedish mother and English father. He came to the UK in 1975 and spent a decade as squash coach at Richmond Town (now Richmond Olympus) in Surrey. As the 80s squash boom faded, Richmond began to commercialise and favour aerobics over squash, so Pearman moved to the RAC. His preconception back then was a “sleepy, dusty place with lots of history”.

“But I soon fell in love with the squash ethos,” he continues. “Even though the RAC was ‘old school’, a lot of the other London clubs were driven by profit and had moved away from being a club and community. Even the RAC had been left behind in the ages, but it had a community drive and if you created a great environment the business would come.

“Historically the squash coaches were chosen by the squash committee, so once I got the job I was then introduced to the management. I soon found out what a great club it is, with great people and fantastic stories.”

One such tale involves Oke Johnson, the club’s first coach who spent 45 years in the role. He took time out to enlist and fight in the Second World War and the story goes that when Johnson returned he had to face a play-off match against the interim coach just to get his job back.

Pearman faced little resistance when he sought more equality for women members.  When he joined in 1990 women were only allowed to play on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. “The committee opened its arms and I came in at the right time,” he admits. Although the RAC is aesthetically a purpose-built, rather masculine building, change came quickly and women were attracted by the courts and the gym. 

Pearman was also handed the reins at the RAC’s country club in Epsom, Surrey, and by the time he left there were six staff under his wing to cover the eight courts across both venues – where members still play in whites.

“I tried to work out why playing in white was a ‘thing’,” Pearman says of the ruling. “I thought it was a way to play sports the same and not to judge anyone. It looked snooty to the outside but like Wimbledon it has been embraced and is seen as a quirk. The younger members even vetoed the idea [to allow coloured clothing] and the rule has remained in place.”

One change did come when the RAC joined the PSL and Pearman made sure visiting teams could play in their preferred kit, which may have otherwise proved problematic to sponsors. The RAC’s PSL players, meanwhile, play in all white. Pearman calls the PSL venture an unbridled success with ‘noisy’ members packing the gallery on match nights.

Pearman says: “What people get stuck on is the old colonial look. That’s why I was proud of the PSL - I wanted the squash world to see that we are a normal club. You can’t change a building but once you’re in you can sense the friendliness and we see ourselves as being open and diverse.”

In all, there are 17,500 members across the two clubs, each paying around £1,800 per year. The courts - which used to host the British Open - are in high demand from 6am to 10pm most days. “I loved being supported by the committee and being the expert on squash, to create a team and form the leagues. I was really given carte blanche,” Pearman explains.

To underline the popularity of squash, when Pearman left there were 54 leagues at the club, with a waiting list of 200 players expecting a three to four-year wait.

It all started with a rolodex and a telephone before technology kicked in, as Pearman set about creating a regimented set of rules. If a player failed to play three matches, that member would be chucked out of the league and forced to wait up to four years to get back in. “The motivation is huge for players and our courts are always fully booked in the final weeks of the leagues,” laughs Pearman.

“We are dealing with members who are used to getting their own way - bankers, managing directors – and we often had to speak to their PAs first who would tell us they weren’t used to waiting.”

Not that this deterred the squash department; Pearman even had to throw out an RAC chairman once, while members who had forgotten to log their results all received short shrift.

“It didn’t matter who they were, all we wanted was for three results to be inputted! We would hear stories of members coming in before a knee surgery just to play their matches on time. When my house burned down I was asked why I was still at the club. ‘Squash isn’t that important,’ they said. Well, it was for me!”

Pearman, a former semi-pro on the tour and a top 100 player for a few years, was also instrumental in installing the first doubles court with moveable walls in a major city at the turn of the century. It proved another success, with members returning to the sport and 600 entries to its annual doubles competitions. 

“I’ve loved everything about the place,” says Pearman, who will now become a therapeutic life coach, after qualifying as a Neuro-Linguistic Programming master practitioner. “Of course there have been challenges, like in every job, but I have absolutely loved it.”




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