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07/07/2021
ROONEY PAYS TRIBUTE

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'I CAN'T IMAGINE HIM NOT BEING THERE'

Mike Dale speaks to fast-rising English player Patrick Rooney in a very difficult period for the young Merseysider, his Pontefract stablemates and the whole squash community


Patrick Rooney is an Englishman on the up, but when we speak, his ascent of the PSA rankings is the last thing on his mind.

Rooney is one of the countless players to have been blessed by the wisdom and guidance of Malcolm Willstrop. He moved to Pontefract specifically to benefit from his coaching and the environment he created at the West Yorkshire squash mecca.

It is three days after Malcolm's death, aged 83, from cancer, and the loss is obviously still raw. "It's going to be hard not having him in my corner," admits the 23-year-old. "I can't really put it into words that will do him justice. He really was such an amazing character."

Pontefract Squash Club regulars will recognise Malcolm's familiar pose on the angular balcony between the two courts next to his office, shouting advice, encouragement and the odd barbed or savagely witty comment to his proteges below. "I can't imagine him not being there. It's going to be so strange," says Rooney.

"I've never learned so much from one person before - on and off court. He teaches you how to hit a ball properly, but also life lessons - and he does it all while taking the **** out of you."

Rooney, who grew up along the M62 in St Helens, Merseyside, admits Malcolm - his coach for six years - is "irreplaceable," but he will continue to live and train in Pontefract, as it's a hotbed of world-class squash.

"It's a club in a little town, but itís a factory for brewing squash champions," says Rooney. "You can always tell a Ponte junior, because they all hit a nice, tight ball, but their swings are all different. Malcolm didn't dictate technique; he allowed you to express yourself and hit a ball how you would naturally."

Malcolm's influence is clear in Rooney's racket work, which the world no.41 regards as the biggest strength in his game. He feels his rapid strides in the last year stem from increased focus on movement, fitness and nutrition, which allow him to get to the ball quicker and make best use of his attacking gifts.

Rooney flew to El Gouna the day after Malcolm's funeral. His performance there was brilliant, reaching the third round and taking the opening game against Fares Dessouky, a fitting tribute to his coach and mentor.

In April, Rooney declared his straight-games victory over Declan James in the final of the England Squash Super 8 Championship in Manchester his "best performance so far". He beat James again in round one at El Gouna and twice this year he has taken Joel Makin to five games.

"I think between the New Year and the Black Ball Open in March I definitely broke through some kind of barrier," he reflects. "I felt like a bit of a different player."

A training block working on movement early in 2021 made a big difference. "Squash movement is hard and those sessions made me feel I can go that extra mile in a match," he says. "You need that against Joel, don't you?! I showed I can stay on court with him.

"I put hard work in to get used to those horrible movements getting low to the ball and back to the T repeatedly, but I also worked on my efficiency of movement, so I'm smooth in and out of the shot, and not wasting as much energy. That helps keep those reserves in the tank."

Rooney also highlights the support of a nutritionist who has given him a "tournament strategy" of eating and drinking the right things at the right time, and has advised him generally how to "get a bit leaner".

Off court, Rooney loves Liverpool FC, coffee and music. "Iím going through a Beatles stage, but my usual stuff is hip-hop and house music," he says. "Other than that, I just like chilling. God, that sounds really boring!"

Being a pro squash player is hardly boring, particularly one who may squeeze into England's Commonwealth Games squad next summer ("I'm after it, definitely," he admits) and is climbing the rankings rapidly.

"I was proud of myself on the day I made the top 50," he says. "I'd always wanted to reach that milestone, so it was a good day, but I want to go a lot higher, so you have your moment of celebration and then just get on with it. I want to keep pushing on. "There's still a long way to go isn't there?"

Sage words from an understated, down-to-earth, self-confessed "squash nut" who clearly relishes discipline and hard work. Malcolm, somewhere, will be nodding approvingly.