The Player and the Coach
What was your ambition when you
started your career as a coach?
I left university in 1979 and qualified as a P.E. Teacher. In those days, P.E. teaching was not competition orientated. So, I got myself a full time job as a coach. At that time, I'd be really keen on playing, and I'd just be using coaching to make a living.
When did you decide to start competing?
Well, I then moved to a club called Wanstead, probably one of the strongest clubs in the UK at the time by playing standards. I started to play as the head pro, I was still coaching, I was also playing a lot of tournaments. That's when I took the decision to quit coaching and start make a living through the tournaments. But I became injured quite quickly, I tore a ligament on the bone in my groin, and in 1984, I went to Spain for 18 months. I started to coach the Spanish Team. I really loved doing what I was doing. I didn't think I would every play again, so my mind shifted and went that way.
So, was that the end of your pro years?
To my surprise, after a year of living in Spain, my injury did start to heal, so I started to fly back and play the league once a week. Because of Madrid's altitude and warm conditions, my racket work had really improved dramatically. I was starting to get some wins against quite good players, just on a once a week basis. And I would come back to Spain, and start coaching again. Then my boss at Cannon's, Gary Oliver, offered to sponsor me if I was helping him in his new Telecourt business (a glass squash court).
What was your best ranking?
On the circuit, I went to, I think, 12 in the world, I beat all the other players at some point or another, up to number one (I never beat either Jahangir or Jansher). My main problem was, with my injury, I could never train for long enough to stay fit for a whole tournament. On a one off, I was still pretty good.
So, when do you decide to become a full time coach?
After the Telecourt business, I carried on at Cannon's sports clubs, playing as the head pro until 1990, when I actually stopped playing professionally and decided then I wanted to coach full time for a living. Then in 1992, I ran a project called "the World Corporate Games", at the South Bank Centre. We did a pretty good job, we had about 600 participants, and it all went perfectly well. One of the referees was based at this club here, in Chingford, and asked me if I would run the programme for them. And it was that year in April that David Pearson sent Peter Nicol to me to have a look at.
How did your meeting with Peter go?
Peter and I hit it off straight away. We started to talk about what I thought would make a top player in the world and we agreed on the kind of player Peter wanted to become, and we went from there. As I got older, we were on court 5 or 6 hours a day, that was too much for me. So, as years went on, we had different players that based themselves with us, to train with Peter.
Do you think Peter would have got the same results, with or without you, but that he got there quicker because you were with him?
Yes, I'm pretty sure he would have found a way to get there. But I probably saved him a lot of time. I recon it probably would take someone maybe 8 to 10 years to get to number one (look at David Palmer or John White, for example). I'm hoping that, with the methods I use, we can do it in 5 or 6 years.
You are now a very well established coach.
Today, what is your ambition?
It's a very interesting question. I was thinking about it about 18 months ago. Peter has probably got another 2 or 3 years at the top, and he may retire right at the very top, I don't think he will hang around too long. And I thought, what I am going to do now? And then, I watched Beng Hee, who was with me for 6 years, and I thought, this boy is getting there, and it's like a sort of overlap. Beng Hee is coming up, he has been up to 7 in the world ranking and is now about 14. I don't think he is quite there yet, but he is getting there.
When do you think Beng Hee will be ready?
You know, it's not something you can rush. Yes, you can say that Jansher was world number one at 17, but Jansher was a complete phenomenon. There is no easy way, it has to be a daily process, some people like to call it a daily grind, but it's not a grind, it's actually really about understanding what makes you go. So I kind of got excited again, and I thought, can I do it again? Was I lucky that I had a one-off player with whom I worked from start to finish?
I had Beng Hee pretty much from the start, he is really developing. I sent him to David Pearson to see if he can help him with his forehand swing, because we have been doing it for a long time, and I think he is a bit robotic. So he is gone up there, and he is enjoying the sessions, and the job is to make him a number one player in the world. And then I see Azlan and Laurens, they are in the 40's and 50's, they are improving very quickly as well.
So, you are not retiring then?
I'm in it! It's forever evolving. And I'm also starting a new project with my friend Gary Oliver, who now lives in Warsaw. He just asked me to do a Children's foundation here for terminally ill Polish children. I have always done a lot of charity work, and this project really appeals to me. So, you see, it's funny how things seems to arrive on your doorstep. Just when I think there is nothing there for me, something happens.
Did you have a role model?
In my playing days, Jonah Barrington had a very important influence on me, as a motivational type of person. He wasn't particularly taught technically but he was tactically so astute and you could get a lot of information just by watching him.
Is it true that you refused to be the National Coach?
Yes, but I would have been quite happy to be a regional centre, so in the North of England, the players knew there was David Pearson who was the national coach, maybe in Yorkshire, there was David Campion, where I was, there's a group going on. So if players want to go up and down the country, they could come in and out. Unfortunately, for all sorts of different reasons, this has not ended up happening. Which I think is a real shame, because it's a system that worked before, and it's also a way to identify talent.
As a coach, what are your best achievements,
your best moments?
Quite a few, at different levels.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Peter. The wonderful moment winning the British Open in '98. Also, after the disappointment of 2 World Opens, his victory against Barada to win his first World Open in '99. But I think my best memory is probably Peter's first victory against Jansher in the final of of Al Ahram in June '97. There is a lead up to that. In April '97, Peter and Jansher played the longest final in history of the British Open, 2 hours and twelve minutes. Peter lost 15/10 in the fifth. But I knew the moment had come, and that Peter would never lose again against Jansher.
Then I arranged a match between them here, in Chingford, between the 2 tournaments. Peter beat Jansher 3/1, 17/16 in the 4th. I knew he was going to play him again in Al Ahram if he could get past Barada. It was maybe the most intimidating situation I've ever seen. Barada had beaten Rodney Eyles the day before in a filthy match and was playing really, really well against Peter. Peter was handling him very well, and then Barada kicked Peter from behind (it's actually in the opening credit of the PSA Super Series), and Peter found himself flat on his back. But Peter handled him so well, and then he beat Jansher the next day in front of the Pyramids. It was incredible.
At another level, there is a man called Peter Gunter, who used to play leagues for about 10 years. He got a decent pay off from work, and decided that he would like to turn pro at squash. He was nowhere near the top 30 in England at the time. Do you remember what I said about the qualities you must have? Well, he didn't have fast hands, he had asthma, he was not a fast volleyer at all, and he moved like…. a snail! But as I got to know him, I realised that that man was so well organised, so well planned, so well disciplined, he was incredibly honest with himself, he knew his strengths and weaknesses, it meant you could work with him, in a really pure way. He got better, and better, and he ended up getting ranked about 42 in the world, which was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.
I would also mention Tim Garner. Tim always lacked self confidence through various reasons, and he did a very good job with me, he is a very hard working athlete. Once in particular, in Egypt, in the second round, Tim was playing Alex Gough. We planned the match, and it actually went perfectly according to plan, literally to every shot (see side panel). And as a coach, if you set a game plan, and your player actually follows it, and it works, it's a wonderful feeling.
Are you aware that you can be quite dismissive towards people sometimes,
making them believe