Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (BBC Africa Short Film) – 2018

There are some sports which certain countries are just really good at. We’re talking New Zealand and rugby union, Brazil and football, and Kenya and middle distance running. Well, it might surprise you that an African country dominates the sport of squash. In this short film, BBC Sport Africa’s Isaac Fanin looks at why Egypt is so good at squash.

OK, so I admit that this BBC Africa feature passed me by when it first appeared in 2018. However, when I did unearth it, it did inspired me to look further afield for explanations as to Egypt’s current domination of the game.

Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (2018)

Here’s a reason for Egypt’s success given in an interview for Culture Trip by current World number 1, Ali Farag. “We had a lot of champions growing up so there was always someone to look up to and aspire to emulate,” he explained. “Those players were always generous to give us advice or step on the court with us. We’re all concentrated in Cairo or Alexandria so we can play against each other unlike in the United States, for example, if people are in different states and not concentrated in one or two cities.”

Farag’s explanation is echoed by fellow Egyptian and former World number 1, Amr Shabana in an article for The Atlantic. “There’s a quote that says ‘you’re only as good as the people around you.’ Around us were the best players – maybe not the best in the world, but we thought they were. This is the main reason squash thrived,” Shabana said. “Everybody pushed each other.”

In a 2014 article for Serious Squash, Canadian coach Chris Hanebury states, “I know people in Egypt could confirm or deny this and make a better argument on this subject, but I feel that creativity and attacking squash is not frowned upon, and is actually encouraged. They are continually reinventing how the game is played. Even though this may mean a few errors in the short term, these young players are learning to play a style of squash that better suits the glass courts and the lower tin.

But let’s leave the last word to Amr Shabana who, in a 2018 Express Tribune article, offered an explanation suggesting the superior ability of Egyptian squash players to exploit the incredible speed of balls travelling at 175 kilometres per hour or more.

Shabana compared the ability to manoeuvring Cairo’s sometimes chaotic streets behind the wheel of a car. “It’s like our driving,” he explains. “Under pressure, our decision-making process is very sharp.”

Plenty of scope for some innovative coaching techniques there then.

Sources

Thanks to BBC Sport Africa, Culture Trip, The Atlantic, Serious Squash and The Express Tribune.

Broken Strings (2018) – Short Film

What does it take before somebody’s resilience breaks? Sam Halford is tested when his coach pushes him and his classmate, Matt, to their limits. But when does pushing somebody beyond their limits become too much to handle?

Broken Strings (2018)

A Dunley Productions film.

Directed by Alfie Drakeley and Connor Dunham

Written by Alfie Drakeley

Cast: Jake Vermuelen (Sam Wilson) Josh Beardmore (Coach) and Alfie Drakeley (Matt Wilson).

Squash in Sixty Seconds

Take a look at the following two rallies, both taken from Canary Wharf Squash Classic matches played in London.

The first, taken from the 2016 tournament, is from a match between the eventual champion, France’s Mathieu Castagnet, and England’s Joe Lee. The second, from the 2019 tournament, also features its eventual winner, New Zealand’s Paul Coll, and England’s Tom Richards.

Neither rally lasts for much more than 60 seconds but both include a range of shots which could easily form the basis of a ‘how to play’ guide for beginners. If you take forehand and backhand shots separately, I counted over twenty types of shot played from the ‘T’, the front and back corners of the court, and mid-court. There are even back wall boasts and flying (attempted) volley-drops as a bonus.

Mathieu Castagnet vs Joe Lee (Canary Wharf Classic 2016)

Apart from the shots displayed, the ways in which the two rallies unfold lend themselves nicely to higher level analysis for learning and coaching purposes. For example, positioning, footwork, speed around the court and the sheer persistence needed to turn a losing position into a winning one are all on display. The need to retrieve is as important as the desire to dominate a rally.

Paul Coll vs Tom Richards (Canary Wharf Classic 2019)

And what about the value of the rallies in teaching markers or referees? Noticeably,there’s not a sign of an ‘out of court’ shot, a tinned shot, any body contact, or even a possible let or stroke. All players involved just get on with the game leaving the officials free to keep an eye open for anything which could affect their safety.

All that in two sixty-second snapshots. I never realised how easy it was.

Sources

Canary Wharf Classic video clips courtesy of PSA SquashTV .

Squash Coaching and Refereeing by R.B.Hawkey (1975) – Book Review

I can’t say I’ve ever had the opportunity to review a book on squash so when one came along I made like Peter Marshall and grabbed it with both hands. The volume in question, Dick Hawkey’s “Squash Coaching and Refereeing”, was gifted to me by a retired diplomat who, in a previous existence, had made his living selling antiquarian books. Knowing that I was an aficionado of the game he was certain that I would be  the best person to provide a home for the book, particularly as members of his family had started to pressurise him, for safety purposes, into reducing the mountains of memorabilia (‘junk’ in their terminology) hoarded in his one-bedroom flat.

“Squash Coaching and Refereeing” by R.B. Hawkey

The paperback book, originally published in 1975, is one of several written by R.B. (“Dick”) Hawkey who served as Director of Coaching at the UK’s Squash Racket Association in the 1960s and 70s. Most of them can still be obtained via archival  book services such as OpenLibrary and Alibris, and even from Amazon.

Split into separate ‘Coaching’ and ‘Refereeing sections, the overwhelming majority of the book’s content is as relevant today as when it was written almost 45 years ago. In fact, with the exception of references to the marking system (‘hand-in’ rather than ‘point-a-rally’ is mentioned throughout), the information, insights, advice and guidance presented are as clear and concise as any coach, marker or referee could want. I particularly liked Hawkey’s statement as to the purpose of coaching squash, i.e. to help players enjoy the game more. Having fun was clearly part of Hawkey’s approach to the game as was its social side, from watching matches, chatting with others (players and non-players alike) and drinking at the bar.

The purpose of refereeing, states Hawkey, is three-fold: to prevent injury; to prevent the “unpleasantly ruthless player” from having an unfair advantage; and, to ensure a “fair result” for every match. Safety, on-court manners and fairness are the watch-words.

On the subject of playing style, Hawkey is definitely not a purist. He observes that “virtually every player who has reached the top in any sport has his own idiosyncracies, his own pet shots, strokes of his own invention, things he can do that others cannot and shots he plays a little differently.”

“If,” he continues, “the correct and orthodox way were always the best for everyone, it would automatically follow that every champion was the perfect example of complete orthodoxy.” He goes on to name several great sporting champions (including Mohammed Ali) whose styles clearly disprove such a hypothesis. “In squash,” writes Hawkey, “the greatest of all time, hHashim Khan, was a complete novelty in the game. He held the racket nearly halfway up the shaft and as he raced around the court at unbelievable speed, he would improvise shots at will.”

In summary, Hawkey’s squash philosophy is based on enjoyment, sociability, safety, good manners, fairness and improvisation. Not a bad message to pass down through the generations.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on Peter Marshall and Hashim Khan.

Lahore Squash

After two weeks travelling along the Karakorum Highway, arriving in Lahore in late June can be quite a shock. With bustling streets, noisy traffic and pre-monsoon temperatures in the mid-40s, life in the city stands in stark contrast with that found along the cool mountain roads winding north towards the Chinese border.

Punjab Squash Complex

Posters stuck on telegraph poles opposite my hotel announced the Pakistan International Squash Circuit-II tournament being held at the city’s Punjab Squash Complex. Unfortunately, I’d missed the finals by one day but decided to visit the venue on Lower Mall Road where all three recently-renovated courts were in use. There, I met Khurram Shehzad whose coaching pedigree extends to Dubai and Malaysia.

Compared to the glory days of Gogi Alauddin, Hiddy Jahan, Qamar Zaman and the Khans, Pakistan’s international squash presence is now relatively low key. Its two highest ranked male players, Asim Khan and Tayyab Aslam (both from Lahore), currently occupy positions 88 and 95 respectively in the PSA world rankings. In the women’s rankings, Sialkot-born Faiza Zafar, currently resident in Lahore, is the country’s highest ranked player at 99. Both Aslam and Zafar featured in the Circuit-II finals, Aslam going down 3-2 to Peshawar’s Farhan Mehboob and Zafar 3-0 to her younger sister Madina.

Pakistan International Squash Circuit II Awards

But it’s the restricted access to visas, said Shehzad, that, together with limited funding, continues to limit the opportunities for home-grown players to develop through international competition.

In a recent exception Mehboob, Aslam, the Zafar sisters and Peshawar’s Farhan Zaman all featured in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, held on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Aslam and Zaman reached the last 16 of the men’s doubles with Aslam also reaching the last 16 of the mixed doubles with Madina Zafar. Zafar also reached the women’s singles plate semi-final, losing to the eventual winner, Barbados’s Meagan Best.

****

The day after my visit was the last I spent in Pakistan. It was also the first day of the monsoon.

Sources

Thanks to The Nation, the Khilari sports website, the Squash Info website and, as always, Wikipedia.

Squash and the Syrian Girls

Hot on the heels of news that Serbia’s Cricket Federation has established a government-sponsored programme to encourage migrants and refugees to play cricket, comes an equally inspiring story from the world of squash.

The source of the story is the Kingdom of Jordan which, by early 2017, had seen over 650,000 Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil war raging in their country.

In 2016, US charity Reclaim Childhood, in partnership with the Jordan Squash Federation, announced an initiative to introduce Syrian girl refugees to squash. Fast forward a year and fifteen girls are now playing the sport coached by some of Jordan’s top-ranked players.

One of them is eleven-year-old Raghda Hasriyeh who practices with two of her sisters in the Jordanian capital of Amman and now dreams of a career in squash. Her father, Nizar Hasriyeh, says: “I don’t understand anything about this sport but I am so happy to see my three daughters playing squash. I hope to see them become world champions one day.”

Raghda Hasriyeh

With its costly rackets and purpose-built courts, squash might not seem an obvious choice for children displaced from Syria. But Reclaim Childhood says that getting the refugee girls involved in the sport can be invaluable in helping them deal with the hardships they face.

Life for Syrian refugees in Jordan is difficult but the families of those girls taking part in the squash programme have been able to move out of crowded camps to accommodation on the outskirts of Amman. At least in a small way, squash has proved a godsend for them and their children.

Sources

Thanks to The Gulf News, NAIJA Squash Media and The Daily Mail.

Note

You can find a French language article on Jordan’s Syrian Girl Refugee squash programme on the IP Reunion website.

How To Win A Squash Rally – Part 2

Those of you with a good memory will remember my previous attempt at identifying the behaviour pattern required to win a squash rally.

Unsurprisingly, it drew on those old themes of dominating the ‘T’, sending your opponent to all four corners of the court, and then finishing off the rally with an  unreachable shot.

So just in case you didn’t grasp it the first time, here’s another example.

This time, it’s Britain’s Daryl Selby who demonstrates what the pattern looks like during a second-round match against France’s Mathieu Castagnet at the 2016 Windy City Open in Chicago; all except the ‘unreachable shot’ part, that is.

Which begs the question, is there another ‘hidden’ pattern and, if so, what does it look like?

Here’s a suggestion:

  1. Return the ball from whatever part of the court your opponent sends it.
  2. Wait for a feeling of ‘hubris’ to manifest itself in your opponent. This may be fed by a combination of impatience, boredom, frustration, over-confidence, fatigue, incredulity and even mirth over your retrieval efforts.
  3. Trust that your opponent’s hubris will mutate into ‘self-doubt’ in respect of his or her ability to successfully kill off the rally.
  4. Await the inevitable.

In this scenario, of course, there’s no need whatsoever to worry about your opponent’s actual ability to win the rally. You do, however, need to acquire Zen-like powers of patience and trust, as well as being able to reach and retrieve the ball for long periods of time.

When I come across a fool-proof method for perfecting this, I’ll let you know.

 

Squash Futures IV: Community / Coaches

N.B. This article is the last in a series. The first three articles, “Sense / Leaders,” “Culture / Clubs” and “Network / Probes” were published previously on this blog.

Background

The long-term future of squash in a complex, dynamically-changing world lies in the continuing emergence and vitality of multiple squash communities, many of which will prove short-lived. In this context, traditional ‘static’ methods of sport development – typically based the local provision of standardised, participation-oriented squash programmes – will increasingly need to be augmented by ‘rolling programmes’ of innovative and culturally-sensitive communication and leadership initiatives.

Without these, squash will not be able to sense and respond quickly enough to changes in the socio-economic and cultural  environments within which it’s competing for participation, with other sports and with non sports-related activities.

Dynamic leaders from different age groups and backgrounds will always be required to activate existing squash networks and inspire existing squash communities. But so too will people who can coach new squash communities into existence and squash agents into leaders.

Our understanding of what squash coaching will have to become will have to change.

Sense / Leaders

Squash communities aren’t just local populations of players, nor are they just groups of members of some squash club or institution. They’re dynamic groupings of individuals with shared ‘tribal’ identities, even though they may have their own individual (and shifting) perceptions, preferences and priorities.Active squash agents, including those who govern the sport, run squash clubs or offer squash programmes, fail to sense those shifting perceptions, preferences and priorities at their peril.

Of course, many people who are members of squash clubs may not even behave or wish to behave as squash agents, for example by offering to introduce people to the sport, running competitions, organising social events or even helping to run squash clubs. In fact, many may be happy just to ‘consume’ the occasional squash experience, e.g. by playing a friend or watching from the balcony while others play.

Yet the existence and involvement of active squash agents is essential to sustain living squash communities; and living squash communities are essential to the transmission through time of the squash life story.

Unfortunately, squash communities can’t be built to a blueprint, like machines. Nor do they spontaneously emerge from local populations, whether somebody belonging to those populations is already playing squash or not. However, their emergence can be stimulated and their vitality sustained throughout changes in the demography and interconnection of those whose participation breathes life into them. And while individuals are required to lead squash communities, others will always be needed who can catalyse squash community emergence and vitality. Otherwise, there will be no communities for leaders to lead.

This catalysis role is entrepreneurial rather than managerial or operational in nature. To perform it, individuals are needed who are explorers with a healthy scepticism of ready-made ‘expert solutions’ to squash participation ‘problems.’ The wreckage of many a failed squash development initiative sits on top of a ‘best practice’ blueprint. And the catalysts are also risk-takers who are prepared to encounter failure on the road to success.

Above all, the catalysts are curious, persistent and collaborative. People who are prepared to ask, and help others find answers to, difficult questions. To stimulate networks, generate interest and gain support. To coach communities into life and coach life into unhealthy ones.

There is more than one kind of life coaching, and more than one kind of squash coaching.

Culture / Clubs

How did you come to love squash? I don’t mean when or where did you start to learn the game or even play the game. I mean what’s the story behind how you come to realise that squash was something that you had to be – or already were – actively involved in?

Whatever your answer, it will have something to do with your introduction to and interaction with one or more squash agents, individuals who already loved squash and were happy to share their stories.

What was the context within which you came to love squash? How were your family, friends (or even enemies), work, home location and other life passions involved? What about your background and the background of those who made up the ‘supporting cast’ of squash agents in your introduction to squash?

What identity or identities do you believe that squash has helped to give you, or maybe to strengthen? Which of your values do you feel that it chimes with?

These are all important coaching questions focusing as they do on community and belonging.

Whether we realise it or not, we all play parts in the communities we find ourselves belonging to. Communities aren’t clubs or institutions. You don’t just apply, fill in a form and pay the subscription. You don’t come to love squash just by joining a club.
Squash is a culture and its transmission depends on its agents. It’s that agency that must be nurtured, directed and amplified if new squash communities are to emerge and remain vital.

Vitality must be coached into squash communities; squash agency must be coached into squash leadership.

Network / Probes

A key feature of squash community coaching is the nature of communication, not just between squash agents but between all existing and potential community members. Just because a community appears to be healthy does not mean that hidden changes are not underway.

What is the demographic profile of the community? How is it changing? What are the current perceptions, preferences and priorities of the community and how are they changing? What is the participation demography of community members in current activities and programmes and how is it changing? What new programmes and activities are you proposing to try out? How do current and proposed programmes and activities reflect changing community demographics?

What squash networks enhance the vitality of the community? How and by whom are those networks currently being used? How are they being stimulated? Even the individual members of a single squash club will typically use a number of networks each functioning via its own unique mix of messages, meetings, gatherings, visits, customs and technologies.

The ongoing health of squash communities is vital to their quality of life. Clearly, it’s sensible to give them the occasional check up. But it’s also vital to monitor their day to day well-being.

Emergency treatment is no substitute for the early detection of warning signs.

Summary

The purpose of this series of articles has been to raise awareness of new ways of thinking about the future of squash. These new ways have addressed a wide range of issues such as sense-making, leadership, culture, community, communication and innovation, all of which will affect the vitality of squash in a complex and dynamically-changing world.

The age of measuring the ‘success’ of squash and other sports solely in terms of participation now belongs to a ‘classical’ period which, in many Western cultures in particular, has now ended. We are now in a ‘post-classical’ age in which perceptions, preferences and priorities can not only change in an instant, but be largely unpredictable.

Like global finance, the future of squash will play out in an age of uncertainty.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Genius? Eccentric? Maverick?

Whatever qualities he might previously have attributed to his coach, one leading squash player must have sensed that he shared at least some characteristics with another famous Yorkshire-born sports coach. “Dad’s the Brian Clough of squash,” said World Number 1, James Willstrop just before the London Olympics.

James and Malcolm Willstrop

James and Malcolm Willstrop

Whether this disclosure came as a surprise to Malcolm Willstrop is unknown. When Clough was in his heyday as a manager in the 1970s, Willstrop junior had not even been born. But Willstrop senior would certainly have been aware of Clough’s achievements, not just as a manager but as a player whose career was tragically cut short by injury. He would also have been aware of his outspokenness, arrogance and lack of respect for authority.

And, although it was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media of the time, he may even have been aware of Clough’s attachment to something which embodied another of his sporting passions. 

His squash racket.

Clough the Footballer

“Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair.” (Brian Clough)

The sixth of nine children, Clough was born in 1935 in Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Following national service in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his home town club, Middlesbrough, scoring 204 goals in 222 league matches including 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. However, he was also prone to submitting transfer requests on a regular basis and had a tense relationship with some of his fellow players. He was especially irked by Boro’s leaky defence, which conceded goals as regularly as he scored them. After a 6–6 draw against Charlton Athletic, Clough sarcastically asked his team mates how many goals he would have to score in order for them to win a match.

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

While playing for Boro, Clough was capped twice for the England national team,failing to score on either occasion. Eventually, in July 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he moved to Boro’s local rivals Sunderland where he scored 63 goals in 74 matches. Clough’s goal-scoring powers were showing no signs of declining.

But on Boxing Day 1962, disaster struck. Clough tore the medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee in a match against Bury, an injury which, in that era, usually ended a player’s career. Despite an attempted comeback two years later, Clough was forced to retire at the age of 29.

Even today, for players scoring over 200 goals in the English leagues, Clough holds the record for the highest number of goals scored per game (0.916).

But, with his playing career ended, Clough was not prepared to turn his back on football, or controversy.

Clough the Manager

“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” (Brian Clough)

The story of Clough’s career in football management is an epic story punctuated not only with successful domestic and European campaigns, but also with controversies, clashes and  fallings out on a heroic scale.

That career started in 1965 with Hartlepool United and finally ended in 1993 with the relegation of his club, Nottingham Forest, from the English Premier League. Clough had won consecutive European Cups with Forest and League Championships with both Forest and Derby County.

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

But it was in the 1970s that Clough’s managerial career was in the ascendancy, first with Derby County and then, after a tempestuous 44-day reign at Leeds United, with Nottingham Forest.

Clough and the Racket

“We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” (Brian Clough on dealing with a player who disagrees with him.)

It was during his time with Forest that Clough’s squash racket began to appear in an increasing variety of contexts.

Following his forced retirement as a player, Clough had kept himself fit, taking part in five-a-side games during training sessions and, until the early 1980s, playing squash. During his 18 year stint at Nottingham Forest, he played on the courts at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, a short walk from Forest’s stadium at the City Ground. His squash partners included Forest players, notably striker Garry Birtles, and members of the local press who routinely covered Forest’s home and away matches.  

But his attachment to his squash racket was not limited to his use of it on the squash court.

Intimidating Football Agents

Having been approached to join Nottingham Forest, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton recalls:

“I discovered how unconventional Clough was when my agents Jon Holmes, Jeff Pointon and I went to see him in his office at the City Ground in September 1977, after Forest had made an official approach to Stoke City for me. We hung outside his office for 10 minutes or so before someone informed us, ‘Mr Clough is ready to see you now.’ Jon and Jeff went in first and I was slack-jawed to see them both go sprawling across the floor. Clough had been hiding to one side of the door and as they entered he had angled a squash racket across their path and tripped them both up. I have no idea if he did this to gain some sort of psychological advantage in the negotiations or whether it was just a prank. It certainly threw Jon and Jeff.”

Orchestrating the Unveiling of England’s First £1M Footballer

Joining Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, striker Trevor Francis found himself waiting in Clough’s office well after the appointed time for his unveiling to the press. “It turned out that he had another engagement,” said Francis later. “He was playing squash over the road at Trent Bridge.” When Clough finally arrived, he was wearing a tracksuit and carrying his squash racket.

During the ensuing press conference, Francis was asked, “When will you be making your debut for Nottingham Forest?” Gesturing at himself with his racket, Clough replied, “When I pick him.”

Supervising Youth Team Training with his Dog

Nottingham Forest Youth Team player Sean Dyche recalls:

“The boss used to travel on the coach for FA Youth Cup games and loved the reserves, but on the training ground he let the coaches coach. He’d come down with his dog and his squash racket and his squash ball. He’d whack that around for the dog and stand at a distance, but every now and then, he’d notice something and you’d hear his voice across the training ground.”

Over the years, the racket clearly acquired a life of its own.

Touting for Squash Matches in Europe

Former Nottingham Evening Post Sports Editor Trevor Frecknall travelled throughout Europe with Forest reporting on their European Cup ties. He recalls that Clough always took his squash racket abroad on the off-chance that he could get a game should there be a court in the vicinity. The racket would also make regular appearances in the club’s hotel, at training sessions and even in the dug-out during matches.

And it also had another function…

Signalling the Need for Tactical Changes

Watching one first team training session before a European Cup away tie, Frecknall observed another use of the racket:

“On the third or maybe fourth occasion the fluency of the kick-about was interrupted by the ball disappearing into a mass of hardy shrubs, Clough raised his squash racket as the signal for the on-field trainer to blow his whistle and halt play.

Archie Gemmill

Archie Gemmill

Each time the ball had left the pitch, it was because Archie Gemmill’s passes were just too far in front of John Robertson on the left wing.

“Mr Gemmill,” Clough beckoned.

“Yes boss,” responded the little Scotland midfield player.

“I bought you to give the ball to Mr Robertson,” drawled Clough.

“Yes boss,” agreed Gemmill.

“As you’ll have noticed, Mr Robertson is a rather corpulent young gentleman with short legs that do not move as fast as some others in the club.”

John Robertson

John Robertson

“Yes boss.”

“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.

“Yes boss.”

“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”

“Yes boss.”

“Good, because if you can’t, we can easily leave you here and find somebody else who can give Mr Robertson the ball where he wants it.”

“Yes boss.”

“So long as we’re clear…”

“Yes boss.”

Clough the Legend

“When I go, God’s going to have to give up his favourite chair.” (Brian Clough)

Brian Clough died in 2004, two years before the appearance of ‘The Damned Utd’, a novel by British writer David Peace. The book, a largely fictional account of Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, re-ignited public interest in Clough’s career and his life. It was commercially successful but widely criticised by Clough’s family and former colleagues as being both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the man himself.

The Damned United poster

The Damned United poster

Three years later a film adaptation of the novel, ‘The Damned United’ appeared, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Michael Sheen as Clough. The film was generally well-received by critics but was again met with a chorus of disapproval from Clough’s family.

Yet the place of Clough in the pantheon of flawed British sports heroes remains secure, the realities of his life and times interwoven with stories of what he may, or may not, have done or represented.

So whatever James Willstrop’s may believe about his dad’s qualities, he can rest assured that one thing about Clough and his life is undisputed.

The man loved his squash racket.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for background information on Brian Clough, David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned Utd’ and Tom Hooper’s film ‘The Damned United.’ Also thanks to The Guardian for its article on James Willstrop, and The Daily Telegraph for its article on Peter Shilton.

Thanks too, to The Daily Mail for its articles on Trevor Francis and Sean Dyke. You can read Trevor Frecknall’s recollections of Brian Clough in The Nottingham Post here, and find out more about playing squash at Trent Bridge Cricket Club here.

Brotherly Love (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The line went dead.

Weston pushed a button on the hand-set. There was a click and a low hum.

‘Did you get all that?’ asked Weston. There was a pause.

‘Loud and clear,’ came the reply. One of the workers looking after their queen, Weston thought.

‘She’s on her way.’

Weston hit the button again and swivelled towards Thorpe. The dusk was filtering into the Dubai offices of Global Trading prompting the ‘Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’ to reach behind him for a bottle and two glasses. He poured a measure of whiskey into both and handed one to Weston.

‘So,’ said Thorpe, ‘it would appear that your efforts have generated more than a little movement on the chessboard.’

Weston glanced down and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his slacks.

‘Well, you did ask me to find out what Grigoriev was up to,’ he responded, raising his eyes to meet Thorpe’s. ‘It turns out that he was up to quite a lot.’

Thorpe chose not to rise to the bait. Weston had form as a loose cannon. As well as a ladies’ man. But he could sniff out the opportunity for a big sale.

‘As I see it,’ continued Thorpe, employing a measured delivery which Weston sensed was tinged with disappointment mixed with curiosity, ‘not only do you seem to know rather more than you have, up to now, disclosed to your superiors, but you have now shared carefully chosen parts of it with a, shall we say, disparate group of individuals searching for a missing girl.’

Weston remained silent.

‘All this,’ continued Thorpe, ‘in the context of what would appear to be a rapidly-developing conflict of interests between two rather nasty players in the global drugs trade. Players who are not only related by marriage but who are also clearly prone to the influence of their family members – particularly in relation to the noble art of squash racquets.’

‘You could say that,’ responded Weston.

Sculpture, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Sculpture, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Thorpe took a sip at his malt and grunted. His analysis had given him time to appreciate what Weston had also chosen to disclose and, more importantly, not to disclose to Mr Matthew and his assembled guests. The present whereabouts of Grigoriev and the Ivanovs; the laundering record of Steve Dwyer; his surprise at hearing of the whereabouts of his old squash coach’s nephew.

‘Sense, adapt, exploit,’ mused Thorpe. ‘But don’t trouble yourself with the possible consequences.’

‘Ah, well,‘ he thought, ‘everyone’s entitled to a little white lie or two, now and again.’

++++

It was another hour before Weston left Thorpe’s office. He stepped into the warm Gulf evening and waved down a taxi. The call with London had been short. Plenty of questions but nothing in the way of instruction. Dispassionate, workmanlike, faint praise. ‘Await further instructions’ was the message. And Weston didn’t like it. No clearance to fly to Philadelphia, no  sign of calling in the cousins. What was she playing at?

++++

Thorpe re-filled his glass and settled into his chair. The return call was not long in coming.

‘Well, Thorpe?’ she enquired.

‘If I read this correctly, Ma’am,’ he began, ‘the Grigorieva woman wants to change the peripatetic yet somewhat high-risk lifestyle she currently enjoys with her brother. To achieve this, she appears to have enlisted the support of Weston, Miss Phipps and, almost certainly, her own sister, having made a big show of falling out with the latter in the past. The sister also wants to remove herself from her current, er, domestic situation and take her daughter with her. At the same time, Grigoriev wishes to, shall we say, terminate his relationship with his brother-in-law and replace him with a less conspicuous US distributor.’

He paused.

‘Go on.’

‘And then there’s Ivanov’s son, of course,’ he continued, warming to his task. ‘The boy is prone to exhibiting somewhat psychopathic behaviour which has led to him getting into trouble in the past, and is likely to do so in the future. A high profile is, as you would concede, Ma’am, not a desirable attribute for someone involved in the global drugs trade.’

‘I should have thought not, Thorpe,’ came the reply. A little frosty this time, he sensed, in direct contrast to the temperature of his office. He pressed on.

‘Finally, there’s the Smith girl. Ivanov junior has been particularly ineffective in his attempts to secure a ransom for her from her mother and Mr. Dwyer. His incompetence alone would seem to be enough to call his continued involvement in the business into some question.’

‘Which is why,’’ came the response, ‘Grigoriev has travelled to the US to make arrangements for the Ivanovs’ imminent retirement. Under the pretext of visiting a squash tournament, I understand. Very imaginative.’’

‘I believe that cover may have been suggested by his younger sister, Ma’am,’ said Thorpe. ‘She may also have advised him to invite the Ivanovs to Dubai whilst he travelled to the US to arrange their replacement unhindered.’

‘And Weston?’

‘Wants to be present at the, er, tournament,’ said Thorpe. ‘for obvious reasons, although perhaps not the ones that might occur to Mr Matthew and his friends.’

Silence. Then, just as he was about to ask…

‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe. Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’

‘Yes, Ma’am.’

‘Oh, and Thorpe?’

‘Yes, Ma’am?’

‘You may want to make sure that the sales force is at full strength over the next few days. Business opportunities in your part of the world may be about to come thick and fast.’

++++

Steve Dwyer arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his seat and sipped at his drink. The lights in the cabin were dimmed as the night flight to London headed north-east across the Arabian peninsula.

After the debacle in Dubai, he and Jill had been forced to wait more than 24 hours for the next available flight, 24 hours during which her state had changed from despair to near hysteria as her hopes of being re-united with her daughter had been dashed. Now she slept soundly beside him as Steve tried to make sense of the situation they were now in.

There had been no meeting with Jessica’s kidnappers, no hand-over of ransom money, no electronic transfer of funds, no re-union. Just a voice-mail left on his ‘phone while he and Jill were still in the air heading for Dubai.

It was the same voice, the same accent, the same cocky delivery, the same menace. There had been a ‘change of plan’, it said. His journey to Dubai had been ‘a test’ to see whether he was serious about securing the girl’s release.’ He was ‘being watched’, it said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

And the same mantra.

‘She dies.’

++++

He and Jill were in the queue in Heathrow immigration before Steve switched on his cell-phone. He scanned the SMS message and voicemail details, looking for patterns. Plenty from James Matthew, one from Angus, a few from business contacts, even one from a squash buddy. ‘Probably wants a game,’ thought Steve. ‘I could tell him a thing or two about games.’

‘Oh, my God!’

His thoughts were suddenly shattered by Jill’s cry. Their fellow supplicants in the queue turned to look. She was talking to someone on her cell. ‘When did it happen?’ then ‘Why did it take you so long to get me?’ and ‘I’m in immigration at Heathrow. I’ll ring you back later.’

She hung up and grabbed Steve’s elbow, dragging him out of the queue. Her face had turned white.

‘That was Stephanie. Frank’s been murdered at the Club,’ she said.

++++

Twenty minutes later they were making their way through the green channel. Jill appeared calm, thought Steve. Maybe Frank’s death had given her something else to focus on, for the time being at least.

He said nothing to her as they approached the exit. He glanced at his cell-phone and began to scan his message and voicemail again. Force of habit.

He was waking up now, feeling more alert. Looking for patterns.

Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain, anxious. So many issues to deal with, so many people needing his attention, so many plans to make. Just in case.

He looked up.

Less than 20 metres away, at the end of the exit channel, stood two uniformed police officers. Not airport police. With them stood a youngish man wearing a black leather jacket. Another officer Steve guessed. They seemed to be waiting for someone off a flight.

And they were looking directly at him.

++++

It was December 9th.

He stood across the street watching the blue and red flag flapping in the breeze.

It had been easy to follow the girl, to keep her in his sights as she made her way through the city to the building. He had the street-craft, the gift of noticing patterns,  the gift of remaining inconspicuous, unobtrusive. It came naturally to him. Natural after years of learning, and surviving, in a world of shifting urban landscapes.

And, he thought to himself, he was going to need it if he was going to survive. Not just today, but every day until the game had played itself out. Whatever that might mean. For him. For the girl. For the others.

Yes, he was going to need it when they began to follow him.

And in the last few minutes he knew that they were already following him.

He had thought that he’d have more time before they appeared. Before they made their presence felt.

Still, they were here now. Part of the ecosystem of the city with its steel and concrete towers, its manicured parks, its river, its history, its…brotherly love. Plying their own form of street-craft, he supposed but, surely, one more suited to different landscapes, different cultures?

He’d already spotted one of them. Across the park to his left, maybe a hundred metres away. And a second, standing on the corner with Walnut. Too easy.

There was something noticeable about them. A sense of disquiet, a sense of not quite being comfortable, a sense that maybe there were other players in the neighbourhood. In the game.

He glanced at his watch. Time to move. More people would be arriving soon for the tournament. To compete, to play the game, to watch. The endgame.

He reached inside his track suit top and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in case.

He bent down, hoisted his racquet case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.

++++

Acknowledgement

‘Brotherly Love’ was first published as Chapter 19 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Steve Cubbins, Aubrey Waddy, Alan Thatcher, John Branston, The Squashist, Tracy Gates, Rob Dinerman, Mick Joint, Will Gens and your truly.

Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’

Check out The Daily Squash Report for the new squash novel, Breaking Glass. You know you want to!