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.

Monkey Business

I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.

The driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.

I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.

“Coffee?” he enquired.

I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.

I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.

“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.

A pause.

“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”

Another pause.

“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.

“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”

It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.

“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”

Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.

“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”

This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.

After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.

“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”

I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.

“What’s that all about?”

Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.

“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.

I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.

“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”

I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.

Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.

“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”

He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.

“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”

He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.

“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.

“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”

I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.

“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”

I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.

“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”

Alex gave me a weary look.

“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”

“Who’s Ahmed?”

“NIC’s third team captain.”

I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.

I bit my tongue.

“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”

I went for a neutral question.

“So what happened last year?”

Alex’s face lit up.

“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”

I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.

“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”

I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.

He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.

I responded to his subtle prompt.

“Oh yes, what was that?”

“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”

Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.

“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”

I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.

“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.

“But how did…”

“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”

Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.

“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”

Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.

“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”

“Who’s his dad?”

Alex smiled.

“Sultan Al Najaf.”

The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.

“Who is…”

“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.

I summarised.

“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”

“You could put it like that.”

“And this season…”

“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”

“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.

Alex sighed.

“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”

He paused for breath.

“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”

He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.

“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”

He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.

Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.

“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.

I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.

“Monkey business,” I said.

“Monkey business.”

Background

This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.

The Only Honest Drug (à la Irvine Welsh)

Squash?

Ah’ve nae really thought aboot it; Just played it, ye knaw, since Ah was a bairn. Ah still do too whin some fucker rings me up wanting a fix.

Yeah, that’s it; a fucking fix.

Ah dunno. Maybe it kinday makes things seem mair real tae some people, ye knaw? Ah mean, basically, we live a short, disappointing, fucking life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi’ shite, things like careers and relationships, tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally fucking pointless. Wi’ squash, whin ye feel good, ye feel immortal. Whin ye feel bad, it intensifies the shite that’s already thair. It doesnae alter yir consciousness. It just gies ye a hit and a sense ay well-being. Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it really fucking is, and ye can’t anaesthetise yirsel against it.

Maybe that’s whit Ah’m saying. Maybe it’s nae different frae smack tae some people. Fir me, though, it’s different.

Squash is the only really honest fucking drug there is.

(Renton)

++++

OH MY GOD, WHERE THE FUCK AM I?

Where the fuck…Ah dinnae recognise this room at aw…ah can’t swallow…can’t… generate enough saliva tae free mah tongue frae the roof ay mah mouth…Ah can’t see! Whit the fuck…?

Renton

Renton

There’s something flickering over in the corner, something black and white. The telly’s oan. Ah move my heid…just a wee bit before the jackhammers start. Then, ah can jist see…thank fuck fir that…ah’m lying oan the carpet in the living room…in the shitehole ah call home…feeling… fucking freezing!

Ah start tae move, then…shite, I’m fucking soaked! Ah’m fucking freezing and ah’ve pissed myself. Mah guts feel like they’re bein’ beaten wi’ a fucking egg whisk…churning around like…aw, fuck! Ah slam the anchors oan and scrabble aboot trying tae make it tae the bog before…

++++

Ah try and piece together the last twenty-four hours. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. The match, at Hampden. Fucking stuffed, ah imagine. Ah don’t even want tae think aboot the day. Ah can’t fucking remember whither or not ah even made it tae the game. Ah remember ah met Swanney, Sicko and Begs. Yeah, that’s right. Fucking headbangers, all ay them. Then…

Ah can remember fuck all after that pub in…Rutherglen; the space-cake, the speed, the dope, the tab ay acid. Not tae mention the bottle o’ vodka ah put away before we met in…in the previous pub…before we got the bus tae…

It’s all getting too fucking complicated. Ah decide it’s time fae action. Ah need the old slowburn, something soft tae warm me up and ease me back intae the flow.

++++

The ‘phone kicks in and blows the back off mah heid. Ah make a vague attempt tae remember who the fuck ah dinnae want tae hear from, then give up whin the list gets too big tae store in mah short-term memory. Ah lift the receiver.

“Awright, Rents?”

It’s Spud, sounding full ay fucking beans, sounding like someone who hasnae just woken up lying in his own urine.

“Spud.”

Ah’m non-committal. The last time ah went oan a recreational outing wi’ Spud, ah woke up in Leith lying in a lot mair thin mah ain piss.

“Ah got a court at three doon the sports.”

Ah’m confused.

“Whit?”

“Three o’clock, chum. Squash. We agreed, remember?’

Ah’m trying tae get a handle on when the fuck ah was in any fit state tae agree anything. The previous pub? Oan the bus tae…? Ah decide tae go wi’ the flow.

“Yeah, yeah, I knaw. Tomorrow at three. I’ll…”

“Today.”

“Whit?”

“Today at three. Monday at three, that’s whit we…”

Whit the fuck happened tae Sunday?

“…agreed, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. See you there then.”

Ah’ve got tae get a fucking grip.

++++

Ten-thirty. Ah’ve still got time tae get over tae…where? I review mah slowburn procurement options. Swanney? Yeah, yeah, he’s mah main man, mah Mister Reliable, always…aw, fuck!

Ah remember whit happened tae curtail mah socialising at the previous pub, wherever the fuck it was. Swanney’ll still be helping the local constabulary wi’ their enquiries, nae  fucking doot.

Strike fucking one.

Ah resume mah procurement review. Seeker’s services are awready temporarily unavailable tae me due tae his, in mah ain personal view, unfair detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Ah still owe Franco fir mah last major excursion intae white powder land, which leaves…Raymie. Ah dial his number. A lassie answers.

“Hello?” she sniffs. Either she’s got a cold or she’s on the skag. Promising.

“Is Raymie there? It’s Mark Renton here.”

“Raymie’s away,” she says. “London.”

“London? Fuck…whin’s he due back?”

“Dinnae ken.”

“He didnae leave anything fir us, did he?” Chance wid be a fine thing, the cunt.

“Eh, naw.”

Ah shakily put the ‘phone down, feeling cold. Only one choice now and ah’ve still got tae get tae the sports by three.

Nothing fir it. Ah ring that cunt Mikey Forrester. Fifteen minutes later, ah’m oan the thirty-two bus tae Muirhoose wi’ mah sports bag and squash racket. Ah knaw ah’m going tae get fucked aboot and ripped off wi’ some crap gear. But, any port in a fucking storm.

And mah guts are starting up again.

++++

Forrester’s maisonette is in a block five stories high wi’ a lift. It disnae work. Tae conserve energy, ah slide along the wall oan mah journey up the stairs. Christ knaws whit state ah’ll be in whin I get on court wi’ Spud, even after a chemical pick-me-up.

Ah try and pull mahsel together at Forrester’s door, but he’ll knaw ah’m suffering. An ex-skag merchant always knaws whin someone’s sick. Ah just don’t want the bastard tae knaw how fucking desperate ah feel.

Ah knock oan the door. Forrester can obviously see mah ginger hair through the wired, dimpled glass door. He takes a fucking age tae answer, fucking me aboot before ah even set foot in the place. The door opens.

“Awright, Rents?”

He looks doon, sees mah gear then looks at me suspiciously.

“Whit the fuck’s that?”

“Mah squash gear. Got a match after ah leave here. League match doon the sports.”

His jaw drops. Ah’ve got him on the fucking run.

There’s a pause. Ah can see him trying tae figure oot why someone who’s just off tae play squash is looking tae ingest something that’ll impair his ability to remain fucking conscious. He shrugs his shoulders. Ah dutifully follow him in.

Ah sit oan the couch, beside but a bit away frae a gross bitch wi’ a broken leg. Her greasy peroxide locks have an inch o’ insipid grey-broon at their roots. She’s watching a panel o’ middle-aged boilers gossiping on the telly. Forrester sits opposite me in a worn-oot armchair, beefy-faced but thin-bodied, almost bald at twenty-five.

“This is mah sister, Megan,” he nods at the bleached whale.

“Pleased tae meet you,” I lie. She ignores me, leaving the field open fir me tae keep her brother off-balance. I lean towards Forrester and lower my voice conspiratorially.

“How’s it going wi’ Gail?” I ask innocently. His relatively recent girl-friend.

“No joy yet,” he responds. He doesnae look happy.

“How long is it now then?” I enquire.

“Six weeks.”

“Six weeks! My, that is a long time. It must be quite frustrating fir a man ay yir…” Ah pause fir maximum effect. He disnae let me finish mah impartial observation, stands up and gestures fir me tae follow him tae the kitchen. He closes the door.

“It’s a fucking nightmare, Rents. She told me she didnae want oor relationship tae start oan a physical basis as that’s how it’d principally be defined from then oan in.” He soonds like he’s reading from a fucking script…and it’s no his.

“Where did she come up wi’ that?”

“She read it in Cosmopolitan.”

Ah look concerned, thin shake mah heid in disbelief, tutting

“So six weeks and nae sex then?” Ah let my incredulity segué effortlessly intae sympathy imbued wi’ a soupcon ay male cameraderie. All very fucking Gallic.

“Ah’m telling ye, Rents, ah’ve got balls like fucking watermelons.” He looks like he’s going tae cry.

“Hang in there, Mikey.” Ah pat him oan the back.

We share a brief moment. Time tae dae a deal and head tae the sports.

He digs aroond in a cupboard and produces two white capsules frae a tea caddy. Ah’ve nivver seen the likes ay them before. They’re hard, bomb-shaped things wi’ a waxy coat oan them. I stare at them and, suddenly, a powerful rage grabs hold of me frae fucking nowhere.

“Whit the fuck is this shite?” Ah scream at him.

Mikey looks at me wi’ a hurt expression.

“Opium, Rents. Opium suppositories. Ideal fir whit ye want. Slow release. Bring ye doon gradual like. Custom fucking designed fir ye needs. Ye’ll be moving ‘roond that court like a fucking whippet.””

His tone’s changed. It’s cagey, almost apologetic. Mah ootburst has shattered oor sick symbiosis.

“Whit the fuck dae ah dae wi’ these?” Ah says, then break intae a smile as it dawns oan us. Ah’ve let Mikey off the hook.

“Dae ye really want me tae tell ye?” he sneers, regaining some ay the power he’d relinquished during oor previous dialogue.

“Look, Rents. Listen tae the voice ay experience,” he smiles. “These things’ll melt through yir system, the charge’ll build up, and then it’ll slowly fade away. That’s the cunts they use in hospital, fir fuck’s sake.”

Ah dae the deal then retire tae the toilet and insert the suppositories, wi’ great diligence, up mah arse. It’s the first time ah’ve ever stuck mah finger up mah arse and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits me.

There’s nae time tae waste. Ten past two. Just enough time tae get tae the sports. Ah head fir the door.

“Cheers, Mikey, Ah’m off.”

There’s nae attempt tae acknowledge the departure ay a valued customer, but Mikey’s sister suddenly lets oot an embarrassing donkey-like laugh at some inane remark. Whither it’s frae her brother or the boilers oan the telly, ah decide tae ignore it.

After aw, ah’m heading fir mah next fix.

++++

Ah make it tae the sports wi’ ten minutes tae spare and head fir the changing room. Ah unzip mah bag and stand back as the stench escapes and begins tae invade mah nostrils. Fuck knaws how long it’s been since I washed any o’ mah kit but ah’m half expecting it tae climb oot and head fir the nearest laundrette.

Ah climb intae my shorts ignoring the broon skidmarks ingrained in the briefs. The shirt’s nae better although it’s original colour scheme has changed wi’ the cumulative absorption, over time, ay a range o’ bodily excretions, not necessarily all mine.

Spud’s warming up ootside court two, performing a range ay stretching and lunging exercises which are frightening the bairns waiting tae start their mini-squash session oan court one. A couple o’ them are trying tae hide behind their mums. The coach, a fat guy wearing a navy track-suit,  is glowering at Spud who doesnae even notice his presence.

“Spud.”

He notices me though.

Spud

Spud

“Awright, Rents?” he says, predictably. He’s wearing a luminous green shirt which sets mah guts off again just looking at it as he jumps aroond.

He stops and puts oan a yellow headband tae complete his hideous ensemble.

“So, fifty quid then is it?”

“Whit?”

“Fifty quid each. Winner takes all. We agreed, remember?”

Ah’m just aboot tae disagree wi’ Spud’s version ay whitever we did or didnae agree, whin ah feel the suppositories begin tae kick in. Suddenly, ah’m feeling surprisingly mellow and well-disposed towards mah old squash buddy, untrustworthy cunt though he is.

“Yeah, yeah, fifty quid.”

A moment ay weakness. Too fucking late tae back oot now.

++++

We knock off the occupants ay court two and start tae warm up the ball. Spud is beating twelve shades ay fucking broon oot ay it, drilling it back tae himself so ah barely get a look-in. Ah try a few drives, drops and volleys tae get a feel fir the court and try tae spot Spud’s strengths and weaknesses as he hurls himself aboot. Based oan his recent attempts tae seek gainful employment, deception probably falls intae the second category.

Interviewer: Mr. Murphy, do you mean that you lied on your application form?

Spud: No! Uh. well yes. But only tae get mah foot in the door, sir. Showing initiative and that, like.

Interviewer: But you were referred here by the Department of Employment, Mr. Murphy; there was no need for you to get your “foot in the door,” as you put it.

Spud: Ehhh… cool. Whitever ye say, boss. I’m sorry. You’re the man, sir. The dude in the chair.

Ah win the spin and serve the first ball oot. Love one and Spud’s not even had tae play a fucking shot. Ah stick his first serve intae the tin, then play a fucking air shot oan his next. Love three and ah start tae imagine mah fifty quid being flushed doon the bog despite the fact that ah’ve nae got fifty quid anyway.

Ah manage tae return Spud’s next serve and a rally develops, me fending the ball ontae the front wall, Spud running aroond like he’s got a fucking firecracker up his arse, thrashing it tae the back ay the court. The sweat’s pouring off him giving his shirt a two-tone appearance which sets off mah guts again as he zips in and oot ay mah field ay view. Ah manage tae stay in a few rallies but Spud takes the first 15-3. Wanker.

++++

In the interval, Spud drinks aboot two fucking gallons ay water frae the cooler, rushes back oan court and starts whacking the ball aroond before ah’ve had time tae catch mah breath. Ah’m still feeling mellow but then it fucking dawns oan me.

Whit the fuck is Spud oan?

A list o’ banned substances flashes before mah eyes…morphine, diamorphine, cyclizine, codeine, temazepam, nitrazepam, phenobarbitone, sodium amytal, dextropropoxyphene, methadone, nalbuphine, pethidine, pentazocine, buprenorphine, dextromoramide, chlormethiazole…

Now ah’m starting tae get mad. Here ah am trying tae come doon safely frae a two-day drugs and alcohol-induced high, and whit dae ah find? The so-called squash buddy who’s kindly arranged fir me tae share some enjoyable sporting activity wi’ him is trying tae cheat me oot ay fifty quid by taking illegal fucking substances!

Ah’m livid. Ye cannae fucking trust anybody nowadays!

Ah storm back ontae court intending tae up mah game and blow the cunt away. Ah hang in there but wi’ a growing realisation, metamorphosing intae horror, that all isnae well in the vicinity o’ mah bowels. Spud wins the second 11-7 but looks fucked and staggers in the general direction o’ the door like a blind zombie. Ah beat him tae it, exit the court like a greyhoond oot ay a fucking trap and sprint tae the bog.

Ah blunder intae a vacant cubicle, drop mah shorts and drop ontae the cold porcelain shunky. Thin, ah empty mah guts, feeling as though everything: bowels, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling oot ay mah arsehole intae the bowl.

Ah’m just aboot tae clean up and flush the bowl whin ah’m struck wi’ the realisation ay mah situation. Ah sit frozen fir a moment, but only a moment. Ah’ve only got aboot twenty seconds tae get back oan court before Spud claims the fucking game, the match and the fifty quid. Conflicting wi’ this requirement is the urgent need tae retrieve mah suppositories frae the pan and return them whence they’ve just beenejected.

Ah make an executive decision, paper mah posterior and fall off the pan onto mah knees. Thin, ah plunge mah hands and forearms intae the broon water. Ah rummage aroond fastidiously and get one ay mah bombs back straight away. Ah rub off some ay the shite that’s attached tae it and stick it oan top ay the cistern. Then, ah go back in and locate the other after several long dredges through the mess and panhandling ay the shite. A quick rinse under the cauld tap and, Bob’s yer uncle, they’re ready fir re-insertion. Ah slip them intae the pocket ay mah shorts and head fir court two at speed.

++++

By now, ah’m guessing that Spud’s finished rehearsing his argument as tae why ah should forfeit the game, the match and the fifty quid. “Sorry, Rents, but them’s the rules. Ninety seconds between games. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”

Whin ah get tae the court, the door’s ajar and  Spud’s bag is lying ootside. There’s nae sign ay him and and nae soond coming frae inside. Where the fuck is he? There’s naebody sitting ootside the courts, the mini-squash mums having gone up tae the balcony tae watch their off-spring terrorise the fucking coach.

Ah shrug mah shoulders and shove the court door which, surprisingly, meets wi’ some resistance. Ah poke mah heid aroond it tae be greeted wi’ the sight ay Spud lying flat oot wi’ his heid resting in a pool ay whit ah assume tae be the recent  contents ay his stomach. He’s nae moving although ah can see his chest moving up and doon, and a slight ripple effect as his breath wafts across the surface ay his vomit.

Ah wait a couple o’ minutes before summoning the first-aiders frae the front desk tae scrape Spud off the floor. Just enough time tae extract mah winnings frae the wallet in Spud’s bag. “Sorry, Spud, ah thought it was best tae leave ye in capable hands. Pity ye had tae forfeit the match, but them’s the rules. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”

After they’ve mopped up, ah wander back oan court fir a moment tae contemplate the grand scheme ay things. Life, death, drugs, squash and the wonder that is the human fucking body.

As ah hear the sound of balls smacking against the walls ay the neighbouring courts, ah walk over tae the ‘T’, smile…and put mah hand slowly intae mah pocket.

End of fucking story.

Acknowledgements

This story is based on scenes taken from the first part of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, ‘Trainspotting’, and dialogue from the 1996 film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle. In the film version, Renton was played by Ewan McGregor and Spud by Ewen Bremner. Thanks to the International Movie Database for its collection of quotes from the film version.  

 

Back Wall Boast (A Squash Play in One Act)

SCENE

The late-1990s. Somewhere in South East England. A squash club bar. It is a Thursday evening in late October. Outside, it is dark. The bar is furnished with a selection of tables and chairs, and a solitary pool table. The floor is covered with a carpet bearing a geometrical pattern consisting of interlocking orange, blue and cream figures. The walls are hung with framed photographs and posters. A trophy cabinet containing engraved silver cups and shields stands against the far wall. A jumble of sports bags and racket covers is piled by a coat-stand next to the bar entrance. Music can be heard emanating faintly from the tannoy.

Behind the bar, Ange Whittaker, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties is filling the sink with hot water. She is wearing a black-and-white print dress. Four men are seated around one of the tables drinking beer from straight glasses.

Jack Sugden, a white-haired man in his early seventies, is the Club Secretary and has been for over twenty years; he still plays in the Club’s internal leagues.

Graham Adams is the League Organiser. A policeman in his mid-forties, he is tall, has cropped fair hair and plays for the Club’s Men’s First Team in the county leagues.

Ron Tetlow is a member of the Squash Club Committee and helps to organise competitions and social events. He is in his mid-sixties and has retired from playing but is a marker at team fixtures. He is of medium build, balding and wears black-rimmed spectacles.

Andrew McGrath is a club member. He is tall and has receding ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. He plays in the Club’s internal leagues.

The men are sitting in silence.

Back Wall Boast Bar2Pause.

RON: Makes you think, doesn’t it?

He stares directly ahead of him, then takes a sip from his glass.

JACK: It certainly does, Ron. It certainly does.

Pause.

There’s no doubt about that.

RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.

JACK: True, true.

Pause.

RON: In the midst of life…

Pause.

I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.

GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?

RON: In the handicap.

Pause.

GRAHAM: Oh.

Pause.

Terry must have been giving him a few points then.

RON: Twenty-seven, I think.

GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.

Pause.

Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.

RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.

Pause.

I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?

GRAHAM: I would have thought so.

RON: And Ernie must have been…

ANDREW: Sixty-two.

RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?  

Pause.

I thought he was older than that.

Pause.

Still.

Behind the bar, ANGE is washing some glasses.

RON: He was looking forward to going on holiday.

JACK: Who? Terry?

RON: No, Ernie. With…you know…his missus…er…

ANDREW: Maureen.

RON: Is it?

Pause.

Yes, well.

JACK: Anywhere nice?

RON: Sounded Spanish I think…or it could have been Portuguese. I’m not that well up on place names, foreign countries, that sort of thing.

Pause.

I’ve been to France mind you.

JACK: Have you? What part?

RON: Now there’s a question. I’d have to ask the missus. She books everything, see.

Pause.

Or was it Belgium?

The group sits in silence.

Suddenly, the door swings open and GARETH Prosser enters. He is in his mid-forties, thick-set with black hair and sideburns. He is wearing a tweed cap, a light-coloured parka and a tartan scarf. He looks at the group, then at the bar, then back at the group.

GARETH: Christ! What’s wrong with you lot? It’s like a bloody morgue in here.

The members of the group turn around. ANGE starts crying.

JACK: You haven’t heard then?

GARETH: Heard what?

JACK: Ernie died last night.

GARETH: No! Ernie?

He takes his cap off. ANDREW stands up and walks to the bar, looking at GARETH. He lifts up the counter, goes behind the bar and puts his arm around ANGE.

We had a court booked for Tuesday.

GARETH walks over to the bar where ANGE is wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.

GARETH: Sorry, Ange, I didn’t realise.

He leans over the bar and touches her on the arm.

Pause.

Very insensitive of me.

Pause.

Pint of bitter when you’re ready, love. No hurry.

He takes off his parka and hangs it on the coat-stand with his scarf and cap.

Pause.

Accident was it?

He walks over to the group and sits down in Andrew’s chair.

RON: He dropped dead on court last night.

Behind the bar, ANGE starts crying again. She rests her head on ANDREW’s shoulder.

GARETH: No.

Pause.

Which court?

RON: Two. I was watching, wasn’t I. Dropped in to book a court, heard someone playing, went up to the balcony. Bob’s your uncle. There’s Ernie playing young Alan.

GARETH: League match, was it?

RON: Hell of a ding-dong. Ernie keeping it tight, lobbing. Alan running around like a blue-arsed fly, getting everything back. You know Alan.

GARETH: Only we’re…well we were all in the same league, like.

RON: Alan gets the first. Ernie levels it. Slows things down, you know, like he does…

Pause.

…did.

GARETH: Finishes a week on Sunday, doesn’t it Graham?

GRAHAM: What does?

GARETH: The league.

GRAHAM: That’s right. I’ll take the sheets down at six o’clock.

GARETH: Only I haven’t played all my matches yet.

RON looks at GARETH.

RON: Do you want to know what happened or not?

GARETH: Sorry, Ron. Go on.

RON: Alan gets the third. Ernie squares it at two-all. It’s nip and tuck in the fifth. Alan’s up, Ernie pegs him back, then Ernie’s up, then Alan squares it at nine all and Ernie calls ‘set one’!

He leans back in his chair, exhausted.

JACK: He must have been tired.

RON: They both looked buggered, Jack. Absolutely buggered. That’s when it happened.

RON looks towards the bar where ANDREW is chatting with ANGE. He is helping her with the washing up. He lowers his voice and leans forward in his chair.

Alan only goes and serves out, doesn’t he, so Ernie’s got match ball. He puts up one of his lob serves and moves to the T. Alan volleys it back cross-court. It whistles past Ernie on the forehand and bounces up onto the back wall. Ernie turns round and dives towards it, swinging through with his racket.

Pause.

Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.

He leans back in his chair.

Pause.

GARETH: So Alan won then?

RON: What?

GARETH: Well it’s a walk-over isn’t it? Ernie can’t play on.

RON: No, no, no. Ernie won the match.

GARETH: How do you work that out then?

RON: You didn’t let me finish, did you?

He leans forward again.

On his way down, Ernie gets his racket to the ball and lifts it hard onto the back wall. It loops up towards the front wall, drops, brushes it and bounces twice. Dead.

Pause.

Alan doesn’t get anywhere near it.

RON leans back in his chair.

GARETH: A back wall boast you mean?

RON: Ernie’s signature shot. I’ve seen it get him out of trouble more times than I care to remember.

JACK: What a way to go, eh?

RON: You couldn’t make it up.

Pause.

GARETH: So you’re telling me that somebody who’s dead can win a rally?

RON: Well obviously he was alive when he hit the ball.

GARETH: Yes, but…

GRAHAM: The point is, Gareth, it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Ernie was dead before or after the ball was. Alan couldn’t get to it and Ernie wasn’t obstructing him.

RON: Neither of them was bleeding or injured either…

GRAHAM: …so there wasn’t any reason for them to stop playing, was there, let alone agree a walk-over.

Pause.

GARETH: But…

GRAHAM: Look, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a player has to be alive when they win a rally, or a point. They don’t even say that matches have to be between two players who are actually alive…

RON: …or that they have to remain alive for the entire duration of the match.

Pause.

GRAHAM: I’ve checked.

The group sits in silence. ANDREW comes out from behind the bar and walks over to the coat-stand.

GARETH: Anyway, nobody’s put the score down.

GRAHAM: What?

GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.

Pause.

JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.

Pause.

GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.

Pause.

RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.

The rest of the group look at RON.

JACK: Who?

RON: His girlfriend. That redhead with the…

JACK: You mean Samantha? Ernie’s daughter? You never said.

RON: Is she? Well I didn’t know, did I. I’m no good with names.

GRAHAM: …foreign countries, places…

JACK: So she was there then?

RON: It must have slipped my mind. What with all the confusion. You know…ambulance…police…looking for the first-aid box…

Pause.

GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?

Pause.

RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?

ANGE: Yes.

She dries a glass and places it on a shelf behind the bar.

ANDREW puts on his coat and scarf. He picks up his sports bag and walks to the door.

ANDREW: Well, I’d best be off. ‘Night all.

He opens the door and leaves the bar.

ALL: ‘Night, Andrew.

Pause.

GRAHAM: So where does that leave your league then, Gareth?

GARETH takes a pen from his inside pocket and starts writing on a beer-mat.

GARETH: Right, let’s see. Well, Ernie’s got twenty-one, Alan’s got…nineteen, Andrew’s got…er…seventeen…

He mutters to himself as he calculates each player’s points.

…I’ve got eleven and Mike’s got…er…four.

GRAHAM: So you’re telling me that the promotion spots in your league are currently occupied by someone who’s dead and someone who’s lost to him?

GARETH: Well, at the moment, yes.

RON: So Ernie could go up then?

GRAHAM: Don’t be stupid, Ron.

GARETH: It could all change of course. Andrew’s still got to play Alan. Both of them could overtake Ernie.

Pause.

GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.

Pause.

GARETH: So that means I should go up then.

GRAHAM: How do you work that out?

GARETH: Well Andrew’s not playing in the next round of the league.

Pause.

He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.

GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.

GARETH: Exactly.

Pause.

RON: I wonder why that is? He never said anything.

JACK: Probably upset about Ernie, I shouldn’t wonder. Great friends they were. He used to go round there a lot you know.

Pause.

RON: Now you mention it I have seen him coming out of Ernie’s house. Yes. All hours of the day and night. While I’ve been passing, like.

GRAHAM: Yes, yes. Him and Ernie go way back.

Pause.

JACK: And Maureen.

Pause.

RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.

Pause.

GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.

RON: Yes, yes.

Pause.

I could ask him, I suppose, but…

ANGE: Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’s going on holiday!

The group turns to look at ANGE who is staring at them from behind the bar.

JACK: Oh, is he? Anywhere nice?

ANGE: Yes.

Pause.

Benidorm!

LIGHTS

Acknowledgements

I got the idea for ‘Back Wall Boast’ from a UK television play broadcast in 1987. It was called ‘The Clinger’ and was set in a squash club somewhere in England. The play was one of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous story-lines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

You can find out more about ‘The Clinger’ here.

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!

Weston’s Game (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The match at the Heliopolis Club went into a fifth game, Gamal levelling with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner.

Weston left the court to towel down, take a drink and reflect on the state of play, and on the state of his body. His three month sabbatical, enforced by the medics back in London, still had two weeks to run. In the beginning, an old friend had fixed him up with a villa in Barbados where he’d been able to swim and snorkel most of the day before eating dinner, prepared by the housekeeper, on the terrace overlooking the sea. He’d drunk no alcohol, read, and retired to bed early with only a painkiller for company.

But then, he’d felt the need for some recreation, something with an edge, something  competitive. So he’d come back to part of the world where he’d spent so much of his time in the service on assignment. Somewhere, despite recent political upheavals, where he felt comfortable, connected with history, alive.

Here, in Cairo, he’d kept up a fitness regimen to maybe seventy-five per cent of his potential. Swimming, running and weights at the club, with the occasional game of tennis, and now squash with an old friend and his former squash coach. Gamal was now in his early fifties, but was still more than a match for him.

They resumed their match, watched from the balcony by some youngsters whose parents, he reflected, obviously had the money and the connections, for them to be there. Weston started the stronger, keeping his opponent to the back of the court, but then tired as Gamal’s superior powers of deception began to take their toll. It was their third match in as many weeks but now, he sensed, he was getting closer.

++++

Showered and changed, they sat by the pool drinking iced tea and watching the sun set over the city. They talked business, politics. Then family. Gamal’s family. Weston had none. At least that was his story.

‘So how’s that nephew of yours?’ he said, switching to Arabic. ‘The squash player?’

Heliopolis Club, Cairo

‘Ah, a fine boy,’ said his squash partner with pride. ‘And a fine coach too. But  now, I hear so little from him and see him even less. He left home over a year ago to work abroad. Always on the move, my friend. So many places around the world.’ He paused. ‘Do you know, the last my sister heard from him, he was coaching squash on a yacht somewhere. Can you imagine that? On a yacht!’

Weston smiled and lifted his face towards the setting sun.

When they’d finished their drinks, they picked up their bags and racquet cases and walked towards the reception area.

‘Same time next week, Jim?’ said Gamal.

‘Yes Gamal’ said Weston. ‘Why not.’

He left his playing partner and walked out into the early evening heat.

‘Taxi, Mr. Faulks?’ asked the concierge.

Weston nodded.

++++

Later, in his room at the hotel, Weston retrieved his cellphone from the safe. It displayed a solitary text message from an unidentified number. It read simply: ‘Call Global Trading. Urgent.’

He took a second ‘phone from the safe and connected it to a small electronic device taken from his racquet case. He keyed in a number from memory and listened. There was a click and then a low hum on the line as he heard the call being diverted.

At last, he heard the voice – precise, distant but unmistakable – of the person he most respected in the world.

‘Weston?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘The party’s over.’

‘But, I thought –‘

‘One of our sales force is reporting exceptional activity.’

‘Where?’

‘In the Gulf, although imports from the US are looking up as well.’

‘What about my sabbatical? It doesn’t end until –‘

‘To hell with your sabbatical. I need you on the first flight to Dubai tomorrow. Got that?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

The line went dead.

Next week’s match at the Heliopolis Club was most definitely off.

++++

The following afternoon, Weston found himself sitting in the Dubai offices of Global Trading awaiting the appearance of Dan Thorpe. A stencilled sign on the glass door read ‘Mr. D. R. Thorpe, Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’.

Weston had been ushered into Thorpe’s office, a scene of uncharacteristic disorder given the true role of its owner in the service. Now, looking from his third floor vantage point towards the Dubai skyline, he sipped at a glass of sweet tea and wondered what sales activity was about to be shared with him.

When he finally appeared, Thorpe looked much the same as ever, slightly dishevelled with dark hair greying at the temples and a stooped posture as he walked towards Weston, hand outstretched. They exchanged pleasantries before sitting opposite each other across Thorpe’s desk.

‘Sorry about the sabbatical, Jim’ said Thorpe. ‘Duty calls, eh?’

Weston gave a wry smile and relaxed into his chair.

‘A week ago, our cousins across the pond shared some intelligence with London about someone they’ve been watching. Someone they believe may be about to take possession of a, shall we say, shipment intended for subsequent distribution – and, presumably, consumption – within the US. They don’t appear to know where the shipment will be handed over but experience suggests it will be at sea. Somewhere in the Caribbean.’

‘What has that got to do with Her Majesty’s Government?’ asked Weston.

‘I’m coming to that’ continued Thorpe. ‘The person the cousins have been watching has connections to someone that London believes could turn out to be a threat to our national security. Someone who, coincidentally, arrived in Dubai just over a fortnight ago.’

He leaned forward and pushed a manila folder across the desk towards Weston.

‘The man the cousins have been watching is called Ivanov. Viktor Ivanov. Born in St. Petersburg. In his mid-50s. Bit of a track record but hardly public enemy number one. That’s his photograph on top of the heap. He pretty much lives on his yacht, the Ekaterina. Registered in St. Petersburg naturally. It’s now in US territorial waters. As far as the cousins can tell, it got there via the Baltic, the North Sea, the Med, North Africa, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, stopping at at least a dozen ports, including London. Quite a holiday cruise – assuming that he’s on holiday of course.’

Weston looked the photograph of a thick-set balding man with a black goatee as Thorpe continued.

‘Ivanov has his family with him. More precisely, wife number three and two children – one from a previous marriage. That’s a picture of his wife, Maria. Looks like an archetypal Russian good-time girl who’s seen better days but there’s something much more interesting about her.’

Weston looked at the picture. It showed a plump, bleached blonde woman in her late 40s, perhaps, wearing a flowered smock. She was standing at what looked like a ship’s rail.

‘Which is?’

‘She’s the elder sister of this man.’

Thorpe pointed out the third photograph.

‘Anatole Grigoriev. Also from Petersburg. And the person we believe now controls the opium trade routes from Northern Afghanistan through Iran and the former Soviet republics.’

Weston picked up the photograph. It showed a clean-shaven athletic-looking man with short dark hair. He was wearing a white shirt and slacks and was sitting under a parasol, holding a cocktail glass up to the camera.

‘He looks a happy soul,’ said Weston.

‘He should be,’ answered Thorpe, ‘Considering the amount of money he must be making. But there’s just one problem. Grigoriev doesn’t just have aspirations to control the global drugs trade. He wants to destroy the West. It appears to be personal, for some reason. That’s what HMG is panicking about. London believes that whatever Ivanov is up to is just a side-show. Grigoriev is the one who pulls the strings. And now he’s sitting in a penthouse suite over at the Burj Khalifa Hotel.’

Weston shrugged.

‘I suppose it makes sense,’ he commented. ‘Big Russian community to provide  cover. The cousins not exactly popular in the area for obvious reasons. Just us honest British businessmen left to see fair play.’

‘That’s where you come in,’ said Thorpe.

‘London wants you to find out what Grigoriev’s up to. Whatever happens in the cousins’ backyard isn’t our concern. But how Grigoriev responds most definitely is. And you may just have a way of reaching him. Take a look at the fourth photograph.’

Weston picked it out of the folder. It showed an attractive young woman playing tennis at what he suspected was the Burj Khalifa Sports Club. Long legs, high cheekbones and a pretty good-looking double-fisted backhand by the look of it. She was wearing a white visor with her blonde hair pulled into a pony-tail.

‘Grigoriev’s younger sister, Tatiana’ said Thorpe. ‘Rather different from his older one  I think you’ll agree?’

Weston nodded and placed the photograph back in the folder.

‘She certainly has friends here,’ continued Thorpe ‘But seems to spend a lot of her time in sports clubs. Money no object, of course. Tennis, swimming, golf, even the odd game of squash, you’ll be pleased to hear. Speaks four languages that we know of, all of which, coincidentally, you speak fluently. I’m sure you’re more than capable of engineering a casual meeting?’

Sunset over the Burj Khalifa, Dubai

When Weston had left for his hotel, Thorpe closed his office door and picked up the telephone. He pressed the scrambler and heard the familiar click and hum.

‘Thorpe?’

‘Yes, ma’am. He’s just left.’

A question.

‘No, ma’am, he doesn’t know anything about the runaway on Ivanov’s yacht. Or the private investigators.’

‘Good. Thank you, Thorpe’

He hung up.

++++

It was early evening at the Burj Khalifa Sports Club.

Weston timed his walk past the table by the pool to coincide with that of the white-coated waiter. At an opportune moment, he moved sharply out of the waiter’s path, knocking into the table and upsetting the cocktail glass standing on it. The glass hit the floor with a satisfying crash.

‘Oh, how clumsy of me!’ he exclaimed, turning to the young woman sitting there.

‘I beg your pardon, madam,’ said the waiter on cue, making to pick up the broken glass.

Weston turned towards him and spoke quickly in Arabic.

‘Please get the lady a replacement, Hassan, and charge it to my account.’

The woman spoke in accented English as Weston turned back towards her. ‘Please don’t concern yourself. It was a simple accident.’

By this time, Hassan had abandoned the glass and scuttled away on his highly lucrative errand.

‘Please. I insist. It was completely my fault, Miss – ?’ said Weston, this time in Russian.

She smiled.

‘Grigorieva. Tatiana Grigorieva.’

He extended his hand.

‘My names Faulks. Jim Faulks.’

She hesitated, took it and answered. In Russian this time.

‘You speak very good Russian for an Englishman Mr. Faulks. Are you a member here?’

‘Jim. Yes.’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘Yes. I arrived in Dubai only recently.’

‘Then I insist on helping you feel at home’ he offered. ‘Tell me. Do you play any games, Miss Grigorieva?’

She laughed.

‘Tatiana. Yes, Mr. Faulks. I do play games.’

She looked into his eyes.

‘In fact, I happen to be very good at them.’

Acknowledgement

‘Weston’s Game’ was first published as Chapter 10 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.’

Thanks Ted!

A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Hiking in New England during the US’s hottest summer since 1895 may not be everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Whatever plans you might have had to explore the Great Outdoors tend to change daily, if not hourly, as the mercury rises, the forest shade beckons and a craving for the next ice-cold drink begins.

Well, that’s what it was like for me when I hiked the trails around Burlington, Vermont, where squash is still very much part of the varsity athletics scene. Not only that, one enterprising Burlington squash player had even built himself an outdoor court, with a slight gradient from front wall to back for drainage purposes.

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Things were much the same hiking the trails of Acadia, off the coast of Maine, where I came across a fellow traveller and hiker who just happened to play in Philadelphia’s squash leagues. I even experienced déjà vu on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire where a passing conversation with another hiker revealed yet another ex-college player and squash lover.

So, by the time I headed south towards Massachusetts, I already had a feeling that all I had to do to stay connected with squash was to keep travelling, hike trails and share stories with strangers. After all, I was wandering through a landscape which, over the years, has attracted travellers and hikers from all over the world. People who, just like me, wanted to go for a walk in the woods, whatever the temperature.

People drawn to the place where squash first took root in America.

The First American Squash Court

St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

The first squash court in America was built at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in 1884. Two years previously, the headmaster of St. Paul’s had seen the game played in Montreal and wrote an article about it for the school magazine. In the article he favoured squash over rackets, largely on the grounds of its lower costs. But, despite his enthusiasm, the soft ball used in the sport proved to be unsuitable for use on the unheated squash courts of New Hampshire with its cold winters. Because of this, a harder ball was developed which was more suited for use in colder temperatures and on narrower courts.

In 1924, the US hardball squash court was standardized at 18.5 feet wide with a 17 inch “tin” – the out-of-play strip of metal at the bottom of the front wall. This contrasted with the British (international) court which, four years later, was finally to be standardised at 21.5 ft. wide with a 19 inch “tin”.

But whatever progress was being made on both sides of the Atlantic in standardising squash balls and squash courts, there was one milestone in the development of squash which proved to be ‘no contest’. In 1904, twenty years after the appearance of America’s first squash court, the world’s first national squash association was formed.

It was American and was to pre-date its British equivalent by almost a quarter of a century.

Harvard Connections

From its beginnings in New Hampshire, squash began to spread further into the US through the private boys schools of New England. This initial phase of squash development is still reflected in the distribution of squash courts throughout the country, the majority still being located in private universities and athletic clubs. Today, there are over 1,000 facilities across the US which house squash courts including those at the Ivy League universities of Yale in Connecticut and Harvard in Massachusetts.

Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

Not surprisingly, I found that Harvard featured on the fixture list of the Concord Acton squash club which I visited, and played at, between walking excursions. Before my visit to the area, I’d already discovered that Concord itself boasts a remarkably rich literary history centred in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was as a lover of traveller’s tales that I took a particular interest one of the town’s most famous natives, the author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is best known for his book ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Published in 1854, the book is part personal declaration of independence, part social experiment, and part manual for self reliance in what were then physically demanding times. Thoreau was also a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the US as a protest against the current state of culture and society and, in particular, against the state of intellectualism at Harvard University.

Thoreau himself was no great traveller or walker, but others in the local area shared and outlook on life which combined intellectualism with more physical pursuits.

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

By the time transcendentalism had run its course in the early 1850s, Harvard had begun to embrace another new movement, that of intercollegiate athletics. In 1852, the first intercollegiate sporting event, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, took place on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Other sports were to follow, tennis making its debut in 1880 and, eventually, squash, arguably Harvard’s most successful sport of all, in 1922. The first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard versus Yale, followed in February 1923.

Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

Harvard squash was to produce its own successful exponents including the legendary Harry Cowles who coached its men’s team for its first 16 seasons, leading it to five national titles and mentoring no less than 13 individual champions. Cowles’ book ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’ was published in 1935 and is still available if you look in the right places.

Over the years, many other notable figures were to emerge from Harvard’s squash community including one who would come to be recognised as one of the leading all-round athletes of the first half of the 20th century.

Someone who was to blaze the trail for women’s participation in sport in America.

The First Women’s Squash Champion

Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881. The great-great-granddaughter of the 3rd President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing. In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.

In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the US women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Southern California, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.

But, despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she first learned to play squash in 1918.

Eleanora Sears in 1929

In 1928, she helped to found the US Women’s Squash Racquets Association. In the same year, at the age of 46, she not only became its first singles champion but the first women’s squash champion in history. In 1929, she convinced Harvard’s officials to open its squash courts to women. She later served as the USWSRA’s president and was captain of the US national women’s team.

Sears frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) claimed her to be his favourite dance, squash, and tennis partner. She played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, and was also famous for her frequent marathon hikes, her favourite being from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, a distance of 44 miles. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours and during her 1912 visit to California, walked the 109 miles from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte in 41 hours.

Sears, nicknamed ‘The Universal Female Athlete’ died in 1968 at the age of 86.

So the next time you travel to the US, why not visit some of the places where squash is still very much part of the local culture? New England, perhaps, or maybe further south even as far as Atlanta, Georgia where the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail ends. And while you’re there, why not take a walk in the woods?

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for its entries on squash, Eleanora Sears, Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, Harvard University and the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks also to Peggy Miller Franck for her article ‘The Mother of Title IX: Trailblazing Athlete Eleonora Sears’ in The Daily Beast.

And, finally, thanks to the Concord Acton Squash Club for allowing me to play in its Sunday morning ‘round robin’.

Hijab Stories: Squash in Iran

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.