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A league of its own

If you are a rising table tennis star, one club seems to rank higher than others. Roddy Mackenzie finds out what North Merchiston Club offers

Word of mouth has led to many of Scotland's best young table tennis prospects finding their way to Edinburgh's North Merchiston Club.

As well as having three of the top four players in the latest Scottish men's rankings lists, the club also boasts the top-ranked junior (under-18) boy and girl, the top cadet (under-15) boy and girl and the number two minor (under-13) boy.

This suggests the table tennis club has set up a sophisticated network for scouting players from local schools but the reality is somewhat different.

Not only does the club not have any official links with Edinburgh schools, but some young players travel considerable distances.

Scott Wightman, Scotland's ranked number two minor boy, goes to Hecklegirth Primary in Annan, Dumfries and Galloway and travels for table tennis coaching. Scott Johnston, number five in the cadet boys' rankings, attends Auchterarder Community School in Perth and Kinross and top cadet girl Jenny Galloway attends Balfron High in Stirling. They also travel for coaching.

The club has only 30 players, half of whom are under 18. But its strong coaching set-up under head coach Tom Hook, who has been there for 20 years, has made it a magnet for many of Scotland's best young players.

"Scott Wightman has established clubs closer to his home," says Mr Hook, "but he has chosen to come to us and he's here by 9am on Saturday mornings.

"Players approach us more than us approaching them," he explains. "We have a good reputation for coaching and players have the chance to train with the some of the best players in Scotland."

Craig Howieson (James Gillespie's High, Edinburgh) is already the top-ranked junior boy at the age of 13 and is starting to make an impact on the senior rankings, currently listed at 15. Karin Eggar (Firrhill High, Edinburgh) is the top junior girl and number three senior.

North Merchiston Club (which is also strong in football and martial arts) is in modest surroundings in Watson Crescent but it can accommodate eight tables and hold its own in a competitive environment.

This month should see the young players doing well at the two major Scottish schools events, the Primary Schools Championships last weekend and the Secondary Schools Championships finals this Sunday in Perth.

At the British Junior League tournament at Wolverhampton earlier this month (which attracted 250 schoolchildren), both of the club's cadet teams - boys and girls - finished second in Division II to clinch promotion to the first division. Given that their opponents have an age advantage, there is plenty of growth left yet in the club's teams.

Two rising stars, Craig Howieson and 14-year-old Scott Johnston, will travel to China in August to take part in a 10-day training camp with elite Chinese juniors. It is costing each player pound;1,000 but, such is their ambition, they are keen to see how they compare against some of the other top young players in the world.

"It will open their eyes," says Mr Hook. "It can be a harsh regime in China. We hear stories of coaches beating players with sticks if they stand too far away from the table and their parents are quite happy with that if it gives the players a chance to make a name for themselves!

"I think Craig and Scott will have a new perspective on the game after going there."

With table tennis being a world sport, young players have to broaden their horizons if they are to make any impact at international level.

"Gavin Rumgay (the current Scottish number one) has improved after going to Sweden to play at a professional club last year but he now faces a difficult decision at the end of the season, whether to continue playing full-time or accept a place at university," Mr Hook explains.

"You cannot earn a living playing table tennis in Scotland. It's such a small country; you have to be prepared to travel, to England and Europe.

Even then, it is very difficult to break through when the eastern European countries have reared youngsters on the game from an early age. Even the best junior players in Europe find it hard to break through to the senior ranks.

"But I don't think that for Scottish players it's necessarily the case of wanting to make a living from the game. It is a case of being the best they can be and seeing what opportunities open up after that."

Mr Hook became interested in table tennis when his daughter Jennifer took it up seriously. Although she has stopped playing competitively, he has maintained his interest and is a full-time coach. He is one of Table Tennis Scotland's national coaches and works at St George's School for Girls and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, but he has a strong commitment to North Merchiston Club.

Ralph Knowles, the administrative secretary for Table Tennis Scotland, says it is easy getting children to hit a ball but it is another matter getting them committed to playing regularly.

"We lose a lot between primary and secondary school," he says.

Both of Scotland's major schools events are traditionally well attended.

About 70 pupils took part in the primary championships and the secondary championships event is strong enough to require regional qualifying tournaments.

More than 50 schools now are affiliated to the governing body and Mr Knowles believes these events are where fresh talent is spotted. The reward for the winners is to represent Scotland at the British Primary Schools Championships, which will be held in Guernsey on April 17-18, or the Schools International Championships in Limerick from June 25-27.

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