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Youth squash picks up after cash crisis

In the north-east, home of the world-class squash player Peter Nicol, the sport is once again optimistic for the future, Roddy Mackenzie writes.

Squash is rising to its feet again as a school sport in the north-east after having the financial rug pulled from under it five years ago. Funding of Pounds 20,000 a year was lost in 2000 after a cutback in the number of sports given priority support by Grampian's Activ-8 programme.

It was a surprise move in an area which had produced Peter Nicol, who first became the world number one in the sport in February 1998 - the first Briton to do so - and has been one of the great ambassadors for the north-east.

However, it enabled the sport to take stock. The regional youth training squad had to be dropped, as it was too expensive, but it has been revived successfully this year, albeit with parents footing most of the bills.

"It was very sad and came as a shock to us when we lost the funding. Squash was very successful and there did not appear to be a good reason for dropping it," says Jackie Riches, development officer for the sport in Grampian.

"We went from substantial funding to nothing. It was a crisis for us and we had to refocus. We decided to go with district training squads but there were inevitable cutbacks.

"The district squads have always been fairly active, but the regional squads were getting not just training but also additional competitions.

"Squash can be expensive and that responsibility fell on parents."

The area has produced over 30 junior international players in recent years and 10 national junior champions, but squash has to keep fighting its corner.

Economic pressure means sports centres look at the viability of maintaining squash courts versus a multi-use fitness hall. Filling a hall with 40 aerobics participants at pound;4 a time brings in much more money than four players hiring two squash courts.

There are 18 squash clubs in the north-east, less than half of which have junior members. However, Stonehaven, under coach Gerry Towler, and the Peter Nicol Centre in Eltrick, Aberdeen, under Alistair Gorrie, have strong junior programmes. Also, the Grampian Institute of Sport offers access to strength and conditioning programmes, physiotherapy and nutritional advice for young players.

There are 34 players in the revived regional development squad and there are leagues at under-15, under-13 and, more recently, under-12 levels.

There is no longer an under-17 league because the players are good enough to be involved in junior national leagues.

Although few schools have access to squash courts, they remain key for developing players. Mini-squash is important for introducing P6-P7 children to the sport. The six-week programme is designed as a taster and interested children can go on from there.

"While squash is great fun, there is a lot of work involved," says Ms Riches. "It's not as easy as it first appears. You have to get the basics right. Such things as footwork and technique are important. You have to learn to use your brain as well. I believe it is a great sport for schoolchildren as it challenges them.

"It is a sport that is associated with private schools, but that is not the case here. We always ask for a contribution from schoolchildren (towards the cost of taking them to squash courts) but if there is a class of 30 and 10 cannot pay, we'll find a way around it and would not prevent them from taking part."

There are opportunities for parents and teachers to get involved too, with five coaching certificates to be offered by 2007. Level one and child protection courses are on offer in the region and the programme will be expanded to broaden the coaching base.

Nicol, who has 67 caps for Scotland, now lives in London and has switched allegiance to England, so no longer represents Scotland in international competition, but there is a stream of junior squash players keen to keep the north-east in the spotlight.

"Of course, it was great when Nicol was here," says Ms Riches. "It helped a lot with publicity as we had a superstar on our doorstep.

"We hear so often that squash is a dying sport but we're not finding that at all. The numbers for junior players are increasing all the time and there is still a lot of enthusiasm for the game. I'm optimistic we will go on to bigger and better things.

"Squash has a lot to offer and is a great way for young people to keep fit.

The beauty is that you can have a decent work-out in 40 minutes, whereas a game of golf can take four hours. That is why I think it is a sport that appeals to all ages and if you get into the habit at school, then you can keep playing for many years."

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