World-ranked number 1 squash professional James Willstrop played an exhibition match at Northern Squash Club in April 2012. He also trained with the juniors and attended a dinner where he answered questions from club members.
You can watch the BBC Look North feature on James at Northern below:
The tall, lean 28-year-old with a bagful of rackets over his shoulder ambled casually from his car not expecting any undue attention.
If the rackets in the bag of the world’s number one ranked player had been for tennis, he would no doubt have been besieged by admirers who’d been waiting long hours for a precious autograph.
But for James Willstrop, the top ranked squash player on the planet, life is very different than it is for Novak Djokovic. For a start, the Serbian multi-millionaire is hardly likely to turn up at Northern FC in Newcastle for a Friday night out.
Inside the Gosforth club more than 120 squash fanatics had shoe-horned themselves around the glass-backed court as they prepared to enjoy an exhibition of this claustrophobic and demanding game from the best player they’re ever likely to see.
So overwhelming was the enthusiasm at the club, it seemed more like those halcyon days of the seventies when squash was the boom sport. Yet there’s a waiting list for membership at Northern Squash club, and it’s even longer for youngsters of seven years upwards who want to join the coaching sessions at the club’s astonishingly successful junior section.
For Willstrop, it’s all encouraging confirmation of the health of his sport. “
“There’s still a very high number of people playing squash but in terms of following the professional game, then less so,” said the Yorkshireman whose father Malcolm is one of the game’s most influential coaches.
“There are a lot of people involved in the game but we haven’t capitalised on that enough to raise it’s profile.”
Willstrop’s recently published autobiography revealed the grinding nature of a game, James often describes as “brutal”. The man himself admits an obsessive nature but not a discontented one with his sporting status.
“You walk down the street and people don’t recognise you but that’s got a lot of plus points for me,” he says. “But we do need to keep pushing the top players to put them in the public eye, because maybe that’s why the game of squash has less profile.”
Of course Willstrop’s personal fame would be so much higher if squash had won its long-running battle to win Olympic status. With Nick Matthew ranked number two and Jenny Duncalf holding the same position in the women’s list, then Britain would have been challenging strongly for medals – if squash had been on the London agenda.
“Gaining Olympic recognition is a massive target,” Willstrop readily admits. “Imagine if we had won medals at London 2012, the sport would skyrocket.”
The earliest squash could win coveted Olympic status would be 2020, a little too late for Willstrop but maybe a target for some unearthed talent among Northern’s junior section. With seventy youngsters earning a place in the national rankings, including England Under 13 team member Michael Mattimore, there’s no denying the game has a future if Northern is any guide.
“I’m very impressed. I’ve never seen so many kids who are the heartbeat of any club”, says the world number one. “It doesn’t really matter if there’s a future world champion here, that’s not what it’s about. “It’s about so many kids being involved in sport, and of course squash.”
Northern’s coach Richard Vitty, who has just led nearby Gosforth Academy to the National Schools Under 15 Boys title, is also optimistic about the game and insists: “Here in Northumbria the game is on the up and not just at this club. The future is definitely going into the schools, picking them up at an early age, making sure they are trained properly to play the game in a safe way so they come through and enjoy the sport for the rest of their lives.”
North East Life Magazine also published an article on the Exhibition Match and James' visit and you can see the article here.
Here's a selection of photos taken from the build-up, exhibition match and the dinner where James and Eddie answered questions from the members.
James inspiring the Juniors
James takes the first game against Eddie Charlton
Willstrop serving against Eddie in the second game
Eddie Charlton signing autographs for the Juniors