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A club rises from the ashes

L&D Squash Club is in Beds but is very much involved in Hertfordshire. Senior and Junior teams play in the Herts County Leagues and Chiltern County Leagues. The Chiltern League is a combined Herts & Beds County Junior League...Editor

I played for Luton & Dunstable 1st team in the 1980's with Hardy-Clarke as captain. The experience was memorable mainly for shutting the bar, when I had gone on court at 10pm and winning in 5 sets, Hardy-Clarke declared the bar shut, as they had spent all the cash. PS where was my contribution? On a more serious note, here is a great modern story of a renewed and vibrant club.

A club rises from the ashes

The winning of the Beds County Team title on March 27th 2012 for many would be barely worthy of comment, but for Luton and Dunstable Squash Club it was a momentous occasion, falling as it did almost 3 years to the day since their home was closed. The win capped a traumatic period and heralds the start of an era where the club aims to grow not just for its own sake, but for the sake of the sport in the County and the Region.

Wednesday March 25th 2009 was scheduled to be a great day for Dunstable Squash Club. A little under a year earlier the Committee had decided that radical change was needed if the club was not to die. It was the usual scenario, an all-male committee, only one or two visible ethnic minority members, the majority over 40, no active women, a sole Level 2 coach in his 60’s ploughing a very lone furrow with a handful of juniors and a team that was barely known to the membership as a whole. The club took the decision to invest its small surplus of funds in supporting two members to become Level 1 coaches and update its policies and constitution etc. to apply to become a Clubmark Club.

With the support of the County Sports Partnership and East Regional Manager for England Squash and Racketball, Mark Williams, that was achieved and they had secured a modest grant of £1,000 to buy two complete sets of mini squash equipment. A press release had been prepared, photographer arranged, juniors briefed and Chair Paul Main had taken the day off work to do the final touches for what should have been the start of a rebuilding of the club from the bottom up. Sadly, the tenants of the site where the courts were based, Riley’s, had other ideas and at midnight on Tuesday had gone into a pre-packed administration and whilst the majority of its other snooker sites reopened with barely a flicker of a bulb, Dunstable Squash Club’s home was not one.

The club stared into the abyss. Paul recalls, “I was sitting having lunch in Berkhamsted with my wife when the call came that the club was shut and there was a notice on the door asking people to contact the liquidators. It was a huge shock and setback.”

Frantic phone calls followed and an open meeting was organised for all the known stakeholders of the site. There were snooker, darts and dominos teams in addition to four distinct squash groups; a midweek group who played in the County league, two Saturday teams, a group of players loosely known as the Wednesday Club and Dunstable Squash Club. It soon became clear that there was a real will by the majority of squash players to merge to form one united group to launch a campaign to reopen the courts. The local MP, Kelvin Hopkins, was enlisted as was the squash legend Peter Nicol to fight for the cause. From this Luton and Dunstable Squash and Rackets Club was born (LDS).

Dunstable Squash club was formally wound up with all the assets being transferred to the new club and a new Committee was created ensuring that all the interested stakeholders were represented. Despite the facilities being in a state of flux, the committee, if not the membership, had belief that the courts would reopen and rather than focus solely on that campaign, acknowledged that in the preceding years all had been culpable of complacency and to a certain extent neglect, so undertook to continue the work started by Dunstable and invested in coaching and in juniors. Steve Davies, LDS Head Coach (L3) said, “Despite playing at number 1 for the Monday night team and being number one in the County I was absolutely unaware that the infrastructure had decayed to such an extent. It was a real shock and it was clear that had to be reversed.”

It soon became clear that Riley’s did not own the site, but were merely tenants of a local authority owned building, which they had singularly failed to invest in (subsequently it transpired there was legionella rife in the building along with large amounts of asbestos). The campaign then began in earnest to firstly, gain access to the building for squash, and then subsequently get some sort of investment into the site to get it properly opened.

Various meetings took place and it soon became clear that Luton Borough Council were keen to do something with a vastly underutilised facility which had degenerated into a glorified drinking den and Active Luton, the charitable trust who deliver all of Luton Borough Councils Leisure provisions, were charged with working with LDS and exploring other possible partners to see what could be done with the site.

First of all the club was shut to make it safe and watertight, then it was essentially handed over to LDS to run, purely as squash courts with barely functioning showers, no heating to speak of and no refreshments. Paul Tippett, club secretary said, “The transition period was truly awful at times, especially when we had a couple of cold snaps and the showers were not working. Some nights the courts were simply unplayable, even using blue balls which we were kindly sent by East Region. Things looked really bleak at times.”
Unbelievably whilst adult membership was reduced to a hard core rump of the most committed (or was it mad?) players, the juniors started to grow from the handful in 2009 up to around 40 and the club had started to deliver mini squash courses to local schools to such acclaim that there was a clamour to get the club coaches back. Sadly, the loss of the School Sports Partnership when there was a change in government meant that activity ceased until recently, when Steve Davies, was asked to deliver a course to 140 children in a local school. John Stevens the junior co-ordinator opined, “It’s funny looking back now recalling the youngsters turning up in sweaters and gloves but at the time it wasn’t a barrel of laughs for us. Thankfully, the kids loved it and have kept coming”.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom at adult level as the team managed to win the County title in season 2009/10 and had a weekly column in the local press. The club also ran several successful adult participation programmes on behalf of the County Sports Partnership, including ones targeting the large Pakistani/Bangladeshi community in the town, but sadly the retention rate was poor, mainly due to the inhospitable conditions.

In July 2011, the long awaited announcement came that Active Luton, in partnership with ES&R, the Amateur Boxing Association and Luton Borough Council had secured funds to redevelop the site as a multi-sports venue with squash as a key component, initially with 5 courts, two glass back with moveable tins, and potentially a sixth if the demand was proved. The comparatively short period that followed provided the club with a different set of challenges as it was taken as read adults could “fend for themselves” for a few months, it was imperative to keep the juniors going and the on-going uncertainty regarding the nearest local courts in Houghton Regis meant that for a time even that looked unlikely.

However with a new year came a new dawn and the site reopened to great acclaim on 16th Jan 2012 with a Civic Opening Ceremony performed by Kelvin Hopkins MP on 6th February 2012. In his speech he paid tribute to the squash community for it’s campaign to save the site and disclosed that whilst he never played the game, his wife had in her younger days. Now the club is focussed on delivering it’s 3 year Development Plan which includes aims to host PSA and BSPA events as well as ES&R Sanctioned events. Already it has hosted a Junior Academy Squad session and James Willstrop was there to witness the team victory as he signed copies of his new book. With his father Malcolm set to follow suit with a visit and a coaching and exhibition day with Peter Nicol in the pipeline and the announcement that rising star Adrian Waller has joined the club, these are exciting times for the club.

James said, “What struck me when I entered the club was the real feel of community on the site. Mick Todd my manager had told me about the potential of the site from his visit two years earlier and in many ways it reminds me of how Pontefract was. Clearly lots of people have put a lot of hard work into the facility and hopefully they can repeat the success of Pontefract in the coming years.”

click on www.ldsquash.com

report by Paul Main