Keith Elliott at Large: Regeneration now the name of the game on squash island

Click to follow
IT WAS not much of a world final. The reigning champion, Michelle Martin, was far too good for Cassie Jackman, who was squished 9-1, 9-0, 9-6. As Martin executed another deft shot to leave the Norfolk girl stranded, a scholarly-looking man next to me in Guernsey's Beau Sejour Centre remarked: 'One of my boasts, that.'

He was not bragging (or at least, executing the kind of boast that non-squash players understand). And though it seems odd for a local maths teacher to be claiming some of the credit for an Australian win, it is an indication of the extraordinary influence that Reg Harbour has had.

He gave up coaching eight years ago. But waves created by the man who made Guernsey one of the centres of world squash still ripple through the game. His first pupil, the former England international John Le Lievre, has just returned to the tiny Channel Island (population, 59,000, with the second highest per capita car ownership in the world) with high hopes of reviving Harbour's success.

It is easy to devise facile answers for Guernsey's disproportionate achievements at squash. A taxi driver told me: 'It's because we have nothing much to do here, and no spectator sports, so we tend to play instead of watching.' Another put it down to the fierce competition with Jersey at everything from growing tomatoes to attracting tourists. A third attributed it to a love of sport. (I'm told there are 50 cricket teams on the island, though that's another story.)

But the real answer is Harbour. Single-handedly, he turned squash from an elitist sport played on one wooden court at St Peter Port's Elizabeth College into one of the island's most popular activities. Along the way, his unique coaching style generated champion after champion, including the former British Open champion, Lisa Opie and the 1989 world title-holder, Martine Le Moignan.

He learnt with Le Lievre, then 12-years-old. 'He wanted to get on, so I trained him. I didn't know anything about squash. I was a badminton player,' Harbour said. What appealed to his mathematical mind was the game's geometry. 'I liked the three-dimensional aspect, playing lobs and boasts. I was not a strong player, so approached it in a different way. My coaching was thought out from scratch. You won't find any of my methods in the Squash Rackets Association manuals.'

Unsure of how his pupil was progressing, Harbour and Le Lievre went to the Hampshire junior championships. Le Lievre, an unknown, won it. Soon others at the school wanted the same success - but with just one court, demand far outstripped supply. Four more courts were built on the site of the world's second oldest tennis club (it started in 1862) and Harbour gave up teaching in 1973 to run Kings Club and teach squash.

'On day one, we didn't have many members. But three weeks later, we were chock-a-block. We went from having 50 players to more than 500, and had to build another two courts.' This was the island's golden age. In a 1981 interview, Harbour concluded: 'There is irrefutable evidence that you are more likely to get into the England team if you come from Guernsey than if you come from anywhere else.'

So what was his secret? 'Well, I got them to play a very geometric game that would elicit a certain response from opponents. I would teach them strategies and plays, a bit like American football, where they would know what sort of rally they were trying to organise, and recognise a pattern. One shot brings a certain response, so the opponent was playing into their hands. It took a lot of the pressure off. We also spent a lot of time analysing opponents, and I would instruct my players to play against them in a certain way.'

Harbour left the sport in 1986. 'I got married, and I couldn't put the same time into it,' he said. 'But I never really coached much after it changed from wooden to metal rackets. I think they have been its death knell. They are just bashers now, especially in the men's game.'

The facts seem to bear his comments out. People have discovered less strenuous ways of staying fit. Squash popularity, except in the Far East, is generally declining. There is evidence that top players face being crippled for the rest of their lives. And the governing body, the SRA, is in turmoil, racked by financial trouble and having lost many of its top officials.

Even on Guernsey, hosting its first world event this week with the women's and team titles, things are in limbo. Two of the island's heroines, Opie and Le Moignan, have just retired. Yet Le Lievre is convinced he can bring back the great days.

After years on the pro circuit and coaching on 'the mainland', he wants to give something back to Guernsey squash, so he has come home to set up a Harbour-like teaching scheme at Beau Sejour. It starts on Monday. 'We've got one youngster who is the most exciting prospect I have come across, and as the programme gets going, I'm sure I'll find more. It's true the situation now is pretty low, but I don't see any reason why Guernsey can't be one of the great places for squash again.'

Harbour is back teaching, and does not watch squash much now. 'My dream was to take a Guernsey team and beat the Australians,' he said. Le Lievre believes it is still possible. And he is not boasting.