Profile: The big noise of squash: Jonah Barrington - Owen Slot studies the qualities of a sporting legend who is keen to put officialdom in its place

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The Independent Online
TWENTY-ONE years after his last great triumph, Jonah Barrington, the most successful British squash player ever, can be found, for hours every day, still stalking the courts. He is now 53 and shackled by a limp, but though the body weakens, no punishment that time can mete out will ever shake his resolve, the element which won him six British Open titles. For, as he says himself, there were far more talented players around.

Barrington's career was a victory for the man of limited means. He was the inspiration for many then, as he still is now for the proteges who are graced with his presence on court. But you would have to go to Holland to see him in action, for there is no place for Barrington in the British game.

There was until last December, when his five-year role as the director of excellence with the Squash Rackets Association was deemed further to requirements. What the suits who dismissed him hardly expected was his nomination, last week, to join their company as the Association's head.

Barringtonwas furious when his contract was not renewed but his ambition to become SRA president is born neither of revenge, nor of an ego in need of a massage. It is pure affection for the sport that has thrown him into the fight; squash in Britain is sick and he sees it as his duty to nurse it back to health. It was he, after all, who helped it come of age.

Much of Barrington's good work is still there. As a director of excellence he has taken Britain to the verge of greatness: there are at present 23 British professionals in the world's Top 50, most of them young and with the potential to improve. What infuriated Barrington about the SRA's decision was that here was the class of the future, nurtured to excellence, scaling the heights of the world game, and just as they approach its peak, they were robbed of the mentor who had talked them through every step of the climb and left to go the distance unguided.

This is no exaggeration. Barrington has worked with some of these boys since 1979 when he started running national junior squads. When funding from the SRA ceased temporarily, the squads started to live not only off his knowledge, but out of his own pocket too. Knocking around in his under-10 classes in those early days were both Peter Marshall and Simon Parke, now the top two in Britain, but both missing his influence. 'I'd like to see him now,' Parke said. 'If only to have a feeding session before the season begins. Even then his electrifying enthusiasm comes right through.'

So much for the healthier side of the game. The debit lies in the bank balance: a deficit in the last tax year of nearly pounds 100,000 thanks in part to a reduction in the Sports Council's grant, but also to the sport's credibility which has dipped so low that its national league cannot find a sponsor. Barrington was one of four SRA employees squeezed out in the resultant belt-tightening; he argues that the image crisis would best be solved by a champion or two, which is the area in which he can be most helpful.

Among Barrington's less well- known achievements is a book, Murder on the Squash Court, which is not an account of his recent treatment at the hands of the SRA, but a flashback to his greatest matches. 'Murder' refers to the way he would win, not through superior skill, but through what he calls 'boxing with rackets', through stamina, relentlessly keeping the ball in play, grinding away at his opponents, waiting for their physical and mental defences to break and then going in for the kill. As a coach, he loathes his players 'going cheap' - losing a point through going for a winner because they do not have the mental strength to extend the rally and go for the kill when appropriate.

His professionalism, an eternal attempt to maximise his resources, is what he hopes will revolutionise the SRA. In the mid-Sixties, in a sport where his peers could be both cavalier and rotund yet still successful, his attitude caused its own revolution. 'I won through fitness rather than through talent,' he says, and this stemmed from an unprecedented training schedule and his infallible application to the cause. In 1966, after winning his first British Open championship, he did some press- ups and then, as the champagne was passed round, discussed his plans for Christmas training runs along his home cliffs of Morwenstow in Cornwall.

Such dedication fired an unquenchable desire to win. Michael Corby, for many years No 2 to him in Britain, remembers how Barrington cried after defeat in the quarter-finals of the world championship in Australia in 1967. 'He cried because he cared so much,' Corby said. 'I used to say to him that of life's many facets, he only had one and he should lighten up. But who is to say that I was right?'

Not that Barrington was ever poor company. With Corby,as they travelled the international circuit, he shared an affinity for late nights ('We used to enjoy cowboy films, let's leave it at that,' said Corby) and, with a resultant affinity for late mornings, would entertain his peers with the blasphemous variations of 'Do not disturb' he would leave on his hotel doors. But little caused them more amusement than his early exit from the BBC's Superstars competition; Barrington had paid a pounds 500 fine to leave the squash circuit and compete, but had joined them rather sooner than intended. He had been coming second until a disagreement over squat-thrust technique provoked a howling argument. The army officer detailed to count his thrusts had faulted a number of them, Barrington, his belligerence levels rising, said that if you discount one, you discount them all. On came David Vine who failed to calm the situation but instead encountered the sort of hurricane better associated with his snooker days and Barrington was on the next plane out. 'The lid came off my head,' he recalls in amusement. 'I had what I call one of my Celtic tantrums.'

Barrington was entertaining, but also so headstrong and articulate that he became the mouthpiece for his fellow competitors. Aware that squash was a hidden sport, he used his prominence to change the structure of the game, setting up the professional players' association in 1973, the year he last won the British Open, and, in the eight years that he chaired it, overseeing a boom in playing numbers and sponsorship and bringing television to the court-side. His achievements have inspired benevolence as well as affection. 'In my eyes we all owe him,' says Hidayat Jahan, for some years the world No 3 behind Barrington and Geoff Hunt. 'Because of him we are making what we are making. He has done a great job.'

Little of this could have been expected of the adolescent who discovered rebellion at Cheltenham College, left Trinity College Dublin with little to show for his two years bar failed examinations and an affection for Guinness (he was accused of being 'infrequently sober') and who, in the next four years, drifted through a number of jobs and picked up a petty larceny conviction when he and a friend were caught trundling 'borrowed' wheelbarrows down Earl's Court Road. Certainly his acolytes pushing to fill his shoes would not be allowed to follow such an agenda; from them he demands the commitment and professionalism that have marked all his post-Earl's Court years. Among them, his coaching catchphrase, 'Squeeze', has become something of a joke. It means that Barrington wants tighter ball positioning, but also that he is demanding that every last iota of energy is plundered.

What he achieves are undying loyalty - players still ring him even though they are no longer under his wing - and motivation. After Parke had won a match in his first world championships, in Singapore in 1989, there was no commendation from Barrington and instead he was left with a flea in his ear for missing his first match point. Parke thought this harsh treatment but, with hindsight, believes he learnt a good lesson - Barrington felt he had gone cheap.

It is these motivational powers, if none other, that Barrington knows he can bring to the SRA. As a figurehead and public relations man, let alone as a coach, many believe it is wasteful to leave him out in the cold. After all, it was a group from within the SRA itself that approached him and asked him to stand.

Against him will stand the present incumbent, Sir Michael Edwardes, the former British Leyland head, and though the disputed presidency is an unpaid role, Barrington is still determined. Again, it is his affection for the game that guides him. 'The game's been very good to me, it's given me a fantastic life.'

At present, his fantastic life continuing abroad, he talks about the presidency with some inevitability, 'I believe the time has come,' he says. If it does, he will be 'a very very active president' and, you can be sure, he'll squeeze the most out of his term in office.