They just don’t get it

J. Prean (2002)

My article ‘La grande illusion’ brought an early if unconvincing reply from E.T.T.A. spokesman Brian Halliday, a 2 page insert, confirming the impression that T.T. news is little more now than the propaganda organ of the E.T.T.A. management committee and its chairman. My piece was originally written for T.T. news and Brian, to his credit, had no problems with it, but his management colleagues banned it. So much for freedom of speech in our sport and the astonishing claim that there is no censorship! What is permitted, indeed welcomed seems a mixture of blandness and boasting produced in the hope that readers are unable to think for themselves. Readership numbers continue to fall with the rise in self praise. It is doubly sad that the E.T.T.A. management committee, in what will probably be its last full year in office, should wish to suppress what was a mild and constructive effort by a former chairman of the E.T.T.A. to improve matters. It shows how they have lost touch, such basic rights as ‘freedom of expression for others’ sacrificed.

I related how vast sums of lottery money, granted to us by Sport England, were spent on a single, little residential training unit within what was otherwise a Watersports Centre, itself much criticized. The basic idea of taking very young children from the parental home to turn them into table tennis professionals with uncertain prospects seemed to me unsound in theory and in practice. One wonders what glittering promises and illusions were at work to commit to such a future. Already I have seen young players return home a few years later, broken and disillusioned, some lost to the sport forever. They had been stars in their local scene, their youthful skills celebrated in the local press in league and county. The resulting individual heartbreak may be imagined, the loss of such talent to local associations adding a further poignant dimension.

Some tell me that the price is worth paying, if the elusive English world champion emerges. I cannot agree either in human or sporting terms. I have yet to see a player of genuine international quality produced by the ‘academy’ at either junior or senior level. Our only junior medal in the recent ‘academy’ years was the bronze won by Andrew Baggaley in the European Youth Championships, but he is not a resident of the Academy. I can recall 12 medals in the same event won by just one player over six years. He lived at home and the academy concept had not even been thought about. There were plenty of others who won medals in this definitive junior event. They were coached by free lance coaches and parents and attended occasional England training camps. All this was achieved on a relative shoestring. The results of our senior teams are frightening. Where once, on much less money, we regarded anything less than a top 4 place as failure, today we are in the second category of European nations outside the top 12.

The teams Chairman Ransome inherited were of the highest class. By 1994 both teams were still in semi-final places. In 1997 we got the Ransome Plan with the title ‘Being the Best’ which now seems deeply ironic. From then on it was downhill all the way. Leading players, able to win at the highest level, seemed to disappear almost overnight, as did good English coaches like Don Parker and Kevin Satchell. ‘Designer Label’ foreign coaches appeared. No one bothered to ask the vanishing players why they were retiring. The simple question ‘Why?’ remained unanswered. They all left of their own volition, Brian tells us. This was certainly not the case with my own son. Life was just made impossible for him until he saw no choice. He was still winning plenty of matches, which today we don’t often manage. Others must speak for themselves.

The relentless march towards rock bottom continued. It saw our teams relegated in the European Championships of 2000. In the World Championships of 2002 our men finished 20th and our women 34th. The official view now is that our teams will not meet the modest target of 24th place in either the Europeans this year or the World Championships of 2003. The Ransome plan will then be in its 6th year. The vast sums poured into the single academy project, which is so expensive, have deprived the sport of the seed-corn for growth and success. What is spent on the single academy could have financed ten centres of excellence where professionals and volunteers could have worked side by side, where a real British league could have been created, where the mass exodus of British players to foreign clubs could have ended. Young players would have practised and learnt while living at home. Local associations would have benefited. A real renaissance could have begun; building on the solid base that existed. Instead we got the Ransome plan. Instead of the renaissance we got the academy, instead of the hundred flowers that should have bloomed we got just one wilting one. And still Chairman Ransome and his colleagues don’t get it. They just don’t get it. They tell us that all is wonderful and well, that soon even the Swedes will copy us by starting an academy just like ours. I hope so, because then THEY will be 20 years behind the times and we may be able to beat them. In the meantime we have thrown away our great opportunity on an anthill of dogma.

Let me be entirely constructive now. How do we get out of this mess? It was easy enough to describe it, as it is so obvious. We must go back to Sport England with a plan, which will benefit the whole table tennis family, grass roots and elite players. We must abandon the failed Ransome plan of 1997 and begin again under a new chairman. By 2003 Ransome will have been in power for 12 years and we shall never get back those 12 wasted years. We must resolve that we have gone backwards as far as we can and that now the only way to go is forward, that it is the Chairman’s duty to serve the members, not try out pet theories on them. Recent ministerial announcements indicate a belated recognition of the volunteer ethic, of the importance of the grass roots, that top sport needs, more than anything, the firm base we now so clearly lack. Our members will have the unique opportunity in 2003 of drawing a line under the culture of failure and to make a new start.

Published in SportBreak magazine April 2002.