HISTORY reverberates throughout the corridors of the Connaught Club in Chingford.
manners and mores.
In these circumstances, it’s strange to discover that the club’s most famous member these days is a Scot. But there again, Peter Nicol now has the abbreviation “ENG” appended to his name wherever he performs, and will represent the Three Lions at next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Manchester, following his controversial “defection” or “switch” – depending on your point of view – away from his Inverurie roots earlier this year.
In the aftermath of his change of allegiance, the Scottish tabloids made their position perfectly clear on the issue, immediately branding Nicol as a “traitor”, and a “mercenary” who had sold his birthright for filthy lucre. The fact that the signs of his frustration had been there for the previous five years was conveniently ignored.
Yet if anybody expects Nicol or his close-knit family coterie to admit to pangs of regret over his decision, they will be sorely disappointed. When we met at the Connaught, and the 28-year-old chatted away briskly during a brief interlude in moving house from West Hampstead to Chingford – “Out of Kate Winslet country into Norman Tebbit territory” as he put it – Nicol was firmness and dignity personified in explaining why he has relinquished the opportunity to fly the Saltire in defence of his Commonwealth title.
“I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, ‘Sod Scotland’. Far from it. As far as I’m concerned, I am still Scottish and I am very proud of my background, but I’ve chosen to represent England in my profes-sional career,” said Nicol.
“The stark reality is that playing sport, be it squash, tennis, football or whatever, is a short-term option, and you don’t win any prizes for turning round at 35 and saying to yourself, ‘I wish I had done this or that’. Putting it simply, the authorities in Scotland couldn’t offer me the kind of package which would have allowed me to stay at No.1 in the world, and I wasn’t interested in slipping down the rankings while they sat on their backsides. For sure, I know deep down in my heart that if I collect the gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and I am standing on the podium listening to the English national anthem, it will be surreal, an incredibly weird experience, and I will probably have to pinch myself several times and try to stop shouting out, ‘You’re playing the wrong song’.
“But ultimately, if that happens, I will face up to it and accept my responsibilities. My dad won’t think any less of me, nor will my friends or the youngsters at the Peter Nicol Squash Centre in Aberdeen. Because the truth is that sportscotland is too pre-occupied with bureaucracy and I hate the situation where nobody will admit to blame for our recent slide down the world rankings. There used to be a culture where officials would resign if they messed up, and 100 years ago, people would shoot themselves if they made a serious mistake. Okay, I am obviously not advocating a return to those days, but please let’s not pretend that Scotland is pulling its weight in sport. We are not, and the structure for producing and sus-taining elite athletes up there is badly flawed at the moment.”
As if to illustrate his contention, Nicol ticked off a list of the benefits involved in being part of the England set-up. He has a coach and physiotherapist who travel with him to major events, access to free flights, a private health-care plan, state-of-the-art video analysis, and he has been proffered the use of all manner of sports pyschologists and scientists, whether from his base at the Connaught or at a network of other squash clubs across southern England.
“It adds up to a streamlined system which is night and day from Scotland and I would estimate it amounts to 40,000 a year, whereas the Scots were putting up less than a tenth of that sum,” says Neil Harvey, the canny London-born Eastender who occupies the twin roles as Nicol’s coach and manager.
“So you don’t exactly have to be a genius to understand why Peter has done what he’s done. Essentially, because he wants to remain at the highest level, he has to shell out a heck of a lot more money than players working their way up the ladder, which is a factor that seems to have been forgotten by the Scots. The dearth of support he was receiving was definitely dragging him down and allowing others to catch him up, and we have long since passed the stage where guts
and commitment and good old-fashioned gritting your teeth, a la Alf Tupper, are sufficient in themselves to cling on at the summit. Sport in these parts – and in Great Britain generally, not just Scotland – has been painfully slow to appreciate that.”
To his credit, Ian Robson, the chief executive of sportscotland, doesn’t underestimate the impact of Nicol’s loss. But nor does he absolve the player of blame in the embarrassing public spat which erupted between the two parties.
“On the sole occasion I met him, Peter stood up at a press conference and declared that the single most important thing he had ever done was winning the Commonwealth gold in Kuala Lumpur,” said Robson.
“So I made a point of approaching him, giving him my card and intimating to him that if there were any issues he was concerned about, he should pick up the telephone and ring my number. Well … here we are 15 months down the line and I am still waiting for that call.
“But I guess that is history and we have to look forward, even though anyone who pretends that Peter’s absence from our squad in Manchester isn’t a massive blow is talking nonsense. Of course we all recognise how difficult it it to find world champions who are born and bred in Scotland. But Peter isn’t the first person to change country and he won’t be the last.
“In cold terms, gold medals are for sale, and whether you raise the subject of Nigerian athletes coming to Europe or a Swedish billionaire buying up half of the New Zealand America’s Cup-winning team – which has sparked a absolute furore over there – there will be those individuals who primarily play for themselves and their families, and that is their prerogative.
“What was disappointing, however, and most hurtful was Peter’s statement, ‘I owe Scottish squash nothing’. What about his practice partners, the volunteers who stay behind and clean the courts, and those people in the north-east who have bolstered his career, be they sponsors, supporters or unpaid organisers of youth events? You can’t ignore these influences, so maybe Peter needed better guidance. But I suppose that is why he is a great sportsman and not an expert in the PR field.”
NATTILY dressed in a designer shirt,emblazoned with the fcuk logo, and laidback to a horizontal degree, Nicol doesn’t instantly strike one as a natural athlete, edging closer in appearance to Jamiroquai than Jesse Owens.
But in his case, looks are undoubtedly deceptive, given the fellow’s skill across the sporting gamut since he first started kicking a football around in Inverurie in the late 1970s.
As a 15-year-old in a north of Scotland cricket match against an adult team, he once struck a magnificent century in only the fourth match he had played. Whereupon, he trained with Aberdeen FC and was widely tipped to succeed in the professional ranks until his father, Pat, a PE teacher who himself had been offered trials with Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, advised him against joining the soccer trail “because it was just too precarious”.
At that juncture, Nicol was already proving himself a dab hand on the squash court, and gained significant help from Dr Eric Farr, the man who ran a coaching school in the north-east of Scotland and initially barred Nicol, then 12, claiming that he was too small. Soon enough though, Farr relented, and gradually became so convinced of his protege’s potential that he placed a 50 wager with Ladbrokes at 16-1 that Nicol would win the British Open Championship
by the time he was 25. Praise be, but in April 1998 – and amazingly on the very afternoon of his 25th birthday – that enduring leap of faith was duly rewarded. Yet sadly, Farr was not at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham to witness the 17-16, 15-4, 15-5 success over Jansher Khan. Instead, he had been stricken with Parkinson’s disease.
Not only was Nicol without his original muse on his greatest day, but he had also reached the first of many peaks without the help of another of his greatest supporters, his German-born mother, Sigrid, who passed away in 1992. That was an experience, says Nicol, which made him confront adversity and absorb the philosophy of ‘Seize the Day’.
Nicol has always had a straightforward approach to obstacles and challenges. Hence, not for him the dithering and procastination of those many sports personalities who have been afraid to fly since the atrocities of September 11. “Other people have had to get on with their lives, so why should we be any different?” he asks with ample justification. “This is my job, it is my present and my future, but I never forget that there are others, who have helped me along the path to World and Commonwealth championship glory, who haven’t been as fortunate as me.
Dr Farr was a terrific inspiration, because when you are a teenager, you never really have a clue how your life will pan out or where you might be 10-20 years down the road, but he pointed me in the right direc-tion. I sometimes wake up and reflect on how lucky I have been to be granted the chance to jet round the globe and be paid to play squash. But don’t forget I have also worked damned hard to be where I am today.”
Colleagues and rivals alike readily testify to the man’s stakhanovite relish for labour. Indeed, that industrious attitude may dwell in the Nicol gene pool if his father’s tireless endeavours to spread the squash gospel are any yardstick. “I didn’t start playing the game until I was 42, but as soon as I picked up a racquet I was hooked and so was Peter and his big sister, Julie [a former Scottish internationalist who plumped for academe rather than full-time sport],” says Nicol Snr, a gnarled senior citizen who can be tracked down at almost any hour of the day within
the Peter Nicol Squash and Fitness Club in Aberdeen’s Westhill area.
“In the beginning, it was a hand-to-mouth existence, and we were playing in this tiny hut with the most basic of amenities. But right from the start, Peter was the guy with this incredible passion and resilience, who just hated losing against opponents even if they were twice his age.
“I can recall that he was nicknamed the ‘Wee Man’, but any jokes cracked about his height – or lack of it – only stiffened his determination to prove that he was the best. Basically, he loved training and you had to drag him off the court, otherwise he would end up knackering himself. But you have to remember this was at a time when Scotland was producing all manner of sporting luminaries, from McColgan, Murray and McKean through to the Grand Slam rugby side and the likes of Aberdeen and Dundee United were still capable of serving up good per-formances in European football. So there was no shortage of role models. But tell me, where have they gone?”
Those may be his father’s words, but the sentiment is also a recurring theme in Peter’s dialogue and perhaps it’s in this context that his transfer to England should best be regarded. There is no question that his situation is intrinsically different to that of a Duncan Ferguson or an Andy Goram, pampered superstars with more money than IQ, men whose refusal to turn out for their country does not affect their wealth, health or happiness.
On the contrary, when quizzed with the so-called ‘Tebbit Test’, and pressed as to whom he would cheer on if Scotland met England in any sport, he replied without pausing: “Scotland.”
Yet, should you tax him further, Nicol, normally the most placid of characters, confesses to depression at the dearth of role models in Scottish sport and the absence of anything in 2001 to emulate Allan Wells in 1980 and David Sole’s rugby troops in 1990.
“I keep hearing the excuse we’re a small nation, but what’s that got to do with it. There are lots of small nations who achieve big deeds on the sporting front. And besides, Scotland has produced enough heroes in the past to make you wonder why the well is dry-ing up,” said Nicol. “From my perspective, there’s far too much emphasis shoved on football, but realistically that isn’t going to change. What has to be transformed, though, is the buck-passing, the red-tape and the layers of bureaucrats, because it’s just ridiculous that a country the size of Britain has all these different Sports Councils.
“Take my own example, whereby my father and I have set up this club in Aberdeen, cut out the middlemen and administrators, and the money goes straight to the players and coaches. If our policies end up failing, we won’t wring our hands and seek out excuses. No, we’ll put our hands up and admit that we screwed up.
“Personally, if it was my remit, I would tear up the existing development plans and introduce an urgent new programme for Scotland, designed to bring us success in 20 years. Whenever I am up there, I keep hearing that kids don’t like sport any more and that they are only interested in their Sony Playstations. That’s bollocks!
“If you catch the children at 5, 6 or 7, invest in the primary schools, educate them to eat the right things, instruct them in the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and encour-age them to make sport an integral feature of their lives, we will unearth champions, and we will also save a bundle of money on the NHS and help to rectify Scotland’s reputation as being the sick man of Europe.
“Actually, that’s what Pat and I have been striving to do in Aberdeen, and I would love to build on what we’ve achieved by creating a centre of excellence for the whole of the north-east, whether in squash, football, cricket or athletics, with corporate help and the backing of schools in the region. It won’t come to fruition overnight, but while I’m not pretending to be the best coach who has ever walked this earth, I think I know how to produce champions.”
Amidst his clocking up thousands of air miles, trawling from Malaysia to Australia, and Europe to Qatar (where he won his sixth tournament of the 2001 season at the start of October), and hungrily purchasing new DVDs – Nicol recently bought The Godfather trilogy to augment his other favourite films, Pulp Fiction, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Usual Suspects – he has been as good as his word in nurturing the next generation of stars, inviting talented 17-year-old Scot Alistair Gorrie down to the Connaught for a series of intensive coaching sessions which have patently had an evengelical effect.
“Peter is superb, he knows just about everything that there is to know about squash, and he is such a terrific motivator that it’s only once you leave the court that you notice how tired you are,” says Gorrie. “I suppose my eventual aim is to follow in his footsteps, but I don’t have any illusions that it will be an incredibly tough task, given the roll of honours on his CV.
“So, as to his switching to England, that doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I still respect him 100%. If anything, I maybe have even more admiration for him than I did before, because it was such an enormous step to make, and he must have been aware it would generate a big fuss and negative publicity in the media. All of us at Westhill feel the same.”
In the confines of the Connaught, there were scant few signs of the stiff upper lips cracking to shower Nicol with similar paeans. In any case, these last five years, whilst he has hoovered up titles, been awarded an MBE and enhanced the stature of his homeland across the globe, he has virtually been a Scotsman abroad, flitting from his London abodes to airport check-in terminals and thereby to a relentless schedule of court appearances. In 2002, for instance, there’s a newly-devised 20-tournament calendar, with campaigns in locations as far-flung as Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, the United States and Hong Kong to be fought on either side of the journey to sunny Manchester.
By that stage, Nicol should have regained his coveted numero uno slot at the World Open in Bombay in December, but in the next fortnight, he is relishing a rare foray to Caledonia for the Hanson & Robertson Challenge in Aberdeen from November 9-11, where he will appear with the Australian-born John White. The latter has recently assumed the mantle of Scotland’s leading player. And despite not quite belonging in Nicol’s exalted class, White shares a healthy rivalry with his erstwhile teammate, which ought to guarantee a stirring resumption of hostilities in Westhill. Yet, off the court at least, there seem to be no recriminations.
“We locked horns in Perth in June this year, and there was a lot of extra cheering for me,” said White. “But the crowds haven’t lost faith in Peter, because he grew up here and to achieve what he has done at 28 is remarkable. I lost out on that occasion, and it was evident that Peter had chosen to do his talking where it counted. From my perspective, he went to England for the business side of things, and good luck to him in his quest to retain his Commonwealth Games crown. I don’t believe I would ever put myself in that position, but who knows? When you are such a perfectionist as Peter is, you won’t kid yourself that things are fine when they are not.”
Quite whether everybody in the squash fraternity would agree that White would never put himself in Nicol’s position is another thing. Although he has a Scottish grandparent and represents Scotland, White only arrived in the country at the beginning of the year and is currently not allowed to represent Scotland in the Commonwealth Games. White’s argument – he is claiming to be Scottish on the basis of time spent in the country rather than on his atecedents – has been the subject of an on-going appeal, yet it would take a blind man to miss the irony inherent in the blithe acceptance of White by many of the same people who have openly castigated Nicol.
Yet White is right as regards Nicol, and there is plenty of evidence that he thought long and hard before switching to England. In seeking an escape from being permanently strapped for cash, Nicol’s long good-bye commenced not in March 2001, but in 1998 when he spoke to me at his eponymous club. “I received a letter from the Scottish Sports Council [as it then was] earlier this
year. It was a terse, one-line note, informing me that now I was the world No 1, I was being withdrawn from their list of talented athletes,” said Nicol. “Nice timing, don’t you think.”
As assessments go, this ranks with the man who turned down the Beatles or the American woman who claimed she hadn’t been propositioned by Bill Clinton. Yet, away from the sportscotland domain, few observers can fail to cheer that special alchemy of attributes which have driven Nicol to a stratosphere beyond the realms of those in the Hen-manesque mould. “How good is he? The best, there’s simply no question about it,” said Harvey, a chap not given to doling out extravagant plaudits or Hello-style platitudes. “The most important aspect is that he is very intelligent, he has a natural flair for ball games, and although you can maybe teach that over a prolonged period, Peter has it inherently. He is very honest, he never deludes himself, and we’ve had some pretty strong heart-to-hearts when we need to, but I don’t have to scream at him. His capacity for solving prob-lems is tremendous.”
In the months ahead, as Nicol plots a path to Commonwealth gold, there will doubtless be those who are willing to condemn him as a Judas who defected for financial gain. But that won’t count for a penny if he aspires to his ambition to emulate Jahangir and Jansher Khan by bestriding his
pursuit. Listening to Peter and Pat singing in unison, one can but marvel at this Khan-like dynasty’s ability to eschew the mundane.
Even if the spirits do rather sink at the prospect of Nicol standing to attention for St George next summer.