WHEN his hitherto dominant Drumchapel were deposed as Scottish National League champions last May, losing coach Terry McLernon only had himself to blame.
After all, without him North Ayrshire Table Tennis Club would not exist, never mind be of such stature that they could travel to the north Glasgow estate and dole out a remarkable 5-1 towsing to win the title in the final match of the season.
At least, that is the way Billy Main tells the story. The self-effacing founder of the Saltcoats-based club is not given to hubris so it is with some reluctance that he concedes his outfit are now among the biggest in the country just nine years after their formation. Even then, though, the 56-year-old refuses to accept the praise, instead embarking upon another tale about friend and mentor McLernon, the doyen of Drumchapel and chairman of Table Tennis Scotland.
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The scene was "a quiet wee old man's club" in Kilwinning to which Main had taken young sons Chris and Richard around a decade ago after they discovered the sport while on a family holiday. "All these old fellas weren't too happy about boys aged 14 and 11 being there but there wasn't anywhere else in Ayrshire," Main explains. "One night, Drumchapel were there for a fixture and Terry spotted the boys playing with these old battered wooden bats. So he gave them a shot of proper bats, watched for a few minutes, then invited them to the Drum to play."
Little did they realise it at the time, but that offer was the genesis of North Ayrshire TTC. Three times a week, Main would taxi the boys to Glasgow, but before long the demands of travelling and the growing number of local teens eager to fill the two empty spaces in the car brought about a realisation that he would be better served starting a club of his own in Ayrshire. "We managed to get a grant for £2000 and Terry and I got a van and a scabby old table and went round the schools to drum up interest," he recalls, laughing. "The first night was in Auchenharvie Academy in a wee gym with four wooden tables that were falling to bits. We would be lucky if 10 kids turned up."
Gradually, the numbers swelled and the facilities improved, culminating four years ago in a move to the new St Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats, where every Monday and Wednesday 16 tables are crowded with kids and adults alike as elite players play alongside absolute beginners. Besides that, nights are held in Stewarton on Tuesdays and Dalry on Thursdays with after-school sessions run every weekday except Friday, as the club attempt to reach as many of the local populace as possible.
Main estimates that in excess of 1000 players have been involved at some stage, each paying just £3 for the privilege. "It costs thousands to run a club but it always pleases me to see someone new walking ithrough the door," he insists of a community-focused strategy mirroring that employed in Drumchapel but without any of the funding that their rivals' deprived setting attracts.
"People have said we should up it to a fiver but we want to make it accessible to as many people as possible. The first time they come, we give them a bat and they don't pay because it's all about giving them a chance. I mean, if we didn't take 100 kids off the street every week they would be running about the place, maybe getting into bother, instead of learning a skill, meeting people and getting a huge self-esteem boost from representing the club."
As someone who helped Hyster Amateur Football Club to Scottish Cup success in the mid-80s, Main is well-versed in the social benefits of sport. Indeed, after 25 years with IBM, he has made it his vocation by spending the past six years as a caddiemaster at Glasgow Gailes and allowing Chris and Richard –who chose to forgo a potentially promising career as a footballer in favour of table tennis – to take on the coaching responsibilities at the club.
Both boys, now in their 20s, are among the top 10 players in Scotland and, despite their role in winning the Scottish League, still represent Drumchapel in UK-wide competition. The demands on their time, however, are substantial. "They're both trying to play, coach and work at the same time but, when they go into schools and do exhibitions, the kids look up to them. They are ambassadors for the sport down here," says Main. "Table tennis has educated them both as well as given them all sorts of opportunities and, although I've spent a fortune on it, I don't grudge a penny of it because of what they've both got out of it."