By Graham Thomas
Merthyr Tydfil’s sporting heritage is rich and well-documented, but a new chapter is being written thanks to an innovative tie-up between the town’s college and Table Tennis Wales.
The famous sporting sons and daughters of the old industrial town – such as boxers Howards Winstone and Johnny Owen, judoka Natalie Powell, footballer Mark Pembridge and netballer Chelsea Lewis – could soon be joined by the next generation of table tennis internationals.
But alongside the creation of a high performance hub for the sport and a table tennis academy based at Merthyr College, the partnership has also created a new community club for players of all ages and abilities.
The new table tennis facility at Merthyr College.
The idea is that the impressive new facility will prove popular, providing an inclusive community club in a town that before now has rarely been able to provide much at all for keen young players.
Some of Wales’ best table tennis players began using Merthyr College’s dedicated coaching facility in the build-up to last summer’s Commonwealth Games.
But the community club – with its focus on providing more sporting opportunities in an area where they can be hard to come by – was launched on St. David’s Day. It has been the result of collaboration with other partners such as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales, Disability Sport Wales, Street Games and Active Merthyr.
It will be running weekly on a Wednesday evening, and will benefit from the coaching input of Callum Evans, Wales’ number one ranked male player.
“Having this specialist facility locally has really helped to support me to further develop my table tennis skills,” says Callum.
“I especially like the fact that we have our own dedicated training space.”
Merthyr College – who already host a golf academy – hope that their table tennis academy will not only be a game-changer for young players, but also alter perceptions of the town itself.
“Parents who bring their children to visit this college tend to be impressed by the building,” says Simon Evans, director of data and performance.
“They will tell me they were expecting, a run-down school in a deprived area, but remark that this is fantastic.
“It’s about overcoming that ingrained opinion of what Merthyr is about. That is the hardest hurdle we face. So, the high performance unit has helped change those perceptions and so will the academy.”
For Table Tennis Wales, the partnership agreement with Merthyr College offers a high quality coaching facility, available to their best young players, but also one that opens its doors to the wider community to come and try the sport.
— Stephen Jenkins (@sjenkinsTT) March 25, 2022
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They might be young hopefuls who pitch up on a Wednesday, looking to take up the game for the first time, or adults who want to play the sport for its fitness benefits and sociability.
Owen Rodgers, chief executive of Table Tennis Wales, insists the strategy to grow the sport in Wales must do more than simply cater for the 28 existing clubs in areas relatively well-served in terms of sporting access.
“Support for our current clubs is a given, but there also has to be development outside of those clubs – and this is outside, here in Merthyr, where there has been no table tennis club,” he says.
“It is about us finding raw talent and developing it for performance objectives, trying to help those players go as far as they can.
“But we are also fulfilling our aims in terms of diversity and equality. That’s why we’ve linked with organisations such as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales, because they are doing exactly the same work.”
Tonight was the first session of our new community club in Merthyr College. The hall was full of children enjoying Table Tennis @sportwales @BGCWales @dsw_news @chwaraeonyrurdd @ActiveMerthyr @MsportsacademyC pic.twitter.com/cWoI7zCpnO
— Owen Rodgers (@owenrodgers4) March 1, 2023
The ingredients for success look promising – a modern, high quality hall and facilities, the energy of local youngsters, plus an inspiring young coach.
“We have got a great facility here, we’ve got the enthusiasm, and we just needed a well-known coach – in this case, Callum – who’s going to attract people,” adds Owen.
“We have set up a community club and a good measure of success will be how many are here in three months’ time.
“This could go wrong. But if you don’t have a go, you’re never going to develop stuff and we know there has definitely been a diversity problem in our sport, as there has been in others.”
For Simon Evans, the potential of finding the next Callum Evans – or Team Wales Commonwealth Games medal-winners, Charlotte Carey or Anna Hursey – as well as using table tennis to benefit the local area and college, makes it well worth the effort .
“A lot of our students have never been to Cardiff, unfortunately, and they probably couldn’t afford the commute to a college there,” adds Simon.
“But if they can walk in here and be the next Anna, or the next Charlotte, or the next Callum, that would be fantastic.
“That’s what it’s all about for me. You’re giving them the best education and improving the image of Merthyr as a town.
“And we are providing other academy students the chance to come to an area that they would have never considered.”