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September 29, 2010

David and Goliath of ping pong

30 years ago, the Drumchapel Table Tennis club pinged its first pong in a down at heel community hall. Since then its progress has been nothing short of phenomenal. British champions for the past two years, their success has clearly ruffled the feathers of the table tennis establishment. As Drumchapel begin the defence of their British crown, the opposition being lined up is effectively the 2012 Olympic squad

On one side stands a tiny but heroic amateur club from Drumchapel, the socially disadvantaged council scheme in Glasgow once described by Billy Connolly as a “desert wi’ windaes”. On the other side, there is the combined might of the players tipped to represent the UK at the London 2012 Olympic.

With the odds stacked against them, Drumchapel Table Tennis Club would not be facing such an uneven match if the players had not managed to seriously ruffle the feathers of rivals in England over the last few years, becoming British champions in the process.

However, club founder Terry McLernon and his players are ready to tackle the “big beasts” of table tennis now standing between them and the continuation of their remarkable story.

“I first heard about the plans when I saw it on the English Table Tennis Association website,” said McLernon. “It looks as if we upped the ante last year by winning all our games because it is effectively us against the Olympic Development programme for London. I have been getting comments like, ‘That’s it over now, the English are out to get you’.

“It’s a back-handed compliment, especially when you consider where we have come from as a club,” he smiles.

The story begins when Drumchapel Table Tennis Club was formed in a one-storey community hall below the estate’s tower blocks by local teenager Terry McLernon back in 1989. A self-confessed trouble-maker, McLernon might have gone the way of many of his contemporaries in the hard-bitten housing scheme had he not found hope in the unlikely sport of table tennis.

Twenty years later, McLernon’s club found itself making waves around the world when, in 2008, it completed a remarkable transformation, seeing it move from the back streets of Glasgow to become the first Scottish club ever to be crowned the champions of Britain.

It was a stunning rise from nowhere by an outfit still based in an area blighted by crippling unemployment, above-average teenage pregnancy rates and alcohol, drugs and violence.

The fairytale continued last year when the club, which once had to ban rowdy teenagers for throwing bats at each other, won every match on the way to a second championship.

McLernon was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year honours list for his service to sport and community.

The progressive Glasgow outfit is still based in the same one-storey community hall, however, and helps local police combat street crime in the area.

Now, it seems, English table tennis has had enough of the Drumchapel fairytale and is set to unleash what is, effectively, the UK table tennis squad for the 2012 London Olympics against the Scottish upstarts.

While McLernon’s part timers get their title defence underway this weekend in London using a tight-knit group of players with day jobs, their rivals in the game, English club Barrow, will field a full time, professional “super-team” of future stars – all on four-figure British Table Tennis Federation funding as part of Team GB’s Olympic development squad for 2012.

On the squad is English number one Paul Drinkhall, who is permanently based at the world-class Institute of Sport complex in Sheffield, owned by Sport England and used by stars such as heptathlete Jessica Ennis.

Twice a runner-up in the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award, Drinkhall is a triple European champion and GB’s best table tennis medal hope in 2012.

English number three Darius Knight is known as the sport’s Lewis Hamilton. Sponsored by iconic sports fashionwear brand Fred Perry, the Londoner starred in BBC’s Olympic Dreams documentary and in a recent Nintendo Wii advert.

The third arm of the super line-up, Scottish number one Gavin Rumgay, is also on course to bat for GB in two years’ time.

The might of the opposition, described by Barrow manager Tristran Swan as “better than the English national team”, has stunned officials from Drumchapel.

“Guys like Paul Drinkhall are basically the top men in Europe at the moment,” said McLernon.

“They are full time, with a structure behind them and the facilities and expertise in Sheffield.

“We are trying to be as professional as we can all the time but our guys still have to work for a living and train at night time.”

When Drumchapel started out, they had one battered table and two borrowed bats.

Today, the club produces Scottish internationals, has introduced a visionary coaching programme into all Drumchapel’s schools, and an estimated 300 players pass through the club doors every week.

PE student and Scottish internationalist Craig Howieson knows “The Drum” face a tough fight to win the title again in the wake of the player announcements from Barrow. However, his attitude is: “Bring it on.”

“I think someone had to do something to try to stop us,” said Howieson. “Even with their best team against ours, it would still be a very close contest.”