KEVIN TAYLOR is on a one-man crusade to boost the popularity of table tennis in Stratford, reports Peter Florence.
The Stratford-upon-Avon Table Tennis League was established in 1968 and grew to seven divisions.
However, the past two decades have seen a steady decline and in recent seasons there has only been a single division of between 14 and 16 teams.
Several factors contributed to this, including the closure of businesses – who had entered their own teams – and reduced numbers of youngsters taking up the game which has meant that a large proportion of the current players are retired.
However, things are now changing and that is largely down to the efforts of one man on a mission.
Taylor is determined not only to buck the trend, but to greatly boost the popularity of table tennis within the town.
“I want to deliver an affordable activity to all residents of Stratford regardless of their age, gender and ability,” said Taylor, who was previously a member of the JLM club in Evesham where they had greatly increased the number of active participants in the game.
Taylor’s quest began last year when he noticed players in action on a table in Bell Court.
After establishing it had been organised by the shopping centre’s management company, he offered to help and spent his weekends encouraging people to play and providing basic coaching.
Taylor soon realised that there were a number of frequent attendees who were keen to play regularly if a suitable venue could be found.
He approached Stratford Town Trust with the idea of establishing a club and was offered the use of Foundation House, together with financial support for the first three months.
A number of second-hand tables, together with other equipment, were purchased and sessions commenced on Friday evenings.
Initially they were well supported, but by May 2019 numbers had reduced as the premises were never intended for competitive sport on hot summer evenings.
Far from being discouraged, Taylor relocated to Stratford Leisure Centre and hasn’t looked back.
Sessions are held on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings and are open to all, with about 40 players regularly attending.
Taylor was determined to enter a team into the Stratford League, both to give the newly-formed club official status and to address the decline in the number of league teams.
However, he found that rather than just a single team, he had enough players wanting to play competitive table tennis to register four.
Club members come from different backgrounds; some have taken up the game again after an absence of many years, some have joined from other teams, but many have just discovered the game and are in their first season.
Perhaps most encouraging of all is the number of youngsters who have signed up and are making great strides.
However, the newly-formed club is also having a much wider impact within the town.
They provide weekly coaching at Thomas Jolyffe School which, from January, will be the first school in the country to participate in TT Kidz, an eight-week programme supported by Table Tennis England.
Also from next month, regular coaching will be provided at Stratford High School while the club are returning to Foundation House to support Warwickshire Pride.
For the casual player, the original table in Bell Court has been supplemented by six others which will be reappearing in prominent positions around the town once the winter is over.
Taylor says table tennis is back in town in a ‘big way’ and stressed this is just the start.
He added: “I want to have at least six teams in the Stratford League, thereby making it big enough to create two divisions, whilst we are hoping to bring national events to the town which will put it firmly on the table tennis map.”
The first of these is set for 4th and 5th July 2020 when VETTS, an over-40s group, will be holding their national ranking event and AGM.
Some 300 competitors, together with officials and supporters, will descend on Stratford with play taking place on 36 tables at the leisure centre.
At the festive break the club’s senior team proudly sit on top of the league and, judging by the rapid progress made since they were established just a few short months ago, it would be no surprise if they lifted the title in their inaugural season.