“I ACTUALLY found this bat,” says Ernie Howell, brandishing a well-worn paddle and shaping to hit an imaginary backhand “it was well-used then.”
The former Link Centre table tennis coach doesn’t struggle for nostalgia. Sitting in his front room, he’s dug out all his old clippings from his playing days, plus all his coaching certificates and badges. He willingly volunteers to get his trophies down from the loft, an offer that is politely refused, the man’s 80 years old but he could be at least 10 years younger.
Howell tells how using the found bat he developed from a promising junior at the Jenning Street branch of the Marlborough College Boys Club into a decent player in Division Four of the Swindon League. The British Railways Athletic Association then poached Howell age 16 and had him play them for them in the First Division.
“The first year I played didn’t win a game but the second year I won 50 per cent of my games, I improved quite quickly.”
Howell won his first Swindon Championship in the 1959/60 season, going on to win it for five consecutive years.
“I won a lot of trophies in Swindon, like doubles, mixed doubles, handicap singles and all sorts of things. Also during that period I went to play in the Wiltshire tournaments and I played for Wiltshire as a county player, I also captained the league team once or twice.”
Howell was recruited in 1963 by the Swindon director of coaching Jack Carringdon, who was forming an English table tennis development programme. Carringdon signed the then Swindon champion up for his basic coaching certificate and took him around the country as his assistant.
“I enjoyed building up my coaching, I developed my own technique which was needed.”
Howell was still a player then but became more involved with coaching, becoming coaching officer for Swindon. He reckons over his career he’s coached more than 500 table tennis players.
Howell continued coaching, travelling around the country, much to the chagrin of his wife Joan.
“I was out an awful lot and she’s been very understanding really over the years. Now it’s the time I forget about all that (coaching) and concentrate on her.”
Eventually Howell did find a job closer to home.
“It was about 30 years ago when the Link Centre started up and they advertised for coaches. I went forward as table tennis coach and they gave me the job. To start with there was nobody there and we had to build up from nothing.
“When I started at the Link, they said ‘look, you’ve got eight tables there’, but they were stuck down a side with about a metre to play behind. I said, ‘this is no good’ and forced them to put them in the main hall where we’ve been ever since.”
Howell soon had 30 young players playing in two leagues and training twice a week. Thing have fallen away since its heyday but his marathon five-hour Friday night sessions were running up until his recent retirement.
“I decided if I didn’t leave it off it would leave me off. It was getting hard work to play, I found that I would be losing to a player that I used to beat. I used to beat everybody in Swindon, hardly ever lost a game.”
You can sense the Howell’s competitive edge has hardly dimmed since his five-year championship streak.
Having been involved with table tennis since 1946, Howell has seen the game change markedly over the years. The biggest change he’s had to adapt to is the bats.
“The game sped up with the new bats that needed very fast reactions at the table and were very spin-ny. You had to cope with the spins on the ball and put them on the ball yourself, because of that the defensive players drifted out of the game. The defensive players had to be exceptional to get anywhere near the ball.”
Being an all-round player helped Howell earn the respect of the players he was teaching the game to.
“When I was coaching I could still beat most of these players and I still had the respect of ‘that’s Ernie Howell and I’ll go down and have a few games with him.’”
Though he was a high standard player Howell liked coaching all levels. He’s worked with eight-year-old absolute beginners to senior county players, but he gets most satisfaction from the youngsters.
“I get major satisfaction from seeing the young players develop, seeing them stick at it and get better and better and start winning game and see who they are beating.”
“I think it’s fair to say that I do enjoy the company of the young people. That’s why I was in youth work, I enjoyed working with young people from an early age, seeing them develop sporting-wise. I’d play hours with them patting the ball back, it was no game for me but to them it means a lot.”
Knowing he has the respect of the players he is coaching is something that Howell takes obvious pride in, if you’d been as successful as Howell then that’s more than understandable.
“Giving demonstrations to youngsters, showing them how to do it, you know. I’d always try and do something to surprise them. I’d occasionally do the ball blowing, the one where you blow the ball back, you don’t hit the ball just ‘ph, ph, ph’,” Howell says with a look of mischief in his eye.
“The serious demonstrations I used to like as well, you get the player at the other end to do what you want them to do, so you can demonstrate your shots. You know what’s coming so you can move and play the shots back and you could see their faces like ‘cor, look at that’. Especially if I get right back from the table and start knocking them back which modern players can’t do.”
It goes without saying after 50 years of coaching that Howell enjoyed his job, but he also enjoys the recognition of being a public figure in Swindon for so long.
“I’m quite well-known in Swindon. I am truly happy with what I’ve done, I enjoy that being recognised, walk into Sainsbury’s and have someone say ‘Hello Ernie’. The wife says, ‘who’s that?’ You can’t go anywhere without being recognised by somebody.’ “I suppose I’m a bit of a extrovert, I love talking to people and I love my game.”