WHEN Danny Reed was a pupil at Hutton Rudby Primary School in North Yorkshire, he watched a demonstration from Ormesby Table Tennis club that featured a young England international called Paul Drinkhall.
The sight of Drinkhall flying around the table, slicing balls left, right and centre, captured his interest, and convinced him to pester his parents to take him to Ormesby’s training base, which is on Cargo Fleet Lane in Middlesbrough.
Fast forward more than a decade, and Reed is about to link up with Drinkhall again. This time, however, the pair will be team-mates on England’s Commonwealth Games squad, looking to improve on the silver medal they claimed together in the team competition in Delhi four years ago.
They will be joined by Stockton’s Karina Lefevre, another Ormesby graduate, as the strength of North-East table tennis, and particularly the region’s flagship club on Teesside, is revealed for all to see.
All three North-Easterners will travel to Glasgow with realistic hopes of claiming a medal, yet had it not been for a chance encounter in a primary school sports hall, at least one of them would not have been making the trip.
“It’s funny to look back all those years and think of Paul coming into our school to show us what table tennis was all about,” said Reed, who was promoted to the England ranks at the age of 14 and has been a senior international for seven years. “I remind him of it every now and then to make him feel like a bit of a star!
“To be fair, he was a bit of a star to us all back then. He was an England international, playing all over the world, and the rest of us in the club wanted to emulate him.
“I certainly tried to follow him along, and I think having him there to aim towards was a big part in me making it as far as I have.
“I remember when we won the European Youth team title together in 2007, that was a massive thing for us. Two lads from the North, taking on players from right across Europe and winning for their country. It felt like we were doing something special.”
In the last few years, the pair’s careers have diverged, with Drinkhall competing in domestic leagues in Germany and Belgium while Reed has travelled to Vienna to live and play.
His Austrian club side is overseen by former German head coach Richard Prause, with his training group including players ranked in the top 15 in the world rankings.
It is an enviable environment in which to hone his skills, although the decision to leave his former base in Sheffield was taken out of his hands when UK Sport’s funding of table tennis was withdrawn in the wake of the 2012 Olympics.
The English Table Tennis Association received £1.2m towards creating a British team for London 2012, but when that team failed to challenge for a medal – hardly a surprise given the strength of opposition from some of the more established nations, especially in Asia – the decision was taken to withdraw all support in the build-up to Rio 2016.
The move effectively meant the end of English Table Tennis’ former high-performance base, and left the nation’s leading players with some difficult decisions to make.
“We knew the funding was going to be cut, but I don’t think any of us thought it would be slashed right down to zero,” said Reed. “It basically meant that if we wanted to carry on playing at anything like international level, we were going to have to move abroad.
“It’s been a real challenge, but it’s also been really good. I’ve ended up in an environment that’s way better than anything I would have had at home.
“I’m training twice a day every day during the week, and then playing high-quality matches at a weekend. It’s a really big group, so you get a lot of variety in your training and that’s important.
“I’ve got an Austrian girlfriend through table tennis, and I’m pretty settled over there now. It’s been a great move personally and for my table tennis.”
As well as competing in the team event in Glasgow, Reed will also link up with Sam Walker in the men’s doubles and Kelly Sibley in the mixed doubles event.
The absence of China, Germany and Belarus means none of the world’s top ten men will be competing in the Commonwealths, but the squads from Singapore, Malaysia and India will be strong.
Nevertheless, Reed will head to Glasgow targeting a medal in all of his events, with England having finished fourth on the table tennis medal table in Delhi.
“The Commonwealth Games are massive for us,” said Reed. “Realistically, we’re never going to challenge for medals at the Olympics, and the World Championships are just as tough. But the Commonwealths are a big event that give us a chance of coming away with medals.
“They’re going to give us even more publicity and exposure this year because they’re taking place in Glasgow and hopefully people will get behind them.
“Paul did a lot to raise table tennis’ profile when he did so well at the Olympics – hopefully we can build on that with some more good performances this summer.”