Gill Sherry

When Billy Main and his wife took their two boys on holiday to Center Parcs, little did they know the positive impact it would have on their future lives, not to mention the lives of countless other young boys and girls in North Ayrshire.

Chris and Richard had played in a table tennis competition and wanted to take up the sport when they returned home to Saltcoats. Their only option, though, was a very small club in a scout hut. So, Billy decided to set up a new club.

“This was in 2002. We looked at a facility and started off in a small hall at Auchenharvie School. They had two tables but they didn’t have any nets, it was just bits of wood across the tables!”

Billy then contacted Table Tennis Scotland and North Ayrshire Council and managed to secure funding of £1,000. Together with the chairman of Table Tennis Scotland, Terry McLernon, he hired a van and took a table tennis table to the primary schools of North Ayrshire to introduce children to the sport.

Interest in the sport escalated and so a bigger facility was secured at Auchenharvie Academy. But it was always Billy’s intention to make table tennis available to the whole of North Ayrshire.

“What we have now is a Table Tennis Centre at St Mathews Academy with 24 tables.”

North Ayrshire Table Tennis Club has since secured further funding through the Government’s Levelling Up Fund.

“We were the only sports club to get it,” Billy tells me, “because we play in the British Premier League… the UK’s top eight clubs compete to be British Champions.”

The funding was secured with the regeneration of Saltcoats in mind. Billy elaborates: “The other seven teams in the league come from all over the UK and we play all of them home and away. The matches are streamed live so the amount of publicity that North Ayrshire gets is second to none. We bring a lot of people here, it’s one of the best centres in Scotland.”

In the last month, since securing funding and purchasing new equipment, NATTC has hosted the Scottish National League, an internal match against Ireland, the North Ayrshire Open (the club’s flagship fundraising event), and Premier League matches.

“Over that period we have had 130 people booking hotels in the area. And, at the end of the season, we play in the British Premier League Cup, where all eight teams come together and play for the title. This year, it’s going to be held in Saltcoats.”

The event will take place during the weekend of 1st June – a definite date for the diary!

But it’s not just about Saltcoats, as Billy explains: “We have other venues and facilities. Going back ten years, the club was booming… so when the Portal in Irvine opened up, we started Irvine Table Tennis Club. That’s now a fully constituted club in its own right and used by many of our members. They have 14 tables and play on Tuesday nights.

“Then… last year we helped to start up Largs Table Tennis Club. With the support of Table Tennis Scotland and ourselves it’s a thriving club. That’s another fully constituted club and they play on a Wednesday night.

“We also have a club at West Kilbride. We received a grant from the Ayrshire Rural and Islands Ambition (ARIA) Fund. That club has been running now for seven years. We’ve produced Scottish champions from West Kilbride! We have nine tables there for a Friday night and it’s jam packed.”

On Thursday mornings (10am until noon) the Argyle Community Centre at Saltcoats plays host to an ‘inclusive’ table tennis session for over 16s. It’s part of their Bat & Chat scheme where people meet for a chat, a coffee, and a game (if they want one). There’s also a Bat & Chat session in West Kilbride for adults on a Thursday afternoon.

“We also have another eight tables in St Peter’s Church in Ardorssan and run a class for over 50s in there on a Friday afternoon as part of our Bat & Chat programme.”

Thursday nights at St Mathews are reserved for elite players, whilst Monday evenings is club night at the same venue, 6pm – 10pm.

NATTC donate their old tables to care homes, community centres and schools to encourage as many people as possible to get involved. And it’s important to remember that table tennis is not just good for physical health but for mental health too.

“We applied for funding through the Arran Community and Voluntary Service, for a mental health and wellbeing project, and we have qualified coaches who run classes for us as well.”

I’m finding it difficult to keep up with Billy and the progress that has been made since NATTC was first set up. It’s a fabulous success story and has helped so many people, young and old.

“We have in the region of 200 members now, both playing and non-playing members. We are open to everyone, we don’t knock anybody back at all. And anybody can come and watch.”

Audience figures can reach 500 at times. Not surprising when top players come from all over Europe to play in some of the tournaments. It’s free to watch and, for Premier League games, there’s a free buffet!

I ask Billy how much it costs to join the club.

“If you want to play, come along and borrow a bat. The first night is free and after that it’s £5 a night if you’re just walking in. If you stay, it’s £17 per month to join. If you just want to come along and play, that’s fine, but we also have a pathway to take you through playing for the club, playing Scotland events, and national events. Overall, about 5,000 kids have come through the club. We’ve produced 22 Scottish Champions within that time.”

Billy’s two sons are included in that figure.

“Chris now holds the record for winning the most league titles in the history of the Scottish National league,” he says, his pride unmistakable. “He’s a full time coach now and he’s still playing at the top level. It’s remarkable what he can do.”

Richard also played for Scotland many times and, together with Chris, won numerous Scottish titles. He is now a primary school teacher and no longer plays. Billy himself still plays, though, although he insists he’s not that good. I think he’s just being modest.

“All of the clubs have fully qualified coaches,” he continues. “Chris is the only full-time coach, the rest are volunteers. We put them through their coaching courses and pay for their licences etc.”

Billy is unabashed when he tells me that NATTC is the lowest ranked team in the Premier League: “The bottom two teams get relegated but we finished second two years ago and last year we finished third.”

That’s some achievement! But there’s more for Billy to shout about: “We’ve just won the Scottish National League again. We’ve now won it 10 times. We are the most coveted team… it was a major thing for us! And in 2014, we won the Scottish Sports Club of the Year!”

Billy has so much to be proud of, not least his two sons who made the whole thing possible.

“They acted as ambassadors because everybody looked up to them. On top of that, our drop-out rate is only 4%, because if you’ve got good coaches and a good environment, you’re onto a winner!”

I couldn’t agree more.