The Big Interview

Tony Rigby in his younger days
Tony Rigby in his younger days
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Craig Salmon talks to Preston Table Tennis stalwart Tony Rigby. In part one, Rigby recalls his formative years playing the popular sport

IT seems absurd to think that Tony Rigby could have been lost to the sport of table tennis before he had chance to master his favoured top spin forehand smash.

Preston Table Tennis stalwart Tony Rigby

Preston Table Tennis stalwart Tony Rigby

The local sporting stalwart is renowned as one of the finest players Preston has ever produced.

And not only that, he is perhaps the single most reason why the sport continues to thrive in the city due to his sterling work as a coach and administrator over the past 45 years.

However, his life could have taken a totally different course after receiving an unexpected knock-back as a youngster.

Like most players of his generation, Rigby – now aged 69 – was first introduced to the sport during his annual summer holidays to Butlins with his family.

A serial winner of competitions at destinations such as Pwllheli and Skegness, Rigby was earmarked as a bright young prospect, especially when he was invited to Butlins’ National Competition in Bognor Regis at the age of 15.

Eager to develop his skills and harness his talent, the young Rigby returned home to Preston looking for somewhere to play. His father Matt decided to take him along to Deepdale, who were considered to be the best club in Preston.

Situated in Lovat Road, Rigby’s first experience did not quite meet his expectations.

“My dad took me to Deepdale,” Rigby recalled.

“We went one Friday night and it always stands out in my mind.

“There were two lads playing there called John Lawson, who I later played doubles with and he also went on to play for Lancashire, and Peter Dixon.

“I remember going into the room where the table was and there was this old fella stood there.

“Well he wasn’t that old really but he was old to me back then because I would only have been about 15 or 16. I ended up being put on the table against John, who was probably a couple of years older than me. At the time I had never played really – only on holiday.

“Anyway this fella came up to me after he watched me and said: ‘You’re not too bad, but I think you should come back in a couple of years when you learn to play’.

“It was only a one-table venue and I came out of there thinking, ‘If they are not going to let me play, how am I going to get any better’?

“It was the worst piece of advice or information I have ever had in my life. “

Fortunately, that first tentative experience did not put Rigby off the game for good.

Instead, it made him more determined to fulfil his potential.

“After leaving Deepdale that night, I did not really know what to do. My dad could see that I was upset,” he added.

“But luckily my dad worked at Beech’s Fine Chocolates and there was a lady who came to work there whose husband played table tennis.

“He had moved to Preston from Blackburn and was looking for a club to play at and ended up going to Astra, who played at Kent Street.

“It was quite near to where I used to live, so that’s how I ended up going there.

“The person who ran it was a bloke called George Helm.

“He’s still around is George – he must be in his 80s now.

“But he was a really nice fella and he was really encouraging.

“George just said to me, ‘Come down on a Friday night before the good players come and have a knock.

“So that’s what I did.”

Rigby’s game began to develop and it was not long before he was making his debut for Astra in the Preston Table Tennis League.

And within two years, he was pitting his wits against the city’s best in the Premier Division. He still plays for Astra now, although he has not played exclusively for the Kent Street club over the years.

After leaving St Ignatius Catholic School, Rigby joined Royal Mail where he was soon tapped-up to play for the Post Office.

“I went to work for the Post Office as a telegraph lad,” Rigby said. “The bloke in charge said to me, ‘You play table tennis don’t you?’

“I said yes to which he replied, ‘Who do you play for’?

“When I said Astra, he looked at me and , ‘No you don’t – you’re play for the Post Office and if you don’t play for us, you will be delivering telegrams on a push bike – not a motorbike’!

“So I got pressurised into playing for the Post Office.

“I went straight into their team in the Premier Division and have played there ever since.”

Rigby’s ability with a bat in hand was also strategically used by his boss to gain funds for works trips.

“There was an assistant postmaster at the Post Office called Arthur Scarsbrook, who was well known in Preston,” Rigby said. “He was originally from down south and had played for West Middlesex when he was younger, but he was still a good player.

“Arthur was also the treasurer of the sports and social club at the Post Office.

“We used to have messenger boy trips every year and the sports and social would fund it.

“ If we ever needed any more money, my boss would get me to play Mr Scarsbrook and tell me that I had to lose.

“Once we had played, my boss would then invite Mr Scarsbrook for a cup of tea and then tap him up for some more money because he knew he would be in a good mood.

“There were other times when Mr Scarsbrook upset my boss, so he would say to me, ‘Make sure you beat him today!’”

Next week: Honours galore and a move into coaching – read part two of the Tony Rigby story