THE BIG INTERVIEW
Preston table tennis players beware – Donald Parker is considering making a comeback.
Well...maybe not quite, as the 58-year-old had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when I caught up with him at his Preston home this week.
But the former England international table tennis star admits he is curious as to how he would fare some 30 years after hitting his last shot in anger.
A product of the revered Preston Table Tennis League in the 1960s, Parker went on to become one of the finest exponents of the game the town has ever produced.
Capped hundreds of times at international level through the 1970s and 1980s, Parker has gone on to forge a distinguished career in coaching and sports administration after his playing days ended.
However, the competitive side of him still – ever so slightly – yearns to see how he would cope if he returned to where it all began for him as a young player.
“People ask me how I think I would get on in the top division of the Preston League now,” said Parker, who used to play for St Oswald’s Church Youth Club before moving to Deepdale Club, in Lovat Road.
“I must admit it’s a good question – and one day I may just find out!”
“But it’s been nearly 30 years since I last played competitively.
“When I retired from playing, that was it.
“Obviously when I went on to be a coach, I would still have a knock with the players I was coaching.
“I am sure I would do okay if I started playing again, although I broke my wrist really badly a few years.
“I was unlucky – I broke it right in the joint, so maybe it’s a good idea that I don’t take up the game again.”
Should Parker decide to rekindle past glories, then maybe he could call upon his wife and former European table tennis champion Jill for some handy tips.
And if Jill is too busy with the couple’s three grandchildren, Parker could perhaps summon his 29-year-old daughter Katy – an ex-England No.1 – for some much-needed match practice.
Indeed, when Parker picked up a table tennis bat for the very first time at the age of seven, little did he realise that it was to herald the start of a remarkable family sporting dynasty in Preston.
Arriving at the popular Butlins holiday resort in Pwlleli, Wales, in the mid-1960s, the young Parker strolled around the various amenities on camp, with his brother and sister.
The siblings stumbled, by chance, across a table tennis table – and it was cue for much enjoyment between the trio as they “ping ponged” their way through the two-week summer holiday.
It was Donald, in particular, who displayed a tremendous talent for the sport – so much so that when the family arrived back in Preston, his dad bought a table so that his young son could practice.
Parker senior’s purchase proved to be a masterstroke as his son quickly progressed under the tutelage of reputed local table tennis coach Jim Clegg.
His talent eventually caught the attention of England selectors and he was soon invited to train with the national squad.
It was while playing for England that Parker met with his future wife, who was known as Jill Hammersley and came from Slough.
Later they would go on to settle as a married couple in Preston and had two children – Katy and Adam, now aged 30.
Their daughter followed in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a formidable table tennis player.
She became the best in England and appeared at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, while their son Adam forged a decent career in cricket.
On the MCC groundstaff at Lord’s as teenager, Adam went on to appear as a substitute fielder for England against South Africa at Trent Bridge – replacing skipper Nasser Hussain, who had injured his finger.
“It was funny. Someone called us to say that Adam was on the pitch against South Africa – so we turned the television on,” Parker recalls.
“The camera panned on to Adam who was fielding at fine leg and you could see all the supporters in the background singing, ‘Who are you?’.
“But Adam has done well for himself at cricket.
“He plays for Fleetwood in the Northern League and last year was the leading run scorer in Division One.
“He was the professional at Leyland for a number of years.
“Katy is a terrific table tennis player – she got to England No.1 so that just proves how good she was.
“She once appeared on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards when she was still a schoolgirl.
“The two British tennis players – Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski – had both been short-listed for the award, so as a bit of fun, the BBC got them playing table tennis against each other. Obviously the studio wasn’t big enough to fit a tennis court in.
“Then they brought on Katy, who I think was the No.1 junior player in the country at the time, to play them.
“Naturally she wiped the floor with them both – but it was all good fun and it worked really well.
“Katy has actually beaten Andrew Flintoff, who played a bit of table tennis when he was younger.
“I remember, he was really tall and skinny and Katy was small, but she beat him easily.
“If I ever see him, I still remind him about getting beaten by Katy,” Parker said.
“I suppose, it was only natural that both Adam and Katy would do well at sport.
“But we never pushed them into it, we just tried to encourage them and enjoy themselves.”
While Parker takes great pride in what he and his children have achieved in sport, he admits his wife’s accomplishments are on a different level to them all.
“She is a former European champion and three-time Commonwealth Games champion,” he said.
“Jill is rather unfortunate that when she was at her peak, table tennis was not an Olympic sport
“At her best, she was top-five in the world – an outstanding player.
“There were probably just a handful of Chinese players who were better than her at one time.
“She won an MBE for her services to table tennis
“I was nowhere near that good. I played for England many times – but struggled to win games at that level.
“I was a very attacking player who always gave 110% when I played. I was always in great physical shape and kept myself incredibly fit.
“I would class myself as not a great international player – but a pretty good one.
“The forehand top spin was my best shot – my backhand was pretty rubbish.
“But because I was so fit, I used to run everywhere to try to get my forehand into play – I tried not to play too many backhands.
“I was a very determined player, who never gave up – I was a fighter. I fought hard in every game but I just lacked a bit of natural talent to make it at the really highest level.
“Really, I just did not have those gifts which players at the very top are blessed with.
“I played quite a few world champions over the course of my career – obviously they were just a bit too good for me.
“I never got any wins against them but I did beat a few European champions.
“John Hilton, who won the European Championship back in 1980 – he was from England – I beat him a few times.
“I won a number of big tournaments domestically, including the Scottish Open.
“My proudest moment was when I won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal, which was a great honour for me.
“So I had some reasonable success.”
Alongside his table tennis career, Parker, who attended Hutton Grammar School, studied for a teaching certificate and degree at renowned sporting institution Loughborough University.
Although primed to move into the teaching profession, Parker was offered a role working as a coach by the English Table Tennis Association.
“My contemporary at international level in table tennis was Desmond Douglas,” Parker said.
“We were the same age and became very good friends – and still are.
“He was a very good player and he made the decision to go over to Germany and play full-time in the professional Bundesliga.
“He was a massive success over there and ended up being a top-10 ranked player in the world.
“I wasn’t quite as good as Des, so I thought it was better for me if I got a career outside of playing full-time table tennis.
“That is why I went to university and qualified to become a teacher.
“It was while I was at Loughborough that I was offered a job working for the English Table Tennis Association,” Parker said.
“I ended up staying there for 18 years.
“And I absolutely loved it – it meant I was able to combine playing with the job of coaching. It was perfect for me.
“I coached the England junior team initially and then in 1984, I took over the England senior team.
“I was still fairly young at that time – I would only be 27 or 28.
“But I ended up taking the team to three Olympic Games and numerous World and European Championships.
“I went to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, then Barcelona four years later and then Atlanta in 1996.”
The experience he gained working for ETTA opened up further career opportunities.
He was head-hunted by the British Olympic Association to become their deputy technical director.
Although he stayed in that role for three years, family commitments led to him taking a job as Commonwealth Games England’s sporting director.
It is a job he still does to this day and he is still revelling in the glory of the recent Games in Glasgow, where England topped the medals table.
“What working at the three Olympic Games as a table tennis coach did in terms of my career was introduce me to the multi-sport environment,” said Parker, who commentated at the London Olympics.
“That is why the British Olympic Association approached me and I became their deputy technical director.
“That was a fabulous job but it was based down in London.
“Me and Jill were living in in Preston and the kids were settled at school in Kirkham.
“We didn’t want to take them out of their school because they were happy there.
“So what we decided to do was that I would travel down to London on the Monday and come back on the Friday.
“That worked for a bit but it just became too demanding – the commute was just too much.
“We did think about moving down to London but because the kids were doing well at school, we decided against it.
“But then a job came up to become the sporting director for the Commonwealth Games England.
“It was the time when the Commonwealth Games had just been awarded to Manchester.
“So I left the BOA and got the job at Commonwealth Games England and I’ve been doing this job ever since.
“It’s a great job and I have been to every Commonwealth Games since 1998 – so that’s Kuala Lumpur, Manchester, Melbourne, New Delhi and obviously the one which has just gone – Glasgow.”
Parker is in charge of logistics and his role is to ensure that everything is in place to ensure that all the athletes and their support staff can perform to the best of their ability.
There are 18 sports on the programme for the Commonwealth Games.
“So the England team had 18 team leaders in charge of each sport.
“I work very closely with those 18 team leaders to make sure that everything is in place so that they, their staff and the athletes can perform to the best of their ability.
“The things I organise include making sure the doctors, the physios, the video analysts are all in place and the accommodation, the food, meeting places for the athletes’ friends and family are right – that they have the right facilities to train.
“It’s great role and one I really enjoy.”
“This year’s Games in Glasgow was absolutely amazing. We topped the medal table for the first time since 1986, when the Games, incidentally, were held in Edinburgh.
“I was talking to Sir Steven Redgrave and he was reminiscing about the last time we finished at the top.
“Ever since Edinburgh, Australia have finished top but this time we beat them by something like nine gold medals
“It was a great Games for Preston too. Laura Massaro won two silver medals.
“I actually watched the squash doubles final and it was very interesting.
“Doubles is very rarely played in squash and the Indians were almost like a specialist doubles team.
“So they just had the edge over Laura and her partner Jenny Duncalf.
“They were rather unlucky because they played very well.
“Of course, we also had the boxer Scott Fitzgerald who performed brilliantly to win the gold medal.
“It’s funny. I didn’t know Scott beforehand but I met him in the village – I knew he was a Preston lad – and it turns out he lives just down the road from me.
“There was also Helen Clitheroe, who is still going strong, in the 5,000,
“You’ve also got Steph Slater who won a silver in the swimming.”
Next week: ping pong diplomacy – Jill Parker lifts the lid on playing in China