Matthew: James On Three Steps To Heaven

By RJ Mitchell

Nick Matthew has admitted that despite last month’s stunning run to the semi-finals of the GillenMarkets London Squash Classic, there will be no deviation from his three point plan to return Declan James to the top end of the PSA World Tour rankings.

After suffering a horrific run of career threatening injuries ‘The Dark Knight’ had worked hard on the Challenger Tour to climb back up to World No.76 prior to accepting a wild card at Alexandra Palace.

Subsequently James lanced his way through two top-20 residents before taking out former World Champion and World No.5 Karim Abdel Gawad in the quarter-finals – much to the delight of a vociferous home crowd.

Although World No.3 Mostafa Asal proved a bridge too far in the semi-finals, three-time former World Champion Matthew admitted that his charge had surpassed all expectations – but will have to knuckle down again ahead of a double header on Irish soil for the Garavan’s Bar West of Ireland Open  and Cannon Kirk Gillen Markets Irish Squash Open over the next two weeks.

Declan James in disbelief after defeating former World Champion Karim Gawad at the London Classic

“We looked at it as a three step process, with step one to get into a Gold Event and the London Classic in particular and so a massive thank you to Tim (Garner, tournament director) for the wildcard for which Declan is very grateful.

“I think he did repay that from what he gave to the event. 

“The next step is making these events regularly and then step three is to get back to being ranked where he was before (World No.15) – with the dream goal being to beat that and climb above his highest previous ranking.

“So Dec has a lot of goals that remain the same, but also a lot of potential that remains untapped and he played some of the best squash of his career in London and that is a testament to all the work he has put in until now.

“But that doesn’t change, it is back to hard work again. People look for that magic formula these days and try to change their coaches, do this, do that for an instant impact, but Declan has never been like that – instead he has been in it for the long haul.

“So we will be reminding ourselves nothing has changed.”

Yet a delighted Matthew accepts that James’ wildcard success has proved a big deal on the road back: 

“Yes, it probably exceeded expectation. That said, Dec’s level headed enough to know that it was fantastic but you have to draw a line under it and take the learnings.

“So you can’t dwell on it, really you have to avoid the yo-yo of the ups and downs, there will be some downs but we want it to be a bit more of a wave effect rather than have the huge peaks and troughs.

“So he will have a few days to reflect, look back and recover and then the attention switches to what is next as he has a couple events on the Challenger Tour and if you get them wrong they can be a big come down after such a high of Ally Pally.

“But I think Dec has done well and you have to celebrate that, but we know what he has to get right – but there is no point doing it if you don’t enjoy it. But then you have to come back to business.

“Dec really got the crowd going and that was something we spoke about, some of his best performances have come at team events like the Commonwealth Games where he has thrived on that.

“Now he has to keep grinding. He actually doesn’t have a full ranking currently as he hasn’t played 11 tournaments, so there are almost free points out there in the smaller events and then the next step is getting in the Gold Events regularly.”

Prior to his date at the Ally Pally, James had enjoyed success on the Challenger Tour where he annexed the Odense Open, beating World No.97 Owain Taylor in four games and Matthew had an interesting point to make about the merits of mixing it at the lower level.

The Three-time British Open champion reflected: “Declan had already come in with momentum with a win at Odense in what was a great advert for the Challenger Tour.

“He had been playing on the Challenger Tour a lot and I say to many of my players that winning breeds winning and the confidence from that was good.

“So having played 14-matches in his last three tournaments was a good platform and winning is a habit and ironically he went into that match (London Classic Round One v Mohamed ElSherbini) with a -top-20 player and he was the one who looked a bit short of matches.

“In the big moments that perhaps caught up with Mohamed. If you are a top-20 guy you are perhaps losing the second round in the World Series, and that was where Dec was before his injury, so it is very difficult to build momentum doing that.

“In fact we have encouraged Nick Wall to play a couple of the lower events, it’s risky as you put your neck on the line for these up and coming players but for Dec I think he didn’t have any choice.

“So Declan playing Mohamed ElSherbini on normal courts at Coolhurst when he hadn’t played a top-20 player for a good amount of time, it was about going in, not looking further than that match, and if he could get one under his belt then that is a big help.

“Really the first round at Coolhurst was almost like another tournament with the traditional court and then you go to Ally Pally and it’s like a new event and you are playing someone you haven’t played yet on a court you haven’t played on so it was starting from scratch.

“So he did go in with belief and with each round it built.”

Waiting for James in the second round was his old French foe Baptiste Masotti and despite losing the first game to Gallic flare the Englishman remained resolute.

“We had a game plan for Baptiste but the way he started with four in the crosscourt nick in the opening rallies showed the type of player he is,” added Matthew.

“But Dec’s mindset was that he didn’t panic after losing the first game and he just turned the screw and stuck with it and in best of three that isn’t easy.

“You can get to the business end quickly and you don’t have time to build and a lot of people can get a bit edgy, but Dec had a good record against Baptiste, although that was pre-injury, but he knew what to do with him.

Waiting in the quarter-final was the genius that is Karim Abdel Gawad, but once again James remained undeterred and Matthew elaborated. 

“There was a lesson there in terms of not going ahead of yourself.  Against someone like Gawad, because he is an unbelievable scalp, you can get getting carried away in terms of that finishing line coming into sight.

“So I think Dec did a great job in just moving the game on at the right time and got a bit more aggressive at the business end when a lot of players get that balance wrong and tend to try and protect a lead or snatch.

“So he got the balance of these big points right and that is something we have been working on in the practice court – although I thought Gawad was a little bit hard done by on the final point I have to say.”

Ultimately World No.3 Mostafa Asal was able to out-gun James in the last four but not before a determined effort by the man from Nottingham saw him end the week with his head held high.

“Dec showed his true colours as a lot of people would have let their head drop at 2-0 down but he stood tall and kept fighting to the end and it would have been a shame if he had gone out 11-1 after such a good week.

“So although he didn’t win the game Declan finished on a high note.”

Matthew also had warm words of encouragement for another English talent George Parker, who defeated Auguste Dussourd and Iker Pajares before taking a game of eventual winner Paul Coll before succumbing to a gritty defeat.

Matthew said: “George has always been there or thereabouts and he has always come to Sheffield over the years for a day a week, as he used to do his weights in Sheffield with the EIS (English Institute of Sport) and then he’d come and join our squads in the afternoon.

“He was always a pleasure and added energy to the group. Obviously we have become one of the performance hubs of England Squash in Sheffield and he will always be welcome to join us.

“I was obviously there working with my own players but also with England Squash at the London Classic, so George fell under that and it was great to see him letting his arm go and playing freely and I thought he played fantastically as well.”