50 years ago, Jonah Barrington arrived. Aged 25, he captured the first of six British Open crowns in a victory that would forever transform the face of the sport and herald a new era for squash.
A university drop-out, who had little to show from his time at Dublin’s Trinity College bar failed exams and an affection for Guinness, Jonah Barrington’s path towards international sporting stardom was as unforeseen as it was exceptional.
Drifting from job to job – even picking up a petty conviction for ‘racing a wheelbarrow down Earl’s Court Road’ – Barrington looked destined to join the long list of could-have-beens, should-have-beens and has-beens, before a mid-twenties epiphany transformed the one-time drunkard and saw him embark on a journey to make something of himself – something greater than anyone could have imagined.
It was a journey that was forged into squash folklore when Barrington, against all odds and
aged 25, triumphed at the 1967 British Open, becoming the first British winner of the iconic event since 1938.
It was the first of six British Open crowns Barrington would collect in the following seven years – a run that laid the foundations for Barrington transform the sport. His victories, and moreover his career, were a victory for the man of limited means for, as he says himself, there were far more talented players around.
“I won through fitness rather than through talent,” said Barrington, who downed the previous year’s winner, Abdelfattah Abou Taleb, before defeating 1966 runner-up Aftab Jawaid to clinch the his first title – a feat that would have been incomprehensible just four years previously.
“I went to trials during my first year at Trinity and played this guy with a hair net – I think it was a form of cheating because it set me at a considerable disadvantage and he beat me. I was so disgusted and depressed by being beaten by this man in a hair net that I didn’t play for over a year!
“But in my second year one of the squash team approached me and I went down. The circumstances were different and I was a little bit more mature than the year before so I got involved and it was fantastic.
“At the heart of the Leinster League was the Guinness Brewery and we’d go and play them at their home and they had an eight gallon barrel of porter ready on arrival.
“On one occasion I was on last with a guy called Des O’Brien – I don’t know how we played any squash by the time we got on!
“I thought the whole thing was great, but I didn’t attend classes much – I wasn’t ready to study and didn’t make use of that opportunity.
“I saw the sport at its most social over there and I did love playing. When I disappeared from Trinity I wasn’t involved for quite a period of time after that, but it was always in the back of my mind that I really loved playing the game.”
A chance encounter with Nasrullah Khan, an uncle of Jahangir Khan and then coach at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham, proved to be a pivotal turning point for the aimless Barrington. Khan would become a mentor, providing a quiet, methodical tutelage which helped complete the transformation of a dissipated life into an ascetic one.
Under Khan’s wing Barrington dedicated himself totally, his approach to training and self-improvement becoming the stuff of legend.
“A short time after Trinity I got an injury in my lower back and whilst I was recovering from that operation I did a lot of soul searching,” says the man who in 2016 celebrated his 75th birthday.
“My brother was going through all the requirements of becoming a solicitor – but I was the black sheep of the family.
“I thought about all the things that I might do but I didn’t come to any conclusions. By chance a guy came on holiday to Cornwall where we were living who knew my brother, who was a county level player, and he rang to see if he was available to play.
“My brother was away so my mother suggested he play me. I cycled, probably eight miles, to play and afterwards he told me there was a job with the governing body in London and that he’d have a word with the guy who’s running it and that’s how it started – it was just absolute chance.
“Then I met Nasrullah Khan – who became my great friend and mentor. I was pretty shy but I approached him told him that I was recovering from this operation and I really wanted to get fit and see how I could improve my squash. He said ‘cycle to the court on your own for solo practise and hit 100 forehands up the forehand wall and 100 balls up the backhand wall.
“That’s exactly what I did when I got home, every day, and I was getting better.”
One of the most commonly used techniques in squash today, ‘Ghosting’, started with Barrington, and tales abound of the man himself performing huge volumes of the exercise in his underpants in the back garden of his Cornwall home – part of a training regime and dedication to fitness that remain legendary to this day.
Jonah Barrington (left) takes on Geoff Hunt (right)
After winning that first British Open championship, stories emerged that he did some press-ups and then, as the champagne was passed round, discussed his plans for Christmas training runs along his home cliffs of Morwenstow in Cornwall – anything that could gain an edge over his competitors.
But he could also be self-punishing, unrelenting, and harshly self-critical. Geoff Hunt, whose career was moulded by his rivalry with Barrington, tells tales of watching with awe as Barrington stormed out of court following one particular defeat and spent almost two hours running laps on a nearby running-track as punishment for his performance.
“I found it very difficult to do the sporting British thing and not show my disgust at losing – I detested that feeling,” said Barrington.
“I never came out with the phrase I want to be the best I can be – what I came out with was I’m going to beat everybody and when I got beaten I took it very hard.
“As I made progress I became more and more obsessive. Day by day I just started focusing on everything to do with the sport of squash.
“I read somewhere ‘to rest is not to conquer’ so that’s how I approached it.
“You can’t get away from the fact that if you want to be better than everyone else, and you have the good fortune to have the right kind of elements, you do actually have to spend a lot of your time tired – more physically tired than the average person.
“Your body has to learn to deal with that aspect, especially in a sport like squash which is one of the most demanding on the planet – it is extraordinary the amount of pressure the body is put under, in a sport that preoccupies the mind constantly.
“There are barely breaks between games, you hardly have time to breath from coming off the court to going back on it – and I was determined to be the man who walked off court as the winner.
“My first summer in London I went down to Hampstead Cricket Club every night, and I mean every night. I used to train on the court and there would be no one around because no one played squash in the summer and I used to run round and round the cricket ground while people in the bar would stand there shaking their heads!
“So when it got to April 1965 and everyone stopped, I effectively had a six-month season practising and training on my own. I’d done that cycle for two winters and two summers before I came out in 1966 for the opening match of the season.”
Barrington’s fitness regime, combined with a safety-first style of play that saw him hit the ball little or no lower than the cut line for long periods to create a consistently pressuring length whilst avoiding errors, quickly began to pay dividends.
His consistent pressure, occasionally punctuated by the occasional angle or drop, allowed him to pick his opponents off as they started to tire and as he went into the 1967 British Open, an event that was heralded as the de facto World Championships during his era, Barrington completed his transformation.
“I’d been training non-stop for two years and then I played this guy who was one of the top English players and I beat him for the loss of two points early in the season.
“Three months later I won the British Open.
“I knew that once I got the opportunity to find my way in sport that’s what I would do. It started at the British Open and I knew I would work relentlessly to take it the distance.”
Barrington’s career was a poignant reminder that mental strength and a relentless desire to be the best you can be can conquer even the most challenging of opponents.
He may not be seen on the Tour as much as players and supporters alike wish but the great pioneer is, and will always remain, a true icon of the game who’s presence will forever be felt.
And he will always be Mr. Squash.