When Scotland were Squash Kings of Europe

Thirty years ago, in April 1992, an unfancied Scotland team travelled to the European Squash Teams Championship in Aix-en-Provence.

Over the next four days, against all odds, they were crowned champions of Europe and left as history makers.

England were overwhelming favourites to win the competition, having won all but two editions since its creation in 1973.

Scotland had hit the heights of second five times in that period, but had never lifted the trophy.

It was against that backdrop that Alan Thomson, Mark MacLean, Derek Ritchie, Peter Nicol, Colin Keith and Martin Heath travelled to France.

The team boasted a mix of experience and youth, with Mark McLean and Alan Thomson the steady hands of the group and Peter Nicol, Derek Ritchie, Colin Keith and Martin Heath young, full of promise and relatively unknown.

They went into the competition in good spirits, with ambitions to do well, but no real thought of winning.

Derek Ritchie, who was 22 at the time recalls: “You never go into a tournament thinking you’ve got no chance, we thought it would be a successful tournament if we could get to the semi-final.

“The weather was warm, and we were all sitting round the swimming pool and feeling very relaxed.”

Martin Heath, aged just 19 and playing in the West of Scotland league, was excited to be involved for the first time.

He says: “On paper, we weren’t even close to having a chance, but our camaraderie was better than any other team.

“I wasn’t thinking about winning or anything like that, I was just trying to enjoy the experience and pick up as much as I could from the other guys.”

With a laugh, he recalls how lucky he was to avoid injury after falling in a manhole earlier in the week. Good news for Martin, and as it turned out, good news for Scotland.

After progressing through the groups, Scotland would face England in the semi-final.

With an upset on the cards, the Scots remember other nations getting behind them, desperate to see England’s grip on the competition broken.

Martin recalls: “Every other team was cheering for us, they all wanted us to win.

“There was such a great energy in the building that day, just an amazing atmosphere.”

Against the odds, the underdogs triumphed 3-2, with the relatively unknown 19-year-old Peter Nicol winning the crucial fifth match.

Ranked number 220 in the world, the little-known Peter Nicol had made his first big mark on the game of squash.

Martin says: “Peter was the X Factor; he was an unknown quantity. We all thought he was going to be good, but he hadn’t proved it yet.”

And even with the final against Finland to come, Derek recalls the scenes of celebration after the semi-final triumph.

He said: “We went out to dinner, and as we walked into the restaurant the Dutch team and the head of the Dutch Squash Federation were clapping and cheering.

“They gave us an enormous bottle of champagne… I remember wondering the next day where that had gone. To this day I have no idea what happened to that bottle.”

Alan Thomson, Scotland’s most capped international was the unofficial leader of the group, and he stepped aside to give the young stars their chance to shine.

Having lost to the Finns in the group stage, Derek recalls the tactical preparation ahead of the rematch.

He said: “Alan made a tactical choice where he effectively dropped himself.

“We changed the order of the team, we all moved up one space. We had to change things up.”

The tactical switch paid dividends, as Scotland won the match 3-2, with Peter Nicol once again clinching the final game.

Delight ensued, with Scotland’s top female player Shirley Brown capturing the winning point on camera.

Martin says: “It was euphoric, it was so unexpected, England had been unassailable for so long, so for us to win it was huge.”

Derek recalls: “The winning moment was such a high point, it was amazing to watch Peter bringing it home. Just amazing.”

The celebrations continued after the tournament, even with one of the defeated Finnish players hitching a ride on the Scotland minibus.

Against all odds, Scotland had been crowned Champions of Europe.

The tournament was a springboard for young talents Martin Heath and Peter Nicol.

Martin Heath would go on to make the top four in the world rankings, winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in Giza.

Peter Nicol would win gold at the same tournament in Giza, adding to a gold medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Sadly, Colin Keith died in 1994, at the age of just 24. He is warmly remembered by his teammates, and the squash community as a whole.

Derek remembers: “He was such a lovable guy, he played squash so well with a beautiful stroke.

“It was so sad, he added so much to Scottish squash at the time and he was one of the most popular players on the tour.

“Not one person would have a bad word to say about him”

And Martin echoes these thoughts: “He was such an incredible athlete.

“He was a role model for me growing up, and he took me under his wing. I’ve got such fond memories of him.”