Sporting Spotlight on Neil Hulme
3:00pm Saturday 26th January 2013 in Sport
Visitors to the new ‘Pembrokeshire FRAME’ retail outlet and warehouse at Merlins Bridge in Haverfordwest might come across the smiling face of manager Neil Hulme without realising that they are being dealt with by arguably the best table tennis player in the county!
Neil has been involved in the game for over 40 years, is a former England junior international and has won the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Handicap Championship for the past two seasons before serious illness prevented him playing in competitive table tennis — but he is slowly returning to action and playing again at the local clubs in Haverfordwest (run by Barry Chambers) and in Fishguard (organised by Bernie Armstrong).
In both recent seasons he and Sven Severans (a former Belgian international now flying out of Withybush Aerodrome) have had to start off the handicap tournament on -5 and could be drawn against players who had a handicap of up to +15.
“It leaves little room for taking any chances,” Neil told us, “but both of us have somehow reached the final on both occasions and I was naturally delighted to twice come through against such a good player.”
Now a youthful-looking 50 years of age, Neil started playing on an old table in the garage at home in Nottinghamshire when he was seven, alongside his twin brother Mark, who is also a very good player and was ranked as high as No 2 in Boston, Lincolnshire.
“Then we used to play every week night on an old table in our garage at home and our game improved terrifically after starting out in Division 12 of the Nottinghamshire League with our local youth club in our early teens.
“As we got older we worked our way up the divisions and teams tended to play in rooms above pubs, where the players could enjoy a pint together afterwards.
Mark eventually played in division one o f a n incredibly strong and well-organised league set-up of over 150 teams and I managed to play in the Premier League and represented the Midlands against other areas like Essex and Sussex on a few occasions.”
Ask him about highlights from that time and Neil would be bound to list the time as a junior player he represented England in a friendly against Scotland in Northumberland.
“It was a great occasion,” admits Neil, “and I will never forget pulling on the England shirt and listening to the national anthem.”
Another time to savour came when he entered a competition where the prize for b o t h finalists was to have a day being coached by, and playing with, Gary Cooke, then the English No 1.
“I was chuffed to win the tournament and the day’s coaching with Gary was amazing — a bit like football-mad youngsters of today having a day out playing alongside their favourite player!”
Neil’s highest ranking in England at senior level was 31st, which doesn’t sound much until one realises just how many thousands play the game across the country.
He played in Nottinghamshire until five years ago when he sold his business and came to Pembrokeshire in search of a new life style alongside his wife Debra, always his best support and everready to encourage him to play, plus daughter Rebecca (now 20 and at Cardiff University) and son Tim (19), who is a mechanic.
He didn’t play for almost a season but then got bored and decided it was time to restart his favourite sport (he is no mug at other racquet sports like tennis, badminton and squash, where he was county standard at one time).
“I was made very welcome by the likes of Bernie, Barry, Nigel Smith, and the rest at Haverfordwest,” said Neil, “and after getting back into things I contacted the Carmarthen Club, which has over 80 members. I had a trial with them and was put into their first team in the very strong Swansea League, which has some very good Welsh internationals and even a female Paralympian to take on.
“We came fourth in our last season, no mean feat for our team, and as soon as I feel fit enough for all the travel back and fore to Swansea I might well return to action there.”
Meanwhile, Neil plays in Fishguard whenever he is able and carries on his managerial role at ‘FRAME’ — a wonderful charity whose aim is to give those with learning difficulties or mental health issues the chance to integrate into a work environment, where they renovate furniture and sell at their swish new base in Merlins Bridge, along with their other sites in Johnston, Goodwick and Pembroke Dock.
“It is the best job I have ever had,” Neil admitted, “and moving to Pembrokeshire was also a smart move. I love my table tennis and would encourage anyone to take it up because it can still be played in a garage, youth club, church hall or sports centre.
“We always welcome newcomers, especially at Fishguard Leisure Centre, because the facilities are really good there.”
When chatting to Neil Hulme his enthusiasm for both his work and table tennis is evident and we wish him a speedy return to full health so that he can continue his current work and sporting love with continued distinction for many years to come!