By Nick Butler

andy sewardJuly 31 -  Andy Seward, who is two weeks into his tenure as chairman of the England Table Tennis Association (ETTA), has announced his aim for England teams to be winning European medals in two to four years' time - be it either at junior or senior level.

Speaking at the unveiling of the ETTA's new four year kit sponsorship with Butterfly at the Bounce Club in London, Seward (above) was confident that "table tennis is about to turn a big corner" in England, although he was not unaware of the challenges ahead.

"One of my main goals is to improve playing facilities and make sure that more people get into the sport at a younger age, because you have to have learnt the basics by the age of 10 rather than 14-15," he said.

"We need full time professional players who are prepared to work for hours and hours and are fully determined to reach their goals.

"That is the difference between us and countries like Germany, where they have that, and in China where players move away from their families aged around 11 and table-tennis comes ahead of even their schooling.

"Yet in two to four years' time we hope to be more competitive."

ernest bevin collegeThe challenge now for the ETTA is to bring more youngsters, such as these players at Ernest Bevin College in London into the sport, and at a younger age so they challenge for medals

China has swept every gold medal available at the last two Olympic Games and Germany has won the last five men's European team titles, yet in comparison England have not won a senior European title since 1980 and players have long struggled at the highest level.

Sara Sutcliffe, the new interim chief executive of the ETTA, sees structural changes as essential if these fortunes are to improve and her short time in the job has already seen one profound change.

"The National Council agreed to support the new way forward, and we are going to restructure the board and modernise the way the sport is governed," she said.

"Meetings have been increasingly positive and the sport has huge potential in this country.

"At the moment our performance program is not in a particularly good place.

"We have no UK Sport funding, so opportunities like [the kit deal] with Butterfly are really important.

"Our top players live abroad and only occasionally come together for training camps and competitions.

"We have medal targets to meet but Rio [2016] is probably a little bit too soon - we have three men [and one woman] ranked in the top 160 players in the world, but it is very hard to break in to the next level when you have a programme which is only partly funded and structured."

z jike chinaThe ETTA has a long way to go to match the results of China and its world and olympic champion Zhang Jike

Sutcliffe was formerly legal director of the British Olympic Association (BOA) so brings a fresh perspective into the sport.

Seward, on the other hand, first played table tennis aged 14, and has worked his way up the league, county and regional ladder to national level, so is well placed to give his views about the state of grassroots table-tennis - which he describes only as "acceptable".

He said: "The enthusiasm from 10-16 year olds is very high and participation among veterans is also good.

"The problem area is those aged 18-40 who have too many other distractions in their lives, and that is something that we must address.

"We need to bridge the gap between the recreational participants and competitive table tennis and get more people to join clubs.

"We have achieved this successfully in places like Leicester, Liverpool and Bradford and the challenge now is to repeat this elsewhere."

ping pong participation"Ping Pong" tables such as this one prove popular in urban settings

Table tennis claims to be second most popular participation sport in the UK.

Yet while the Bounce Club, which claims to be the "home of ping-pong" after first opening in 1901 and where the ETTA launched its new deal with Butterfly, was certainly full of enthusiastic participants; most wore suits rather than sports-kit and the gap between recreational ping-pong and elite level table-tennis remains vast.

"Social table-tennis is something that we want to embrace more in the hope that more people will move over into the competitive sector," said Sutcliffe.

"Bounce is a phenomenal success and it shows that these ventures do work, but the challenge is working with them to ensure maximum exposure.

"The main aim is to widen the broad base of the sport in the hope that we can get more beginners to work up the ladder until they are eventually at elite level."

One of those best placed to make that elite breakthrough is London 2012 Olympian Liam Pitchford.

pitchfordNational champion Liam Pitchford [left] in England action

Pitchford only competed in London by virtue of a host-nation place, but after winning his first men's singles title at the English National Championships, he is full of confidence and keen to reap the dividends of his contract with top German club side Ochsenhausen.

"It's quite different living there as it's a different culture but I am used to it now after three years," he said.

"I have good facilities, coaches and practise partners and it's all down to me to reach the next level.

"Every player will always have ups and downs but I hope that if I carry on doing everything right it's only a matter of time before I make a general breakthrough.

"The Olympics were a great experience but I want to qualify in my own right in Rio, and then do even better after that."

With new structures, sponsorship and personnel in place, the ETTA will be hoping that Pitchford does indeed lead England's table-tennis breakthrough.

Rio qualification and then that elusive European medal by 2017 are the ultimate targets.

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

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