Athletics: North Merchi see fruits of labour

Edinburgh in the 1920s, a generation of its male population having been decimated in the Great War and whose survivors were left to contend with an age of austerity, was perhaps the unlikely setting for the birth of a ground-breaking institution, North Merchiston Boys' Club.

Today, its home remains true to the club's working class roots, a "no frills" expanse of indoor gymnasiums at the end of Polwarth's Watson Crescent at the border of Harrison Park. From the outside, there is little to suggest that the facilities and faces beyond the dimly-lit doorway and modest sign stating the club's presence could have helped produce Commonwealth and Olympic Games contestants.

The unpretentious exterior cloaks nearly 90 years of hard work and success, with Edinburgh's self-proclaimed "Best Kept Secret" remaining a treasure for all who have passed through its doors - nearly 2,000 in the past year alone.

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In mid-January, the club will celebrate its 90th anniversary. As with many age-old institutions, it has experienced peaks and troughs, but is currently, under the leadership of centre manager Catherine Cranmer, rediscovering the roots of its success. "When I arrived here, the building looked uncared for, dark and dingy, and there was no life about it," says Cranmer. "Our table tennis players had been extremely successful, our martial arts was doing well, and it was football we were known for - we wanted to keep all that, but to build on it.

"We're more diverse in what we do and we're now more multi-cultural. We have Chinese associations, ballroom dancing, and a Saudi women's group, and most of all, our groups have a range of nationalities. The board and everyone at the club has strived over the past year to bring back our former glory.

"We're getting it cleaned up and brightened up, and I'm amazed at the number of people who were members as children and who have stayed put since. Our members are very loyal to the club, while some of our coaches are excellent and very committed."

Charlie Affleck, the club's head of athletics, coached former Liberton High School pupil Allan Wells to 100m Olympic gold at Moscow in 1980, while Tom Hook, the table tennis guru, has overseen the progress of many top performers, including Craig Howieson, who participated at the Commonwealth Games in India this year.

The club's wealth of activities and number of members is up - no surprise that the two statistics run in correlation - and the 650 regulars, 500 of whom are members, range from the age of three to people in their eighties. This is a reflection of the club's policy to cater for all, dropping the "Boys" from its title soon after its inception in 1921.

Cranmer describes North Merchi as the friendly, sociable antithesis to the "lycra-clad, high-tech gyms" in the city while still being a progressive club. A recently-established fund-raising initiative to generate 240,000 for much-needed modernisation of facilities is just ten per cent off target, and members hope to make up the shortfall early next year.

"We're making necessary improvements," she says. "But, if we made it ultra-modern, it would lose its character."

Despite the imminent celebrations, there was no sentimentality among the judges who earlier this year named North Merchi the Capital Sports Club of the Year, only recognition from them that the club has taken giant strides to regaining its status as a flourishing creator of opportunities for the local community.

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The club's 25th anniversary was reported in an Evening News article which read: "North Merchiston, with its magnificent building and its growing traditions, shows no sign of old age. On the contrary, it is full of youthful vigour."

The same could be said today.