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Meet Rob Owen: overweight, millionaire gambler and sport’s unlikeliest coach | Squash

Meet Rob Owen: overweight, millionaire gambler and sport’s unlikeliest coach | Squash
Meet Rob Owen: overweight, millionaire gambler and sport’s unlikeliest coach | Squash

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Rob Owen’s wife, Alison, sits down in the kitchen and succinctly reflects on 25 years of marriage, oblivious to the TV behind her silently showing endless horse racing replays. “Stressful,” she concludes, before laughing at the acerbity of her summary.

A rare hush has briefly descended while the indefatigable Owen has his picture taken in a neighbouring room, where he can faintly be heard amiably discussing which props to include in each shot. Alarmingly forthright when he deems it necessary, Owen is also unceasingly hospitable, mystified by the photographer continually declining the offer of a hot drink in exchange for his troubles.

Few houses better reflect their occupant than the one cultivated by Owen, the gregarious yet rebellious professional gambler unexpectedly tasked with resurrecting England’s squash glory for the sport’s Olympic debut in four years’ time: a beautiful West Midlands home from which he has made his millions, routinely locking himself away for 12-hour stints betting on sporting action from Wincanton, Wentworth or the Wankhede Stadium.

Rob and his Tardis at his home in the West Midlands. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Pieces from a host of Britain’s most esteemed contemporary artists – names that Owen would prefer remain redacted for modesty – share the hallway walls with gold discs of his favourite musical acts. An original 1960s Coca-Cola vending machine sits in the dining room opposite a lifesize statue of the Austin Powers character Mini-Me.

Access to Owen’s office is gained through a purpose-built replica of a Doctor Who Tardis door. Inside, six supersized computer screens display a dazzling array of either live sport, in-depth statistics or bookmakers’ odds. Around them are scattered an overwhelming assortment of cultural memorabilia: a signed size 22 trainer from the American basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, an autographed Captain Sensible guitar from a Madison Square Gardens concert, and a seemingly limitless amount of Sex Pistols paraphernalia. Punk representation is strong.

“Most people, when they come in the house, they like it,” says Owen, 58. “Obviously it’s very different. I was never one who thought the kitchen had to look like a kitchen or the lounge a lounge. When I was young I hated being pigeonholed. That’s why I liked the punk ethos and still embrace that attitude. It’s just doing what you want a little bit, and what you feel is right, rather than kowtowing to society.”

He offers an example: “When I was young I always ate my dessert first. My theory was that I liked dessert best, so why would I wait? For two years, from 16 to 18, I had peas for breakfast, which drove my parents insane.”

An attempt to uncover further explanation yields little: “I just really liked them. I’ve never had that thing where I have to do what people expect because a lot of it is wrong. There are too many traditions that people accept without really thinking through them. Things are done because it’s always been like that, but why? I’ve always thought very differently.”

It is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a free-thinking outsider who – through his appointment as England Squash Olympic programme consultant at the start of this year – has belatedly been welcomed into the establishment.

Sport has long occupied a place at the heart of Owen’s life. He was a promising squash player in his youth, overcoming on-court behaviour he admits was “atrocious” to win some notable tournaments and reach a high of world No 19. But it was not sufficient for Owen himself. So he quit, aged 26, “because I wasn’t world No 1 and didn’t play squash just to be top 20”.

He went back to university to study optics and briefly joined his father and sister in the family optician business. But a seed had been sewn during his studies when some of his peers introduced him to the world of gambling.

A win for Sri Lanka in the 1996 cricket World Cup set Rob off on a career in professional gambling. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

A bet on Sri Lanka to win the 1996 Cricket World Cup at 33-1 came in and he backed a few big horse racing winners. “It eventually got to the stage where I was making as much betting in a month as I was at the opticians in a year.”

When the Betfair betting exchange launched in 2000, it provided an opportunity to gamble full time – a decision that would change his life.

Understandably reticent to shout about the full extent of his winnings, the walls of his house betray the rewards of his devotion to the craft. Regular five- and six-figure triumphs became nothing out of the ordinary, and he quickly left behind the realm of relative comfort to enter a world of the financially privileged, able to indulge passions for fine wine, award-winning food and an ever-growing memorabilia and art collection.

But around 2010 something unexpected happened. Despite remaining in contact with some of his peers from his old squash days, Owen had never much looked back at the sport since turning his back on it almost two decades earlier. So, when he agreed to coach a young player, he could not envisage where things would lead: “It has become something it was never meant to be.”

The West Warwickshire Sports Complex is an unassuming red-brick sports and fitness centre on the outskirts of Solihull. On a bleak, rain-drenched Monday morning it resembles any other suburban leisure facility: middle-aged women arriving with yoga mats in hand for their weekly class and hooded retirees rushing from their cars to play racket ball. To reach their court, they must first walk past a sign welcoming them to the Rob Owen Academy.

Early coaching success meant Owen soon took another player under his charge; then another. “I felt I could offer something that was different from what everyone else was doing in the UK,” he says.

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Gambling, he suggests, taught him to play percentages, spot variables and read patterns that other squash coaches were missing. To Owen, the smallest details are of paramount importance.

The former British No 1 Sarah-Jane Perry is among the stable of players coached by Rob Owen. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

His shining moment arrived when he guided the New Zealander Paul Coll – a major contender at this week’s world championships – to world No 1. He also currently coaches Belgium’s world No 4, Nele Gilis, the former British No 1 Sarah-Jane Perry, and England’s next big hope Jonah Bryant. Remarkably, he has done it all without any formal coaching qualifications.

In January this year the maverick was welcomed into the fold when the national federation employed him to help England’s best players flourish on squash’s Olympic debut at Los Angeles 2028. He does not see it as a difficult task: “This is the worst state English squash has ever been in. We haven’t got enough young players coming through and we need to start from the bottom up. There’s a lot to be improved.”

Such straight talking does not always meet universal goodwill, and there are some within the sport who do not approve of the nonconformist. “I’m sure there’s always a bit of jealousy whenever anyone is successful,” he says dismissively. “There will be people out there who don’t like me because I speak my mind and people don’t like honesty.”

Those who have remained within the inner sanctum point to his unrivalled devotion to the cause, even if it does present an element of personal jeopardy. Watching a sweat-soaked Owen put Bryant through his paces on court one, Sam Osborne-Wylde, another of his young charges, suggests: “We’re all worried he’s going to have a heart attack. There’s a defibrillator round the corner which we’re all learning how to use.”

Rob Owen on the state of squash in England: ‘We haven’t got enough young players coming through and we need to start from the bottom up.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It is a joke that has taken on worrying substance since Owen – “the fittest fat bloke you’ll ever meet” – was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Lunch later at a local pub provides the opportunity for a final fling – new potatoes swapped out for creamy dauphinoise – before an appointment with a dietician the following morning. Food is one thing he is willing to change; his insatiable intensity is not.

“I’m constantly pushing myself hard … possibly too hard,” he says. “Too many fuckers are too lazy to work hard.”

“I’m going to keep pushing myself as hard as I can for as long as I can. Then one day I’ll come to a grinding halt, which is fine. I’ll either drop dead or won’t be able to do it physically, which I have no problem with. I’d quite like to keel over on court with one of my players. That would be a great way to go. Next time you see me I’ll either be dead or three stone lighter. Hopefully three stone lighter.”

Financially, he need not take the risk. The only players he charges for his coaching services are the top professionals. Everyone else receives his wisdom for free – a service that often extends to bed and board in one of his houses in the West Midlands or Devon.

Given how lucrative gambling has been, all of the time spent on the squash side hustle makes a significant dent on his bank account. But he regrets nothing: “I had no intention of ever being a squash coach, but it has given me experiences money can’t buy.”

An English player on the Olympic podium would be the icing on the cake. Just don’t tell the dietician.

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