Dangermen

The process of digging and researching for a column each week can unexpectedly enrich the subject you have in mind. Sometimes I need good sources, inside knowledge, ‘the beef’ from more experienced players. The narrative will always be mine but they inadvertently hone it with their reactions, responses and behaviour.

In the course of attempting to compile a list of each division’s danger men (and women) for 2013/14, I have run up against succinct replies, general reticence and flim-flam. In short, people don’t always give you what you want. Occasionally the great nuggets surface in amongst the chaff though; players who understand that table tennis needs raw and honest coverage – something to fire its sails.

Let us start with Division Four. It will be a weaker division in September (Nuttall, Francis & Grimwood all departing). This should clear the way for St Paul’s Rory McIntyre and Ladybridge’s Philip Stewart. Expect a 90% win record from both. Joining them near the top of the averages – provided he changes into trainers and shorts – will be James Storey, Harper Green’s resident worker (deceptive speed from the big man). Farnworth’s Andrew Gregory – wounded and hurt following relegation from Three – should quickly adapt his superior game to the demands of this division. Finally, my wild card: Bolton L&G’s Faizan Bhura (bidding wars may ensue).

Division Three will be a beautiful and rarefied setting next season for a handful of very strong players. I am certain the cream will rise: Lostock’s John Nuttall – undefeated in Four and will be too hot to handle for most of Three’s constituents; Heaton’s Dave Jones Jnr – his own harshest critic (Summer League battles have toughened him); Walkden’s Richard Whittleworth – passionate and fierce (a giant); Hilton’s Mathew Fishwick (solid coaching behind him) and wild card, John Barker (relegated but technically sound).

Division Two is my level next time out following successive promotions with BRASS. I am no fool though and expect weekly beatings from most players, especially Meadow Ben’s Mike Audsley and Heaton’s southpaw, Paul McCormick. The new boy, Wilson Parker will set this league alight (his entourage alone unsettling some). My wild card has to be Hilton’s Bethany Farnworth (again, a relegation faller).

The top two divisions (One & Prem), I am told, will have Ladybridge’s burgeoning Steve Hathaway mixing it with Little Lever’s Duncan Hadfield, and Flixton’s Louis Rosenthal threatening the dominance of Ramsbottom’s Michael Moir.

 

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Summer Dream

Finals Night. The last competitive run-out before September. Not quite the significance of a Warburton Cup Final or Closed Championship, but important to many players – a useful gauge as to their standing across all five winter divisions; an empirical assertion that one’s form curve is either upward or downward.

Truly committed table tennis connoisseurs stick it out until now – book their holidays in late July or August. They understand the need to extend the seven-month season to nine, sacrifice pleasure for an often greater feeling – that of pulling off new shots and defeating someone two divisions above you.

There are characters galore at the Hilton Centre tonight. It is an intensely hot evening. Too hot. It feels like a mountaineers’ base camp though such is the camaraderie and good humour.

I examine a few of the faces: Barry Walsh – in his seventies but with a knowing twinkle in his eye; Malcolm Rose – known as ‘Magic’, a fighter extraordinare; Alan Bradshaw – always ready with the chocolate after a match as if marooned; Brian Young – keen to regale those around him with a famous tale; Richard Reading – Bolton’s answer to Father Christmas.

It feels like an extended family. The warmth of these individuals is quite affecting. There isn’t an obvious hunger about them when it comes to the game, but once in the table tennis cauldron, the pit – beware!

The best four teams in this 20-team tournament have been Dynamo, Hilton B, Coburg and Barcroft – steered admirably by Wilson Parker, Annie Hudson, Jim Hewitt and John Scowcroft. Dynamo – magical in many ways – remain the only undefeated side (W 8 D 1 L 0). It has been a round-robin master class. And their knockout clash against fellow divisional winners, Hilton B proves to be comfortable: 13-5. Champions, Dynamo!

It is one half of this summer crew that I wish to mention and pay homage to in closing: 18-year-old Mathew Fishwick. Just the one ‘T’ in Mathew which is a shame as this boy deserves two. The obvious acronym (TT) would have been quite fateful given Fishwick’s transformation into an extremely competent player.

His name, in the same company as Lindsey Thornton and Andrew Rushton courtesy of The Ralph Palmer Memorial Trophy for ‘Most Promising Junior’ (2011/12), will be spoken of much more in the coming years I suspect. He has “worked patiently and tirelessly”. Expect a 75% win record 2013/14.

 

Five-Set Woe

Coburg’s Bob Bent (Div 1 / 55%) is an enigma. He has the appearance and manner of an uncompromising and offhand army sergeant and yet his serves have something of a 1920s jazz-injection about them; highballs with plenty of sophistication and liquor. It is the cutting prowess of the play which deceives lesser opponents – has them spellbound and fumbling.

Jefco’s Jeff Saunders – an unknown statistically speaking – equipped with penhold grip and raw belief, has little attacking ability but the clever knack of de-beautifying the game. His chopping, side spin returns – feet away from the table – are like menacing caveats: NOT MUCH VARIETY BUT I NEVER GIVE IN.

Bent, immediately wary of this wild card before him, somehow scrambles his way through the first game (11-9). His cheeks are puffed out, his legs heavy. He has the look of an escaped prisoner being chased by bloodhounds such is the relentlessness of Saunders.

Jefco’s unseeded grafter takes hope from the initial battle and duly wins games two and three (5-11, 9-11). With his grey mop of hair and black T-shirt, there is a hint of the ageing rocker about Saunders, an unwillingness to let the music stop.

Momentarily, it does (11-6 Bent), but Saunders prevails (9-11) through sweat, his millimetre-perfect chop and the canny methodology of a dull executioner.

Next up is Coburg’s Mark Speakman (Div 1 / 20%) and Jefco’s mighty Dave Jones Jnr (Div 3 / 67%). Speakman streaks ahead (11-8). He possesses a blistering backhand which unleashes the fury of the table tennis gods at times. Wearing his trademark blue and white top, he is, for the moment, preying on the seemingly unoiled game of Jones Jnr.

Jones has a habit of whacking his left thigh with the bat when things are going wrong, as if seeking out blood or life amid the numbness. Kick-starting his game, a semblance of his ability, he begins to produce what I know he is capable of: 4-11, 6-11. Not one to rein in the high-risk shots, he is, all of a sudden, unforgiving, acutely adaptable. 10-12.

An early 3-6 lead for Jefco; Jones narrowly avoiding a cataclysmic five-setter which can chew up your insides and leave you shaking like you’re about to enter an examination hall.

The doubles (2-3) pushes Jefco further ahead, Speakman learns how to master Saunders (3-1), yet Jones adds to Bent’s five-set woe (2-3). 10-13 Jefco. Exceptional.