Honour

Honour can be a rare attribute in this modern age of sport. We think of it as decency, doing the right thing, conceding a little ground, or craving glory with the approval of those around you. Dr Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defined it as: “Nobility of the soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness.”

There are numerous examples of conduct which is the opposite of this: the 1983 boxing match between Lewis Resto and Billy Collins Jr in which trainer, Panama Lewis removed most of the padding from Resto’s gloves and soaked his hand tape in plaster of Paris (the brutal, Panda-like image of Collins Jr after the fight still shocks one to the core); Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ in the 1986 World Cup quarter final between England and Argentina which needs little elaboration; Rosie Ruiz’s 1980 Boston Marathon ‘win’ (it later transpired that she had “jumped out of the crowd close to the finish line” complete with mock sweat and a face of agony).

The incident I most remember was during the 1990 World Cup when Dutchman, Frank Rijkaard spat at German, Rudi Voller – not once, but twice. It was a despicable act by any measure. Eight years later he would manage the national side. Such ‘reward’ symbolises the inherent unfairness and apparent lack of reckoning in sport. The old adage ‘what goes around comes around’ seems to have lost its wings.

With this in mind, I stumbled upon a redemptive tale in Bolton Table Tennis’s Division Three. Hilton ‘K’ – having finished 2nd and being entitled to promotion – decided to send only half their squad into Division Two. This was to enable coach and no.4 player, Brian Young to further progress 58% man, Mathew Fishwick into the 75% bracket before the harsh winds of Division Two kicked in.

After numerous shuffling of squads, this left a promotion slot open to the team in 3rd, Walkden Meths. Approached by the league’s general secretary, they went away to think about it. The eventual response from players, Richard Whittleworth, Steve Kelsall and Neil Unsworth was effectively ‘No, ta.’ They would rather feel the thrill of promotion for real without any hand outs. “We usually finish in the bottom four. This season was a blip. We’re blokes in our fifties who aren’t supposed to improve.”

Do you applaud such words or laugh? Follow them with intrigue in 2013/14, I would say.

 

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‘The Sixteen Club’

 

In June 1978 Gordon Pearce from Bristol founded football’s ’92 Club’. I recall my school friend, Simon Westwood proudly joining their ranks having visited every ground in the football league with his enthusiastic father.

Such an achievement was certainly not common and still isn’t. Travelling the length and breadth of the country is expensive and requires devoted friends or family to accompany you or simply believe in your dream.

A little known rival to this select group (and one which I am founding now) is ‘The Sixteen Club’. This represents the number of venues which exist across all five Bolton Table Tennis winter divisions (2013/14).

There are fifty-seven teams this coming season, twenty-five clubs, approximately 200 players but only sixteen ‘stadia’.

I have visited and played in exactly half of these. And that is the great conundrum. It may seem like an easy club to join but examining each division’s forthcoming travels reveals anything from heavy-duty monotony (a slow canter to ‘The Sixteen Club’) to a wonderland of variety.

Division One’s teams are the unfortunates. A mere three venues (Heaton Cricket Club, Hilton Table Tennis Centre & Little Lever Cricket Club) await them. Should any players claim to have got lost en-route to an away match then an immediate enquiry will no doubt be set up.

Compare this to Division Four’s Kerouacian ‘road trip’: Eight venues for the league’s minnows – a gluttony of halls, gymnasiums, basements, churches and sheds. It is as if the gods wish to take their petrol or simply test their skills thus improving them.

A slight rotation of the map reveals the league’s ‘outreach’ clubs or pioneers to be Ramsbottom to the north, Radcliffe east, Flixton south and Albany -Chorley’s new boys – west.

Two of these – Flixton and Radcliffe – only have teams in the Premier Division, so unless you’re a top side or happen to meet them in the cup, the chances of you joining ‘The Sixteen Club’ are remote.

Likewise, the top teams would need to lose their memory muscles over consecutive seasons and generally implode in order to play the bottom-rung sides unless the cup affords them a trip to Spa Road (home of the dauntingly noisy Bolton Lads and Girls Club).

It is an interesting concept then. Excelling as a player will bring you more cup matches but the luck of the draw will ultimately decide your ‘TSC’ eligibility.

 

Falling in Love with the Game

I think I first picked up a table tennis bat in May 1981 at the age of ten. It wasn’t at the obligatory Silverwell Street or Horwich Leisure Centre – they came after – but in the forests of Yugoslavia. I was instantly mesmerised. What a simple, eloquent sport – how could anyone not enjoy this titanic game?

I felt like hanging around for six, eight, ten hours. Let my parents bring me lunch, tea and the occasional snack, but leave me be. I had a paddle in my hand, the soft winds of the Balkans cooling me down and a variety of opponents including my elder brother. I had found the centre of the universe and needed little else to be satisfied.

Unbeknown to me, the great John Hilton had become European Champion the year before – slaying the previous two winners, Gabor Gergely and Jacques Secretin on his way to the title. In many ways it was the beginning of a new craze. The Swedes took over the European stage not long after, but people were starting to care about this little game.

By the time I started secondary school I was half decent – trips to Silverwell Street augmenting my play and making me feel like an astronaut bridge-walking to his rocket. Arriving at the table via the notoriously long entrance at Silverwell, past reception and the badminton courts, I felt alive – ready to trade shots and do battle.

My elder brother, Stephen liked to encourage my attacking play but was essentially toying with me, demonstrating the power of his defence. Eight, twelve, fourteen feet away from the table and he would frustratingly return my every smash – fling the ball up in the air only for it to parachute down on my side of the table.

Although very much working class, our parents managed to buy a table for us in 1982 which we made use of in the back garden weather permitting. Such an investment proved effective. I was busy turning over most people my age at Withins including the Adidas Samba-wearing games teacher, Mr Smith while my brother went on to win three table tennis titles at Smithills College while taking his A-levels.

A different forest – the film, Forrest Gump was released in 1994, and together with Commonwealth hero, Matthew Syed (1997-2001) no doubt inspired the generation after us. What inspired you?

 

Pity the Hacks

There are typically 22 match nights during the September to April winter season. Survival (not finishing in the bottom two) tends to mean having to accumulate about 70 points from a possible 198. A close inspection of the statistics over the last two seasons suggests this golden number is actually 65.5 – in other words three points (3/9 wins) per evening.

To some teams this is achievable – no doubt an insult to their talents, psychological strength and general fitness. Mid-table stalwarts and those going for promotion or titles will rarely be swamped by such concerns. For the rest, it is the equivalent to football’s Premier League target of 40 points – the cradle by which the club’s prestige and status is secured.

There have been wacky seasons – Division Three’s Irlam Steel in 2011/12 losing all 22 team matches, yet finishing 10th thus surviving. This was down to the heroics of David Yates who won all but twenty of their 68 points. Some teams don’t have the luxury of a big fish in their small pond. It speaks well of Yates that he has hung around and not deserted his less gifted teammates.

Loyalty is quite a common attribute in table tennis. There are the multi-team set-ups like Hilton who shift squad members around each season in harmony with the progress of their young players, but mainly clubs consist of friends – alliances unlikely to be broken up because one player excels.

The ‘hacks’ this season (2012/13) – teams with less than three victories to their name – have been Heaton ‘A’ (Premier Division: won 0), Farnworth SC ‘A’ (Division Two: won 1), Farnworth TTC ‘B’ (Division Three: won 2), Meadow Hill (Division Three: won 2) and Hilton ‘L’ (Division Four: won 1).

Inside each team, of course, is a fuller story which transcends the harshness of a league table. Roy Caswell – general secretary and Meadow Hill’s respectable 46% man – has crucially been without the full-time services of no.1 player, Roy Platt. Farnworth TTC ‘B’ lost the services of star man, Malcolm Ferrier at the turn of the year.

These things matter, but there can be no hiding from the remaining squad members’ inability to ‘read’ the division – understand its foibles and styles. Tactics – the need to adapt one’s game to the opponent – become more important the higher you climb. Not grasping this or at least half-studying the form can be fatal.

 

Finding a Table

Sometimes I tire of playing at the same old clubs, leisure centres and schools. They are mostly warm, accommodating and adequate places but not particularly unique.

I had a theory a while back that a hidden society resides outside of the orthodox ETTA umbrella and leagues; people loving the game, playing whenever they can – during lunch hours, after work, necessary ‘scraps’ and ‘ding-dongs’ because table tennis affords us a monarchic state of mind.

Where would I find such a world though – tables maybe not accessible to the general public, venues mightier than Meadow Hill’s “large shed”? I work in Manchester and so given China’s relative peerlessness in the game over the last 20 years (a Wang/Zhang dynasty of late), I immediately thought of Chinatown.

The area is bordered by four streets: Charlotte to the north; Portland (east); Princess (south); and Mosley (west). The plan was to visit a few restaurants inside this half square mile cordon – see if a world of basement-playing stars actually existed.

Once within it – this mini-20th century Chicago to my mind, full of bustle and character – I entered the premises of the first restaurant that took my eye. New Emperor, perhaps understandably, was not an auspicious start to my tracking down the hidden tables in this section of town. “No, no, no,” came the startled response from the waiter or manager with other things on his mind.

Hunan, China City, Happy Seasons, Little Yang Sing, China Buffet and BBQ all followed (in what order I cannot recall). At last I stumbled upon people with a low score on my ‘startled-ometer’, those willing to assist in whatever capacity without the automatic assumption that I was mad.

The big, bespectacled man at Happy Seasons kindly crossed out the restaurants that had closed – farewell New Hong Kong, Dragon City and Pan Asia. The pretty manageress or accountant at BBQ offered me a seat, a smile and a brief history of the area (Ping Hong in 1948, Manchester’s first Chinese restaurant).

So sixty-five years on – surely there was something beyond the dim sum and bamboo shoots. The trail hotted up with my visit to Great Wall. “Speak to Bonnie. Yang Sing. Princess Street.” I scooted over there. Sure enough, they have a ‘Ping Pong Cha’ evening once a month. Not the earthy, underground TT I was looking for, but a small result for my endeavour.