The Players Who Stare at Goats

Division Two: Meadow Ben ‘B’ 8 – 1 Harper Brass ‘A’

The road sign ‘Elderly people crossing’ I now realise is not just a polite request to slow down, but a taunting, mocking generational laugh aimed at the young. The post-60 brigades wish to draw you in, have you think that they are decrepit and foolish, when in fact their strength, power and alertness are quite astonishing.

Meadow’s Mike Audsley, Jim Bollard and Ian Wheeldon are a case in point. Sure, they play on questionable home turf where the ball travels faster and the table appears shorter, but their collective ages belie the doom mongers. They may dodder, yet once ‘in the zone’ they are transformed into gladiators.

We have travelled here tonight – Dave Brookes, Ray Isherwood and I – into the unknown. Meadow is a curious mix of the dominant (Audsley – 82% win percentage in 2012/13), the unpredictable (Bollard – 54%) and the steady (Wheeldon – 31%). Looking at their play versus Dave Brookes – who needs to shoot off early – I think I see those very numbers tattooed to their bats.

Bollard is aggressive, direct and has sufficient spin on his serve to weed out Division Two impostors. Brookes, lover of rallies, grinder of the opposition, unfortunately goes long with numerous smashes. It is Bollard’s: 11-5, 11-6, 8-11, 11-5.

Audsley next for the Bolton joiner. 7-11, 11-9, 6-11. Brookes is frustrating him. Audsley is a little rusty but reluctant to de-couple his pure game. The old technique surfaces just in time: 12-10, 11-7.

One more chance for Brookes, otherwise it’ll be a contemplative drive to Preston to pick up his son. It is tight, but Wheeldon takes him in straight sets: 12-10, 11-6, 15-13.

It is my turn now. Ray has yet to arrive, so it’ll be consecutive matches. Not ideal – too much sweat. I take the first set off Audsley (7-11) but then the old lion tears into me: 11-4, 12-10, 11-7.

My next opponent is Bollard. He talks too much – describes each point. You feel like gagging him, throwing him in a cellar. If he wasn’t so worthy of his place on the table tennis circuit, you probably would. Too much for me: 11-5, 11-3, 10-12, 11-8.

Wheeldon cuts me down (11-7, 10-12, 11-2, 11-7) and the already torturous evening gets worse.

Isherwood finally arrives, panting like a bloodhound. Some of the old magic – please! Bollard 3-0 Isherwood.  Audsley 3-0 Isherwood. Wheeldon 2-3 Isherwood. Whitewash avoided!


Ladybridge Routed by Field Marshal Tim

Division Two: Ladybridge ‘B’  2 – 7  Ramsbottom ‘D’

Ladybridge Community Centre: kids’ plastic chairs – red, blue, green – are stacked in the corner. The place doubles as a nursery and one gets the sense of an invisible, miniature crowd.

I notice the table, a Tibhar Smash 28/R – named after its founder Tibor Harangozo. It is of good quality. No problem there.

Home player, John Cole is first out against Ramsbottom’s precocious 15-year-old, Dominic Siddall. Nerves often blight Siddall’s early play. I witnessed his first two sets of the season and he went from stuttering Lada to revved-up Subaru.

It is a similar story now. Cole – wiry, glasses, red top – hits him out of the initial set courtesy of his deep, wrist-accentuated forehands (11-4). The second set also goes his way (11-9); his ability in keeping the ball in-play quite unparalleled.

But then the Subaru fires up. Siddall shows incredible maturity in the third, retaining faith in his forehand top spins and examining – really examining – the approaching ball. 11-8.

Cole seems to speed up – lose a little focus. 11-7 to Siddall and we’re now into the fifth; the sodden prison sentence which no player enjoys.

A lovely rally: short, long, long. Siddall takes the lead (5-2) but then loses the next six points (5-8). It is perilous. 57-year-old Cole – instinctive returns when faced with smashes – is somehow in front.

It appears to be man versus boy until…more resistance from Siddall – the streak of his orange, grey, black and white top haunting his opponent (10-9). Cole serves long. Siddall bridges the 42 years of nous and wisdom (11-9).

No such pain for Rambottom’s Timothy Fields versus Ladybridge’s Andrew Scully. He is in a hurry; occasionally to his detriment, but not tonight. 11-4. 11-8. 11-8.

The hand drier starts up in the gents. Seconds later, Ram’s no.3, David Cain makes his entrance. I am not expecting much. He has been out of the game for twelve years bar a few matches.

Brian Greenhalgh, quiet authority, stands opposite – uncanny resemblance to Paddington Bear’s Mr Brown underneath the six strip lights which give this place its glow.

3-2 down, Cain seems shattered already. The perspiration glistens. He is a grafter though, albeit with anti-rubbers: 11-8, 11-6, 4-11, 11-4.

The absence of John Birchall is a big miss for Ladybridge. More pain (Scully 0-3 Siddall, Cole 0-3 Cain, Greenhalgh 0-3 Fields) before salvaging some pride: Scully 3-2 Cain, Greenhalgh 3-0 Siddall, Cole 2-3 Fields.


In the Company of Kings

Premier Division: Nomads B 1- 8 Ramsbottom A

History has walked before me when it comes to witnessing the games of Ramsbottom’s Michael Moir and Richard Lightowler. Both are proven masters – Top 75 ETTA-ranked players in 2012.

I feel like a fraud and bounder in their company, a Division Two scrapper who needs weaning off his basic table tennis rubbers.

It is Nomads’ Paul Brandwood up first against the polish of Moir’s game; Brandwood, deadpan expression – drier than a case of American Ginger Ale; Moir, stubble-faced, unaware that he has conceded just two sets this season.

They are privileged to be playing on the Cornilleau 740 – the finest table for miles. Brandwood, unemotional, strips down to his 1980s shorts. He must mean business. His form this season has been erratic, but with Ramsbottom in town, perhaps there has been some pre-match meditation, a transcending of his normal mindset.

11-9. The first set to Moir. 11-2. A crisp, angled forehand to compound matters. This isn’t looking good. One question has always been asked of Brandwood: Can his innate skills thrive in matches or – to quote Ian Botham – “Is he just good in the practice nets?”

Seeing him close hand, you know he could play blindfolded. Nonchalance would be an understatement. 3-0 down though. He is nearly on the canvas. But then… something radiates his game. Brandwood refuses to bow out. 9-11. Finally, he has summoned up a little nerve and put his pride on the line.

Moir compliments him but knows his own stash of energy will be too much. Indeed it is. 11-6. Serves with a little extra sauce on them. Early backhand returns. Nobody completely beats Brandwood – defeats are often self-inflicted.

Nomads’ Dennis Collier is next versus Andrew Jackson. Collier is the chopper extraordinare – a defensive guru. He often runs out of space such is his tenacity. His enemies tend to be stray storage heaters, fire extinguishers, chairs, radiators. Every inch is essential to his game.

He begins well. 11-6. 17-15. Each point is operatic – wondrous to watch. Jackson then unsettles him – mixes it up (9-11, 14-16). “Ohhh!” Collier feels the drudgery, the heaped effort but brings it home: 13-11.

Lightowler now. The Dewsbury beast. He looks like a man who has returned from four wars, who feasts on 16oz steaks, tosses cabers for fun and wrestles with his cousins pre-match. Too strong for Sean Toland (3-0) and symbolic of Ramsbottom’s superiority.

VE Day

Division Three: Lostock 7 – 2 Hilton ‘K’

There was a moment tonight around the start of the penultimate match (Mike McKend Vs Brian Young) when Lostock’s John Nuttall and Arfat Khan burst down the clubhouse stairs to be with a couple of adoring female fans. In many ways it was timely – a micro-VE Day; not quite the capitulation of Nazi Germany, but more to do with an unfortunate Safron Newhouse foot injury.

It wasn’t a conscious celebration but it did coincide with an ‘over-the-line’ 5-2 lead. The whooping gaiety, whilst not exactly on a level with the noise generated by the May 1945 Piccadilly Circus crowds, was poignant nonetheless (Nuttall, strengthening his Churchillian reputation after each campaign and Khan, languid yet surprisingly lethal).

I had entered this curtained cove knowing that there were a couple of serious IDC gunslingers present – Hilton’s Mathew Fishwick (newly-crowned Division Two champion*) with his ‘bionic’ right arm and Lostock’s Nuttall (Division Three champion) with something of the amphetamine-laced Speedy Gonzales about him.

Both had early matches which should have consumed a good portion of their dominant spirit, yet with the exception of Fishwick/Khan (3-2) this was a cakewalk, a channel-changer, a lumpen no-show.

Brian Young, blue and white Hilton top proudly clinging to his chest, was the first faller – a nondescript, out of character performance producing a mere eight points against the unforgiving Nuttall (11-1, 11-4, 11-3). Khan – fight and humour ever-present – succumbed to Fishwick’s battle-hardened game (11-3, 6-11, 11-5, 9-11, 11-5). Newhouse, inhibited by the damage to her tendon, allowed Nuttall another free ride (11-6, 11-2, 11-2). McKend – commendable huff, puff and valour but insufficient to halt Fishwick’s finely-tuned splendour (11-6, 11-9, 11-8).

Other battles played out: McKend, a slight scare versus Newhouse, before chugging home (13-11, 2-11, 11-7, 12-10); Khan comfortable (11-9, 11-13, 11-4, 11-5) with Young…the latter’s right knee bandaged, his surname now a misnomer; Khan more impressive against Newhouse – his doggedness toughing it out (11-9, 13-11, 13-11) although Newhouse missed set point with a free smash in the second when 11-10 up; McKend compounding Lostock’s lead (6-2) with a 3-0 thumping of Young.

And so came the Nuttall/Fishwick showdown on the rickety Dunlop table. I had hoped for something to enliven the evening, something to hook me like a good film. Enter “the fastest mouse in all of Mexico (or Bolton)” – no mercy, no fear (11-7, 11-2, 11-7). Rare to see Fishwick so lost.

* Exception made – eligible for Div2 IDC due to declined promotion from Div3

Blimey O’Riley

Little Lever’s Phil Riley has an intense, stone-like face. He resembles a camper with his grey, baggy shorts and sky-blue top but there will be no polite frying of bacon and eggs tonight. He is a bear catcher – a grizzled human with few smiles and little diplomacy. A late entrant to the Individual Divisional Championships, Riley wishes to cut through the shaking of hands and traditional pre-match warm ups and just make a grab for the trophy.

The draw is kind to him. Only seven Premier players have entered this still-respectable cup out of a possible forty and Riley has avoided the ‘group of death’ (Barry Elliott, Jordan Brookes, Dennis Collier and David Bolton). The other ‘half’ following a late withdrawal from maverick, Paul Brandwood consists of Frenchman Frederic Turban, ‘Animal’ Andy Kaye and Phil Riley.

All of them have pedigrees of sorts; the most notable being Elliott – Closed Championship Singles Winner (2013) and reigning IDC Champion (2012). His trophy cabinet requires the handiwork of a joiner each year it is rumoured.

Group Two unfolds as expected: 44% man, Riley edging past weaker opponents, Kaye (3-1) and Turban (3-2); the latter keeping his nerve to qualify nonetheless at the expense of Kaye (3-2).

Group One is the bedraggled show everyone expected: Elliott 3-0 Bolton; Collier 3-2 Brookes; Brookes 3-2 Elliott; Collier 3-2 Bolton; Brookes 3-2 Bolton; plenty of permutations going into the last match (Elliott Vs Collier) with no one mathematically through.

Elliott, reluctant to cancel the services of his joiner, relentlessly attacks the Collier mettle. Home (3-1)! Another semi-final.

The ensuing ‘last four’ match against Turban proves to be academic (11-8, 11-7, 11-2) – Elliott toying with him near the end, his ‘impossible’ backhand top spins ripping through the Turban defence.

Not so with Brookes Vs Riley. A flat, forehand whack of near-petulance clinches the first set for Brookes (12-10) but what follows is a lunging, Desmond Douglas-like master class from Riley. Absolute conviction and intent seal it for him (11-7, 11-5, 11-9).

The worthy final sees underdog Riley facing the 84% might of Elliott. Riley, respectful of nothing and with the reach of a Bornean orangutan, reverses a 7-9 deficit to take the first set 14-12. Aggression and speed ease home the second (11-6). Is there an impostor on the premises? No – Elliott has simply met a hungrier opponent. An excruciating ending sees Riley crowned champion (8-11, 6-11, 11-6).

Other IDC finalists:
Div1 Derek Watmough (W) Bob Bent (RU)
Div2 Mathew Fishwick (W) Steve Hunt (RU)
Div3 John Nuttall (W) John Barker (RU)
Div4 Ray Isherwood (W) Keith Phillips (RU)