Hail King Louis


Premier Division: Hilton A 1 Flixton 8

They stroke the tables at this level – make sure there are no damp spots or rogue bits of dust. I am sat next to the 1980 European Champion, John Hilton now representing Flixton. He is knowledgeable – the Lovejoy of table tennis, his voice a little gruff.

The table is a grand piano to him – its surface, spruce rather than Masonite. This ‘twiddler’ of the bat and table tennis giant is in good spirits tonight. A range of subjects smatter the air – tax, Chinese players, old foe Ramsbottom’s venue.

We begin. I remind Hilton’s Mark Gibson that he’ll be facing three undefeated players in Flixton’s Paul Cicchelli, Louis Rosenthal and John Hilton. “No pressure then,” comes the gallant retort.

The first match goes with form: Cicchelli too refined, too canny when pitted against the raw power of Gibson (11-7, 11-7, 12-10). Cicchelli arches his body like a yoga teacher – his wolfman arms twisting and bending, his Killerspin paddle case an early-warning system, a ‘DEFCON 3’ to the opposition.

Jordan Brookes is next – Hilton’s laid back, yet sinewy 15-year-old. Headphones on, music between matches, you sense that he’s drifted off at times – is walking a beach in his Hollister joggers. 17-15: a tough, impressive start by Brookes – two set points down versus the hair-lacquered Action Man, Rosenthal but living with his speed.

Rosenthal, 29, Puma top, Butterfly trainers is the perfect embodiment of counterdrives. You think a ball has got past him, but no – the super-fit Flixton man swings an arm from nowhere and mops up the points. 11-6. 11-7. 11-2. The comeback is not unexpected, but still, it resounds with SAS-like flair.

Gibson again. Graham Coupe, Hilton’s third man has yet to arrive and so it’s up to the Hilton bomber to try to dismantle the game of Flixton spinner, John. Only one black rubber for JH tonight – his preferred two long since outlawed.

11-6: Gibson on top. “I’d say you’re playing him too much down his backhand,” Cicchelli tells JH. An immediate response from the 1980 Champ: 11-7, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9; faded Athens 2004 T-shirt soaking up the sweat, shot variation colossal.

Brookes stops the rot in a topsy-turvy spectacular with Cicchelli (11-1, 11-8, 6-11, 2-11, 11-6), but after that the dominos fall: Coupe 0-3 Rosenthal; Brookes 0-3 Hilton; Coupe 1-3 Cicchelli; Gibson 0-3 Rosenthal; Coupe 2-3 Hilton.

The Rosenthal aftershave just about lingers through the grind and perspiration.

Jones Jnr the Difference

George Yates Trophy: Hilton ‘G’ 359 Heaton ‘E’ 399.5

A curious crowd converges on the Hilton Table Tennis Centre for this clash between 8th placed Division Two side, Hilton and 4th placed Division Three side, Heaton.

This is television to whisker-faced Dave Parker, worth more than the bus fare to Barry Walsh and a chance for Steve Hunt to glimpse numerous rivals.

Entering the green-curtained den are Heaton’s no-nonsense crew: Dave Jones Jnr – affable but deadly; Phil Beales – self-deprecating cruise ship king; Dave Jones Snr – 71-years-old yet with the footwork of a ballerina.

The handicap of 72.5 looks generous to a team of this standard – the equivalent of two points per game – but then I have only previously witnessed Alan Bradshaw from the Hilton camp. Gary Hilton and Tony Eardley remain a mystery.

It is Bradshaw versus Beales first – the tallest players here. Both have experience in abundance. Both are rangy and lethal when an opportunity presents itself. 8-11: a stumbling start for Bradshaw – timing off a little, a tap of his gold watch signalling the need to improve.

Up in the clouds where these fellas gaze at the 9 feet by 5 feet table with its intersecting 6 inch net, play must seem slower, the opponent slightly mechanical at times. Bradshaw, snapped reverse-lollypop backhands when on fire, when in his element, manages to salvage the second set (13-11) – find his way back to earth.

Two 11-9s follow – the traditional four-set cup match showcasing Beales’s impressive rolling forehands and cross-table backhands but ultimately bowing to the Bradshaw combinations.

Gary Hilton next – bright eyes, a tiny Mohican forged by his receding hairline. He is up against Jones Snr, Phoenix Knights of Harmony barbershop singer. It appears grim for the ‘A cappella’ maestro: 6-11 and 0-5 down in the second.

A quitter he is not though. An intense expression hammers across his face like a rivet on a high-rise development. Early backhand top spins level matters for Jones Snr (11-9). Hilton fights back – timely forehands picking out the corners (9-11) – but it’s the Phoenix man with his patient strokes who grabs the fourth (12-10).

Eardley now – momentarily tucked up in bob hat, glasses and large-collared coat. If there was a table tennis hell, he would be there chopping a burning ball back at you. He has a tough, ugly game but also a sixth sense. Jones Jnr contains him (9-11, 12-10, 6-11, 11-7) and is immense on the night.

Hibbert Keeps Wheels on Promotion Charge

Division Four: Harper Brass ‘C’ 4 Meadow Ben ‘C’ 5

The fifth tier in the Bolton Table Tennis League is hotting up – starting to take shape. Meadow Ben – in pole position – arrive at Harper Brass’s blossoming Mecca like VIPs in a Vegas restaurant: Alan Weall, their 75% man – a cross between the Dalai Lama and Bobby Charlton; Alan Hibbert, 74-years-old yet still formidable; John Parker, tall, well-spoken – a hint of Julian Assange about him.

Meadow have a healthy 66% win record between them this season compared to Harper’s still respectable 60%. Such statistics often crumble within minutes though – fall foul of the ‘contrasting styles’ philosophy.

Faizan Bhura, Harper’s 19-year-old wonderkid, kick-starts the evening. He is up against Weall who has removed his red fleece (Lama-like robe) and now stands in Lonsdale pants and Dunlop Green Flash ready to trade shots.

9-11. Bhura worryingly throws away a 6-2 lead in the first. Frustration rarely toys with his mind, however. He looks unnerved – his focus immediately shifting to set two. 11-7. Much better from him – steady rallies and such an easy style. 11-9. Bhura nicks the third; Weall puffing slightly – hand on his left thigh.

Weall, I notice, has an extremely elegant serve. Fingers outstretched, the ball flat on his palm, he releases the white, 40mm celluloid like a magician would a dove. Bhura lets him back in: 5-11. The enjoyment on Weall’s face is marvellous to see. He is still fighting the young, still weaving around, until…Bhura changes gear. Great lift from the Harper teenager clinches the win: 11-4.

Kaushik Makwana now – a mercurial player if ever there was one; sometimes brilliant, often egregious. His opponent, Hibbert – white hair, understated threat – laps up the generous Makwana high balls: 11-3. We immediately witness the changing fortunes and probability-busting fate of the Harper secretary though: Hibbert succumbing to vicious Makwana backhands (4-11) in the second and conceding a 9-8 lead in the third (10-12).

Stamina is the thing with Makwana – often his brutal slayer – but luck is with him this time: 8-11, 13-11.

Enter Haroon Khan. He has referred to each of the opposition tonight as ‘John’ as if in an unfamiliar pub addressing various barmen. Parker doesn’t mind because that is his name, but the scoreline suggests otherwise: 11-5, 11-3, 11-6.

A 4-1 lead courtesy of Makwana and Bhura duffing up Weall and Parker looks ominous for Meadow. Cue comeback (4-4) and Hibbert, the white knight felling Bhura.

Grand Slaughter

Division One: Bolton University ‘A’ 1-8 Hilton ‘B’

A can of Dr Pepper lingered on the umpire’s table tonight. Had it been a doctor of medicine or psychology – as opposed to carbonated cola – then we might well have had a different outcome.

As it was, Bolton University’s Graham Clayborough, Sam Evans and Kirit Chauhan fell away in the second half of this eagerly sought encounter; their belief shot through a little, their Division Two skills from last season not quite making the grade in this higher league.

Hilton, their opponents, are a curious proposition: Dave Scowcroft, the northern mauler; Eddie Simon, something regal and chic about him; Alan Ingerson, southpaw maestro when his energy levels allow.

Clayborough opened Bolton University’s account with a cagey, yet decisive 3-2 win over Simon (7-11, 11-5, 11-9, 9-11, 11-5) but any thoughts of it being a harbinger of success were painfully dashed.

Evans, Aztec shorts, black top and Stiga trainers certainly looked the part and his loose grip of the bat had the wondrous effect of arching the ball from his favoured left-side of the table at times.

Against Scowcroft though, the man staring him down, things are never simple. With only one straight-sets loss so far this season (versus Bethany Farnworth), Scowcroft – even on a relatively off-night – displays the bounce and vigour of a young greyhound. There is a conspicuous upping of the tempo when he comes to the table. If he was on a sinking ship, you sense that he’d be first to the lifeboat – circumventing the “women and children first” protocol.

An 11-7 and 11-2 start for Scowcroft suggested this match was going with form until Evans’ deep, ripping forehands and fine-length loops unsettled the Hilton man (11-13, 8-11). The story had to inevitably end with a Scowcroft win, however – his trusted backhand dispatching Evans in the final set 11-6.

Ingerson followed this up with an equally shaky performance in what was billed the ‘Little and Large Show’ – Chauhan giving up one foot in height. 11-2. 5-11. 11-13. 11-7. The Hilton giant appears, at times, too dependent on his cranking top spin, but then the bewitching blocks mix up his game and he somehow ends with a smile (11-7); the weary, mopping of his face before the 4th managing to galvanize him.

The climax was a subdued, yet rich victory for Hilton: Evans 1-3 Simon, Graham 0-3 Ingerson, Chauhan 0-3 Scowcroft, Evans 0-3 Ingerson, Clayborough 0-3 Scowcroft, Chauhan 0-3 Simon.