Giant Killers Warm Up before their Big Day

giant k

Division Four

Hilton ‘L’                      3

Harper Brass ‘C’      6

Fifty years ago Oxford United knocked Blackburn Rovers out of the FA Cup 3-1 in what was arguably the biggest giant killing act in cup history. It was Division Four versus Division One – a team in only their second season of league football against established internationals.

Forget Wrexham/Arsenal (1992), Sutton United/Coventry City (1989), Wimbledon/Liverpool (1988) and Colchester/Leeds (1971). That afternoon at the Manor Ground in 1964, although perhaps not etched in modern minds, was cataclysmic – a real blueprint and precursor to Match of the Day stunners.

Hilton ‘L’, bottom of the table tennis tree, languishing in 12th place in Division Four, have had a run in the Warburton Cup (the local equivalent of the FA Cup) which has reverberated around the ‘grounds’ and will be highlighted in the table tennis annals should they go all the way.

Semi-finalists, dispensing with opposition in all three of the top divisions, Hilton ‘L’ have surprised many since their 2nd round defeat of seasoned Premier outfit, Burning Desire. That result (396.5 – 396), whilst incredibly tight and some might say fortuitous, maybe anchored itself to a greater destiny.

A young squad, the core of which is represented by 15-year-olds Thomas Field, Jason Hill and Robert Shaw, Hilton are developing at a good pace and showing the flair and belief of a close knit unit. Diplomatic squad rotation tonight from coach, Brian Young means that Hill sits it out – replaced by the youngest member of the team at just fourteen (and the boy with two surnames), Harrison Jones.

The tactical shifting of Harper Brass’s top player, Faizan Bhura to no.2 on the card results in an opening ‘big guns’ clash between Field and Bhura – a match that would normally see out the evening.

Field, blue and white Stiga top, slightly roguish gelled hair, does not look fazed. Opposite is a 75% man in mean, Nike orange-striped trainers, yet his polished technique copes admirably. 10-12. Damn unlucky; noticeable fight in the youngster when 4-8 down. Field knows that he has to have these scraps in order to rise and test himself properly.

8-11. 9-11. It is commendable from Field – not enough, but extremely encouraging. Bhura, quite simply, is match savvy. Even at 5-1 down in the third he retained his cool, played the same strokes.

Shaw versus Haroon Khan next – a decade separates them in age. The blonde, Hilton lad (grey joggers) has an austere aura to him. He knows the standards he wishes to attain, yet the path to them may unduly frustrate. 6-11. 11-8. Shaw’s whipping forehand sends a warning out to Khan.

Khan, always upbeat, enjoying his third and finest season in the league, thinks he has this opponent despite the mishap of the second. His game has improved drastically – the soft backhand is no more and the deep, arching southpaw shots have a beautiful, navigational quality. 6-11. 4-11. Too much for Shaw.

Enter the saviour, Jones – unfancied, modest stats and up against the loquacious Kaushik Makwana (55%). 11-4: Persistent smashes. 8-11: Makwana sweeping backhands. 11-7: Improved feet from Jones. 10-12: Cruel. 11-9: Always in the locker!

It is hardly Oxford United (plus Harper win on the night). But the promise, the dream – that lives on.



Knowing the Numbers


My maths teacher was given the nickname or moniker, ‘Chewbacca’ in the late 1970s. He was a tall, slim, hairy, quick-witted gent with the arm span of a light aircraft.

His classes were simple, but technical affairs. We would stand at the front in height order as if part of a Two Ronnies’ sketch in an effort to find the mean, median and mode. His swashbuckling system extended to other demonstrative feats when it came to algebra, calculus and trigonometry.

He wore glasses, BHS shirts and had the inside leg measurement of an electricity pylon, yet his extraordinary skills and personality I had not seen before and would not see again.

It is true to say that without Peter Richardson, I would have had nowhere to go, no self-belief and certainly no faith in the large, authoritarian figures who marshalled the classrooms.

As it was, numbers were the early calling. I could seemingly make them dance, perform and adequately limber up thus shaking out x’s value from deep within a quadratic equation.

My arch enemy and nemesis was Wendy Coupe (possibly spelt incorrectly but it rhymed with ‘chicken coop’). On leaving school, I heard that she’d become a bookie. True to form, although thirteen years later, I became a stockbroker.

We were still, in essence, battling away. She was taking bets. I was – let’s not kid ourselves – doing much the same. We stared at our respective screens and slowly developed a keener sense of numbers than ever before. Chewbacca had given us a leg up into these strange industries.

When the online exchange, Betfair was founded (2000) it presented an opportunity for the diffident yet sophisticated gambler to really examine this curious world – look through the swathes of numbers and decide which represented value. Or to put it bluntly, which were alarmingly but beautifully wrong.

The decimal odds (fancier than fraction odds) enabled me to create a spreadsheet with various bet/lay profit and loss projections which instantly told me what I stood to make were I to close out the position ‘in-play’. This was useful for football particularly but led to punts on cricket and tennis.

In October 2005, I noticed that Australia and the ICC World XI were both bobbing around Evens (2.0) for the proposed 6-day test at the Syndey Cricket Ground. Such numbers seemed ludicrous. Australia were a force, they were at home and they were also, crucially, a team that had played together before. Against Smith, Sehwag, Dravid, Lara, Flintoff, Muralitharan and the like they were dominant – breezing home by 210 runs with two days to spare.

My bigger bet three years later (Wimbledon 2008) had Rafael Nadal pre-French Open at around 7/1 (8.0). For a young man slowly coming to terms with grass, the figures quite simply were wrong. (Easy to say after the relief of a 6-4,6-4,6-7,6-7,9-7 final win over Federer!)

Now, it is the table tennis world which has shook me. I have looked at the Division Two scorecard (8th-placed Ladybridge ‘B’ 9 vs 1st-placed Hilton ‘E’ 0) over and over again and it just does not stack up. I would not use the word ‘irregular’ as that would bring into question the professionalism of my fellow players, but peculiar, abnormal, unusual, astonishing – yes.

Coupe would have had such a result at 100/1.



Farnworth on Fire

Little Lever CC ‘B’  5
Hilton ‘C’                     4

Of the 77 points now accumulated by Little Lever, a slight majority (40) have been won on the road. This would suggest that visiting teams take great delight in driving along the aptly-named Victory Road to the Little Lever lair.

Not tonight. Bethany Farnworth is waiting for them like the apoplectic owner of a house about to be burgled. The sleek 15-year-old may appear humble and graceful, yet underneath this deceptive demeanour is a long-limbed warrior, a young ETTA-ranked woman with something to prove each match.

Turning left through the wrought iron gates clasped by the imposing letters ‘LLCC’, you immediately get the sense that you are entering a club with a great history. Indeed, Sir Garfield Sobers played here – as he did more famously with Radcliffe Cricket Club just up the road.

In the shrouded darkness, filled with heavy rain, the weaving track up to the clubhouse could be leading you anywhere – to a country estate, a regal manor or Count Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Lightning doesn’t strike, thank god, when home captain, Paul Tatlock finally skids next to the building in his Citroen C4 at 7.29pm.

We struggle to get inside. One of the bolt locks refuses to budge and so the metal grill cannot be lifted to gain access to the door. Tatlock looks genuinely worried. There is an uncanny resemblance to Bob Parr in both his frame and face. Incredible it would be right now to just get this show on the road.

A second Paul arrives with great mastery of the said lock and sure enough, we are in. It feels like a changing room. It is a changing room, I am told – two of them joined together courtesy of a retreating divide. A terracotta-tiled floor greets the players, along with the feeling that a crazed interior designer with a penchant for red has been allowed inside.

The first match is Tatlock versus Hilton’s impeccably-attired Chris Naylor. The fury of both players is evident: “Oh, no – what’s going on? Come on” “Nooooo!!” “So slow” “Greedy” “Move your body”. 12-10,8-11,11-7,6-11. Tatlock is breathing heavily. This is uncomfortable territory. His Velvet Underground T-shirt is soaked already. The final set leaves him demoralised: 1-11.

Bethany Farnworth (red top) takes her position against Annie Hudson (blue) next. It is the neutral’s showdown with a hint of ‘Merseyside derby’ about it. Their win percentages are 62% and 90% and such stats account for the early Hudson dominance (11-6,11-6); trademark forehands swatting and dismissive. I confess to writing off Farnworth’s chances at this point. She seems a little disparate, not quite the force I had expected.

“Hit it harder,” comes the simple advice from teammate, Richard Simmons. 11-9,11-5. Instinctive backhand returns, great reach and a quiet steeliness get Farnworth back into it. There is, all of a sudden, a Mediterranean-like poise to this girl. Neither player deserves to lose such is the grand spectacle before us, but it is Farnworth who toils with her deadly forehand to the end: 11-9.

“Flippin’ eck!!!!!”

Div One – Top 7      P     W   L     F     A         Pts
Coburg                       16    16   0    96  48        96
Hilton C                     16    10  6     88  56        88
Standish                    15      9   6     85  50        85
Heaton A                  16   10   6     81  63       81
Hilton B                     14     9   5     80  46        80
Nomads C                16     9   7     78  66        78
Little Lever CC B  16    8   8     77  67         77

Movers and Shakers II

Continuing this column in relation to the Blackpool manager’s job, I think the point I was trying to make is that the higher you climb in most disciplines, the harder it gets.

You are often barracked and jolted – left weary, yet with a better understanding of yourself. This is borne out in the following table which displays the average win percentage ratios when a player moves up a table tennis division:


Division                     2011/12-2012/13    2012/13-2013/14    Average

One > Premier                     4.07                            4.15                     4.11

Two > One                            4.02                            2.53                     3.27

Three > Two                         2.99                            1.83                     2.41

Four > Three                        1.65                            1.81                     1.73

  • Each number based on data from 4-7 players

Player ‘A’ in the 2011/12 season for example might think himself a giant with an 80% win record in Division Four, but the likelihood is that this would be reduced to a mere 48% once in Division Three (80 divided by 1.65).

If the same player were to go even higher, his figure would tumble by a ratio of 2.99 to just 16% and that is before the fierce winds of Division One and the Premier host his talents (if ever) indicating a final figure of just 1%.

It is a relatively straightforward methodology ascertained using limited player data, but it quite uncannily reveals across two sets of statistics (over nearly three seasons) the increasing difficulty of rising the divisions, thus reaching the top.

Jumping from Four to Three and One to the Premier seems particularly consistent, however going from Three to Two or Two to One would appear to have got easier judging from the declining ratios. That is one theory anyway. Another is that the players going up are technically better prepared.

Mike Audsley of Meadow Ben B is a good example of this (ratio 1.17 between 2011-13) and with the 2013/14 season yet to finish, Hilton E’s Wilson Parker currently stands at an impressively low ratio of just 1.05 (96.30% divided by 91.67%).

Such figures obviously pull down the overall average but they also stand as a testament to good coaching, commitment, belief and a solid dream; categories/virtues I know young Parker has in abundance (strong parental support being another key factor I would suggest).

This leans into a conversation I had with Bury cricketer, Matthew Metcalfe the other day concerning success and its key ingredients. He was fortunate to attend a talk in Salford by three-time Super League Grand Final winner, Brian Noble during which Nobby (as he is affectionately known) alluded to the absolute need for a dream or vision.

No matter how much rhetoric you provide to an athlete or player, there has to be an overriding vision that the team can buy into; not a cheap, prescriptive gimmick but rather a firm, achievable target – genuine desire on the part of the collective.

I have scoured the divisions and spoken to numerous people in an effort to understand what exactly it is that undermines or improves a person’s win percentage. Many answers have come back (respectively): a broken bat; demanding shifts at work pre-match; refusing to give up even at 10-6 down; playing in both the Bolton and Bury leagues; more practice; strength, mental agility and experience; incentive of winning the division.

My conclusion? Bluff generally only impresses a bluffer. No interview with Karl Oyston thus far.