Ramsbottom Crowned Champions after Lightowler Treble

champion

Premier Division

Ramsbottom             5          (Lightowler 3, Moir 2, Jackson 0)

Flixton                          4          (Rosenthal 2, Cicchelli 1, Biggs 1)

Is there a different kind of pressure on a night like this? I ask the question to Ramsbottom’s 100% man, Michael Moir or ‘Mick’ as he calls himself when struggling, when bludgeoned by a force he’s not used to. He hesitates a little. “No. Not really.”

I push for more – ask if it still matters…mention the fierce Glasgow-like rivalry between Ramsbottom and Flixton and wonder where it sits in the wider Moir perspective. “Yes. You wanna win…I’ve only done the British League [remember].”

They are the words of a man either playing down his fine achievements in this sport or enunciation constrained by potentially ribbing teammates. Through the now familiar and strikingly-bristled face, Moir keeps his expression tight, clipped – the opposite of his rangy play.

Ramsbottom need only three points this evening to make it insurmountable for Flixton; three points to regain the title so mercilessly taken from them on 4 April 2013. On that night, Moir produced his usual treble but his team was overwhelmed by Louis Rosenthal, John Hilton and Paul Cicchelli.

The personnel are similar now: Moir, Richard Lightowler (100%) and Andrew Jackson (88%) – Mark Ramsbottom watching – versus Rosenthal (100%), Cicchelli (93%) and Phil Biggs (88%); Hilton -1980 European Champion – never seen in these parts, like a convict fleeing the Crown.

Cicchelli, thrown in first, moans to his captain, Biggs: “I’m still on the motorway. I don’t need to go on first!” Biggs is insistent though – calming his player, trying to talk him round. Waiting in the wings is Moir, just keen to get started, keen to show his dominance and fluidity. 11-3,11-3. Cicchelli’s rage heightens: “Got no touch!”

He is a man being bossed by Moir, a man whose job has largely taken over his life; too many motorway miles, too many – by his own admittance – KFC Fiery Bites. You feel like throwing him an iceberg lettuce – something to stem the abysmal form. Because on his day, Cicchelli has the most elegant chop in the game – it has a ‘baby rocking’ motion to it, a perfectly aligned forearm.

6-4 in the third. Moir appears to be coasting, but then Cicchelli finds his gear. In amongst the heavy breathing, the overuse of his white towel and the reddened face, he clutches at something which transforms his play. 6-9: five straight points. 8-9: Moir is not easily felled. 9-11: Cicchelli is back in it.

Moir begins to tighten up. At 2-3 a couple of shots hit the top of the net and then drop back onto his side. 2-5: Cicchelli pulls away. 6-11: We have a five-setter.

Biggs moves in for a tete-a-tete, a final set briefing. Lightowler does the same with Moir. The words from Cicchelli are still damning despite his comeback: “Can’t believe…playing this *&^$ and still in it.”

If Moir is unsettled, disconcerted by the Cicchelli Jekyll and Hide act, then it doesn’t show. The impeccable Adidas attire (blue top / black shorts / white socks) has the effect of veiling his sweat, disguising how spent he really is.

They make their way to the table. Cicchelli serves. It is a beauty – deep left. Moir twitches. He refuses to lie down (that will come later versus Rosenthal). 2-1: his crumbling game momentarily stops. 3-3: a fierce diagonal backhand from Cicchelli. 5-3: net and in from Moir. It is the heartache point which Cicchelli cannot come back from. 11-4: Moir is respectful but pleased.

Ramsbottom sail away.

 

 

Michnowiec Puts Spoke in Flixton Wheel

spoke

Premier Division

Flixton                       8

Hilton ‘A’                  1

Hilton’s Andrew Michnowiec is a man from a time machine. In his old, yellow Joola T-shirt, Umbro socks, and shorts evidently hired from Nomads’ Paul Brandwood, he represents a flashback to a better era – one without polish, without modern gizmos that empty our minds.

The Polish name, perhaps anglicized (formerly with three ‘i’s), would seem to emanate from the south-eastern corner of that tough region. It is one of many fine, European appellations to bless the league; Maciejewski, Cicchelli, Dobrzanska, Dumpelnik and Szorcz the others.

The first pairing tonight is Flixton’s Paul Cicchelli and the man himself – Michnowiec. The venue – best car park on the circuit, Tibhar Smash 28/R table, wood climbing the green walls – is ripe for an intoxicating encounter, an Italy versus Poland spectacular and more.

There is a pink sheet of paper on the far wall’s tiny, cork noticeboard. It announces: NO SWEARING OR UNSPORTING CONDUCT. Cicchelli will struggle. There will be a few bejesuses that pass his lips before the night is out.

It begins. Michnowiec succumbs to a slender Cicchelli lead (4-3) in the first set at which point Flixton’s secretary, Phil Biggs interrupts. “Can you just throw the ball up a bit, Andy?” It is a clear hint regarding the legality of the Hilton player’s serves – the minimum ‘6-inch toss’ rule being ignored.

Michnowiec has an old-school serve – a low-swooping, swallow-like trajectory with the grace of a pinball. He addresses the ball hurriedly – catches opponents off guard. Cicchelli is too experienced, too big in the chops, to fall for such a ploy, however. 11-7: It is going to plan.

Watching Cicchelli you come to realise that it is at times like observing a craftsman in his shed, a woodwork maestro using a plane. One can almost see fine shavings from the ball such is his bat’s phenomenally thin contact with it.

There is a problem though: his stamina. I count the points before his breathing changes; thirty – at 6-6 in the second. Cicchelli’s natural rhythm and bounciness are affected. Despite the whipping forehands, his game becomes littered with mistakes – a grating inability to finish inferior talents off quickly and tellingly.

8-11: Michnowiec sees the disparity. He then manages to turn around a 5-1 deficit in the third, pulling it back to 8-7. Something in Cicchelli snaps. Abound with comment after comment, slating his own play, he becomes the mad Italian at work in the kitchen – saucers and pans crashing to the floor, minions running for their lives. An almost echoing and desperate cry of ”Jesus Christ!” helps him take the third set (11-7). And the fourth follows: 12-10.

Phil Bowen steps up. A gold chain dances at the neck of his black, Arbory T-shirt. He is a no-nonsense southpaw celebrating his 61st birthday at home with his Flixton ‘family’. Jordan Brookes, navy and white Le Coq Sportif jersey, is the table tennis thief – happy to roll up, take what he can, make a grab at the points and then return to his palace. Not tonight alas. It is a late present for Bowen: 11-8,11-3,11-9.

John Hilton finally trots in. His face dons a permanent smile. “Golfing all day. Won it – the doubles.” He squeaks past Mark Gibson (11-9,11-9,14-12) and demolishes Brookes (11-5,12-10,11-7) but then comes Michnowiec, the Polish slugger.

Low, flat, bruising forehands race over the net. 10-12, 9-11. John’s panache seems to have disintegrated. At 4-9 down in the third a comedic line bursts from him: “He’s not missed any!!!” It is true: a giant, giant scalp for Michnowiec (8-11).

 

 

Albany Smashed Again but Show Great Spirit

Division Four

Albany TTC              0

Meadow Hill            9

What a shot!!….Yes!” It was not so much the words from Albany’s Terry Cross, but rather their tone and stout defence, their necessity in the face of a beleaguered assault by a canny opponent. Having nicked the table twice in the 4th set – a huge but unavoidable sin in the table tennis world – you could sense the glee and wild abandon in him. No hint of an apology (the usual raised hand and “Sorry”) – just a jig of sorts, a celebration, the renewed belief that the match was still alive.

It was refreshing really – seeing a member of the league’s newest team completely disregarding etiquette or perhaps having no concept of such old-fashioned protocol. It was the golfer failing to rake the bunker, the darts player shadowing ‘bunny ears’ above the darts board, and yet it brightened the evening and provided a crucial spark to the procession-like beatings.

This was match no.5 – ‘the centre of the chocolate’. Albany were already 4-0 down against former Division Three outfit, Meadow Hill. They were praying for something – a crumb, a minuscule reward for turning up, for their fighting spirit, their unorthodox use of the bat.

5-11, 11-5, 8-11: Cross was on the ropes, looking a little dazed before the luck set in. His second nick (side left) allowed him to take command at 8-7 in the 4th. David Brownlow (46%) wondered what was happening. Cross (16%) was playing as Albany’s no.1 seed, but it was clear from the stats and the rhythm – however marginal – that he was their no.3.

11-9. Cross was jubilant. It was the 25th November all over again; another five-setter with the stern but schizophrenic, Brownlow. I say ‘schizophrenic’ only because there are two Brownlows. The first is Meadow’s unrelenting, simmering, anger management player. The second is the man without a bat in his hand – pleasant, courteous, perceptive and cordial.

He took this match in the 5th (Cross bowing out 5-11) in a similar vein to four months ago. As he trooped off, I made a point of asking him: Do you enjoy it? I expected a tirade, a volley of expletives, a ‘mind your own business’. He appeared to be one of the sulkiest players I had ever seen. But then Brownlow the saffron angel, without his dark guise, without his ‘on court’ Green Goblin persona emerged. “Very much so.”

We all change, metamorphose into someone else when playing, but Brownlow is the extreme. Laced up in Hi-Tec Squash trainers and Puma joggers, there is a rugged intensity to the man, a ‘have to win’ prevalence. Then the switch flicks and he is normal again.

Meadow won this encounter handsomely; their ‘double Roy’ attack – Caswell (71%) and Platt (69%) – engineering a methodical, if at times, careless conquest.

For now, Albany will play second fiddle in this division. They will struggle and struggle again. What a beautiful venue from which to play though – up there with the Hilton Centre in terms of lighting, Butterfly divides and meticulous flooring (not forgetting the Kettler table).

The irrepressible Terry Cross, stately Barry Atkins (19%) and merry Stuart Cross (24%) – no relation – will have their day soon.

 

 

On the Trail of Garvin Yim

garvin

‘“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” Floyd Patterson said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or stars; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After [Sonny] Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth towards all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody.”’ Continue reading On the Trail of Garvin Yim

The Daves of Division Two

When Roger Lloyd-Pack passed away in January of this year he left behind not only a serious acting career (roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre) but a comedy legacy. Colin ‘Trigger’ Ball, as he was known to adoring fans of John Sullivan’s Only Fools and Horses, was famous for his innocent yet howling one-liners; “What’s the name of that bloke who invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner?” just one of the masterfully-scripted scores.

Better known for addressing Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character, Rodney Trotter as ‘Dave’, Lloyd-Pack demonstrated the immensity of playing the low-IQ, straight man. Like a barman using the default of ‘John’ to unfamiliar faces, perhaps the Peckham road sweeper was trying to keep his life simple and manageable.

There are plenty of Daves in this world – very few Rodneys. This is evidenced by a quick glance at the player names in Division Two of the Bolton League. The Rodneys are outnumbered by five to one (more than 20 to 1 across the entire league). It is for this reason and in honour of the blue-suited Trigger that I will concentrate this piece of journalism on the table-tennising Daves.

Their records appear quite rotten on first inspection – almost reinforcing the plight of being a ‘Dave’. But then you look beneath the surface, as with most things, and realise there are various stories afoot.

 

Battle of the Daves’      Team                Played            Won              Win%age

David Cain                  Ramsbottom D          36                    15                    42%

David Jones                Bolton Uni B               48                    13                    27%

David Brookes           Harper Brass A         15                      1                       7%

David Mottershead Bolton Uni B             15                      0                       0%

Dave Rogers                FarnworthSC A        15                      0                       0%

 

David Cain, old warrior that he is, has returned to the game almost full-time after a decade out. Funny bat, ‘holiday’ legs, the Ramsbottom man has held his own with a notable ‘double’ over Tony Eardley and big wins against Gary Hilton, John Birchall, John Cole and Stephen Hunt. His win percentage at 42 is respectable indeed and puts him top of the Dave table.

David Jones – the burly bruiser playing for BoltonUniversity – whilst suffering a dip in form since December (just two wins from twenty-four matches) is a handful for anyone. The hard-hitting Farnworth man, playing up a division from last season has been unfortunate to lose six out of seven five-setters whilst on that run.

Such stats become psychological. His losses over the season to patient players such as Brian Greenhalgh and Alan Bradshaw perhaps tell the tale but his Division Two win percentage of 27% is still a ratio-busting figure when compared to last season’s 33% in Division Three.

David Brookes is the enigma of the bunch for me. A bit-part player (loves his handball and holidays), the Harper man is possibly a victim of never quite ‘getting going’ or having a sustained run in the team. His one victory, a truly uplifting five-set win against the might of 58% man, Gary Hilton was remarkable yet somehow demonstrative of better things to come. The father of Premier demon, Jordan, David quite simply needs to replicate his son’s killer instinct.

The remaining Daves – Mottershead and Rogers – although yet to record a win between them this season should be applauded for taking a set off Gillian Marsden and Bob Waller respectively.

Watch out, Rodney Hall (60%) – they’re gunning for you!

 

Fleetwood Town 0 AFC Wimbledon 0: Torturous to Some

 

grumbler

Unusual for Graham Alexander to employ such a system: 3-5-2 (inevitably becoming 5-3-2); Alan Goodall, the old pro, sat between the centre halves rather than in front of the back four. But the wingbacks – were they conversant in the silky skills required to penetrate deep into opposition territory? Alas – not today. And the three man midfield – Murdoch, Sarcevic and new boy, Bobby Grant. Did they live by the psychic code of all great midfields? Were they each aware of the others’ movement and concession of space? Did they… gel? Not particularly.

I sat next to the grumbler of all grumblers today or rather an old man kitted out in sarcasm and negativity. It wasn’t pleasant. “£300,000 for Matt. £150,000 for Cresswell. What for?!” I am a team’s biggest critic but I at least know that players mostly feed off a crowd’s enthusiasm. To not expect anything from these “lumpen cart horses” in front of him or have one word of belief – it astounded me. Why had he been coming for 6 years?

He had been trussed up in the dangerous designs of having a ‘divine right’ to win. He had been spoilt. Was Fleetwood’s miraculous rise from the tenth tier to the fourth in a matter of fifteen years not there to be celebrated by the spectacle of each and every opponent to grace Highbury’s pitch? Wasn’t the visiting might of old giants like Portsmouth, Plymouth and Oxford enough? What did the old bugger expect? An easy stroll to the Championship?

From 100 fans to 3000. It was a fairy tale. The stands. The community. The set up. The brazen red letters on each programme – CODARMY. Not ‘Fleetwood’ made large font but a sign, a message to the opposition that we are together and prepared to graft and utilise every last ounce of sweat.

Expectation levels sometimes enter a realm which doesn’t entirely inhabit the real world. The young become impatient. The old offset their physical difficulties by moaning at able-bodied men. Some fans – most notably the proud, singing and bobbing unit in the centre of the Memorial Stand (accompanied by the beating of a war drum) – truly act as the 12th man. They understand that where we are is special. They do not take league status lightly. To be in one of the top four divisions of English football – by Christ, that is something for a town of this size.

Promotion to League One? Let us dream – yes. Let us try to sustain this momentum. Let us exploit whatever bricks have fallen into place. But booing if things go wrong, an attempt at humour with the dried-husk words of a menacing cynic? Leave them at home.

The team is trying. There are twenty-three different flavours, tastes and styles to contend with. Sometimes we’ll balls it up. Sometimes it will look bloody awful. But this was never meant to be choreography or theatre. It is blood and thunder, luck, random ideas, attrition – organised chaos with a circular piece of leather being thrust around the turf.

Did I curse Alexander for his tactics today? A little. Did I wonder why the hell he persists with two big men up front? Absolutely. Was I aware that the team void of Jeff Hughes and David Ball looks decidedly mediocre and without sufficient drive? You bloody betcha. Did I have my head down at the final whistle or rejoice in the contribution of our terrier and no.22 spark, Matty Hughes? Without doubt, the latter.

I applauded the team off the field despite my disappointment at only gaining a draw. I trumpeted individual performances which offered hope irrespective of the dip in form.

Can this team still gain automatic promotion? Yes. What if it’s only the play-offs or worse given the charge of Plymouth? We’ll live with it, regroup, understand just how far we’ve come, fully comprehend the privilege of playing in League Two.

And The Grumbler? A man I will have to sit next to for the Portsmouth and Rochdale games having pre-booked the tickets.

I will get my son to smear a hotdog in his face accidentally if he doesn’t see something in Fleetwood’s play – a blessed chunk of what I see every week; the player desperately working towards a cohesive unit; the slick passing of Big Jon Parkin (on a good day); the threat of Charlie Taylor when he smells a lack of speed; the bursting and compensatory runs of Gareth Evans in the knowledge that we do not possess any traditional wingers.

If he doesn’t see this, then feed him to the Kop. Cod Army! Cod Army! Cod Army!