Unassailable

“He’ll know.” The words of Flixton’s John Hilton were not exactly suppliant. John doesn’t do suppliant, beggarly or any of that scraping around. He had simply nodded in my direction, somehow recalled my face from four months earlier, and assumed that I had lodged in my brain the November 2013 match score from his first encounter with Hilton A’s Mark Gibson.

I had a few things left in my tin head but that was not one of them. John Hilton, 1980 European Champion, had endured a five-set marathon on that chilly autumn night yet had managed – as with all wily champs – to plunder over the line (6-11, 11-7, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9).

Gibson’s Achilles’ heel was too much respect and a game not finely tuned after each point in the manner of Hilton. Their second foray in March 2014 was a straight-sets disaster for him (9-11, 9-11, 10-12) – fine margins but still…a beating, a whipping, a crucifying exposé. Only delusional players think ‘What if…?’

Hilton had been complimentary before the latter smash and grab – psychologically dressing Gibson’s mind, attuning it to a quiet satisfaction borne from ‘a close match’ rather than victory. As such, Gibson walked away – amiable handshake and all – not knowing that he’d been pickpocketed.

People meet, say things, interact and are either impressive or tolerated. It happens in table tennis halls, business, within families, almost everywhere. Had I remembered that they had shared 92 points in that initial ding dong, casually enunciated each set to Hilton like Magnus Magnusson then perhaps other things would have transpired.

Perhaps we would have chatted about the Frenchman, Bruno Parietti – his 1st round conquest (21-13, 21-19, 21-15) back in 1980. Or the Danish player, Bjarne Grimstrup – his victim in the next round (21-17, 21-9, 21-13). The German, Wilfried Lieck had been the first man to take a set off Hilton but John had dug in (14-21, 21-14, 21-13, 21-9).

A bruising match with Hungarian, Tibor Kreisz (18-21, 21-13, 21-18, 21-18) put Hilton in sight of glory, with the small matter of him needing to knock the reigning European Champion, Gabor Gergely – another Hungarian – out in the Quarter Final in order to reach the last four.

If you look at the twenty-two minute footage of Hilton’s exploits on YouTube you are transported to another time. The surroundings look quaint. It appears to be a tight arena. To the left of the table is an early advert for Betamax – just black letters on a white background. The picture of Gergely reminds you of Harry Enfield in The Scousers such is the enormity of his moustache and hair.

Hilton got through the harrowing match as you would have deduced. 18-21, 18-21, 21-19, 21-16, 21-19 tends to build character in a man – that or the belief that luck and the gods are with you.

Fast forward thirty three years: had Gibson known acutely that Hilton had seen it, done it, been on the rack – really studied the fortitude in those 1980 numbers – then maybe he would have conceded…grabbed his coat earlier. Statistics generally do two things to a player: have them leaning in for the scalp, or fearful, knowing that the conveyor belt is coming for them.

When Hilton smiles into the camera before the Final with Josef Dvoracek (Cze), having turned over Jacques Secrétin (Fra) – the 1976 champion – in the Semis, you know, you just know that he is relaxed. Insurmountable. Unassailable. Ready for action.

 

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Cart Before the Horse

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

AGMs are generally less humorous than Mark Twain, full of froth, bequeathed ground to pensioners and those seeking a ‘day out’. They can be troublesome affairs as in the case of G4S at the Excel Centre recently, but in the main they are paper-waving, acquiescent spectacles void of excitement or lustre.

The Bolton Table Tennis League AGM on 9th June promised an array of proposals – most of them modest, a few contentious and one so overwhelming in its ambition that the league set up as we know it was in danger of being ruptured permanently.

Forty seats excluding the big three traversed this cavern at the Hilton Centre, Horwich. Early arrivals had the choice of green or orange plastic, and brown or orange leather. Strangely enough, most wanted a head-on view of the proceedings and so the leather furnishings running down the left wall were largely neglected until seconds before the booming croak of General Secretary, Roy Caswell got matters underway.

Either side of the top man were Match Secretary, Brett Haslam wearing a grey T-shirt and candid face, and Treasurer, Roger Bertrand staring out like Mole in The Wind in the Willows. If you wanted an explanation, a mini-ruck or tussle you went to Haslam who would willingly afford you his non-metered time.

Late entrants were Ian Lansdale in hooded top, Steve Barber catwalking coolly and ‘The Roadie’ Dennis Collier.

Proposal 1 – “…rule 5 should be amended as shown: The annual team subscription fee shall be paid upon application for entry in the League. All team subscriptions shall be paid as a condition of entry in the official handbook and are non-refundable. For a team consisting entirely of juniors, the team fee shall be one fifth of the normal team fee waived.”

It was an effort in securing the future of this splendid game. Many still perceive table tennis to be a game for relics with less cachet than athletics, martial arts or football. Kids, unfortunately, buy into grandness, stardom and money.

My ten-year-old son, Matthew tells it as it is: “None of my friends are into table tennis. They think it’s an old man’s game.” And yet the pride on his face when he umpired three summer league matches this month was, to me, worth more than England winning the World Cup.

Beneath the yawn fest of a typical AGM are things that matter. Despite the oxygen being different and the small rectangular windows being boarded up for fear of escapees, proposals come out of the woodwork which settle often year-long gripes.

Proposal 12 – “That Ramsbottom teams and players should no longer be in the Bolton & District League. That Flixton CC and players should no longer be in the Bolton & District League…”

You have to read this twice – perhaps more for it to sink in. To Derek Watmough it embodies the “nitty natty of league bosses”. To Geoff Rushton “suspensions [are] required”.

For many years now, Ramsbottom‘A’ and Flixton have remonstrated when not victorious (ineligible players, fixtures questionably shifted etc.). The “end of season ritual…had become annoying”. Fortunately, for the health of the league, the motion was withdrawn.

 

Scott Brown – Struggler Extraordinare

struggle

Something in his game reminds you of the divorced man getting married again. There is a kind of amnesia, a joyful, bright-eyed expectation. It is loaded up, stricken with naivety, however.

Scott Brown, Harper Brass’s Division Four no-hoper has the soft, bristled face of a baby gorilla and quite a decamped expression if things aren’t going right. His hands appear to be made out of putty. They are squidgy, nail-bitten affairs – part sausage factory, part heavy duty maulers.

The shots – mostly high-crested loopers – sail in on the other side of the table too gracefully at times, unarmed and full of conciliation. He would rather rally than send someone packing – or so it looks. For a big man, he exudes an extraordinarily high level of politeness in his play.

There is a hint of Neville Chamberlain – a willingness almost to share the points. Whether this ‘Sudetenland’ strategy is tactical, beneath the radar of mortal men, is not clear. Tennis players have been known to adopt similar ‘easing off the gas’ pacing. They have bought themselves valuable time in which to re-energise and really breathe.

The trouble is Brown is a struggler. During his Lads’ Club days in 2011/12 it took four whole months to win just four matches – a miserly 8% win record (4 out of 48); those early conquests – Nikul Ajwani, Kishan Patel, Connor Sutcliffe and Waqas Ali – inscribed in his mind to this day.

Hope comes in many forms though. Strugglers FC Moda, an Ottoman Empire football team founded in 1908 by Istanbul Greeks, finished runners-up in the 1909-1910 season. They were second only to Galatasaray. Sporting blood is in the Brown family – his granddad playing in goal for Lancashire Rebels FC in the 1980s.

Brown too has donned the green goalkeeping jersey whilst at secondary school. Was he good? “I was OK,” comes the unboastful mantra. Getting him to elaborate on anything is difficult. Not because he lacks the wherewithal, but because he is genuinely unassuming – one of the most straightforward and laid back people I have ever met.

Now, 24-years-old, signed by Harper comptroller, Kaushik Makwana in 2012 after ‘outgrowing’ the Lads’ Club, Brown – one senses – is gazing out over a sun-drenched, flower-filled field that no one else can see. His mellow disposition has managed to detach itself from the harshness of those table tennis numbers by which we are all judged: 17% (2011/12), 24% (2012/13), 29% (2013/14).

He is improving. The Scott Brown performance chart without a labelled Y-axis looks half decent. To a private establishment bent on efficiency and big returns, however, his contract would not be renewed.

What of the future? “Been playing penhold since March [2014], but I’m getting little bits sorted then I’ll be pro at penhold lol.”

Such a table tennis grip is traditionally Chinese – difficult to master for most westerners who prefer the ‘shakehand’ style. The wrist moves more freely. The player no longer has a crossover point. Given the shorter reach, players tend to stay closer to the table needing faster footwork and good stamina.

I recall Brown playing quite deep which makes such a move rather odd. Perhaps it’s those flowers again. And another marriage.

 

 

Step into the Barber’s Chair

barber

If you hang around the corridors at Harper Green Leisure Centre long enough on a Tuesday night, you will stumble across a man who claims that Steve Barber is the best table tennis player in England. No medication has yet been found on the said individual, but suffice to say the numbers do not back up such an assertion.

A quick examination of the ETTA’s website reveals that it is German-based, Liam Pitchford – with 4370 ranking points – who currently holds the coveted crown; regular matches for TTF Liebherr Ochsenhausen against the likes of Zwischenstand Dusseldorf’s Timo Boll typifying his week’s work.

Barber, on the other hand – a Bolton TTL Premier player – routinely plies his trade against relative unknowns including Frederic Turban. And his stats over the last three seasons read as follows: 35% (2011/12); 28% (2012/13); 35% (2013/14). One could say Barber is back where he was two years ago but that would be to define him incorrectly.

Rarely seen with a grimace on his face, Barber is representative of everything good about the game. Approachable, allowed out “four nights a week” by his “understanding wife” in order to pursue his mini-dreams and guzzle the odd beer, and firmly appreciative of the nourishment that the Bolton League provides, Barber views life simply yet keenly.

He is symbolic of a certain caste of men who stopped ageing at 29. The wisdom increases and the body continues its inevitable slide, but the boyish longings of yesteryear remain: a beautiful partner; meeting up with friends; a damn good TT session with the occasional clubbing shot.

Upon first meeting Barber, you wonder, you stew momentarily, you question whether anyone, anyone can be so buoyant yet sincere. There is no religious zeal about the man, no upbeat fakery – just an upturned smile; a signal to all that laughs are expected, that humorous observations need to be made.

A Ladybridge regular, one of only six men to play all 66 matches in the Premier Division this season, Barber’s proud Scarlet Letter-like scalps have included Radcliffe’s Michael Dore (44%), Little Lever’s Ron Durose (58%), Radcliffe’s no.2, Robert Hall (60%) and Hilton’s Jordan Brookes (62%).

Asked how he managed to turn over such an array of superior talent, Barber’s modesty rolled before me: “Me and Mick always have a great game. To beat Mick I have to work hard. Rob is a very good player but can easily get frustrated with his own game which he did against me. I beat Ronnie at Ladybridge away from his comfort zone of Little Lever and their table. Jordan’s mind was somewhere else that night (I think).”

After the grit and grind of the Winter League (September–April) comes the somewhat gentler Summer League (May–July) which manages to harness man’s goodwill in a manner which would be inconceivable in the preceding months. A cascading ding-dong of sorts, Barber perfectly captures the essence of two of its entrants: “My old teammate, Johnny Scowcroft after every winter season finishes phones me and tells me I am playing in the summer league with him.”

No switching tracks for Barber (best not mention Heaton). No letting pals down. Just grounded loyalty. A rare man he is indeed. Perhaps the Harper Green fellow was right all along.