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.