Bowing Out

Winston Churchill once referred to Clement Attlee as “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” As I grow weary, old, fast approaching 45, more and more sheep seem to cross my path – mostly in the world of banking but in other areas too.

We all have small dreams. Mine from the age of 23 – sat in a New York hotel room listening to the blaring taxis down below – was to write a novel. A work about ‘the street’; society if you will. Despite my best efforts – five of them in fact – I ultimately failed.

And so began the drift – into table tennis reports after a ‘knock’ with friends. Into radio plays, children’s story poems, interviews with who I deemed to be the more interesting colleagues or pariahs at my place of work and short stories. Anything and everything: a lovely excuse to write and feel good, worthy even.

I recall approaching The Bolton News’s Neil Bonnar on 1st April 2013. I padded the email proposal with talk of New Journalism which unofficially began in 1962: Tom Wolfe picking up a copy of Esquire and reading a piece on Joe Louis, written by Gay Talese.

The article was mesmerising, intimate – a form of literary or ‘short story’ journalism. It was a turning point indeed, but such art was to be hounded out of fashion by 1981; fashion – that villainous word.

A few notable voices still held the torch aloft – the irreverent and mighty, Hugh McIlvanney on this side of the Atlantic for one; his prose allowing you to swim across the ably-depicted sporting scenes as if you were God. When you read McIlvanney’s work, you are forced to stop, gasp, relay the word combinations over and over in your head such is their allure.

My comparatively feeble samples – nine of them written between 2007 and 2008 – were included in the email to Bonnar in an attempt to ‘firm up’ negotiations and show him my wares, my ‘Del Boy’ goods. I had a habit of getting home after matches, taking a shower and then staying up ‘til about midnight dissecting what had unfolded.

I invented boyish nicknames for my friends, my opponents: Bazooka, Hustler, Alamo, Raider, The Destroyer, The Reverend; simple alliteration usually behind the grand title as if I imagined us walking out to lights and music.

Bonnar phoned me up one evening not too long after. The deal was cut. I was to follow in the footsteps of fine predecessors, Alan Calvert and Ian Wheeldon.

“Just try to be less flamboyant,” he advised me, referring to the work I had sent in (www.thesportswriter1.com).

I understood this. I didn’t entirely rail against it. Papers have codes to follow. Crossing the line into the semi-fantastical was unnecessary – it risked reputational damage.

Now, after writing a total of sixty-seven pieces for the paper – quite an apt number – I feel it is time to step down. The joy in sitting alongside players from the Premier Division through to Division Four has been a true privilege. Letting me into their modest venues has been kind and not always trumpeted in the manner it should have been.

New projects await me including the better nurturing of my family. I hope there is someone to pass the baton to in this rich, sporting garden.

 

 

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Pathway to Quantity

People do good things. Help the blind across the road. Pick up change for old ladies. Hold doors open out of courtesy rather than coincidence.

Some volunteer. Give ten or twenty years of their life to causes they believe in. And occasionally, just occasionally, recognition shows up at the door.

Through luck, perception or merit people are handed certificates, badges, scrolls and chances to further their philanthropy.

Karen Edwards OBE is a case in point. Chief Executive of the Bolton Lads and Girls Club (BL&GC) and part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2012, she has put in a long shift, been imaginative, dogged and tenacious since the 1990s.

Spearheading a team (more recently) in control of a circa £3m budget, Ms Edwards has mostly looked after the coffers well – built relationships, developed her soft language skills with particular emphasis on words such as ‘opportunity’, ‘pathways’ and ‘evaluation’.

Her efforts overall should be furiously applauded.

But there is a gaping hole; a hole which only started to appear towards the middle of August. And the table tennis community is at a loss to explain it.

When the list of teams was compiled and sorted into five divisions for the forthcoming season, one noticeable absence was evident: BL&GC – the oldest club in the league.

Why? Digging has begun in earnest in an attempt to get a satisfactory answer yet words hung together collectively in the form of responses can be an ugly business – they turn into racketeers, miscreants, contortionists, any number of twisting and bending creations.

The general take thus far is this: There are two RBs at the Lads & Girls Club – Rachel Burke (Sport Development Manager) and Roger Bertrand (their only qualified table tennis coach). Ms Burke, a glance at on-line archives reveals, has been photographed in celebratory pose alongside Ms Edwards on numerous occasions. Mr Bertrand has not. Ms Burke, being a member of the Senior Management Team, has the ear of Ms Edwards. Mr Bertrand does not.

The recent decision at the club therefore to replace competitive league table tennis with a ‘Try Train’ model and somewhat insular youth club versus youth club scheme must be put down to blinkeredness at the top and wilful neglect of those ‘in the know’.

Whilst this summary is not entirely without sporting bias or conjecture, it does hold water.

The grand myth concerning Cassius Clay’s fourth round knock down at the hands of Henry Cooper in 1963 is that Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) glanced over at Elizabeth Taylor, who was sitting at ringside.

Such a story, whether true or not, is marvellous. In a similar vein, it can only be assumed that Ms Edwards in August of this year – whilst in a high-level meeting – glanced over at a spectre and was sufficiently overcome that she acceded to a proposal – perhaps from her Sport Development Manager or her Youth Club Manager – that would deny at least four young players league table tennis.

The BL&GC’s new schemes may have their place but when marinated in the disillusionment of players about to break through in what would have been a key season (Jack Daniels 2012/13 [35%], 2013/14 [65%]) such plans can only be recorded under the heading ‘Folly’.

They may even result in the wholesale abandonment of half a generation of players unless designed or mapped out more clearly.