Special signings are rare. They reinvigorate a club. They act as polish to the existing ranks.
The news that The Lostock Lasher, John Nuttall is considering a return to table tennis after temporarily retiring in March 2014 is significant indeed. There are not many with his thirst, his drive, his sublime, unorthodox technique.
Past reports have lauded him – taken note of his ability to constantly win (“No Stops Yet for Nuttall Steam Train”). In 2012/13 he did the impossible – he won all 57 of his league matches and joined a select group, the ‘100% Club’.
So where will the 24-year-old play? What contracts and promises have been texted, verbalised and emailed to this still young man with the settled mind of a 35-year-old sage?
Discussions have been had with Meadow Hill, Harper Brass and Heaton to date. When a conqueror hits the market, there is no shortage of takers, no feigning disinterest or stroking one’s chin.
Who will land him? There are sticking points to a deal with each club. Meadow Hill, captained by league general secretary, Roy Caswell finished the 2014/15 season in 11th place in Division Three – one of the relegation spots. Should their logical fate play out then a Division Four birth will not be attractive to a player that has gone unbeaten in the league’s bottom division and has actually achieved 96% in Division Three.
Harper Brass offer a natural route forward having been promoted to Division Two, but team loyalties – still beating in some quarters of the UK – will prevent such a transfer…for now. Their squad is full and ripe and very few teams desire a dressing room of five players when only three walk the table. A perfect fit it would have been, but its time may come again in 2016/17 with an anticipated restructuring of the Harper stable.
Heaton then – that little cricket club on the hill which offers great bar facilities, limited parking and alternative sports. The irony here is that Nuttall’s last tormentor, Dave Jones Snr plays for them. The 16th January 2014 remains etched in both players’ heads. Could the old enemy merge, join forces? It is more than likely. Dave Jones Jnr, of the same club, is a long-time admirer of Nuttall and understands Heaton’s deficiencies following relegation from Two to Three.
Concerning the man himself though – Nuttall’s words say a lot: ‘The main thing I want to do is play with people I like and know.’
A simple wish, but the wish of a force, a table tennis whirlwind.
A blunt analysis of this final would posit that Mark Speakman of Coburg ‘B’ was the principal architect in demolishing higher lettered rivals, Coburg ‘A’. His personal points tally for the evening was 6 ½ set alongside team mate Bob Bent who hauled in a point less (opponents Kevin Chapman and Jim Hewitt accumulating 5 ½ and 2 ½ respectively).
Such a hard hearted study of what was actually a torturous and psychologically waning experience would fit many a Tory budget, yet numerous facts must be combed over in order to unearth the deeper story.
Displaced champion, Wilson Parker (one half of 2014 winners Ivory Toasters) was seen leaving the Hilton Centre shortly before 9pm which said much about his altruistic side – choosing to partner his father at this year’s event – as well as his burgeoning talent. In the spotlight tonight, however, were players that had topped their leagues with 126 and 112 points and in the process formed an almost-inverse reality to their spluttering Premier Division season.
Whether this competition can be deemed a blue-ribbon event is open to argument but it does undoubtedly instil vast quantities of goodwill, happiness and camaraderie.
Take Speakman, first out and brimming with black Stiga attire and a dapper silver watch. He is one of the shortest men on the circuit but not short on bounce. There is a rapscallion nature to his blunderbuss shots. Rarely does he aim for the body – choosing instead to confuse his opponent with angle after hard angle. And yet he is complimented – particularly by Chapman: ‘You’re playing well, pal…Well done, you deserved that.’
Against Hewitt (wearing blue, right knee bandaged, hip a little sore), there is a cautious air. Stats suggest that pimple-wielding Hewitt is the better player but the heavy-timber hitting of Speakman wins through 11-8, 11-5, 11-6. There is a slight triangle at the front of Speakman’s grey/black mop; Bermuda to Hewitt.
The inimitable Bent steps forth. He wishes to consolidate Coburg B’s 3-0 lead. Tibhar trainers and an admirable reluctance to defend send a shudder throughout the hall. The first game goes to plan (11-5) but then the big-cranking Chapman in navy Reebok pants starts to play. How do you describe this man? When he misses, it is in the form of air shots and wild, wild loopers that pound the back wall. But when the fire rages and you witness the ripping ferocity of his top spins it is a delight.
There are few players who throw their whole bodies into shots so mercilessly. Chapman (finely-trimmed white goatee and lime-striped Asics trainers), to the part-timer, can seem average, duff even. To the aficionado, however, certain thoughts resonate: Just wait for the trailers to end. Soon the film will start. Soon the Kev-Meister will have you tucked in your seat.
4-11. Bent is wobbling. 2-7 in the third; a ridiculous net climber from Chapman, but then that is the joyous momentum of a top spin. Bent is thinking, thinking – what to do, how to turn this around. Determined, gritty, his stocky arms manoeuvre the bat in the manner of a Frisbee. 7-8. 11-8; nine out of ten points. ‘I sat back,’ Chapman tells himself.
It is noticeable that Chapman regularly holds leads and then somehow gifts the game. With Bent down 6-10 in the fourth, Professor Crank nearly blows it again but brings it home 9-11. You then see him wipe his right hand on the wall before the final game. Who is this man –the air shot king or a mercurial legend that basks in his intuitive ability?
1-5 in the fifth suggests the latter. Chapman is in the ascendency – countering Bent forehands. No feeble ending this time. He holds firm: 6-11. The evening is getting interesting. It is now 5-3 to Coburg ‘B’ on the night.
The doubles brings with it a bit of gung-ho fun. Gone is the discipline and strategy – a little like the scorecard which has been played in reverse order. “Super Kev” I scribble down. He has done it again – assisted by Hewitt. Coburg ‘B’ fall: 12-10, 8-11, 10-12, 5-11. Half a dozen points each now. And it is crunch time with the savoured penultimate match between Speakman and Chapman.
Put these men in to various sports and you would get a different result each time. One is squat yet powerful, the other lithe and rangy. If you want a wicketkeeper then Speakman is your man. If you want to shoot a few basketball hoops, have a word with Chapman. Each brings to the table a set of flavours though. Each manifestly soaks in the table tennis arena and all that it means to the men with bats.
Chapman starts well (he always does). Speakman trails 2-7 in the first. Before the serious stuff, Chapman had asked ‘Are you warm enough, Mark?’ Strictly speaking, he is part of Jim Hewitt’s vast network of contacts within the game, but tonight the amiableness stretches further – even to the enemy. Speakman appreciates the gesture but thoughts of such pleasantries coming back in kind via his play suggest a serious miscalculation. 5-7. 11-9; Speakman’s cushioned shots seemed to disturb the Chapman rhythm.
As a spectator your eyes change. You screw them up watching live bombardment from both sides. Some matches entertain. Some matches allow distractions. This is definitely the former. 9-11. 12-10. It really couldn’t be tighter, but Speakman has the edge, a gruelling, self-imposed schedule. He is playing for the non-existent cameras, the scattered crowd, the small-time journalist sat opposite the umpire.
Before the fourth game a gallon of chairs clatter. Things are being cleared away. Other matches are ending. But this…this feast continues. NO SPECIAL TREATMENT HERE. That should be the message to all. You are in a final, but don’t expect a red carpet, don’t expect peace. Such demands are ridiculous – necessary and understandable, but alas ridiculous.
‘Watch the serve!’ Chapman berates himself with at 4-4. He then creeps along, forges a 6-8 lead, but Speakman is still gunning, still faithful to his forehand/backhand switch. A net point skids low along the surface and it is 8-8. You look at them now – both faces – and just know that Speakman has it. The smashes, the unsuppressed toil – the sweat on that slightly wrinkled head. 11-9. We are at 9-7 on the night – ‘B’ still dominant, still bigger, partly mocking the anomie ‘A’.
Measured play emanates from the table now frequented by Bent and Hewitt. 7-9 in the first and words trickle from Jim’s laidback mouth: ‘Come on – this one.’ As soon as he says it though, bad luck enters, it chews him up, it demoralises him and feeds him to an invisible slayer. 11-9: Bent in control and the evening so nearly beyond Coburg ‘A’.
7-10: Another winnable position for Hewitt. But something about his cute placements and his reliance on opposition errors doesn’t stack up. The man with the gold tooth needs a golden gun. He needs to fling himself over the line, but with a dicky hip and knee that isn’t easy. 10-10 and his first expletive of the night surfaces: ‘&*^%$£”(!’ Surely not again? Does he keep chucking it away or is Bent a fighter? 13-11: a fighter. ‘Good serving,’ Hewitt concedes.
It is 11-7 to Coburg ‘B’ and so the rest is academic – like a cheap examination paper, like a bad meal at a Berni Inn.
2-11: too late Hewitt heroics. 11-7: Bent with that serve variation – a maker of pancakes and scrambled eggs (bat as pan, ball as egg).
Hewitt’s woe is ours. Chapman’s disappointment is ours (the man from the table tennis maths lab who studies probability). Hats off to Speakman and Bent though – a 12-8 team victory achieved at 10.25pm and some compensation for their torrid season in the Premier Division.