To the uneducated eye, Flixton ‘A’ have it. They are ten points clear at the top of the Premier Division with just two matches remaining. To the man that goes looking for certainty, however, this title race is far from over.
Monday, 28th March (the scorecard inked by the time this article goes to press) is the first of the giant clashes: Little Lever ‘A’ vs. current title holders, Ramsbottom Town ‘A’.
Ramsbottom have won 14 of the last 15 titles such is their modern-day dominance and gainful employment of superstars Michael Moir and Richard Lightowler. To say they are synonymous with table tennis is to say that Frank Sinatra had a passing interest in crooning.
But there is a new kid on the block and has been for the last five and half years: Flixton – comprising captain Phil Biggs, southpaw Philip Bowen, 1980 European Champion John Hilton, elegant chop merchant Paul Cicchelli and January 2015 signing Steve Scowcroft.
To the neutral, times are good. Recent seasons – apart from the blowout in 2014/15 when Bowen and Biggs had to grapple with the onslaught without ‘big fish’ assistance – have been tight. Now, the finish is within sight and the firm enemy, Ramsbottom are about to be clotheslined in the manner of a Tyrannosaurus Rex suddenly relying on its forearms.
Except, there are injuries in the Flixton camp – worries over who to field for their penultimate match at home to Hilton ‘A’ on Thursday, 31st March.
‘I fell down the stairs rushing around before a meeting,’ Paul Cicchelli tells me. ‘John Hilton isn’t on top form yet as he hasn’t got full feeling back in his hands and toes, which is a side effect of the chemotherapy. Phil Biggs is injured, waiting for a shoulder operation. And Steve Scowcroft…well, he went to see Little Mix…should be fit enough physically, maybe not mentally.’
A lot goes on between matches – event-wise and psychologically. Naked statistics on the other side of the fence point to Ramsbottom being hampered by Andrew Jackson’s 76% win percentage and Mark Ramsbottom’s 77%; solid credentials in a normal camp, but perhaps no longer ‘cutting it’ at heady heights.
Before the defining finale between Ramsbottom and Flixton on Monday, 4th April, Mark remains defiant though: ‘We won’t be strengthening our team over the summer. It’s strong enough. We will be back next season to win it back with the same players.’