Extracts

10 May 2007

Bazooka left the hall tonight an apoplectic and bewildered man. Temperament questionable, awry – packed with a somewhat flippant regard for his opponent – he marched away, strong words hanging in the air: ‘You slowed me down. Your first three games alone took 30 minutes. I became bored…’ It was the withered excuse of a beaten man – a man almost Hitler-like in his delusional critical capacity.

Paradoxically it is his casualness and insouciance which send fear into his opponents – the knowledge is always there that should he hit a run of pure smashes then you’re a goner.

…a higher instinct seemed to germinate the bones and arteries of The Wrist as if waved in or coaxed by immodesty…

17 May 2007

Hustler, 6’2” – the taller man by half a foot, with the physique of a semi-professional footballer, which he is – struggled to get down to counter The Wrist’s ruler-like (barely above the net) trajectory and also hacked at some of the higher, bounce shots as if grating a mammoth piece of cheese.

14 June 2007

‘I figure if I smile it costs me two points – laugh and it’s three. Absolute concentration is my only way in and out of a game. Knowing that you’re nothing without this automaton-like strategy makes you have an awful lot of respect for the prize-winning showmen in other sports: McEnroe; Cantona; O’Sullivan – to name but a few. Alamo, tonight, nearly had me. The score line doesn’t reflect the inner turmoil I felt…’

From the paint-worn rafters of court no.2, it was evident that Alamo’s failure to ‘mix it up’ did indeed cost him a more graceful score line. There were moments when high bounces into his body gave him the look of a startled Woody Allen or Stan Laurel. Rather than position himself to take full advantage of the smash-opportunity, he simply floundered. And when your opponent is getting stronger – throwing Graham Earl-like hits from the depths of a hidden reservoir – the onus, the baton suddenly becomes yours. Failure to clutch it can be disastrous.

4 July 2007

The Destroyer showed signs of understanding the great game but chose to command his play with spin rather than attacking prowess. What smashes he did produce were partly from the Alamo school of feckless northern thrusts (Musketeer-like) rather than curving, body-induced, authentic hits full of south-easterly wind.

There is nothing brisk in Pennells’ play – more Karbo[1]-esque groans – yet he has control; there is no sense of the befuddled operator randomly clutching at opportunities.

12 July 2007

Interestingly enough, after the slaying tonight, Raider was coaxed away from his tennis habits by Weston and showed instant signs of improvement. Playing less in the arm and more in the wrist must be lesson one for all macro/micro converts – the stiff, dead wood posture of Perrin at times woefully unsuited to this simple and graceful game.

‘I know that I’m not arching or rotating my body as I should. I’m too regal in my approach. It’s quite clear that a decent tennis player can be made to look like a chump or fool at TT unless he introduces a bent, stalking deftness. Being king on one court can easily translate into jester on another without the necessary respectfulness and honing.’

The story concerning Sneer’s mid-80s college title has been embellished over the years. The number of people in attendance that day has ballooned from one hundred to five. Whatever the exact figure (probably 150), there is no stripping away the legacy though, the commanding performance which canonised Sneer and held him up as representative of Weston potential. The Wrist may belittle and demean his continued absence from the northern ‘quarter’, but underneath this is a quiet respect – an acute understanding of ‘what it takes’ to reach a pinnacle of some sort.

18 July 2007

Outrageous in his victories on occasions, Bazooka – even allowing for the gallon of sweat swamping his T-shirt – seems to possess an iconoclastic temperament. There is no rule book within him, no traditional theory – his shot selection borders on autopilot with a twist.

‘I had indigestion from the 3rd game onwards tonight. That probably led to me switching off a little…’ Some of Bazooka’s comments can be controversial – give off an unwelcome coarseness, a quick-fire slighting of his opponent that belies his own crafted sorcery. This, in essence, is like a talented diva whipping her wardrobe staff – being ungracious in a key area of the overall mosaic. Shame really, as one could imagine Bazooka sitting in the corner of the court blasting off his excess gas and still somehow winning. His chosen pre-match meal of ‘a takeaway’ probably disadvantaged him marginally compared to The Wrist’s Rocky-like eggs (not blended).

19 July 2007

The narrow loss seemed to unhinge Alamo – extinguish what hope he had meticulously built up. Unleashing his McEnroe-esque frustrations in the middle of the 5th, Alamo – Rochdale teacher extraordinaire – pounded the ball into a crushed heap (the first time I have witnessed such apoplectic fury in five years of sports writing; my recommendation to OFSTED: that Alamo become regional overlord to all north west schools with a discipline problem).

…then came the tumble – the self-destruction, the angst over his inability to break through. Finally losing 17-21, he rolled into oblivion, found himself on a directionless freeway being pecked at by imaginary birds.

At one heady moment during tonight’s clash, Alamo’s vociferous howl upset the neighbouring sportsmen. Perhaps such exhaling is a necessary feature of his game. Perhaps its animation gives him recourse to a fresh starter’s flag. Either way, it is usually inscribed with desperate vibes – pleas to the heavens for a greater innate talent.

25 June 2008

‘I don’t play competitively. For me it’s the social element.’ Brazen lies from a man of God! If the iron fist of The Reverend was tonight somehow restrained, playful, impish, then I didn’t see it. Instead, I witnessed a new contender to the throne, a burgeoning, ramshackle, languid, relatively young gent. In his locker is an array of explosives: arching forehand; deft nudges over the net; the presence of a gaunt beast.

4-2 down, getting wilder by the second, The Reverend was seething. Before this moment there had been a brief interruption in play when a man and woman stepped onto the TT court hoping to watch the tantalising match before them. ‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ was The Wrist’s response – sensing a ruse of sorts from the gangling Reverend. Oddly enough it was around this time that Routledge began to choke – ignore the percentages and dabble in the high risk stakes of blood and thunder. Perhaps he sensed the couple were watching through the window pane. Perhaps he was flattered by the mini audience. Either way, Robert Louis Stevenson had tampered with his soul, his very grace and talent. He was a changed man. Gone was the controlled power. In its place was a berserk and barbaric furore.

3 April 2013

This is where the faces are. Wildfire Whittleworth. Cunning Kelsall. Utilitarian Unsworth. Jalopy Jones Snr. Brutish Beales. Jackdaw Jones Jnr. It is how you initially define a player. Through their expression. Their hunger. The way they warm up. Some require merriment lest the pressure demons attack them before picking up the bat. Others need the blinkered focus of a shire horse.

Five-setters can break a man. There is a sense of entitlement on both sides – the ragged effort and staying power desperately craving a win for the team. Whoever loses is all of a sudden thrust into a dark, unforgiving forest, head in hands, demoralized, sweat dripping off him like a Middle Eastern oil worker.

Interest is garnered when a match goes to five. Beautiful, intriguing and sympathetic when watching. Torrid and unspeakable when at their core. It is psychological now. ARE YOU BETTER THAN THIS MAN BEFORE YOU? Any niggling doubts then you may as well concede, shake hands – avoid the deeper pain of last ditch combat.

COMMUNICATE! COMMUNICATE, DAMN IT! Ask your brothers, Heaton ‘E’ if they’ve done enough or been part of the collusion, the final night conspiracy to strip us of promotion.

The injured Wilson Parker has apparently pulled off a coup of phantasmagorical proportions. He has returned only to treble – his colleagues, Healey and Fishwick adding a further three. Gloom descends. Whittleworth seems the most affected. Down and out not on points but matches won. A truly tragic and doleful ending…

18 April 2013

Red. A deep red. Like the Ali Sami Yen stadium. The walls of the Hilton Centre can disturb a player, wash his or her mind with hell-like images. IS THAT A PLAYER OPPOSITE OR BEELZEBUB? I’M SURE I SAW A HORN. Above sit forty two strip lights – a 6 x 7 gaze up at the Gods, the stars, or times tables with the kids.

We are nearing ‘dawn’ for this showdown. The opposition enters. Lawrence – like an assassin all in black. Spibey – centre parting, squaw-like, demure, a red-band keeping her hair tied back. Smart – standard red top, black joggers, nerves seeping through a little. A female SAS to some, with Lawrence as Wing Commander.

Spibey shows an initial wariness through that famously skittish expression of hers (something that should have been purged eighteen months ago given her win percentage). She is fidgety, not used to the modest crowd – the blush and flush of youth strangling a large portion of her natural game.

Bevitt starts. A couple of low, flat, cagey serves. 2-0 up. Effective. Riding high. He then handles the first Spibey serve. 3-0. Like a dream. Beauty and the Beast with the Detroit Tigers man (check out that faded, dapper t-shirt!) proudly roaming the table tennis jungle. Spibey crouches down, does her trademark hand-close-to-the-table multiple bounce with the ball, the 40mm celluloid pop – whatever you want to call this cataclysmic sporting invention (its white matte and 0.9 coefficient as significant as Edison’s light bulb).

Sweat appears on Bevitt’s head like a man stood under a leaking gutter. He wipes himself down – towel to hand, Murrayesque, aware of the need for grip, good vision and aerodynamics. Keen to make amends after the disgrace of the 3rd, he starts impressively.

Spibey continues the demonstrative gestures: hiding her face behind her bat; head in hands; spinning round as if in search of her game; two fists up to her chin; biting her bat. She is annoyed. Generally annoyed. Too many misses. And she’s yet to settle.

There is certainly not the magic of Bevitt/Spibey to this match. It feels more like a holiday friendly in the forests of the old Yugoslavia. Something unreal about it, too carefully sculpted. Guarded shots, malfunctions in the wrist. Perhaps Cup Final night has shredded them a little, sapped them of energy.

The first ‘let’ of the night due to a menacing but wayward ball from the Brian Gittins Cup final on the adjacent court; hard for the eyes not to wander in times of drought.

Brooks is in control. Three games up and a decent haul of points. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS MAN? He doesn’t have the power of Bevitt, or the youthful skill of Spibey, or even the lugubrious, dark veil of Lawrence. Experience. Knows his way around. Able to read the terrain like a discerning nomad.

The Assassin finds something…draws on some latent gas tanks, super-chargers, vein-enhancers, mind-turning positivity. Four straight points. Alas…7-7.

Bevitt stares out across the 9-foot swamp – Lawrence’s bat has become a frogman, an able diver. LET IT BE, JOHN. JUST LET IT SINK. It does. 9-8 to Bevitt.

23 April 2013

They have poured in – a crowd of 60 or 70. Quite a festival. But no sandwiches tonight. Did someone forget? We had them last year and it was a scramble, a race, a battle – first to the ham. Feels more dignified with just tea and coffee – no chomping, no flying splinters of bread. Calm. Let the attention be on the players. Let’s weed out the ‘free meal’ brigade. Easy to spot – always looking to their side. HAS THE SHUTTER OPENED? ARE THOSE BEAUTIES PLATED UP YET? Not tonight. Not tonight, you hungry scoundrels!

Brookes didn’t really get going (slight homage to his opponent), but now…now, he’s Ali bouncing around the ring, choosing when to turn chops into top spins at will. Deep loops. The full repertoire beginning to appear. Technical panache. 5-11. Nearly home.

Harris again. No more Final defeats…PLEASE! A strong start. 5-1 including the handicap. But then come the Evans’ downward chops – nice bits of sorcery, healthy extravaganzas in times of trouble. Look at that damn grip as well! Looser than Elvis’s hips – a swinging, rotating, bat-toting Wild West phenomenon. I didn’t rate this guy in the Doubles S/F but now…there’s more to him, as if let out of the stable or a safe backwater town. He has been unharnessed, told to rear up like a stallion, unceasingly pound the opposition.

Do we write him off at this stage? Is there any gas left in the tank? The kudos of a famously painful, yet inspiring 10-set league double over Paul McCormick still shimmers in the distance. Not ordinary victories but against D2’s Top Ten Medal Winner. And in both of them Danny was 2 sets down!! Stamina. DON’T MATTER, BEEN HERE BEFORE comes the white patois.

I don’t know what happens at this point as with so many matches that swing the other way (either briefly or completely), but Craighill seems to unearth a fire, the miraculous rumblings of his game. So far we have witnessed a typical 53% Vs 81% match in terms of respective win percentages. DON’T PUT A NUMBER ON ME! we get from the Moyes’ camp though. Suddenly he is standing six to eight feet away from the table, digging out shots, pile drivers of a sort. You really have to see it. It is volleyball-esque – the 40mm flash of white…dead, certainly dead, but no!! NO!! Craighill is at his allotment – digging. Trowel. Spade. Fork. He rips the ball onto an upward, curving path when only inches from the floor. A delight. An absolute delight to see.

Now for the finale – the true game of bottle. Many a man will pull it back to 2-2 only to fold, realise his sinewy desire has maxed itself out. Not Craighill. Not David Moyes. Not The Digger (The Leveller if we’re getting political). He is the great white hope, the People’s Champion. He possesses a scratchingly rough image (and casual stubble) similar to other unorthodox greats and at its core is fight. This isn’t winning ugly, but rather winning with a surprise attack, a genius adaptation of a long-lost table tennis script.

10-4: Where is he getting this mesmerizing medley from? The stoop, the pillorying of his own body must be taking its toll, hurting, turning him into a slanted circus act.

A ten minute break. Time enough for composure to return. Elliott changes his top from the disappointing doubles grey to red. More fire. More vigour. What will we see from this man? The old guys in the audience – no longer parched due to tea and coffee wetting their lips – are chatting vociferously, loving it. This is theatre to them, real Greek tragedy – better than the dreams of youth.

No punching the air from Elliott. No swinging the bar towel around his head. It is a respectful shaking of hands. Jackson looks a little gloomy, understandably – reminiscent of Danny Boy Harris (each defeated in two singles finals). The night offered so much. But then the wolves come out and howl you into a stupor. Only one winner on the floor. And that can be cruel. Cruel but the making of someone for next time…

4 May 2013

Blackpool, opportunistic and clever like the two ice-cream vans parked up on Sefton Lane, spoiled the anticipated party today.

Their slumped shoulders and modest applause to the fans during the ‘lap of appreciation’ suggested disappointment and the hurtful knowledge of a further 12-month sabbatical from the Premiership, yet they must now begin the process of knowing how to boss the opposition.

I am optimistic. Tom Eaves has the look and touch of a broad-shouldered Cantona (his ‘two feet by the post’ shot signalling future audacity). Robert Hall has a whistling, sniper-like shot (and his positional sense will improve). Josh Vela and Stuart Holden – well, I needn’t be the town crier for these marvels.

15 May 2013

I rarely ‘talk up’ sportsmen, but John Nuttall’s game consists of certain ingredients it is hard to ignore. His supple, elastic-like wrist has the habit of bending seemingly implausible shots back at the opposition. And such forehands are not only deep but fast. Stretching the ‘enemy’ represents the nucleus of his game. If you are not nimble, if you cannot move with sufficient speed, then you are done for.

I had the privilege of playing against The Lasher for the first time eighteen months ago. And I knew immediately – from the pounding rallies, the constant pushing and probing – that this was someone I had to ‘spar’ with. For a moment I felt like Muhammad Ali needing the jabs and muscle of the young Larry Holmes in order to improve his defences.

Nuttall is relentless. He can break you. Small talk, when practising/sparring, is often sacrificed at the altar of sweat. For this, as a means of balancing the humiliation, I am grateful.

19 May 2013

The Bolton Table Tennis Summer League is less intense than the winter season. There is an air of gaiety inside the Hilton Centre which hosts the 20-team tournament. Mirth seems to breathe easy in this Mecca which often bears witness to fraught encounters. Losing is treated with a shrug rather than mental torment.

First on court are Bent and Brown. Bent has the look of a slightly grizzled and stout Tim Robbins from The Shawshank Redemption. His piercing eyes set him apart from his affable team mate. Brown, built like a Washington Redwood, with the stubble of a hobo, knows this match will be tough.

Wild forehands and net shots punctuate Bertrand’s early play. He is a notoriously slow starter. 11-7 Speakman. Bertrand dips into his stash of bananas and manages to find some form: 6-11. The following game is full of hard hitting – a strongman’s circus.

24 May 2013

Spibey, next to appear – her tall frame exhibiting both shrewd potency and an aching humility – gave her usual pre-match drawl of not being the favourite. Bradshaw, recent double hernia operation behind him and heavy strapping down the right side of his body (knee, wrist and elbow), would disagree.

27 May 2013

Everybody’s got a shot – a good shot. Irlam Steel’s Neville Singh included. His looping forehand might surface as often as a sleepy judge striking his sounding block, but it’s there. Ready to put you off balance. Ready to demonstrate that nothing is a foregone conclusion in table tennis.

Still keeping fit, “eschewing large meals and regularly walking around [his] village”, Neville Singh is not a celebrity. He is much more – a gallant battler, soon to be 75, still standing amidst the wasteland of his match scores.

8 June 2013

If I am guilty of concentrating my pen on the exploits of just one player during a typical summer league evening – to the slight detriment of the other three – then I make no apologies. Scowcroft is worth the ink. He is 77-years-old, first played in 1952, yet has the vim and vigour of a man half his age. To see him bobbing and weaving in anticipation of each awkward shot is to be reminded of Mike Tyson at his best in the ring. One could say that Scowcroft is the Benjamin Button of the table tennis circuit. He appears to age backwards.

15 June 2013

I ask the black-clad Wilson Parker what strategy he plans to adopt tonight. He looks puzzled for a moment. “Play,” he then calmly mutters. It is dismissive and bold – the monosyllabic answer in keeping with his intransigence, yet somehow embodying the essential shrift of a broken intercom (the suggestion being that his body will know what to do – it will throw itself on the battlefield without inhibition and see what transpires).

19 June 2013

Players’ careers at local level can last for 70 years. Ingerson had already put in a 46-year stint and the old sparkle had seemed to return. There had been tantrums, heated moments and snarls as with any relationship but also plenty of mirth and camaraderie. Ingerson had been a par excellence signing for BRASS – an ‘out of contract’ (so to speak) mercurial wonder. His game was different to anything I’d seen before – the south-paw top spin like watching an industrial worker crank a heavy piece of machinery. Returning such balls was little short of impossible given their accentuated kick. Only the canniest of opponents knew how.

24 June 2013

The opposition, Barcroft’s Steve Barber (Prem – 28%) and John Scowcroft (Div 2 – 77%) are worldly-wise – schooled in the finer elements of the game – but I suspect that the handicap system plus Hilton B’s snarling youth will be their downfall.

Scowcroft, lime top tonight, as if about to be plunged into a bottle of Corona, starts off well: a 1-5 lead against the brazenly talented, Hudson. The game plan with John is as it always is – bob around and hurl grenade-like shots; hope the opposing player finds it too much.

14 July 2013

Coburg’s Bob Bent (Div 1 / 55%) is an enigma. He has the appearance and manner of an uncompromising and offhand army sergeant and yet his serves have something of a 1920s jazz-injection about them; highballs with plenty of sophistication and liquor.

Bent, immediately wary of this wild card before him, somehow scrambles his way through the first game (11-9). His cheeks are puffed out, his legs heavy. He has the look of an escaped prisoner being chased by bloodhounds such is the relentlessness of Saunders.

19 July 2013

There are characters galore at the Hilton Centre tonight. It is an intensely hot evening. Too hot. It feels like a mountaineers’ base camp though such is the camaraderie and good humour.

I examine a few of the faces: Barry Walsh – in his seventies but with a knowing twinkle in his eye; Malcolm Rose – known as ‘Magic’, a fighter extraordinare; Alan Bradshaw – always ready with the chocolate after a match as if marooned; Brian Young – keen to regale those around him with a famous tale; Richard Reading – Bolton’s answer to Father Christmas.

1 August 2013

I had a theory a while back that a hidden society resides outside of the orthodox ETTA umbrella and leagues; people loving the game, playing whenever they can – during lunch hours, after work, necessary ‘scraps’ and ‘ding-dongs’ because table tennis affords us a monarchic state of mind.

7 August 2013

Loyalty is quite a common attribute in table tennis. There are the multi-team set-ups like Hilton who shift squad members around each season in harmony with the progress of their young players, but mainly clubs consist of friends – alliances unlikely to be broken up because one player excels.

19 August 2013

I think I first picked up a table tennis bat in May 1981 at the age of ten. It wasn’t at the obligatory Silverwell Street or Horwich Leisure Centre – they came after – but in the forests of Yugoslavia. I was instantly mesmerised. What a simple, eloquent sport – how could anyone not enjoy this titanic game?

I felt like hanging around for six, eight, ten hours. Let my parents bring me lunch, tea and the occasional snack, but leave me be. I had a paddle in my hand, the soft winds of the Balkans cooling me down and a variety of opponents including my elder brother. I had found the centre of the universe and needed little else to be satisfied.

Unbeknown to me, the great John Hilton had become European Champion the year before – slaying the previous two winners, Gabor Gergely and Jacques Secretin on his way to the title. In many ways it was the beginning of a new craze. The Swedes took over the European stage not long after, but people were starting to care about this little game.

By the time I started secondary school I was half decent – trips to Silverwell Street augmenting my play and making me feel like an astronaut bridge-walking to his rocket. Arriving at the table via the notoriously long entrance at Silverwell, past reception and the badminton courts, I felt alive – ready to trade shots and do battle.

23 August 2013

There are fifty-seven teams this coming season, twenty-five clubs, approximately 200 players but only sixteen ‘stadia’.

I have visited and played in exactly half of these. And that is the great conundrum. It may seem like an easy club to join but examining each division’s forthcoming travels reveals anything from heavy-duty monotony (a slow canter to ‘The Sixteen Club’) to a wonderland of variety.

29 August 2013

Honour can be a rare attribute in this modern age of sport. We think of it as decency, doing the right thing, conceding a little ground, or craving glory with the approval of those around you. Dr Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defined it as: “Nobility of the soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness.”

There are numerous examples of conduct which is the opposite of this: the 1983 boxing match between Lewis Resto and Billy Collins Jr in which trainer, Panama Lewis removed most of the padding from Resto’s gloves and soaked his hand tape in plaster of Paris (the brutal, Panda-like image of Collins Jr after the fight still shocks one to the core); Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ in the 1986 World Cup quarter final between England and Argentina which needs little elaboration; Rosie Ruiz’s 1980 Boston Marathon ‘win’ (it later transpired that she had “jumped out of the crowd close to the finish line” complete with mock sweat and a face of agony).

9 September 2013

Smart, seen rushing into the car park for this match at 7.09pm after a late call up, admirably coped following some early nerves. Her initial opponent, Andrew Gregory – commencing his 3rd season in the league – has a powerful, if energy-sapping serve and a high success rate when stepping heavily into his shots. 11-4. 13-11. It looked ominous for Smart, but then came the increased belief, the autopilot, lollypop backhand and her willingness to turn defence into attack. 9-11. 8-11. Extra authority from Gregory in the 5th set though – five consecutive points – helped this one home: 11-6. (Cruel, but deserved.)

15 September 2013

Irlam’s 75% man, David Yates – by contrast – has had a worrying start to the season. Beautiful technique, big shots but a little too polite at times – his Driving Miss Daisy backhand loops affording the opponent too many opportunities to smash.

Yates throws the ball up too much as if in an exhibition match playing ‘keep it in’. McKend, happy to forage on such generosity, edged the first set 12-10. A comprehensive beating in the two sets that followed (11-3, 11-7) gave the impression that McKend, despite his ugly push shots, could play this game with a piece of firewood.

20 September 2013

The evening started as expected – Scowcroft overpowering Woods 11-3, 11-5, 11-6. Hilton’s no.1, playing behind dark glasses, with a slightly demonic aura, immediately made his presence felt. There is swagger in abundance, bounce and unrelenting belief in this man. Woods, unfortunate to meet him fresh out of the blocks, was made to look like a ponderous milk man.

It was cruel for McCormick – his 7th long match of the season ending in yet another defeat. There is something of the mud-splattered war veteran about him; the victim of strong artillery yet still somehow running.

27 September 2013

The Shed: home of Meadow Hill – a mighty place, an intimidating place, an orange-walled palace with the odd loose plank beneath your feet. This is not a venue for the cowardly nor the complacent, nor the capricious. Big players have fallen here – Adele Spibey, David Yates, Graham Wilson, Dave Bevitt, Dave Jones Snr. I could go on.

Smith, resplendent in white chinos and with a permanent grin doesn’t appear to understand fear. His early shots against Bhura suggest an unmasking of his often too latent ability. 9-6 up and looking solid, but then…where is his tactical nous? There is almost a refusal to wrap up a game without his bombing forehands. Bhura exploits the blind spot, his young mind learning all the time: 12-10, 11-4, 11-4.

3 October 2013

Little Lever’s Phil Riley has an intense, stone-like face. He resembles a camper with his grey, baggy shorts and sky-blue top but there will be no polite frying of bacon and eggs tonight. He is a bear catcher – a grizzled human with few smiles and little diplomacy. A late entrant to the Individual Divisional Championships, Riley wishes to cut through the shaking of hands and traditional pre-match warm ups and just make a grab for the trophy.

9 October 2013

I had entered this curtained cove knowing that there were a couple of serious IDC gunslingers present – Hilton’s Mathew Fishwick (newly-crowned Division Two champion*) with his ‘bionic’ right arm and Lostock’s Nuttall (Division Three champion) with something of the amphetamine-laced Speedy Gonzales about him.

Both had early matches which should have consumed a good portion of their dominant spirit, yet with the exception of Fishwick/Khan (3-2) this was a cakewalk, a channel-changer, a lumpen no-show.

21 October 2013

History has walked before me when it comes to witnessing the games of Ramsbottom’s Michael Moir and Richard Lightowler. Both are proven masters – Top 75 ETTA-ranked players in 2012.

I feel like a fraud and bounder in their company, a Division Two scrapper who needs weaning off his basic table tennis rubbers.

Lightowler now. The Dewsbury beast. He looks like a man who has returned from four wars, who feasts on 16oz steaks, tosses cabers for fun and wrestles with his cousins pre-match. Too strong for Sean Toland (3-0) and symbolic of Ramsbottom’s superiority.

30 October 2013

Ladybridge Community Centre: kids’ plastic chairs – red, blue, green – are stacked in the corner. The place doubles as a nursery and one gets the sense of an invisible, miniature crowd.

Home player, John Cole is first out against Ramsbottom’s precocious 15-year-old, Dominic Siddall. Nerves often blight Siddall’s early play. I witnessed his first two sets of the season and he went from stuttering Lada to revved-up Subaru.

The hand drier starts up in the gents. Seconds later, Ram’s no.3, David Cain makes his entrance. I am not expecting much. He has been out of the game for twelve years bar a few matches.

Brian Greenhalgh, quiet authority, stands opposite – uncanny resemblance to Paddington Bear’s Mr Brown underneath the six strip lights which give this place its glow.

30 October 2013 (II)

The road sign ‘Elderly people crossing’ I now realise is not just a polite request to slow down, but a taunting, mocking generational laugh aimed at the young. The post-60 brigades wish to draw you in, have you think that they are decrepit and foolish, when in fact their strength, power and alertness are quite astonishing.

My next opponent is Bollard. He talks too much – describes each point. You feel like gagging him, throwing him in a cellar. If he wasn’t so worthy of his place on the table tennis circuit, you probably would. Too much for me: 11-5, 11-3, 10-12, 11-8.

11 November 2013

Against Scowcroft though, the man staring him down, things are never simple. With only one straight-sets loss so far this season (versus Bethany Farnworth), Scowcroft – even on a relatively off-night – displays the bounce and vigour of a young greyhound. There is a conspicuous upping of the tempo when he comes to the table. If he was on a sinking ship, you sense that he’d be first to the lifeboat – circumventing the “women and children first” protocol.

18 November 2013

Weall, I notice, has an extremely elegant serve. Fingers outstretched, the ball flat on his palm, he releases the white, 40mm celluloid like a magician would a dove.

Enter Haroon Khan. He has referred to each of the opposition tonight as ‘John’ as if in an unfamiliar pub addressing various barmen. Parker doesn’t mind because that is his name, but the scoreline suggests otherwise: 11-5, 11-3, 11-6.

22 November 2013

This is television to whisker-faced Dave Parker, worth more than the bus fare to Barry Walsh and a chance for Steve Hunt to glimpse numerous rivals.

Up in the clouds where these fellas gaze at the 9 feet by 5 feet table with its intersecting 6 inch net, play must seem slower, the opponent slightly mechanical at times. Bradshaw, snapped reverse-lollypop backhands when on fire, when in his element, manages to salvage the second set (13-11) – find his way back to earth.

Gary Hilton next – bright eyes, a tiny Mohican forged by his receding hairline. He is up against Jones Snr, Phoenix Knights of Harmony barbershop singer. It appears grim for the ‘A cappella’ maestro: 6-11 and 0-5 down in the second.

A quitter he is not though. An intense expression hammers across his face like a rivet on a high-rise development.

Eardley now – momentarily tucked up in bob hat, glasses and large-collared coat. If there was a table tennis hell, he would be there chopping a burning ball back at you.

27 November 2013

They stroke the tables at this level – make sure there are no damp spots or rogue bits of dust. I am sat next to the 1980 European Champion, John Hilton now representing Flixton. He is knowledgeable – the Lovejoy of table tennis, his voice a little gruff.

The first match goes with form: Cicchelli too refined, too canny when pitted against the raw power of Gibson (11-7, 11-7, 12-10). Cicchelli arches his body like a yoga teacher – his wolfman arms twisting and bending, his Killerspin paddle case an early-warning system, a ‘DEFCON 3’ to the opposition.

Jordan Brookes is next – Hilton’s laid back, yet sinewy 15-year-old. Headphones on, music between matches, you sense that he’s drifted off at times – is walking a beach in his Hollister joggers. 17-15: a tough, impressive start by Brookes – two set points down versus the hair-lacquered Action Man, Rosenthal but living with his speed.

10 December 2013

And yet, three hundred years later, it is everywhere: in every game; on every bit of grass; on every track; in every sports hall. We all have at least one little habit, one conscious finger-crossing, ‘touch wood’, salt over the shoulder moment which, it is believed, will improve our performance or defend against bad luck.

In US stock car racing, shelled peanuts are almost NEVER sold at an event. “According to 1930s racing lore, peanut shells were always found in the smoldering remnants of a badly wrecked car.” Beware the driver that eats nuts before a race!

16 December 2013

Dark horse, Heaton ‘D’ (David Bevitt, Greeny Greenhalgh, Melvyn Brooks, John Hilton) can get in amongst it only if Brooks stays off the Raki and avoids jetlag.

20 December 2013

I am sat here tonight in one of the less silky venues – Ramsbottom. Great history (Australia’s Michael Clarke played for Ramsbottom Cricket Club in 2002), but the table tennis room within the ground is, for a craftsman, an artist, quite hellish and imposing – in need of lottery funding.

I hand Josh Sandford his 50p win bonus for turning over Hilton E’s Roy Alty the previous week. He looks slightly perplexed, yet I firmly believe such an arbitrary and jocular system helps to galvanize the squad. No additional £1 as Wilson Parker smashed him, but a financially stable week nonetheless.

Raymond Isherwood is next – ‘playing up’ from Division Four against the man with anti-spin rubbers, Cain. Cain’s eyes have a luminous quality to them – an optimism that has hung around despite his ageing years. He wears an Oldham Athletic top, has white socks and tanned ‘holiday’ legs.

Isherwood is a 97% man but such lower league stats mean nothing here. It is like a little boy asking out Marilyn Monroe. Cain ravages and torments him: 11-7, 11-3, 11-4.

2011 Warburton Cup winner, Sandford steps forward. I have every faith in the 20-year-old, Bolton-born looper. His opponent is Ormsby; granite-chinned ‘ringer’, Booth unfortunately delayed. 11-9. Sandford’s forehand topspin is working. A 5-2 lead in the 2nd suggests an imminent win – the Harper player, when not attacking, having the meticulous push/vision of a man staring through a submarine periscope.

10 January 2014

At times, gearing up to watch Premier and Division One matches is like walking into a private function room or board members’ and football managers’ bar. “Who the hell are you?” I sense them thinking. “Ever played at this level?” “Nobody” and “No” would be my answers. No access to the vintage whisky and wine or Cuban cigars therefore. No easy laughter – just the frozen air surrounding an impostor.

The smaller venues have their quirks and humorous betrothals as you enter. Heaton Cricket Club has something of the operating theatre about it. At the same time, descending those steps to the ‘cellar’ can feel like walking into The Crucible.

16 January 2014

One of the trickier venues, Farnworth Social Circle Cricket Club has an ‘under the stairs’ feel to it. To enter its table tennis bosom is to be met by paraphernalia not exactly crucial to the great game: stacks of plaster board behind the door; folded-up buffet tables; odd-shaped pieces of wood leaning against the wall; one orange life ring.

Whether this is strategic, part of the intimidatory armour, I do not know. The faces seem welcoming enough, as do the eight coat hangers – rare practical assets in this cubbyhole – yet beyond the minor pleasantries one senses the need for a power shift within this club, a firm separation of lines between cricket and table tennis.

27 January 2014

Boyzone entered this venue looking a tiny bit sheepish, half-wary of what was in store. Horror stories of Premier beatings regularly circulate in the lesser table tennis dens – tales of humiliation, of forced retirement and exposing half-decent players as quivering buffoons.

Manoeuvring your way to this venue is a job in itself. Once past The Unicorn public house you hang a left opposite Next Frydays Fish & Chip Shop and proceed to rumble across a cobbled track before the real assault course of 100 pot holes begins. Making it into the car park you are met by a flood of darkness, a stargazer’s paradise and the seemingly phantom presence of Jim Chadwick.

31 January 2014

I applied for the Blackpool manager’s job via email on Thursday, 23rdJanuary at 1.59pm. I have worked for enough bounders with no foresight, vision or inventiveness to know that it was time for the little man to have his day.

All these players – as long-time fans of BWFC will know having seen the sublime skills of Jay-Jay Okocha – had one huge, seismic quality in common: they were able to excite. Their presence and audaciousness was from another world. To quote Jon Howe: “Like Cantona before him, the reverberations from Yeboah’s arrival were so immediate, so openly emotional and so telling.”

7 February 2014

No matter how much rhetoric you provide to an athlete or player, there has to be an overriding vision that the team can buy into; not a cheap, prescriptive gimmick but rather a firm, achievable target – genuine desire on the part of the collective.

11 February 2014

Bethany Farnworth (red top) takes her position against Annie Hudson (blue) next. It is the neutral’s showdown with a hint of ‘Merseyside derby’ about it. Their win percentages are 62% and 90% and such stats account for the early Hudson dominance (11-6,11-6); trademark forehands swatting and dismissive. I confess to writing off Farnworth’s chances at this point. She seems a little disparate, not quite the force I had expected.

17 February 2014

He wore glasses, BHS shirts and had the inside leg measurement of an electricity pylon, yet his extraordinary skills and personality I had not seen before and would not see again.

27 February 2014

Semi-finalists, dispensing with opposition in all three of the top divisions, Hilton ‘L’ have surprised many since their 2nd round defeat of seasoned Premier outfit, Burning Desire. That result (396.5 – 396), whilst incredibly tight and some might say fortuitous, maybe anchored itself to a greater destiny.

A young squad, the core of which is represented by 15-year-olds Thomas Field, Jason Hill and Robert Shaw, Hilton are developing at a good pace and showing the flair and belief of a close knit unit. Diplomatic squad rotation tonight from coach, Brian Young means that Hill sits it out – replaced by the youngest member of the team at just fourteen (and the boy with two surnames), Harrison Jones.

3 March 2014

Did they live by the psychic code of all great midfields? Were they each aware of the others’ movement and concession of space? Did they… gel? Not particularly.

He had been trussed up in the dangerous designs of having a ‘divine right’ to win. He had been spoilt. Was Fleetwood’s miraculous rise from the tenth tier to the fourth in a matter of fifteen years not there to be celebrated by the spectacle of each and every opponent to grace Highbury’s pitch? Wasn’t the visiting might of old giants like Portsmouth, Plymouth and Oxford enough? What did the old bugger expect? An easy stroll to the Championship?

From 100 fans to 3000. It was a fairy tale. The stands. The community. The set up. The brazen red letters on each programme – CODARMY. Not ‘Fleetwood’ made large font but a sign, a message to the opposition that we are together and prepared to graft and utilise every last ounce of sweat.

Expectation levels sometimes enter a realm which doesn’t entirely inhabit the real world. The young become impatient. The old offset their physical difficulties by moaning at able-bodied men. Some fans – most notably the proud, singing and bobbing unit in the centre of the Memorial Stand (accompanied by the beating of a war drum) – truly act as the 12th man. They understand that where we are is special. They do not take league status lightly. To be in one of the top four divisions of English football – by Christ, that is something for a town of this size.

6 March 2014

Better known for addressing Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character, Rodney Trotter as ‘Dave’, Lloyd-Pack demonstrated the immensity of playing the low-IQ, straight man. Like a barman using the default of ‘John’ to unfamiliar faces, perhaps the Peckham road sweeper was trying to keep his life simple and manageable.

17 March 2014

‘“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” Floyd Patterson said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or stars; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After [Sonny] Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth towards all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody.”’

The sportswriter, Gay Talese documented this. He followed a lot of people during the height of his journalistic career – found chinks, gaps and spaces that other writers generally ignored. He wasn’t afraid of covering the ‘loser’. In fact, he found such a subject the epitome of truly intriguing work.

He was a college kid. I hadn’t expected that (only 16-years-old on that famous night in December 2011 versus 73-year-old Singh). I naturally asked more – threw him a whole range of questions in an effort to get to the heart of the Yim dynasty. It was eleven long days before he resurfaced.

19 March 2014

It was not so much the words from Albany’s Terry Cross, but rather their tone and stout defence, their necessity in the face of a beleaguered assault by a canny opponent. Having nicked the table twice in the 4th set – a huge but unavoidable sin in the table tennis world – you could sense the glee and wild abandon in him. No hint of an apology (the usual raised hand and “Sorry”) – just a jig of sorts, a celebration, the renewed belief that the match was still alive.

As he trooped off, I made a point of asking him: Do you enjoy it? I expected a tirade, a volley of expletives, a ‘mind your own business’. He appeared to be one of the sulkiest players I had ever seen. But then Brownlow the saffron angel, without his dark guise, without his ‘on court’ Green Goblin persona emerged. “Very much so.”

27 March 2014

Hilton’s Andrew Michnowiec is a man from a time machine. In his old, yellow Joola T-shirt, Umbro socks, and shorts evidently hired from Nomads’ Paul Brandwood, he represents a flashback to a better era – one without polish, without modern gizmos that empty our minds.

The Polish name, perhaps anglicized (formerly with three ‘i’s), would seem to emanate from the south-eastern corner of that tough region. It is one of many fine, European appellations to bless the league; Maciejewski, Cicchelli, Dobrzanska, Dumpelnik and Szorcz the others.

There is a pink sheet of paper on the far wall’s tiny, cork noticeboard. It announces: NO SWEARING OR UNSPORTING CONDUCT. Cicchelli will struggle. There will be a few bejesuses that pass his lips before the night is out.

Michnowiec has an old-school serve – a low-swooping, swallow-like trajectory with the grace of a pinball.

Watching Cicchelli you come to realise that it is at times like observing a craftsman in his shed, a woodwork maestro using a plane. One can almost see fine shavings from the ball such is his bat’s phenomenally thin contact with it.

27 March 2014 (II)

Is there a different kind of pressure on a night like this? I ask the question to Ramsbottom’s 100% man, Michael Moir or ‘Mick’ as he calls himself when struggling, when bludgeoned by a force he’s not used to. He hesitates a little. “No. Not really.”

Cicchelli, thrown in first, moans to his captain, Biggs: “I’m still on the motorway. I don’t need to go on first!” Biggs is insistent though – calming his player, trying to talk him round.

If Moir is unsettled, disconcerted by the Cicchelli Jekyll and Hide act, then it doesn’t show. The impeccable Adidas attire (blue top / black shorts / white socks) has the effect of veiling his sweat, disguising how spent he really is.

7 April 2014

I always prefer to sit with the underdogs. There is a radiance often not seen by the general public, a suffused splendour that draws you in.

Vincent Merritt (15%) enters the table tennis fairground. One suspects that there might be candy floss all over his face after this encounter with Hutchinson. Before tonight had begun, Boyzone joked upon seeing Hutchinson’s Swedish STIGA attire that such dress sense was threatening in itself, overwhelming in fact compared to the ordinary clothing and duster-like threads of the Division Three strugglers.

But then Farnworth’s Geoff Rushton – moustache like a streaking caterpillar – is a wise, old secretary who hires well. Already weighed down by the George Yates Trophy the previous evening, this one – the biggie – has him slip a smile.

7 April 2014 (II)

In that moment on 4th June 2013, I knew I had to act, get reinforcements in, strengthen what had become a ragged ship with just Roger Bertrand (98%), myself (47%), Dave Brookes (36%) and Abdiwali Ali (33%) left. If I didn’t then the bright lights of our new home, Division Two would be too strong, too bewildering. We would be pummeled and slaughtered each week – pushed to the back of the points queue like an ignominious runt.

And so fast forward to that grand night on 31.3.2014: Ladybridge versus Harper (‘Lady’ leading 3-2, needing just one more point to stay up). Enter the rocket men: Brierley (2), Raymondo Isherwood (1) and Auxilly (1). “It’s gonna be a long, long time…”

28 April 2014

In the growing crowd, you see the familiar faces of Dave Parker (flat cap and white tash), Malcolm Rose (blue-lined coat and glasses), James Young (mysterious girl in tow) and Barry Walsh (bob hat and a smile that refuses to retire).

There is a conflated hush and buzz about the place this evening – a sense that the matches before us are part of a wider whirlwind. And we are in the vortex of its shifting swirl.

On the way to his three finals, Brandwood weaved his way past some of the lesser names, but he did it in the manner of a seal swimming through a kelp forest. It was, on occasion, like witnessing a re-signing of the Magna Carta.

6 May 2014

Set alongside the league’s current controversy overlords, Paul ‘Mad Dog’ McCormick, Mark ‘Clubber Lang’ Martin and the heaving tension which resides between Premier rivals Ramsbottom ‘A’ and Flixton, Sandford would appear to revel in his new-found acting role.

The purveyor of sarcastic witticisms and verbal musings, Sandford will undoubtedly be misunderstood in many quarters. His occasional bombastic ravings will be met by a peeping through the dividing curtain and admonishment from his fellow amateurs.

Born in September 1993 and introduced to the game under the stewardship of unorthodox Frenchman and bearded wonder, Roger Bertrand, it was for Sandford – as with many unfocussed teenagers – a revelatory moment, a trip to the table tennis orphanage or rather the Bolton Lads’ & Girls’ Club.

Humour still drives him (understandably so). He has the obligatory youthful passport of a large tattoo and often speaks above 65 decibels, yet his planned 2014/15 Division One team including Wilson Parker and Craig Duncan promises to be a Hadron Collider of sorts.

 

[1] Joe Karbo wrote “Lazy Man’s Way to Riches”

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