Warburton Cup Final: Heaton B 357 Bolton TTC 422.5
‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ African food pioneer Alain Job shouts as he wanders around Bolton Market attempting to drum up trade for his Nkono stall. Occasionally he will stop and clear up the fact that, no, his tumultuous cry is not one of ‘Tesco! Tesco!’ (usually to a stiff Englishman) but of a much more frenzied composition.
If there was ever a more fitting introduction to the Warburton Cup Final then this is it six miles away; the sound of Job sailing in on the wind. He should be given a mic, showered with a patronage of sorts and permitted to introduce this annual feast at the Hilton Table Tennis Centre.
Job’s Cameroonian joy is infectious – a reminder to us polished Brits that a warble in the throat is better than languishing in an impersonal shopping arcade. Small is good. Or rather – big, stately and paradoxically gentle in the case of the “Straight Talkin’, Lip Smackin’, Street Eatin’” Nkono proprietor.
Table tennis has its own Alain Job. He goes by the name of John Frank ‘Francis’ Green. If he was to run into Job then, for a moment, there would be not confusion but certainly a mutual gauging or weighing up of each other. ‘Can it be that there is another hip, larger-than-life individual besides myself?’ the patter might go.
Green would perhaps struggle to carry off the orange T-shirts commonly worn by the charismatic Job – he much prefers blue – and his smile isn’t quite as full-flowing, yet there is something of the inverse bounder to both men, something that tickles and fascinates the onlooking crowd. With the death of Prince on this very day (21st April, 2016), some might say that it is time a hail of Purple Rain was hurled around the table from the able wrists of Francis.
There are other characters in this production though – each one capable of tyranny at the table. Green’s wily compatriots – members of Heaton B – are the bespectacled David Hall and black panther-like Duncan Kay; captain Stephen Woods generously ‘sitting out’ the final because of his leaner stats.
In the other camp, Nayem Alam prowls around knowing that he can upset the most sturdy of odds. Pete ‘The Grinder’ McCormick has a look of enigmatic and sober smoothness to him. And Dave Mottershead…well, you sense that the occasion is playing on his mind. Understandably. This is the big one – the one synonymous with bread. You may as well have Fred Dibnah, Samuel Crompton, Peter Kay, William Lassell, Amir Khan, William Lever and Nat Lofthouse in the crowd such is the pressure and desire to have your team name inscribed on the Honours Board.
When I arrive at 7.20pm, I witness Mottershead practising a little nervously away from the big court. His words to me roll out a little faster than normal. You can tell that there is weight on those shoulders – the weight that comes with all no.3s, particularly when there is a chasm or canyon between the win percentage of the top players in a team and the third man.
I am well accustomed to such travails playing alongside Dave Jones (52%) and Roger Bertrand (47%) – myself a mere 8% – and Mottershead’s situation is not too different: McCormick (74%), Alam (67%), Mottershead (28%). Can he shed the hard numbers of a league season on this dapper night – bamboozle those in attendance with a performance that has the bookies shaking their heads? Only time will tell. But the Bury College man has one great asset: conviction. Will such a tenet be able to sculpt his arms and legs into that of an established table tennis player rather than a third-season novice? We will see.
Hall 43 Alam 41
It is Hall versus Alam to begin; Hall present in his navy Adidas tracksuit, Alam sufficiently steered by his beard and glasses – part professor and part assassin in the table tennis halls of Bolton (his soft hands and wrists unlike anything you have seen before). The word ‘accuracy’ needs redefining once you have seen him in full flow – the tiny adjustments he makes mid-point and mid-game warranting a burst of applause at times.
It is quite apt that this first match of the evening should be the tightest encounter of them all – the old idiom of not being able to get ‘a cigarette paper between them’ highly appropriate given the respective talent of the Division Two and Division Three player.
Hall finished the season on a whacking 94%, yet Alam is somehow living with him, unafraid, pinging in variety and the kitchen sink when faced with the Heaton player’s wily, angled chops. You see Alam roll shots with his backhand then manoeuvre into a forehand loop or flat hit as if hopping from one foot to another whilst queuing up for an ice-cream. It is mesmerising, artistic, instinctive play that cannot be coached.
Hall just about squeaks through the opening game (14-12) – recovering from a 3-6 deficit in the process – but Alam’s blue and white Butterfly T-shirt is clearly making its presence felt, perhaps hurting the eyeline of the Division Two maestro.
To an outsider, Hall – loose chain around his neck, black shirt, grey shorts, white Nike trainers, blue wrist watch – appears stolid, phlegmatic, impassive. Chuck him in a van with teammate Duncan Kay and you genuinely believe that between them they could quite easily rob a bank.
Heaton B is a team of precision, of knowing what will happen next, who will wander into focus at a given time, when a rain drop will hit the bottom of a drainpipe. They have built their season – an impressive third in Division Two – on tight calculations, the use of invisible protractors and compasses. And when you examine the faces of Hall and Kay you see an intensity and concentration rarely exhibited on the amateur circuit.
11-9. 11-9. Hall motors away but with no let-up from Alam. You do not steamroll Alam, but rather drive away with him hanging on to the back bumper. He is quietly feisty, determined and if out of his depth then he will bravely adapt; the curious pink-edged surround on the Alam bat cleverly hinting at a Barbie occupant when in fact barbarian would be closer to the truth.
Hall implores you to keep hitting the net, make unforced errors – the dynamic underbelly of his well-placed, spinning shots flummoxing a lesser man. Alam, however, in his black Nike trainers – the ones on the shelf next to Hall’s – was bound to come good. You cannot keep a classy player down. You cannot have flair constantly bowing to rigour.
The Bolton TTC man surges into a 10-3 lead and Hall instantly realises the seriousness of such a position – his team needing 3.57pts per game given the 128.5 handicap of the Division Three side. Alam, still in a high gear, still feeling the poetry coursing through his veins, flounders a little – a loop long, a smash into the net, the solid defence of Hall now ever-important. 10-7 Alam and then, finally, the winner.
It is a crucial tightening of the gross points – a harbinger, captain Dave Mottershead hopes. Heaton require around 14 points per match and so this is a challenging start, a stinger thrown in front of their cup hopes.
‘He’s not slow,’ I say to Hall as he wanders off the centre of the court to his seat. ‘You can put down that I am,’ he replies with great modesty, aware that he has been in a battle, aware that Green and Kay need to turn this around.
Green 40 McCormick 36
Alam takes a big sip of water after his efforts and peers across at the McCormick match with intrigue. Pete McCormick – who is this man? First season in the Bolton League, great win percentage, but very much an unknown. He has decided to bring his wife along for the evening – red top, blonde hair, navy trousers, a black leather-strapped watch sitting daintily across her wrist.
Is an accompanying partner a good or bad thing? Can wives help the karma of such an evening? That is a difficult one to call. She has a camera though and such an item could jinx the night completely or be handily ready if her fella and his chums win the cup, replacing previous incumbents Ladybridge C.
Green, the self-critical, rich in baritone, Heaton man starts this one well. Short, snapped responses appear fundamental to his play. 11-8. Half a grin makes its way to the surface of his face. But then comes the McCormick fight back, The Grinder in full swing. The Bolton TTC player has a knack of keeping the ball in play. He is fully aware of the dimensions of the table.
‘Oh, no, no, no – don’t play stupid shots like that,’ Green rattles off, like an actor berating himself, like a foreman concerned about the sand to cement ratio. The scoreline has merely changed from 3-1 to 3-2, but he is a taskmaster, a verbal slayer – regularly putting himself in the stocks for minor errors. ‘Wasted…That’s terrible, Frank.’ The play before us doesn’t entirely fit with the torturous words, but his opponent does seal this second game 11-7 and so the pressure is immediately on.
11-8. 11-9. Green salvages something from this match and after an intentional whack to his right thigh with his blade in the 4th manages to hold his nerve.
Kay 44 Mottershead 16
Kay is the player on the night – an unsurpassed 126pts steadying his team. And no wonder. He is the epitome of cool. When you look at him dressed all in black you can’t help but think of the great advertising line “And all because the lady loves Milk Tray.” Bat in hand, knife in mouth – it amounts to the same. The same passion coupled with destructiveness. The same clinical lethalness from that dead bat of his.
11-3. 11-3. 11-3. 11-7. Kay doesn’t hang around. He is not an apologist for Division Two might. His forehand is built from granite. His reading of the ball is like a librarian getting wiggy in the archives or vault amidst dust-laden classics. The spin of the ball somehow becomes irrelevant when Kay is around. He attacks early, has a gliding backhand and quite simply knows where he wants to put the ball.
For Mottershead, this was a tough introduction to the final; ‘Be nice to me’, ‘Come on’, ‘Let’s have a think’ and other verbal reproaches only of limited assistance. In brown socks and white trainers, Mottershead’s time would come though.
Green 40 Alam 43
This was the first evident crack in Heaton’s Warburton Cup bandwagon or proficient journey in this historic competition. Green cannot be blamed for losing by 3pts to the zipping wonder that is Alam. Nor can he be lambasted for losing three games to a player one division below his own (11-7, 9-11, 8-11, 12-14).
A lot of things happened during this match: the crowd swelled with two extra Heaton men; Steve Barber – jacketed-up – took a prominent seat behind the play; and my pen ran out of ink (there can be no greater symbolism…step aside, Weston – your time is up!).
Alam is a gentle executioner. In his play are the musings of twenty gods and the weapons of a gladiator. The forehands sometimes go long, but through his bent knees he is constantly teeing up his next delightful trick.
‘You silly boy,’ big Frank Green chides himself with in the 4th after losing a point whilst leading 10-7. And then ‘Can you decide?’ aimed at Dave Mottershead who is stood, in view, up against the wall in the distance – shuffling about maybe just an inch to his left and back to his right, but an inch too much all the same.
The psychology of the big match! Never get upset. Otherwise, you’ll be cut down by your own frustrations. We know what happened next. We know that Alam finished this particular game with a backhand roll – net in – for 14-12. Green sits down a little shattered and it is now up to Hall.
Hall 44 Mottershead 16
Navy Puma shorts rest against the Bolton TTC captain’s solid thighs. He has yet to find any branded brilliance above such limbs, but this match starts encouragingly. Mottershead drives into a 5-3 lead. Call it Hall adjusting. Call it the Division Three player’s renewed vigour. Either way, we have a changed man. Hall, inevitably, sees this game out (11-8), yet Mottershead the phoenix has at least put up a fight.
A momentary spell at the beginning of the 2nd catches the customary Heaton audio (‘Oh, you clown, top spin it’), but then Hall steps it up to win nine consecutive points (11-1).
Mottershead looks a little perplexed. Cup finals are never easy nights, but just to be contributing, helping the cause. That is his clear aim. The next game is more respectable: 11-5 to Hall; a cry of ‘Get it on!’ from Mottershead navigating him a tad.
Hall – as with Kay – doesn’t do kindness around the table though and races into a 9-0 lead in the 4th. He then goes long much to the relief of Mottershead and this one ends with a slightly ignominious 11-2.
Sit down. Just sit down and forget about it. That is all you can say. Consolation has no place here mid-evening. At least Mottershead is learning. That’s what playing the big players does for you.
Kay 43 McCormick 27
Match six (out of nine). This is the one that lifts the atmosphere quite unexpectedly. This is the one that feels like invading ships are back at Heaton’s shores.
Green dispenses with the Donic scoreboard – still wounded that no neutral scorer was available from the Hilton ranks or staff rota on what is a culminating evening for one team. ‘Shame,’ I thought I heard him mutter, but I might have imagined it from the extensive Frank Green archive which exists.
Looking at Kay in his soft, grey sneakers-cum-slippers, it is easy to imagine a man winding down, ready to fall into a rocking chair. But more wrong you could not be. He seems to initially hold off in this match – contrary to the picture drawn – yet that is probably testament to McCormick’s lobs, his John Cole-esque arsenal.
10-12. This could be curtains for Heaton unless Kay can turn this around.
Puma trainers, the red-lettered HUGO stitching across his black top, Kay in full flight is fascinating to watch. Not many launch their whole body into shots. Not many have a quiver in their face such is the concentration when making contact with the ball. Kay has all of this and the match before us is very much dead bat king versus lob prince.
11-6. Kay resumes his normal motoring speed. It is the backhand step-in to make it 7-4 in this game which grabs the attention though. Such a calculating player! Such sorcery at times! Check that back pocket for a small abacus!
4-1 up in the 3rd and we have our first ‘let’ of the night. That probably says much about the quality of TT next door hosting the Brian Gittins final between Wharton and Ramsbottom A. Angled forehand drives and backhands down the line win the 3rd game for Kay – a crushing 11-3 which has McCormick questioning his craft.
Go out with a reasonable final game, you can almost see ticking away inside McCormick’s head. And he does. His lobs are in-tune. At one stage it is 5-4 to Kay, but then the master pulls away for an 11-6. Good nonetheless, but vital points for Heaton.
It is 254-179 gross and 254-307.5 net. Heaton need to win the final three matches by 54 – in other words, average victories of 18pts a game. It is doable, feasible, within the realms of reason.
But here comes Mottershead, saving his best ‘til last, like a pigeon morphing into a red-tailed hawk…
Green 33 Mottershead 40
You rearrange the letters on the Donic scoreboard and they read ID CON. That is how this match feels. You knew Mottershead had it in him, but to pull it out of the bag now just as Bolton TTC were beginning to slip – it is fantastical, ridiculous, a script of epic proportions.
The great irony is that the higher you climb in the league, the more you come to realise that warming-up pre-match is just that. Backhands, forehands, rhythm building. Mottershead still wants to drill them in the corner though, finish with a flurry for good luck. And he does just that – puts one in the left corner before the real points begin.
Oh, the impatience and superstition of the lower divisions! But that’s what makes these clashes interesting – different cultures reaching in and engaging in war.
‘Rash shot,’ Green says towards the end of the 1st game with Mottershead whilst reaching for an unlikely forehand. Despite this, he brings the game home and is almost on track (11-7).
‘I need a few more, don’t I,’ he articulates to his Heaton team before the 2nd commences.
But this is where the hawk swoops – Mottershead seemingly spinning round in a phone box and exiting with the kamikaze tendencies of a man not from Bury College, but from Navy Seal HQ.
8-11. ‘Rattled me,’ Green concedes. 6-11. ‘Outplayed,’ Green munificently accepts.
Worry is cyclical, it seems. Mottershead, the man with no sense of entitlement – the humility king – has finally shed the thorny dauntingness of this match and really focused. Each player has their ideal opponent and Green to Mottershead is like a gherkin in a hamburger – sweet, pickled fun.
8-11. Who would have thought it? The 28% man from Division Three game-hunting the 52% giant from Division Two; a result which would stand as a victory both in cup and league terms. Daring serves and deep chops won this – the secret Mottershead stash which he occasionally pulls from the fake door panel in his wardrobe.
Kay 39 Alam 33
All bets are off. Hall umpires what is a Bolton TTC procession to the cup. The net score after this match is 326-380.5. Heaton need 55pts and a final match whitewash would only yield 44. A great shame really as watching Kay and Alam exchange firepower is like standing in an old, dusty street as Clint Eastwood directs a Western.
11-5. 8-11. 11-6. 9-11. Another coup for Alam – living with the big boys, not being humbled. Quite remarkable really and sufficient evidence that this lad simply has to play in Division Two next season, however that may come about.
It is even more impressive when you consider that Duncan Kay appears to ride an invisible chariot to each shot. If he doesn’t get you early, then he’ll attempt to batter you somehow. Forehand, backhand – it does not matter. The only weakness that I can see in the Kay game is if the ball is too low and he is unable to leverage sufficient top spin given the age of his bat.
Other than that, he is deceptively competent. Maybe the Milk Tray garb makes him look smoother around court than he actually is. Perhaps it is like a puppet performance with Kay expertly controlled by strings. Either way, he is dangerous; his 79% for the season telling a bigger story.
As for Alam, despite odd league defeats to Roy Platt, Neil Unsworth, Roy Caswell and David Yates this season (the latter two indicating he has trouble with the lob) and another courtesy of his bogeyman, Christopher Boys he is slowly becoming a force admired and respected throughout the Bolton League; a man ironing out his flaws the more he plays.
Hall 31 McCormick 42
It would be unfair not to mention this final match just because the fat lady has sung – particularly as a 74% man from Division Three is not supposed to turn over a 94% man from Division Two.
Hall must have been understandably flat, knowing that the efforts of a great season have not led to Warburton Cup victory, yet let us not take anything away from McCormick who put on a sublime show against this fellow chopper (WARNING: Local forests – please secure your gates.)
Bolton TTC captain, Dave Mottershead chose to umpire this and at times it was like watching not a regular scorer, but a proud US president address his people.
The funniest part of this match is during the 2nd game (following an initial 8-11 melee) when Green shouts to Hall ‘Give him a game!’ Hall, the measured fellow, a grey island atop his head, is having none of it: ‘Like you did…’
After the occasional reckless backhand and winding forehand, Hall manages to secure this 2nd game 11-9, but then McCormick takes control; angled backhands to the body and other such delights leaving Hall at 5-11 in the 3rd and 7-11 in the 4th.
It is time for the camera! But not before the handshakes. A stoical air sweeps across the Heaton camp. They came here with intent, but have not delivered.
Bolton TTC resemble or feel like a team of bandits even though they aren’t. Inside the town centre club is a growing seed, an impressive collection of individuals ready to proliferate throughout the league.
357-422.5 is how it ends (factoring in the 128.5 handicap). It is 10.10pm and some faces look secretly joyful, some tired and bushed. ‘The time is now!’ Alain Job spices and complements his ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ with. It certainly is. Bolton TTC have taken Duncan Kay’s chariot, but Job’s English equivalent, Frank Green – 70 in December – will continue to mutter the most.