THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP
The seventies started with one of the tightest title races in the league’s history when Crittall A beat College A by just one set. Both had 55 points from 16 matches but Crittall’s sets record was 134-58 compared with College’s 133-59.
To win the title Crittall could drop only six sets over their last three matches. They beat both Silver End A and Cressing A 10-2 but that left them with the task of producing the same scoreline against Shalford A, whose line-up included the unbeaten Mike Musson.
But in Tony Guy, Crittall had the man for the occasion. In a dry run for his subsequent victory in the men’s singles final, Guy managed what no one else had achieved that season and found a way through the powerful Musson to give his team the 10-2 win they needed.
It was the fourth successive title for the Crittall combination of Guy, Dave Atterbury and Len Woolmer and they went on to make it a six in a row, a record yet to be beaten, after adding both Rob Milne and Ron Fosker to their squad for their final two successes. It was the last of their eleven titles.
Milne set the trend for players from outside the area joining the league and it was two such players who denied Crittall a seventh successive title. Colin Hughes and Charlie Wheeler from Chelmsford joined Witham’s Dave Willoughby to bring Crittall Witham their only title.
The following season, 1975, offered a sign of things to come when a team called Colne Engaine won their first league title. Allowing for a couple of name changes, it was to be the first of 13 titles.
The club had been formed by Peter Hill, who ran it for many years with considerable enthusiasm and success, not only for the first team but for the many junior players that he introduced to the game and coached to a high standard – both in his club role and as the league coaching secretary over four separate periods.
He was joined by Ron Martin and Charles Wrigglesworth, a combination that had come together towards the end of the previous season. They held off Crittall A where Ron Cuddeford had joined Milne and Woolmer, and College A’s Fred Sheldrake, Neil Beckett, Ron Fosker and John Tay-Ahenakwa, who scored only three points out of eight in their final two matches to fall two points short.
The next year marked the debut of another of the league’s most influential players. Tay-Ahenakwa had left the area and in his place College recruited former Hertfordshire No.2 Derek Wood, who had just moved to Witham.
And this year College A got it right – but only just. In another of those storybook finishes, the league went into its final match with no fewer than three teams still able to take the title. College travelled to Hedingham needing to win 10-2 to take the title. Hedingham needed only to win 7-5 to take the title themselves while a draw or a College win by less than 10-2 would have given the title to Colne A.
The drama continued on the evening when Sheldrake failed to turn up on time and arrived to find Hedingham had claimed the first set. But they only added one more victory during the evening and College came away with their required 10-2 win.
The team broke up after that season, Wood and Beckett moving over to Bramston where they were joined by Mick Borshell, a former Herts colleague of Wood’s, who had also moved to the area, plus Tom Elder, who had played in the league in the sixties, and Ken Jackson. They held off a challenge from the new-look Colne A of Martin, Milne, Wheeler, Martin Bawden and a 16-year-old Terry Dowsett.
But only for one season. Bramston’s A team moved en bloc to form Witham FC A for 1977-78 but they faced a markedly stronger Colne A team. They had recruited former Essex junior Rob Hellaby, who had just moved into the area, and rising star Kevin Howard, from Braintree Youth Centre. In addition, Dowsett had added a new dimension to his game. After losing twice to Witham in his second match of the season, he then won 47 sets on the trot.
Colne’s 9-3 win over Witham in that match effectively settled the title race. It was a title they were to hold for the next four years. Dowsett, Milne and Howard were the mainstays, with John Andrews joining in 1980 and Ian Graham in 1981.
The new club at Witham FC was to remain in existence for the next 23 years. For the first eleven years of that existence, the A team finished in the top two in the league, for four years behind Colne and in 1982 they took over at the top.
It was during their four years in second place that they were involved in perhaps the tightest title race ever. Witham went into their final match with Colne needing only to draw to ensure they could not be overtaken. Colne needed to win 7-5 or better.
The match was nip and tuck all the way until it reached 6-5 to Colne, leaving them needing the final doubles to win. This went to three games and eventually to 20-19 in the third before Colne clinched the final point.
By 1982, Witham had signed Martin Bawden and Ian Graham from Colne as well as promoting Robin Lang, men’s singles semi finalist at the age of 17 in 1979 (and eventually winner in 1983). With the addition of Andrew Wadling, Neil Sweeting and father Mark, they kept the title on their shelf for the next four years.
Colne found life difficult for a bit – they set a record one year by calling on 15 players to complete their fixtures – and it was Rayne A who stepped up to challenge.
Rayne had been formed in 1976 and after two seasons in the second division, made their way up to the first where they have been ever since. They had flirted with relegation in 1981 before finishing in mid-table. Then in the close season former Herts player Terry Pleasance and ex-Cornwall player John Leith joined the club and transformed them into a top team. For the next two years, they, Dean Andrews, Paul Whybrow and Ian Whiteside – a trio who had come together in 1979 and were to stay together until Whybrow retired in 2002 – offered Witham their only serious challenge.
Then Michael Shorten and Mark Bannister joined Leith and Pleasance and although they finished second in their first season they finally rose to the summit in 1985.
It was only to be for one season, however, as Witham, with the addition of Mike Childs, Darren Jones and Martin Speight, rose to the top again.
It is a season that will be remembered sadly as Robin Lang’s last before he was hit by ME and had to give up the game completely. His loss, together with that of Speight and Childs, meant that Witham faced the defence of their title with unusually slender resources.
Wood, Jones and Bawden were a pretty regular threesome that season but they were outgunned by the new-look Colne A of Steve Kerns, Nick Mills and Fred Evans who began a new period of Colne domination by taking the first of five consecutive titles.
To be accurate, that was the team that represented Colne in most of their matches, but for the encounters with Witham they turned to Paul Stephens in the first and Chris Knight in the second, both playing their only game of the season.
Neither was needed for the next four seasons when John Andrews joined and they swept all before them, including both halves of the season when the league split into mini-sections in 1988 and 1989.
Witham A had evolved into a pretty unlikely looking team of Peter Munch, Martyn Lang, Pip French and Jon Batchford, with Derek Wood down in the B team. But Chris Jacob had signed during the 1991 season and when he persuaded Julie Askem to join him the following season, Wood stepped back up to the A team to produce a formidable trio that took the title back from Colne for two years.
Richard Jennings meanwhile had been improving the fortunes of the Bocking United Services Club. An also ran for many years, they put together a promotion-winning team of Jennings, Ian Morrison and Hud Hoste in 1991, then augmented it one by one over the next three seasons until it turned into a championship-winning team. Peter Hayden joined in 1992, Ian Hayden in 1993, when they were runners-up to Witham, and the picture was completed in 1994 when Terry Dowsett’s name was added to the roster. He had not played in the league for some years after his title-winning years at Colne but now joined his two brothers-in-law – he had married their sister Kim – and helped them stamp their class on the division.
The trio won it for three years before once Colne again picked up the baton. The first of three more titles in 1997 was something of an old-fashioned Colne effort, fielding a total of ten players during the season with only Steve Kerns and Paul Davison, junior boys’ singles winner from 1991 to 1994, playing more than half the matches.
Graham Farmer was a more regular member of the squad the following season when they also called on former Clacton champion Dave Birkett and Cambridge’s Kevin Gray. Kerns, Birkett and Farmer were the basic trio in 1999 when they were also assisted by Bury St Edmunds’ Paul Cicchelli, a player knocking on the England top 100.
The league then entered a period of flux as the title changed hands for four successive years. Or at least, the name on the trophy changed, but the BNCA team that won the title in 2000 had not only moved en bloc from Colne but had kept all their peripheral players and added others. Kerns, Farmer, Birkett, Steve Elmes and Simon Woods were the mainstays (11, 9,8,7,6 matches respectively) with additional appearances from Cicchelli and Chris Jacob plus reserves Matthew Staines, Lucy Wang and Mark Palmer.
That proved to be a one-off and of those names, only Wang remained at Notley the following season. Palmer went off to university but most of the others made their way to the newly formed Netts (North Essex Table Tennis School) club at Gosfield School.
They spent a year maturing (Staines was only 14 and Lee Daines a year older at the start of the 2000-01 season) while Rayne stepped back for the second title in their history 16 years after the first. They enjoyed the services of former Essex No.1 Steve Dettmar for a few seasons, during which he won four consecutive men’s singles titles. In 2001 he, Ian Whiteside and Steve Elmes were joined by Dowsett who became one of the few players (the first?) to win the title with three different clubs.
Rayne’s reign lasted only one year as both Dowsett and Dettmar left the following year allowing both for Netts – essentially Kerns, Farmer and Davison – to take over.
But Rayne came back strongly in 2004 when their team based round Whiteside, Elmes, Dean Andrews and Steve Pennell ruled convincingly. They held on to it less commandingly the following year when they finished just two points clear of Black Notley A, then Notley returned to the podium in 2006 and again in 2008, with the help of long distance travellers Ian Brown (Beccles), Ken Lewis and Gary Young (both Ipswich). In between, the name of Cressing appeared on the trophy for the first time. A club of that name, including the likes of Peter Byford, Ivan Buck and Harold Bickmore, had gone out of existence some 30 years earlier. Peter Hayden decided to resurrect it, enticed his brother Ian back into action after a number of years’ absence and his sister Lisa after even longer. Old friend Trevor Carter joined them and they took the title by a point from Notley.