After a nerve-jangling evening of enthralling table tennis, Brotherhood A emerged victorious in the Clacton & District League’s Handicap Knock-Out Cup final, defeating Nomads Leopards 5-4.
In a marathon final which lasted over four hours, the longest in recent memory, the Division One side of Kevin Gowlett, Alan Burgess and Russell Hillier had to rely as much on their patience, experience and battling qualities as their undoubted table tennis ability to overcome a determined Nomads Leopards, the first side from Division Three to reach a cup final since 2008.
And Brotherhood did it the hard way, coming back from 3-0 and 4-2 down, to take the final three matches of the evening to end the trophy hopes of the Leopards’ trio of Bob Jillins, Dominic Joannou and Stuart Wilkinson.
The contest started, as often happens, with a cautious opening doubles. But the Leopards, who’d not lost a doubles throughout their Cup campaign, gave themselves an early confidence boost when Joannou and Wilkinson (+2) took advantage of some untypically rash shots from their opponents, defeating Burgess and Hillier (-11) 3-1 (11-8, 11-13, 12-10, 11-8).
And it set the pattern for the rest of the evening, where it was vital for the Brotherhood players to make a good start, not to concede points with impetuous shots or silly errors, and to retrieve their handicap at the earliest possible stage, whilst the Leopards were intent on taking full advantage of their double-figure points start.
Certainly, in the opening match, the Leopards showed their mettle, matching the Brotherhood pair in both the second and third sets when the scores reached 8-8, just losing 13-11 in the second but good enough to win 12-10 in the third set.
Leopards’ skipper Jillins (+3) then faced the Brotherhood number one Gowlett (-13) in the first of the singles matches. And what an entertaining nail-biter it proved, with everything resting on the fifth set. Gowlett got back to 7-0 down but could never get on equal terms, Jillins extending his lead to 10-5 to give him a handful of match points, eventually taking a see-saw match 3-2 (11-1, 7-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-8).
Wilkinson (+2) then increased the Leopards’ lead by defeating Burgess (-13), the only survivor of the legendary Brotherhood A team of the early 2000s. Burgess used his serves to good effect but Wilkinson was equal to the task, although he was helped by some outrageous good fortune in the fourth set. Burgess had got the score back to just 5-0 down but then Wilkinson, with an exceptional winner, a net and then an edge, extended his lead to 8-1, before converting it a deserved 3-1 (11-9, 7-11, 11-3, 11-4 victory).
To stay in the contest, Brotherhood surely had to win the next match before the interval – and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of ace defender Russell Hillier (-8). This season’s Handicap Singles champion had a comparatively straightforward 3-0 (11-4, 11-8, 11-8) victory against Dominic Joannou (+2), Hillier only briefly threatened towards the end of the match when Joannou opened up with some uninhibited winners.
Brotherhood got back further into the match when, immediately after the interval, Gowlett and Hillier (-10) edged out the left-handed pair of Jillins and Wilkinson (+2) 3-2 (8-11, 0-11, 12-10, 11-8, 11-8).
It was another tense and entertaining tussle, which Brotherhood turned on its head after not even retrieving their handicap in the second set. The third set proved the first pivotal moment, Brotherhood excelling to get to just 4-0 down but only achieving parity at 9-9 before taking it 12-10. And then, in the fifth and final set, Gowlett and Hillier pulled back from 6-0 down, to level at 7-7 before taking set and match.
It was the first doubles defeat in this year’s campaign for the Leopards, and a first reverse for Jillins in either singles or doubles.
However, the Leopards were not to be cowed and, once again, the tables were turned in match six where a confident Jillins (+2) defeated Burgess (-11) 3-1 (11-2, 11-0, 10-12, 11-6), Burgess three times failing to get the good start needed and putting himself under pressure against a more-than-capable opponent. And it was only with some effort Burgess managed to take the third set, from 8-0 down, coming back to 8-8, leading 10-8, allowing Jillins to level at 10-10 but, using his serve again to good effect, taking it 12-10.
So Leopards led 4-2 and needed just one match to secure the cup – and they so nearly did. That they didn’t was down to the calm and patient Gowlett (-15) who overcame the idiosyncratic Joannou (+3) in a match where the handicap difference of 18 points was the biggest of the whole evening.
Joannou took the first two sets with some ease but the phlegmatic Gowlett fought back to keep his side in the competition, transforming an 8-0 deficit in the crucial third set to parity at 8-8, and eventually to 12-10, going on to take the match 3-2 (3-11, 4-11, 12-10, 11-6, 11-9).
The ever-reliable Hillier (-8) then faced the impressive Wilkinson (+2) but Hillier was up to the task and his reliability ensured a 3-0 (11-8, 11-5, 14-12) victory, although not without a fight, Wilkinson showing great character in a third set where he had two points at 11-10 up and 12-11 up to take the match further.
And so, with the teams level at 4-4 and the clock ticking past 11.30pm, the top two pairings faced up to each other in the final doubles of the final match of the Clacton League season – and the match which would decide the fate of the 2023 cup. Once again, the first two sets were shared, Gowlett and Burgess (-13) getting into gear in set one against Jillins and Joannou (+3) but failing even to get their handicap back in the second. But here, more than ever, the experience of the Brotherhood pair showed as they eased themselves calmly, on the surface at least, to take the match 3-1 (11-6, 0-11, 11-8, 11-9) – and with it the 2023 cup.
It was a second cup success for Burgess, a previous winner in 2007, but a first for both Gowlett, in his first-ever cup final appearance, and for Hillier, a runner-up in 2008.
Alas for the Leopards, after a fine cup campaign, they just fell at the final hurdle, failing by the narrowest of margins to become only the second team from the third tier of the Clacton League in the last 25 years to taste Cup glory. A runners-up medal for the Leopards, maybe, but they should still feel proud of their efforts.
Final results (Brotherhood A players named first):
Match 1: A Burgess/R Hillier (-11) lost to D Joannou/S Wilkinson (+2) 3-1 (8-11, 13-11, 10-12, 8-11).
Match 2: K Gowlett (-13) lost to B Jillins (+3) 3-2 (1-11, 11-7, 11-9, 4-11, 8-11).
Match 3: A Burgess (-13) lost to S Wilkinson (+2) 3-1 (9-11, 11-7, 3-11, 4-11).
Match 4: R Hillier (-8) beat D Joannou (+2) 3-0 (11-4, 11-8, 11-8).
Match 5: K Gowlett/R Hillier (-10) beat B Jillins/S Wilkinson (+2) 3-2 (8-11, 0-11, 12-10, 11-8, 11-8).
Match 6: A Burgess (-11) lost to B Jillins (+2) 3-1 (2-11, 0-11, 12-10, 6-11).
Match 7: K Gowlett (-15) beat D Joannou (+3) 3-2 (3-11, 4-11, 12-10, 11-6, 11-9).
Match 8: R Hillier (-8) beat S Wilkinson (+2) 3-0 (11-8, 11-5, 14-12).
Match 9: K Gowlett/A Burgess (-13) beat B Jillins/D Joannou (+3) 3-1 (11-6, 0-11, 11-8, 11-9).
Grant Sharpe, the Brotherhood team captain, and Gary Stallwood, squad members who’d contributed to Brotherhood’s successful cup run during the season, did not play on the night but each, deservedly, also received a winner’s medal.
Well done, too, to Jason Gale and Mark Gale who controlled proceedings efficiently and with a quiet authority from the umpire’s chair.
And a word of praise also to the hardy band of loyal supporters, which had dwindled somewhat by the time of the final match, who stayed to watch the end of what was a fascinating and unpredictable cup final.
Finally, and just for the record, Russell Hillier is only the fourth player in Clacton League history to win the Handicap Singles Title and the Handicap Knock-Out Cup in the same year. The only other players to achieve this are Derek Wood (Great Holland A) in 1986, Gavin Price (Walton C) in 1997 and Sam Hume (Nomads Cougars) in 2013.