A thrilling British League season was drawing to a close last weekend as the final decisive matches were played out in table tennis halls across the UK. Strong seasons from the Cardiff City’s two British League teams meant that both sides were still firmly in the fight for promotion as they headed across the border only a few results away from glory.
For the final time this year Cardiff City I travelled to Widnes knowing that, barring a total capitulation from them and a late charge by Northfield, their next journey together would likely be to Cippenham in mid-April for the play-offs, competing for the right to enter the Premier Division. Cardiff began Saturday second in the table but knowing that even if the team were to drop into third they would still be included in the play-off line up. This is because Drumchapel II, who lead the division at the start of play, are excluded from the play-offs on the grounds that the large Scottish club already has a team at the top table of British table tennis and league administrators will not permit more than one club side in each division.
Cardiff made their play-off credentials a mathematical certainty after only the weekend’s first round of games. A single point gained from a 4-4 draw against Rotherham Scorpions was enough to ensure that the now nine point gap between Cardiff and fourth-placed Northfield, who lost their opening fixture on Saturday, could not be closed in the season’s final three games. The draw against a strong Scorpions side was a repeat of when the two sides had last met in September; though now preventing a Scorpions victory seemed even more essential since Saturday’s stalemate maintained a three point gap between Cardiff in second and Rotherham Scorpions in third.
With the play-offs now in the bag, Cardiff seemed more to free express themselves in Saturday afternoon’s clash with Burton Uxbridge as they saw off the Staffordshire club 5-3. Burton were perhaps still reeling from an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Drumchapel that morning but Simon Noutch and Patrick Thomas were on hand to take full advantage, winning both their singles matches against Burton while returning club player Yongbo Zhang added Cardiff’s fifth.
As Cardiff ran out winners against Burton, Drumchapel’s dominance of the division was being questioned by a Bristol Academy side on the rise. Bristol managed to hold the Glaswegians to a draw. This meant that Cardiff finished the day just one point off the top spot with their attentions now turning to the Division 1 North trophy. Another Drumchapel slip up would throw the title race wide open and Cardiff got their wish early on Sunday morning as Drumchapel slipped to a surprise 6-2 defeat against Ormesby II, who had been bottom at the start of the weekend but were now making a late break away from the relegation places with three wins on the bounce.
To take advantage of Drumchapel’s woes Cardiff would have to go through Bristol Academy. One of the country’s top destinations for talented young table tennis players, Bristol Academy’s list of famous alumni includes the Scottish No. 1 Gavin Rumgay, Paralympian Will Bailey and Cardiff City’s own Lloyd Gregory. This season’s academy team had shown significant improvement since losing to Cardiff 7-1 in December and Bristol were soon parading their development by inflicting a 6-2 blow on Cardiff’s title chances. The opportunity to catch Drumchapel seemed to be slipping away.
Cardiff’s final opponents in Division 1 North this season were Ormesby II, a side who had hit a purple patch of late and would be buoyed by their recent triumph against Drumchapel. In the end Cardiff held one of England’s oldest clubs to a 4-4 draw, marking an end to Ormesby’s winning run. The hard fought point would not be enough to catch Drumchapel though, who extended their lead at the top to two points after beating Northfield 6-2. Cardiff’s share of the spoils from the Ormesby game would prove significant as a single point ensured that they held on to second place after a late challenge from Rotherham Scorpions, who were undefeated over the final weekend. The weekend’s complete results left the top three sides in the division unchanged since the start of the weekend with Cardiff in second place, held off Drumchapel’s top spot by only two points.
“As a team we all enjoyed it and had good fun of the weekend”, said Cardiff City I player Patrick Thomas, “on the second day though none of us really performed to our best. We don’t know why it was that way; I think if we knew we could have done something about it. It wasn’t that the pressure was off, we were well prepared. On the second day we were there to practice before the hall even opened.”
“Our objective was always to get to the play-offs though. We knew before the first round of matches that we’d only need one point all weekend to get there and we ended up getting five. We all enjoyed ourselves this weekend. We had good fun.”
With the league table now complete, Cardiff City player Simon Noutch finishes the season joint-top of the division’s player average charts alongside Drumchapel’s Christopher Main with both players having achieved a win percentage of 82.14%. Patrick Thomas later said of his high-flying team mate “Simon is a rock. All season he’s been the one we can rely on. He always fights for it; always works hard on the table and when you go into a match you can just know that he’ll do it again.”
Simon and the team’s heroics this season have earned them passage into the British League play-off competition in April. The event pits the top two teams from each of the three regional second tiers of British table tennis; Division 1 North, South and Midlands, with the top two teams at the play offs being rewarded with entry into the prestigious Premier Division.
It’s a high-stakes challenge that Patrick Thomas seems to be looking forward to. “They’re all really good teams that we’re up against. If they’re in the play offs then they’re going to be good because they’ve all come near the top of their division and all the various Division 1s are particularly strong this year. I can’t wait, I’m really excited, excited to see the results, to see what we can do against strong opposition, and to see if we can actually get to the prem and through five divisions in four years! I think that would be a massive feat for the club, especially as that means no one else would have been able to do it quicker.”
The play-offs deciding entry to the Premier Division will be held on April 18th and 19th in Cippenham; a venue well known to Cardiff City II who were in the Berkshire club only this weekend as they completed their final four matches in Division 5 South.
Cardiff City II headed to Berkshire with a great deal of uncertainty surrounding their ambitions in the league. The team had held third place ahead of Saturday’s play, equal on points with second-placed Kingfisher III but having played one match more than their rivals. Whether or not third or even second place might be good enough for promotion, however, still remained unclear. This is the first season that the British League has featured a fifth tier and there remains some mystery regarding how the one single fifth division would feed into the three Division 4s within the current league system; there are three Division 4s with each divided by region but Division 5 South is currently the only fifth division.
The team would have to put promotion scenarios out of their heads then as they approached the weekend simply hoping to secure as many points as possible. Closing top of the table Waterside’s 6 point lead might have seemed unrealistic, but a battle was still on between Cardiff and Kingfisher for the runner-up spot.
Before they looked above them Cardiff would have to face the side below them in the weekend’s first round of matches. The Edgware-based London Academy fields four teams across the British League and it was London Academy IV who lined up against Cardiff on Saturday morning. Although Cardiff took the lead three times in the match, London Academy repeatedly fought back and refused to let Cardiff pull away, eventually grinding out a 4-4 draw. Cardiff City II returned to winning ways emphatically though in the next round by confidently defeating another side from the English capital, Greenhouse IV. The 7-1 victory marked Cardiff’s biggest win since seeing off Survey Initiative Rowhedge 8-0 in January.
Sunday began with another win for Cardiff City II as they triumphed 5-3 over Fusion IV compounding the misery of one of England’s largest clubs, whose fourth team had only attained two draws this season and finished the weekend bottom of the table. Cardiff’s next opponents were Foresters II, a side in unpredictable form after winning their last match on Saturday 8-0 before being beaten 8-0 on Sunday morning. Cardiff ran out 6-2 winners against Foresters with Lloyd Gregory and Cade Short both taking maximum points from their singles matches.
The run of fixtures on the final weekend meant that Cardiff were powerless to stop either the onward march of league leaders Waterside or the fact that Kingfisher won all of their Sunday fixtures, including their game in hand. The results meant that Cardiff would stay third in the division, missing out on second place by only one point. The team will have to wait to find out if their efforts have been good enough for promotion.
“I’m not sure they’ve made a decision yet,” admits Lloyd Gregory, “it might well depend on the quality of the sides around us. If the organisers are looking to replace some of the weaker teams in any of the Division 4s then they might be considering moving Cardiff up, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
“We’re happy with third place. I would have liked to finish above Kingfisher. We beat them the first time we played but could only manage a draw the second time, even though we were 4-2 up at one point. We also got beat by Foresters in December and that was a match I think we could have won as well. Those were the only two real slip-ups though; the only blips in a very strong season overall.”
As the more experienced player in the team, Lloyd Gregory led by example this season and was awarded a trophy for racking up the most wins in the division. Lloyd has not lost a singles matches since the league’s first weekend back in December, contributing to a massive win percentage of 92.86% by the end of play.
After the weekend, however, Lloyd was keen to focus on some of the rising stars in the Cardiff City II line-up. “It’s a young team and it’s the first senior tournament for most of them. They’re all in there to get experience mainly and, whatever happens with promotion, to come third in their first ever season is a massive success.”
The club will announce the fate of Cardiff City II just as soon as the league’s promotion plan is announced. Meanwhile the destiny of Cardiff City I remains to play for. On the weekend of April 18th and 19th we will be bringing you all the action from the play-offs as it unfolds.
You can view all the final results and tables from the British League at www.tabletennis365.com/britishleague.