This weekend saw Cardiff City I competing in perhaps the most important run of matches in the club’s three year history. As the team journeyed into England, five crucial Play-Off clashes lay ahead, spread across Saturday and Sunday, which could see Cardiff pull off a run of three successive promotions, launching the club into the Premier Division of British Table Tennis.
The 2015 Senior British League Play-Offs had the top sides from the three Division 1s of the league system- excluding any club who already had a team in the top tier- descending on Cippenham table tennis club in Berkshire to contest which two teams from the three regional divisions would make the step up into the prestigious national Premier Division. After clinching the runner-up spot in Division 1 North, Cardiff were joined in the Play-Offs by BATTS, York Gardens, Rotherham Scorpions and Greenhouse. Although eligible, Wymondham pulled out of the Play-Offs only a few days before the event began. This meant that the teams who did compete on the weekend were granted a ‘bye’, meaning they each had to sit out one round of matches.
Cardiff City I headed East excited by the prospect of testing their mettle against the top Division 1 sides from across Britain; though a few nerves were perhaps to be expected. “I thinking keeping nervous is better. You’re more prepared for it that way” said Cardiff player Patrick Thomas. “We were prepared for a really tough battle. We knew we could get where we wanted and get promoted, but we also knew that he had to play well if we were going to pull it off. None of us could be off our game.”
There was no sign of any nervousness in the Cardiff ranks as play began on Saturday, however, as the opening fixture saw the team quickly establishing a 5-0 lead against Division 1 South runners-up York Gardens. Brian Li next won a point in the match for York, but the win would prove irrelevant as Cardiff took the following two matches to complete a comprehensive 7-1 win overall. Elsewhere in the first round, BATTS joined Cardiff among the early pace-setters by also notching up a 7-1 win against Greenhouse.
Cardiff’s next opponents were more familiar fare, having provided worthy rivals to Cardiff this season in Division 1 North. Stalemates between the two sides in September and March meant that Rotherham Scorpions were furthermore undefeated against Cardiff City this season. By the end of Saturday afternoon though Cardiff had broken through their run of draws against the South Yorkshire outfit as wins in both their singles matches for Patrick Thomas and Wiktor Dzwonkowski helped their team on their way to a 6-2 triumph overall. Meanwhile, the two teams who had lost their opening matches faced off across the hall, and soon the much fancied Division 1 South Champions Greenhouse looked to be down and out of the promotion chase already, slumping to a 5-3 defeat against York Gardens.
After sitting out the second round with a bye, BATTS returned to the action to face Cardiff in Saturday’s final match with a 100% win record still technically intact for both teams. The Essex-based team was made up of Jack Bennett and the Walsh family; brothers Luke and Ethan along with their father Jimmy. BATTS would prove no match for the in form side from Wales though as Cardiff ran out comfortable 8-0 winners against the third-placed team from Division 1 Midlands. In the same round York Gardens beat Rotherham Scorpions 5-3 to take second place in the table at the close of Saturday’s play, two points behind Cardiff.
The day’s run of three wins on the bounce meant that Cardiff City were now guaranteed promotion. “After the fifth singles match in the tie with BATTS we knew that was it; we knew we couldn’t be caught,” recounted Patrick Thomas. “That moment was my highlight. We went there for promotion and after that we knew we had it. We were the first Welsh team in the Premier Division.”
“On Saturday night there was a really good atmosphere in the team. We were buzzing. It meant that on Sunday we were just there to win the Play-Offs. We had the promotion we came for and there was nothing to lose then. There was less pressure and I think we all enjoyed that.”
Sunday morning would have seen Cardiff face off against Wymondham had the Norfolk-based side not dropped out of the competition. While Cardiff enjoyed their bye, resting up through the weekend’s fourth round, BATTS narrowed the pack of promotion chasers, effectively ending York’s promotion hopes after beating the hopefuls 5-3. Rotherham meanwhile triumphed by the same score line against London’s Greenhouse, who were still without a point over the weekend. The two fourth round results set up a promotion decider that afternoon as Rotherham Scorpions and BATTS were set to do battle in the final match of weekend, with a draw good enough to see BATTS promoted but a loss meaning that the Scorpions would go up in their place.
Already promoted, Cardiff met Greenhouse in their final act of the season, hoping to secure their status as Play-Off Champions. The team was rotated for the second day with Yongbo Zhang making way for Lloyd Gregory’s debut for Cardiff City I after Lloyd was named Player of the Season during Cardiff City II’s term in Division 5 South. In the match the team progressed past Greenhouse with another 7-1 victory. Patrick Thomas and Wiktor Dzwonkowski again won both of their matches within the team event, completing a perfect weekend of straight wins for the two Cardiff stars. While Cardiff City were finishing the season in ruthless fashion, BATTS meanwhile confirmed that they would be joining Cardiff in the Premier Division after a nail-biting 4-4 draw with rivals Rotherham Scorpions. Twelve year old BATTS prodigy Ethan Walsh twice saved a match point for his club to secure their Premier Division status in the dramatic final throes of the weekend’s action.
“We have established a Premier Division club in only three years. I think that’s big, especially being the first Welsh team to make it there”, said Patrick Thomas of his team’s achievements.
Next season will now see Cardiff City competing at the top table of British table tennis and Patrick Thomas is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. “It’s a big jump up; the Premier Division”, he acknowledges. “I don’t think we’ll be fighting for winning the league. We’ll just be trying to get our foot in and stay there.”
“You have to stay up before you think of anything else in that division. Clubs who invest in getting the top players are the ones who have been around a lot longer than us; Drumchapel, Ormesby. If we end up meeting some of the players they used last year, they’ll probably be the strongest players we’ve ever played against. That’s what we have to compete with now.”
Patrick’s grounded approach to the team’s upcoming Premier Division campaign doesn’t represent any degree of pessimism, however, as his excitement for the new season shines through. “It may not be one of the top leagues globally but there’s definitely still a fair few big names in the British League; Xu Ruifeng, Enio Mendes. I can’t wait to play against those players. There’s no pressure for us, everything is on them; these are their games to loose. Next season will be the first time that we’re not remotely expected to win, and that will be a very different challenge for us.”
“Ultimately, I’m thrilled”, admits Patrick. “There’s going to be consistently top quality matches for four weekends next season. That’s definitely something to look forward to, and to train really hard for.”
A massive challenge awaits the relatively new Welsh club in September then, but it’s a challenge that everyone at Cardiff City has worked hard to face.
The stakes will be high and the potential rewards considerable. ‘The jungle is dark but full of diamonds.’ Bring on the Premier Division!
Cardiff City TTC is Wales’ first full-time table tennis centre. Located in Cathays in the heart of Cardiff, the international standard facilities are open to the public seven days a week for casual ‘Pay as you Play’ as well as high quality coaching. The organisation run sessions for players of any age or level of ability and are always on the lookout for new players.
Go to www.cardiffcitytabletennisclub.com for more information.