National League Champions

The Scottish National League 2022-2023 came to an enjoyable and entertaining conclusion on Sunday 5th. North Ayrshire again headlined proceedings, with their A team deserved winners of Division 1.

There was still frost lingering in their air and across the North Inch, as players started arriving at around 8:40. Within 30 minutes, the hall was buzzing with excitement and energy. As TTS Board Member Billy Gibbs watched agog, he described the vibrant scene as ‘amazing’ and testimony to the strength of the SNL. At 10am the first matches were underway with the final balls hit at around 4:25. In between, several promotion and relegation issues were resolved in vigorous, well-contested matches.

Dominant again

The Scottish National League’s dominant force, North Ayrshire, claimed their 9th title. An impressive achievement and a testament to the club’s commitment to the SNL since the competition was resurrected in 2010. This season they achieved their victory without the services of Colin Dalgleish. Martin Johnson (14 wins from 14) stepped up to play the leading role, with Jamie Johnson (13 wins from 14), Chris Main, and Ethan Chapman completing the line up. They were never really challenged on the final day, with two convincing victories. In the morning, they faced their B team, who competed well but were eventually beaten 6 nil. In that match, Tales Yamamoto found it tough going, unable to make an impact against Chris Main’s tricky and astute play.

In reality the title decider against Murrayfield A I wasn’t much of a contest. At least, Murrayfield A kept things going with a 4-2 win versus Glasgow South A in their morning match. Borui Chen and Danillo Celli claimed two apiece, with the Italian’s match versus the ever-energetic David Hay one of the most fluid, enjoyable matches of the day. Glasgow South competed well, with Cameron Hussain claiming a good win over Gordon Muir.

In previous seasons, and especially in 2019-20, Murrayfield A have pushed North Ayrshire close. But not on this occasion. With Murrayfield A’s top gun John Hannah unavailable, they weren’t able to test North Ayrshire A, winning only two sets as the match petered out as a contest. Despite their dominant position, North Ayrshire maintained their focus throughout, with Jordan McGinlay keeping the players on task. A comprehensive 6-0 win for North Ayrshire A as they ended the season strongly. North Ayrshire’s proud record in the SNL will be a major theme of Graeme Stevenson’s forthcoming history of the club.

The Evergreens

The Scottish Veterans’ A side had an excellent day with the evergreen Gerry Campbell claiming a particularly good win against Danny Bajwa of Dumfries A, who were surprising relegation candidates. The Vets showcased their knowledge of the game and match focus to defeat younger, and more nimble opponents. Their strong final day saw the Scottish Vets A side rise to a third place finish, just ahead of North Ayrshire B. It again demonstrates the multidimensional aspects of the sport; it’s far more than a physical test.

Still, it was a surprise to see Gerry Campbell beating Danny Bajwa. Indeed, at 2-1 and 7-3 up, Gerry seemed to be cruising to victory. But a few unwise soft loops into Danny’s backhand (“that’s the one he wants!”), saw the momentum shift and Danny came back well to lead 10-9. A bravely flicked return saved the game point and Gerry took it 12-10 in the 4th as a Bajwa backhand went long. Jason Fleming felt that Danny had started poorly and had given himself “too much to do” against such a capable opponent. Bajwa’s results perhaps also reflected the inherent difficulties of maintaining a high level alongside study etc. Other good matches included a lengthy battle between Harry Blackhall of Dumfries and Sepehr Bidari of Drumchapel A. Blackhall came back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in a match of high intensity.

What was evident in that match was the deep sense of comradeship that table tennis helps to engender. The bonds formed between players who have played alongside and against each other for years. For example, it was nice to see Jason Fleming and Chris Wheeler catching up; having not seen each other for at least five years. Wheeler had a good match against Keir Morton. After a tight finish, the two players warmly shook hands, the mutual respect clear to see. In the same match, Danny Bajwa was tested by another former top junior Yaser Razouk. Bajwa winning a good contest… 3-0. In most cases, this is the pattern. Intense and tight matches followed not by rancour but by banter and good humoured chat between the teams.

However, his Dumfries’ 4-2 win wasn’t enough to keep his side up. On their return to the top-flight, Drumchapel A secured a solid fifth place finish with a 5-1 win over North Ayrshire B, with Wheeler & Razouk winning their two.

Big battles

The big battles were elsewhere in the hall. In particular, the fight to remain in Division 1 and that for the second promotion spot in Division 2.

Murrayfield B were at the heart of the relegation dogfight after losing their morning match against the Vets. Gerry Campbell’s match with Zihao Li was a good one. A superbly returned smash helped Campbell take control of the 5th set, which he eventually won 11-5. Gordon Waddell defeated a disenchanted Charlie McGowan with some ease, before Zihao Li beat Stewart Crawford. Crawford’s smooth attacks remain a joy to watch. On this occasion, his forehead flick wasn’t quite on song and this contributed to a surprise loss, albeit to an in-form opponent.

Following that defeat, Murrayfield B needed a result against Glasgow South A, who themselves were in the relegation zone. This match proved to be an intense one, with a little ill feeling between the sides regarding service legality. Stewart McGowan was called in to umpire. The match remained intense but good spirits returned. In the loudest match of the day, a thoroughly fired-up Zihao Li battled it out with Mark Lundberg . Lundberg finally edged the contest, winning an epic 4th set 16-14. He then demonstrated that ‘he who chos last chos loudest’. Lundberg enjoyed the match feeling that “points were won through good play and winners, not errors”.

The battle to get into Division 1 was highly competitive all season long, with three strong sides involved. Edinburgh University A cruised to two 6-0 victories on the final day, and finished clear winners of Division 2. Captain Faye Leggett was able to play a support role as Xiaoqi Wang and Yizhe Jing both maintained 100 % records. This left Dundee A and the Polish powerhouses of JK Carnbo A to battle it out.

In their morning match, Dundee A had to work hard for a 5-1 win versus Murrayfield C. Yiming Tang vs Robert Toth produced a really good battle, which Toth took in the 5th; assisted by a few nets at key moments which helped him take command late in the decider. Andrew Nimmo continued his good form from the previous day, when he had narrowly lost to Danny Bajwa (“I was doing things I never thought I could do”). He swept to two easy wins as his side readied themselves for their final match.

In their morning match, JK Carnbo A beat Aberdeen B 6-0. Alicia Czarnomska had to battle hard against Daniel Tibbett’s modern defensive game. Daniel forced back into the barriers on a few occasions (“there’s just no room!”) Czarnomska eventually winning 3-1. Czarnomska also had a tough match against Allan He, who took her to a 5th set.

Czarnomska later had a good match versus Dundee’s Andrew Nimmo. Fired up by a big bench, Czarnomska got her side off to an ideal start, beating a frustrated Nimmo in four sets. Krzysztof Borkowicz led the side with two wins. For Dundee, Calum Riddoch gained one win and looked to be headed for a second as he led Czarnomska 5-0 in the 5th. The JK.Carnbo bench helped Czarnomska turn the tide and she won the deciding set 11-8. Robert Toth’s bat chuck at the end, following a loss to Dariusz Szymczak, rather summed up Dundee A’s disappointment. A 5-1 win for JK Carnbo. Dundee’s failed promotion bid served to illustrate the strength of Division 2 this season. Borkowicz reflected that though many of his side’s games “looked easy but weren’t- we had to play well to win.”

JK.Carnbo ‘boss’ Krzysztof Opila was happy that his A team had achieved their target. He did admit that their loss to Edinburgh University A in their opening match of the season had been “a bit of a shock”, but the team had done well since then. He also suggested the club might be looking to recruit ahead of next season, but wouldn’t be drawn on any possible targets (“they don’t have to be Polish!”).

Strength in depth

Drumchapel B finished with two 6-0 wins as they claimed top spot in Division 3, just ahead of Dundee B. Both teams were undefeated during the season. For Drumchapel B Rhoari Rowan led the way with 12 wins from 14. One advantage of North Ayrshire A’s cruise to victory was that the ‘big match’ did not delay things. Instead, it was a Division 3 match between North Merchiston A and Dundee B which was the last to finish. Four 5-setters and Geoff Hunter’s chopping all contributed to a lengthy match. Dundee are flattered by the 6-0 scoreline.

In Division 4, Edinburgh University B and Murrayfield D secured the promotion slots. An excellent season for the Edinburgh University sides. The question will be whether they can maintain their strong line-ups for next season. Jamie Toner had a very good season for Murrayfield D, losing just one match.

Edinburgh International B won Division 5, despite being held to a draw by the Vets C side on the final day. Alastair Hill had a good day for Edinburgh International, winning his 4 matches. Despite a 0-6 loss to a strong Dumfries B side, Joe Wilson A managed to claim the runner-up spot. Dumfries finished a point behind in third place.

Having dominated Division 6, JK Carnbo B were held to a draw by Drumchapel D. Tony Chim inflicted a 12-10 in the 5th defeat on Krzysztof Opila; the JK Carnbo B manager’s only loss of the season. Despite this, JK Carnbo B will appear in the Division 5 next season. Aberdeen C completed an excellent season with two wins and took the second promotion slot, one point ahead of Drumchapel D. The intensity and quality of the matches on the bottom tables were an indication of the strength in depth of the SNL.

Competition and comradeship

Chief SNL organiser Lindsay Muir was being supremely self-effacing in saying that the competition ‘ran itself’. The competition does generally run smoothly, in no small measure due to the contributions of everyone involved. This includes each team and individual playing their role. The way that the National League brings together players of various ages and levels is a big part of its success and contributes to the special feeling in the hall. Having a single large venue contributes so much. The team aspect is also important. It means that someone filling in as a third player in the bottom team can positively impact his or her team’s results and the fortunes of their club. The league is a product of this collective effort.

And finally
Thanks to Lindsay Muir, first and foremost. To Tommy Toner and Graham Muir for their efforts in entering the results so timeously. Thanks to Richard Yule for overseeing proceedings and his work liaising with the management at Bell’s. Thanks too to Stewart McGowan for stepping in and umpiring, and to him and Terry McLernon for doing the presentations. Senga Thomson for taking the presentation photos. Cheers too to Gordon Muir for his edits and comments on an earlier version of this report.

Report from Table Tennis Scotland website – Charlie Ellis