Inter Counties Championship – Men’s o55’s Premier Division Phase 1

Inter Counties Championship – Men’s o55’s Premier Division Phase 1
Essex storm to Finals Weekend!!
Essex Men’s o55’s travelled to Dulwich Sports Club for Phase 1 of the Premier Division clash. Opened by Roger Bannister in 1972, the club was busy all weekend with sport. Surprisingly early in the calendar, we only had a few weeks to prepare - and despite a couple of drop outs and availability issues we went with a strong team. The top two teams would go to Nottingham next year to contest the Final and be crowned National Champions.
Essex v Kent
First up was Stewart Court at 5th string. Stewart, a former winner of the county o45’s started quickly and soon worked out his opponent to record a routine 3-0 win. This was good news as he was to play all 3 matches in the weekend. On the other court, Francis Engerer started at a cracking pace and had his match under control, again winning in 3 sets. Two up for Essex! The top strings took to the court – Essex stalwart John McFarlane v Kent’s Clive London. The Kent man has had a brilliant season, adding a couple of o60’s National titles to his collection – and he proved strong enough to win. John had come down with a virus, but wouldn’t let Essex down with a no-show. New to o55’s age group John McComish had a proper slug-fest and rattled off the first two, lost the third but regained his composure to pinch the 4th game with a fine 3-1 win. The final game saw Matt Hibberd making his debut for Essex, and he played old hand Nick Peel. Peel has been around the Masters and Inter County circuit for a very long time, and is a worthy opponent. He stretched the Essex man – and the marker, who gave him a conduct warning – and prevailed 3-1. So a 3-2 win, and 10 points plus the bonus. On the other side, Avon had narrowly beaten Surrey 3-2.
Essex 15 points, Kent 7 points.
Essex v Surrey
We’d played against Surrey with almost the same team in the o50’s a few years ago, and they had come to Essex back then with a fearful squad – which they changed on the Sunday for 5 new players! Such was their depth I expected to see much of the same. Fortunately Greg Pearman, Durmot Hurford and co was not in their squad today, and that gave Essex hope. John McFarlane needed to go, and was still suffering the effects of his virus. His brand of deleterious squash is a joy to watch, and he took his opponent out 3-0. Again, first blood to Essex! Meanwhile, the inclusion of Andy Russell to the afternoon session (in place of John McComish, who had gone to see his beloved Chelsea!) had given the squad a lift. Andy’s racket skills, fresh legs and tactical acumen showed as he rolled back the years and took a comfortable 3-0 victory. Stewart Court had caught his hand in the pavilion door earlier, and he was lucky to end up with just severe bruising. Of course, it was his racket hand….and his usual touch was not with him. Despite playing through the pain, Court lost a close 3-0. The game of the day was always going to be Francis Engerer v Duncan Marlow. Francis would rather play than watch, and his energy is infectious. First game to Marlow, second to Engerer 16-14. A tough third game followed with Engerer pinching it. However a spirited fight back by the Surrey man took the game to the brink, but Essex triumphed 15-13. A guaranteed team win for the Essex boys – and it was time for Matt Hibberd to take his first score. Racing off to a first game 15-8, his counterpart took a close second 15-13. Not to be denied, Hibberd took the third with some excellent tactical squash 15-13, but found himself 14-8 down in the fourth. A huge effort of controlled squash saw Matt take the 4th game 16-14. A monumental 4-1 win for the men from Essex, and a trip to Nottingham for finals day guaranteed. The other match saw Avon match our score with a 4-1 victory, Nick Peel from Kent being the only score for the Kent side.
Essex 17 points, Surrey 5 points.
Essex v Avon
Sunday morning is always a bit of a “funny one” in my opinion. Aches and pains or a night of restful sleep. This match would determine which pot the winners would go in, as Avon had also guaranteed their place in the finals too. John McFarlane was unavailable to Essex, so we all moved up one and Mark Kirkman played at 5th string. The match was played in the annexe with a low roof and girders across it, and Kirkman hit the roof – literally – with his usually effective lob game. His opponent took advantage of his “lower” lobs with some outrageous jumping nicks and bested the Essex man. Francis was in the middle of another long one, and was narrowly edged out 3-2. Andy Russell had moved up to 2nd string and started off at a pace that his Avon counterpart could not live with. Russell’s array of shots quickly saw him 2-0 up. The Avon man – who had not lost all weekend – rallied and took the third, but Andy’s court craft saw him home 3-1. Stewart Court, having caught his hand in the door yesterday had now managed to catch John McFarlane’s virus as well. His opponent took full advantage of Stewart’s malaise and beat him with some to spare. Well done to Stewart for turning out. The final game of the tie saw Matt Hibberd move up to first string and his battle with Andy Killey was excellent, but with the Avon man triumphing.
Essex 5 points, Avon 18 points.
Final result saw Avon top the group, Essex a close second with Kent third and Surrey a surprising 4th. Both Avon & Essex are to be in the finals with Lancashire and Northumbria.
Team – John McFarlane, Matt Hibberd, Andy Russell, John McComish, Francis Engerer, Stewart Court, Mark Kirkman (Captain) - reserve Steve Impett.

NB - To the best of my knowledge this is the first time an Essex Master’s age group team has made it to a Master’s finals weekend since Brian Clark’s o45’s Essex team were Inter County Champions in 1975. A proud moment for Essex and for me too. As most people know, it takes time to get from the bottom division to the finals – and certain players must be mentioned. Paul Newbury for captaining the 55’s before me, Brian Clay, Wyn Edwards, Geoff Went, Roger Hilson, John Smith, Kevin Belcher, Andy Brown, John Fowles, Lee Horton and Graham Evans. All these players have played their part in getting the o55’s to the Premier Division to give the current squad the chance.

Mark Kirkman (Cap)