Well Done ESSEX Men's o'55's

Inter County o55's Finals Weekend – Pontefract

Essex veterans travelled to up the A1 to Yorkshire to compete in the rearranged Inter County Finals weekend, bidding to be the first Essex Masters team in 42 years to win a National title. Originally scheduled for February, the new dates meant that two of the team couldn't make it due to prior commitments. But our team was strong, willing and able...and the venue was the famous Pontefract Club. Products of the club are such players as James Willstrop, a recent Commonwealth Games gold medal winner and former world no 1.

Essex v Lancashire
The battle bus (as we called Kev's 8 seater) had Elton John's Saturday Nights All Right for Fighting on to get us in the mood, and we arrived in good time. First up to kick off proceedings at 5th string was Matt Hibberd. Matt made his debut for Essex last year, and is a tricky lefty. The courts were hot, and after losing the first game Matt composed himself to register a 3-1 win. First blood to Essex! The courts opened up, and Nigel Bacon was up at first string with Andy Russell at 3. Andy started quickly, and was soon 2-0 up. Finding himself 8-3 up, he uncharacteristically lost the third. The fourth was a procession, and Russell put another score up for Essex. On the other court, Bacon set about his business. Recently called up for England, Nigel took the first two games comfortably. His diminutive opponent took the third game, but Nigel ran the last game to put Essex into the final! 3-0 already. The last two games were effectively dead rubbers, but pride was at stake. Mark Shildrake at second string was in no mood to allow Lancashire any respite, and his 3-0 win reflected his no nonsense attitude. Last on was Kevin Belcher. The game swung back and forth, with the Lancashire man pinching it 11-9 in the fifth after an hour and 10 minutes. Essex to the final! On the other court, Avon gained revenge against Northumbria for last year's final defeat with a 3-2 win. Northumbria boasted former world no 15 Bryan Beeson at first string, who won comfortably but it wasn't enough. So the final would be Essex v Avon. Result – Essex 4 -1 Lancashire.

Essex v Avon
This was a repeat of last season’s dead rubber, where Avon had beaten a weakened under strength Essex team 4-1 as both team had made the finals. Today, Essex had a much stronger team. Being finals day, a lot of talent was on show – many Internationals and former pro’s like Bryan Beeson, Simon Parke and a raft of other players who we have met over the years playing County and Masters tournaments. Both James and Malcolm Willstrop were in attendance too.
Andy Russell started proceedings off at third string. His opponent was Jeremy Goulding, the Avon captain. This was a repeat of last year's fixture, which the Essex man had won. The game started in the same vein, with Andy in control and winning the first two games. Goulding is actually training for the worlds, and rallied to take the third 11-9. But Russell was not to be denied, and won it 3-1. That registered Andy's 4th win in a row for the team. Nigel Bacon was up next, against Andy Killey. The Avon No1 has won masters tournaments and is a dangerous player. But Bacon had his game face on, and after a huge sleep the previous night took Killey to task. Soon 2-0 up, Bacon lost the third but some reverse angle boasts saw him home 3-1. Two out of two, and Essex couldn't have got off to a better start. The second strings got going. Mark Shildrake, so dominant in the first match looked a little "off" - and retired during the game with a pulled groin. On the other court the 5's started, and Avon took the first game. The end court saw Kev Belcher at 4 also lose the first. Both Essex Men rallied and suddenly it was one all on both courts. Matt Hibberd at 5 won the third, lost the fourth and as the 4th strings had finished with the win going to Avon the weekend all to be on this one last game. It was nip and tuck, and suddenly we were at 10-all. Both players looked out on their feet, but the Avon man kept his cool with two irretrievable winners to take the final game 12-10 and the title of National o55’s Champions 2018. Result – Essex 2 – 3 Avon.

So near, and yet so far. We applauded the Avon team as they received their medals and the cup. Maybe next year.

Mark Kirkman (Cap)