Unassailable

“He’ll know.” The words of Flixton’s John Hilton were not exactly suppliant. John doesn’t do suppliant, beggarly or any of that scraping around. He had simply nodded in my direction, somehow recalled my face from four months earlier, and assumed that I had lodged in my brain the November 2013 match score from his first encounter with Hilton A’s Mark Gibson.

I had a few things left in my tin head but that was not one of them. John Hilton, 1980 European Champion, had endured a five-set marathon on that chilly autumn night yet had managed – as with all wily champs – to plunder over the line (6-11, 11-7, 11-7, 8-11, 11-9).

Gibson’s Achilles’ heel was too much respect and a game not finely tuned after each point in the manner of Hilton. Their second foray in March 2014 was a straight-sets disaster for him (9-11, 9-11, 10-12) – fine margins but still…a beating, a whipping, a crucifying exposé. Only delusional players think ‘What if…?’

Hilton had been complimentary before the latter smash and grab – psychologically dressing Gibson’s mind, attuning it to a quiet satisfaction borne from ‘a close match’ rather than victory. As such, Gibson walked away – amiable handshake and all – not knowing that he’d been pickpocketed.

People meet, say things, interact and are either impressive or tolerated. It happens in table tennis halls, business, within families, almost everywhere. Had I remembered that they had shared 92 points in that initial ding dong, casually enunciated each set to Hilton like Magnus Magnusson then perhaps other things would have transpired.

Perhaps we would have chatted about the Frenchman, Bruno Parietti – his 1st round conquest (21-13, 21-19, 21-15) back in 1980. Or the Danish player, Bjarne Grimstrup – his victim in the next round (21-17, 21-9, 21-13). The German, Wilfried Lieck had been the first man to take a set off Hilton but John had dug in (14-21, 21-14, 21-13, 21-9).

A bruising match with Hungarian, Tibor Kreisz (18-21, 21-13, 21-18, 21-18) put Hilton in sight of glory, with the small matter of him needing to knock the reigning European Champion, Gabor Gergely – another Hungarian – out in the Quarter Final in order to reach the last four.

If you look at the twenty-two minute footage of Hilton’s exploits on YouTube you are transported to another time. The surroundings look quaint. It appears to be a tight arena. To the left of the table is an early advert for Betamax – just black letters on a white background. The picture of Gergely reminds you of Harry Enfield in The Scouserssuch is the enormity of his moustache and hair.

Hilton got through the harrowing match as you would have deduced. 18-21, 18-21, 21-19, 21-16, 21-19 tends to build character in a man – that or the belief that luck and the gods are with you.

Fast forward thirty three years: had Gibson known acutely that Hilton had seen it, done it, been on the rack – really studied the fortitude in those 1980 numbers – then maybe he would have conceded…grabbed his coat earlier. Statistics generally do two things to a player: have them leaning in for the scalp, or fearful, knowing that the conveyor belt is coming for them.

When Hilton smiles into the camera before the Final with Josef Dvoracek (Cze), having turned over Jacques Secrétin (Fra) – the 1976 champion – in the Semis, you know, you just know that he is relaxed. Insurmountable. Unassailable. Ready for action.

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