He has the hard jaw of youth – an almost inert face that gives very little away. After speaking to him, you do not get the sense that he has won anything, but rather lost. There is a bit of the dour Scot in him – a solemn, behind-the-eyes weighing up of events. And yet he is a Boltonian, a successful English lad who has walked through his home town’s 4th division untrammeled and unbeaten.
Keane Mills, 15-years-old and 5’9” tall – a product of the Harper Brass stable (along with team mates Ellis Longworth and Nathan Rhodes) – has done something only two other people have done in recent years: he has gone through a full season without losing. Two extremes of the table tennis circuit seem to cosset such triumph – the Premier Division and Division Four; Michael Moir and John Nuttall earlier beneficiaries of the grandeur.
Mills is a special case though. The title was confirmed on April Fools’ Day when he was still 14 – eight years ahead of 22-year-old Nuttall’s startling achievement in 2012/13. ‘No matter what age you are, you can still match the best,’ he believes and asserts in equal measure – the candour not exactly pouring from him, but offering a rare glimpse of his conviction. ‘I show everyone respect and expect it back and I don’t show my anger as I believe it is a weakness. If you lose your head, you lose the game.’
It is this maturity and precocious flowering which has seemingly led him to where he is now: the recipient of a ‘Double’ in only his second league season (Harper Brass ‘D’ securing the Ron Hindle Trophy days after their title win). Indeed, he claims to have picked up a bat for the first time a mere “two and a half years ago while on holiday” – his exceptional hand/eye coordination obvious to all.
Fellow players around the clubs beat the Mills’ drum. In describing ‘the 100% kid’ a consistent array of words passes their lips: steady; good temperament; right attitude; attacking; patient; level-headed; lots of potential; great serves; focused. These qualities alone cannot have built such a force, an emerging warlord when at the table. They perhaps complement the evident desire and ministrations that exude from him however.
Necessary, critical voices that stray from the consensus point to the young man’s middle game, his unforced errors and also the fact that his mobility seems to be, at times, like a granny reaching for the sweet tray. “He only moves a bit,” one source commented. But what if he only needs to move a bit thus regularly returns to his upright stance whilst flogging the opposition.
Keane is uncompromising: ‘I’m guessing I didn’t move much against this one person.’ The stats bear this out – just two of his 66 conquests have gone to five sets and they were in September. More impressively, he cares. When the title was briefly in the hands of rivals Polonia at 9.30pm on 31st March, he could not bear it: ‘My heart was in my mouth. I thought we had lost it and I was very frustrated.’