From the Braintree and Witham Times 29/12/99

There is no beating about the bush:  table tennis in Braintree is in a crisis.

Not that it is alone in that.  Indeed in recent seasons it has fared better than most other leagues in the country.

But the fact remains that as we enter a new millennium it is losing players and not replacing them.  The average age of league players is ever rising and few players are coming into the game at the other end to replace them. 

Only four of the 35 players who have turned out this season in division one are under 30.  Of those, 35, 22 are over 40, 12 are over 50 and two over 60.

Nor is the position in divisions two and three any better.  Only two players in division two and three in division three are under 30.

Just where will the league be in, say, 20 years’ time if this trend continues?

Yet 20 years ago, things looked very different.  The first division, then with 12 teams, had only seven veterans, none of them over 50.  More importantly, it had ten teenagers playing regularly. 

The only current hopes come in divisions four and five where there are a number of younger players, most of them at Black Notley. 

Indeed if it had not been for the Black Notley club springing up six years ago, the league would be in a much worse state.

Thanks to the efforts initially of Roy Franklin and Mark Sweeting, then Martin Bawden and more recently Paul Chinnery and Graham Farmer, the club now runs seven teams and has produced a healthy stock of junior players.

But apart from a sprinkling of new players at Pillar House, that’s about it.

So if the past decade has any trend, it is that of stagnation.  When this column looked back at the 1970s, it was with optimism.  The world championships of 1977 had produced a spurt of interest in the game that had pushed the number of teams in Braintree up to a record 60.

By the end of the 1980s, the bubble had burst and the number was down to 38.

The decline nationally has been most marked over the last decade but Braintree has mostly managed to hold its own.

Numbers fell to 32 in 1991-92 but rose for the next six years back to 43 in 1997-98, before falling to 39 the following year and 36 this year.

In this column ten years ago, I suggested the fall in numbers had much to do with the game’s image and that has been accentuated even more over the past ten years.

The game cannot shake off the picture of cold church halls with watered down orange squash and a Lincoln cream biscuit at half time.

It is not trendy enough to attract the city whiz kids, nor upmarket enough to boast many lawyers and doctors.

Nor can it claim to be solid working class – it nestles somewhere in between and like most in-betweens it is being squeezed from all directions.

On the table, the decade came full circle.  Colne A won the title from 1987 to 1992 and again in the last three years of the decade.

In the middle, Witham FC A, who won the title four years out of five in the early 80s, came back for two more years and then the Hayden-Hayden-Dowsett combination took three in a row for BUSC.

On the individual front, Andrew Wadling at the start of the decade and Steve Dettmar at the end both took three consecutive men’s singles titles while Terry Dowsett added two more to the four he won in the 70s and 80s to give him a record six.

June Plampin won her 13th ladies’ singles title, 34 years after her first,  while 12-year-old Leanne Bentley became the youngest ever winner.  Vicki Stredder, at the age of nine, became the youngest winner of a senior trophy when she and Paul Davison won the mixed doubles.

Of the clubs in action in 1990, Lake, Hedingham, BUPA, Christchurch and White Notley have disappeared.  Black Notley, Feering, Lucas, Maycast-Nokes and Pillar House have joined.  Sedgwick and Braintree Leisure Centre have come and gone.

Of the players who started the decade in division one, only Steve Kerns and the Rayne triumvirate of Dean Andrews, Paul Whybrow and Ian Whiteside have played there throughout the ten years.


Ron Fosker

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