Northern Tournament 2014: Cooley and Dunbar win again but are pushed all the way
The 2014 Northern Tournament saw a record (surely?) 72 pairs take part over the weekend in the main tournament, the festival and an assortment of plate competitions. Players from all points of the Fives compass made the trip to Shrewsbury and were rewarded with the traditional two days of fun, cameraderie and Fives.
The main tournament on Saturday consisted of four fiercely contested groups and the quarter-finals. Top seeds and defending champions Tom Dunbar and Seb Cooley made it through comfortably, as did second seeds James Toop and Matthew Wiseman, but with one or two other top names missing, there was an opportunity there for one or two of the lower ranked pairs to make it through to at least a semi-final in this the second major of the season.
That opportunity was seized by third seeds Ant Theodossi and Ryan Perrie, although they had to recover from the loss of the first game in their best of three quarter-final against Howard Wiseman and Olavian schoolboy Dom Robson. The Olavian pair had only just made it out of their group earlier, surviving a three way tie to qualify on points difference ahead of Mark Yates/Ian Mitchell and the Ipswichian Fletcher brothers. Another Old Ipswichian pair - Will Gibbons and David Leach - had beaten Wulfrunians Chris Austin and Sid Simmons in a 12-11 thriller to make it through to the Last Eight but were unable to cope with the impressive Westminster pair of Laurie Brock and Ed Rose, who completed the semi-final line-up. Another notable performance on the Saturday came from Shrewsbury School pair Henry Blofield and George Lewis, who showed the benefits of regular Fives to qualify for the quarter-finals ahead of George's brother Henry and Sam Welti. The final pair to make it out of the group stages were Salopians Rex Worth and Guy Williams, who then came up against the Dunbar and Cooley juggernaut.
The top two seeds had looked a class apart on the Saturday and so it proved again in the semi-finals on Sunday. Theodossi & Perrie and Brock & Rose fought hard but neither were able to make an impression, both losing in straight games. This set up an eagerly anticipated final. The last time these two pairs had met was in the equivalent match in 2012, which resulted in a comfortable win for Tom and Seb. With Tom recovering from recent illness and Matt and James coming into the tournament on the back of some impressive recent form, could this one be different?
The first two games were both long and close, but for the majority of them it looked as if Dunbar and Cooley had the edge; they took the first game 12-8 and were ahead for most of the second game, reaching 11 first. Matt and James knew that it was going to be tough to come back from 2-0 down and at that point managed to produce their best Fives of the match so far, putting Tom and Seb under intense pressure, denying them opportunities to clinch the game and gradually reeling them back in, first levelling at 11-11 and then going on to take the second game 14-11. This was a crucial point in the match: this was only the second competitive game of Fives Seb and Tom had lost together (the other was in the 2011 London Tournament final for the anoraks among you) and with the question marks inevitably there over Tom's fitness after his recent illness and lack of match practice, how would the champions react?
The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, was impressively. Dunbar and Cooley raced out of the blocks in the third game, and with Toop and Wiseman unable to maintain the high intensity they produced at the end of the second, it was the defending champions who restored their lead with a 12-4 win. Matt and James are made of stern stuff, however, and with the confidence gained from coming behind once already to level the match, they then proceeded to do so again, taking the fourth game 12-6 to set up a decider. With the match already pushing the three hour mark, the sizable crowd were enthralled by the contest - was Tom and Seb's first defeat as a pair on the cards? Once again, though, the pendulum swung, this time back towards the number one seeds and this time decisively. There had been some discussion about changing the ball at the end of the fourth as it had lost most of its colour and was getting tricky to see. They stuck with it and that may have contributed to the higher than usual number of unforced errors in the fifth game, with James in particular just making one or two too many and allowing Tom and Seb to take the game 12-5, the match 3-2 and retain their title.
This was a remarkable final; if you were being extremely critical you might say that there were a few too many unforced errors for it to have reached the technical heights of the 2011 Kinnaird Cup Final between the same two pairs. Having said that, the contest was never anything other than enthralling and the quality of the shots, the length of the rallies, the speed of the reaction volleying and the astonishing retrieving of all four players was a sight to behold. Tom and Seb deserved their win - especially remarkable given Tom's break from the game - but equally this match signalled the return of Matt and James as serious contenders for the big prizes and with one or two other interested pairs in the mix, sets up the Kinnaird beautifully for later on in the season.
Running alongside the main tournament was the Festival competition, a feast of Fives for young and old alike. Saturday saw 40 pairs, divided into 8 groups of 5, competing for places in the knockout rounds. Luckily a couple of late arrivals by St.Bees (scheduled) and Ipswich (unscheduled - thanks to Tony Stubbs, who was enjoying driving on the M6 so much he missed the turning and drove five junctions too far, only realising his mistake when seeing signposts appearing for Liverpool) the games were spread out enough to avoid too much waiting for courts to become free. The Ipswichian contingent further distinguished themselves when a stray Fives ball from one of them (mentioning no names, Isaac) set off the pavilion fire alarm on Saturday afternoon so they had a bit of ground to make up on Sunday. This they did on court, with Gibbons and Leach winning against the Fletcher brothers in the battle for the OI number one pair slot (the result "inevitable" according to Gibbons) and school pairs Wagland & Christopher and Lyle & Patten contesting the final of the main tournament plate competition. There was a strong Ipswichian presence in the latter stages of the festival as well, with OIs Steve Burnell and Tim Gregory making good progress as well as Tony Stubbs and Peter Boughton. Another OI, Gareth Hoskins, was also moving through the field impressively with partner Karen Hird.
The quarter-finals of the festival were a perfect reflection of what the tournament is all about, featuring players in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. The two younger pairs had contrasting fortunes - Shrewsbury schoolboys Adair and Earlam lost to Hoskins and Hird but the Olavian school pair of Kosi Nwuba and Tom Gallagher looked impressive as they ended the challenge of Old Salopians John Tate and Justin Adie. The experienced Monday Club pairing of Tony Walters and Fiona Barnes were no match for Burnell and Gregory and the fancied pair of Mike Skjott and Johnny Saunders lost an epic match to Peter Boughton and Tony Stubbs. Peter and Tony were unable to produce a repeat performance in the semi-final against Gareth and Karen, and in the other half of the draw Kosi and Tom recovered well from the loss of the first game to beat Tim and Steve 2-1. After some terrific matches in the knockout stages, the final was a bit of an anticlimax with the Olavian youngsters too fit and too strong for Hoskins and Hird, winning comfortably with only a nervous second game wobble with the finishing line in sight slowing them up.
Elsewhere in the Festival, there was more Ipswichian success as Fergus Mckay and Sam Clarke won Plate A, while the Plate B final produced one of the games of the weekend, converted Rugby Fives players Dominic Shepherd and Chris Davey (in his first Eton Fives tournament) pipping Windsor & Eton pair Mandie Barnes and Graham Kitteridge 12-10 in the decider.
My thanks go to everyone who played, especially those who made the effort to travel some distance to Shrewsbury (some further than was needed, Stubbsy), to Seb Cooley, Andy Barnard and everyone at Shrewsbury for making us so welcome and to Andrew Mitchell for directing operations over the course of the weekend with his usual sangfroid. 73 pairs next year maybe?
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar (1) beat R.Worth & G.Williams 12-0 12-2
L.Brock & E.Rose (4) beat W.Gibbons & D.Leach 12-6, 12-4
A.Theodossi & R.Perrie (3) beat H.Wiseman & D.Robson 9-12, 12-1, 12-2
J.Toop & M.Wiseman (2) beat H.Blofield & G.Lewis 12-1, 12-2
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar (1) beat L.Brock & E.Rose (4) 12-4, 12-5, 12-4
J.Toop & M.Wiseman (2) beat A.Theodossi & R.Perrie (3) 12-0, 12-7, 12-6
S.Cooley & T.Dunbar (1) beat J.Toop & M.Wiseman (2) 12-8, 11-14, 12-4, 6-12, 12-5
Main Tournament Plate Final:
C.Lyle & A.Patten beat I.Wagland & S.Christopher
T.Gallagher & K.Nwuba beat J.Adie & J.Tate 12-1, 12-3
T.Gregory & S.Burnell beat A.Walters & F.Barnes 12-1, 12-1
P.Boughton & T.Stubbs beat M.Skjott & J.Saunders 5-12, 12-10, 12-9
G.Hoskins & K.Hird beat F.Adair & F.Earlam 12-6, 12-6
T.Gallagher & K.Nwuba beat T.Gregory & S.Burnell 9-12, 12-3, 12-7
G.Hoskins & K.Hird beat P.Boughton & T.Stubbs 12-7, 15-12
T.Gallagher & K.Nwuba beat G.Hoskins & K.Hird 12-3, 12-9
Festival Plate A Final:
S.Clark & F.Mckay beat A.Peckitt & J.Wilkinson
Festival Plate B Final:
C.Davey & D.Shepherd beat M.Barnes & G.Kitteridge 10-12, 12-8, 12-10