It was always going to be a tall order in front of the merry band of Over 40s players who travelled to Galway. In fairness I tried to explain how tough an international weekend would be to the others but to a man they resolutely refused to listen and remained as stubbornly optimistic as ever, even as the weekend loomed large.
Steve Bird and Paul Barrell travelled by ferry from Holyhead. Despite having to get up a bit early the pair, braving a stop at the service station manned by big-eared boys and banjo players, arrived ready and willing to play.
James Powell, Gary Fry, Paul Duffy and Darren Thomas took the plane from Bristol with James meeting the other three there straight from his family holiday in Cornwall. James had earlier told me that it was lucky the competition was this weekend as if it had been the weekend before he would have had to have made the wife and kids stay at home. ‘Or they could have gone on holiday without me’, said James. Perhaps that would have been his wife’s choice too.
In fact, Duffy had also returned just days before the internationals from his training camp in Mexico. It was clear that all his carbo-loading from beer, resting on a lounger in the sun and relaxation from swimming in crystal clear blue seas would stand him in good stead for what was about to follow. Unfortunately, Duffy had left his kit bag on holiday so ended up distributing his clothes, both fresh and clean and sweaty and smelly between anyone who would take them.
Gary meanwhile was fresh from his world record plank challenge, looking meaner and leaner than ever. He had already done a six mile run, three sets of ballistic cross training, a swim upstream in the River Taff, some watercolour painting and a cookery course. In a turn of good fortune Gary had found himself a kit sponsor for the competition and duly hauled his 17 shirts, 14 pairs of shorts, 4 tracksuits and a skirt over with him.
Darren found himself unwittingly doing weight training just by carrying the voluminous quantity of slate coasters we had bought as tokens for the other teams. After his 100 shoulder presses of his flight bag chanting ‘I’m the boss’ he was ready for the challenge. Darren also arrived with a curious amount of kinesthetic tape on his leg. This tape band looked a bit more like a tribal tattoo than a support but better than a leg falling off I suppose.
Upon converging at the rather impressive Galway Lawn Tennis and Rackets Club, we found that James had been promoted to captain. Congratulations James. Barrell thanked James for all his hard work organising the team. James accepted this praise graciously. He then immediately resigned his captaincy and grudgingly Barrell took the reins. Captain Barrell laid out the plan of attack for the weekend and it went something like this, ‘England have pulled out a cracking team here, let’s do what we can, take it on the chin and concentrate on tomorrow. Ireland have brought a good team too so we can see what we can steal from them and then really take it to Scotland and go the win on the last match.’
The first match found the Welsh lads drawn against England. I suppose it was best to get this match out of the way first. We exchanged our tokens with the English team and we presented our fine slate coasters with pride (thanks Nick via Lasersrus). England were kind enough to provide handy bottle openers with the inscription England Masters 2020 on. Well, waste not, want not.
To not put too fine a point on it we were thoroughly outclassed. With a few ex professionals and the current British Open Champion in their number it was never going to be a pretty sight. Duffy was first up against Nick Hargreaves and while the Duff- man struck the ball well all through he was to lose 3-0. Next on court was G-Fry against Mick Biggs who at times seemed like he had ‘Go- Gadget’ arms. Gary was to lose 3-0 as well. The third man on court was Jimmy against Dave Barnett (him of the British Over 40 fame) and although Dave at times looked thoroughly confused with James’ shot selection, James was to lose 3-0. Fourth on court was Dazza against Paul Stroud and Darren was not to fare any better despite some crowd pleasing rallies as he too lost 3-0. Last on court was Barrell against ex pro Darren Lewis. It is fair to say both Barrell and the whole balcony had no idea where the ball was going at any time and the feigning then turning and striking the ball behind the back to boast it into the nick by Darren simply compounded the issue. The result was another 3-0 loss.
So England 5, Wales 0. However, tomorrow was another day and the captain’s plan had so far worked perfectly. Have faith lads, tomorrow, tomorrow my boys, tomorrow we will shine.
With those words ringing in our ears the Welsh team headed off to the bar to find all the promised provender had disappeared. Our supper tickets were worthless. ‘Sorry lads’, said the catering staff, ‘It’s all gone, but you can have some potatoes and juice.’ Well potatoes and juice it was, with Darren especially enjoying his juice. Mmmmm juice. However, we were promised a few free beers tomorrow to make up for it….Then it was back to the hotel for a swift nightcap, some Dominoes pizzas, a glass of milk and talk of tomorrow’s victories.
It seems that the Ardilaun Hotel has a sauna. It’s not in the health club as advertised but in Darren and Gary’s room. Following a sweltering night in the hot box they arrived at breakfast looking like they’d been up all night which of course they had. Steve arrived for breakfast with tales of a man with a jackhammer working long hours outside his hotel room. What that could have been is anyone’s guess. Barrell and James arrived looking fairly spritely following James’ decision and Barrell’s good fortune to have a room to themselves.
Saturday morning breakfast passed under a hail of cooked things, pancakes (for the athletes) and omelettes plus James adding a little pinch of salt to his. We also had a discussion of what exactly is in white and black pudding. Food for thought indeed, and then it was off to the club, with James’ blood pressure rising every passing minute.
I am pleased to report that the Ireland match gave Wales our little first victory. We didn’t win the match, however. In fact, we didn’t even win a tie. We won one game. In total. One game. But as we got no points at all last night, winning one point today was brilliant.
The first match on was Duffy against Brian Butler. Duffy played a strong first game but was to be overcome 3-0. Next on was Gary against Pat Morrisey. Gary managed a handful of points each game but was to go down 3-0. The third match was James against Keith Moran in which James used every unexpected angle the court could give. In what can only be described as a coup de grace, James commanded the third game to win 11-2, but it was ultimately a 3-1 win for Keith. The fourth match was Steve against Ronan Peyton (who later was to beat his English opponent) and although a tight affair in the second, Steve was to lose 3-0. Last on court was Barrell against Kevin Knox with both players being short of hair and a drop shot. The last game was the closest but Barrell went down 3-0.
Once again the captain’s prediction was spot on. Roughly abridged this was ‘Lose to England, pick up a few games from Ireland and beat Scotland.’ So what if we had only picked up one game from Ireland, with Scotland last up it was all to be played for. With some heavy legs we retired to the lounge to form strategy for the last match over soup and sandwiches. Duffy took his opportunity to bow out with a list of injuries and Gary, keen as ever, readily stepped in to play the last game.
So this was Scotland, our last match, our last hope of salvation, our last grasp at glory.
In short this was the very moment the captain’s prediction, which had been pretty good so far, completely unraveled. We didn’t beat Scotland. We did win one tie and two games but that was it.
First up was Steve against Euan Allison. Steve sneaked a cheeky third game, but was to lose 3-1 in the end. Next on court was Darren against Andrew Spires, losing 3-0 but the third was extremely close at 14- 12. Then it was the turn of James who played Stuart Ayrton. James lost 3-0 although he could have sneaked a game if all his points were gained in one. Penultimately. Gary played Barry Masson, playing a blinder to win the second but was to lose 3-1 eventually. Last on court to contest the very dead rubber was Barrell against Blair MacKenzie. The first game amazingly went to 20-18 and saw Barrell take a lead. Then Barrell took one more to lead 2-0. The next two games fell to Blair to set up a fifth and final (and thoroughly pointless) game. With no small amount of luck Barrell took it to at least bring a single victory home.
While the events played out on court, Duffy was busy claiming our free beers from the caterers for last night’s ‘juice only’ episode. This feat was then repeated by Darren who also claimed our free beers (again). Good work lads.
Then it was time to get dressed up for the night’s presentation. So let me describe the appearances that followed. James’ lovely jumper was the envy of all, Barrell had been cast as a pall bearer for the Peaky Blinders, Gary had the poshest check shirt the youths of Tonypandy had ever seen, Duffy found his shirt in the bottom of the wardrobe, Darren was going to an interview and Steve pulled out his ‘Clarkson’ look. Despite not having enough chairs at the table we tucked into a rather good meal and marveled at James shelling out £47 for a bottle of wine when the wine was actually provided.
Following the advice of some ne’er do wells the Welsh team headed off into Galway to support the local taverns as the impacts of Covid had been felt strongly in Galway and so the team wanted to do what they could to support local business.
We found an extremely welcoming hostelry called ‘The Quays’ with a live band and even though the saxophonist was probably miming we had a great night watching James dance with various strangers and we all sang along to some rock classics. James also fully insisted on rounds of Baby Guinness leading the charge with gusto. You can imagine our surprise when Rebecca from the ladies team turned up and danced the night away with us even though she would be leaving at 7.30am the next day.
When kicking out time came the merry band headed off to Supermac’s for a feed and then a wee and then we tried to hail the necessary carriage for the ride home. ‘Yes driver that’s four adults and one small child to go to the Ardillaun Hotel please.’
And with that (well, apart from breakfast in the morning to relive some of the events of the night before) it was all over. We had gone to Galway with high hopes and the dreams of a nation. We had them cruelly smashed pretty quickly and that was to be the order of the weekend to be fair.
What the score line did not tell, however, was the honour and pride with which each man held up his end of the bargain when you play for your country. Play as if your life depends on it. While our game count was low our spirit levels were high and our pride un diminished. We came, we didn’t conquer, but we gave our blood (almost literally) and sweat. Each man played as if his life depended on it and as a captain you can ask no more. It was an absolute pleasure being your captain this weekend, lads. I know we can say we gave it our best and Wales could not have asked for a better spirited or more sportsmanlike team than ours.
Write up by: Paul Barrell – Mens Over 40’s Captain