Away to Grove Park 15th March 2022
Tuesday saw the final matches of the season for the NWCSL First Division - featuring an epic battle between current champions Warrington vs previous champions, Grove Park.
The line-ups were always going to provide some incredibly juicy matches. We all know about Warrington's immense and exciting squad they can regularly call upon with the likes of Joel Makin, James Willstrop, Adrian Waller and Emily Whitlock at their disposal... but Grove Park also have former World No.20 Chris Simpson, up-an-coming 18-year-old, World No.68 Sam Todd, Welsh No.2 Emyr Evans and New Zealand No.3, Joel Arscott.
The final match-ups were:
Emyr Evans vs Rui Soares (Portuguese No.1, World No.61)
Joel Arscott vs Ben Smith (UK No.1 19-year-old)
Luke McFarland (Highly ranked South African) vs Andy Whipp
Oscar Beach vs Emily Whitlock (world No.18)
Morgan Hibberd (Former NWCSL No.1) vs Luis North
The evening began with a quick photoshoot (Top) and trophy presentation for Warrington who have retained the title, winning for a 5th consecutive season. But the big question was - could they win tonight and complete the season undefeated? A feat which has eluded them for the previous 4 seasons....
Warrington No.3, Whippy asked to go on first as he had his wife and daughters coming to watch... on a school night! Emily Whitlock, who arrived back from Egypt 24 hours before, also was first on. The beauty of Grove Park is that the two glass-backed show courts lie back-to-back with a few rows of spectators in-between - delivering an enclosed but electric atmosphere, with all spectators (and players) completely aware of what is happening on either court.
From the first rally in the Whitlock/Beach match it was obvious it would be close. The rallies were long, however Emily always had the accuracy of hitting a tight shot on the backhand side (Above), which seemed to give her the upper-hand in each game. But... Oscar is a fighter and maintained his presence on the score board, trading points, and games. Oscar and Emily found themselves locked at two games all.
On the abutting court Luke went off to a flying start, somewhat surprisingly winning the first two games in about 15 minutes. He hit / whacked winner after winner. Hitting hard and low, throwing in drops, boasts and flicks at will. Whippy simply wasn't moving; looking either injured or to be suffering from a mental block. This match looked all over, especially at 6-3 in the third game to Luke, just 5 points away from victory. The Whippatron managed to have a word with himself and, clawing back an extra shot per rally, coupled with playing much straighter rallies, reducing the angles Luke could attack from, then throwing up his trademark high lobs, he found his way back into the match. Luke began to tin many more attacks and Whipp found his winning accuracy to level at 2-all (Below).
Both matches were level - 2-all, with all 4 players walking on for their fifth games at the same time. Unfortunately for the home side, Emily and Whippy exerted control and displayed superior fitness and mental strength, meaning Warrington ran away with both final games, and were two ties up.
Even at 2-0 though, there was still hope for Grove, as Morgan is practically unbeatable at No.5 (Above), Joel beat Ben last week in Yorkshire league (albeit a result influenced by injury), and Emyr and Rui could go either way. Morgan plays less than he used to, but he always had that quality of shot to call upon when he needed to. 3-0 and Grove were on the score board.
Ben Smith had a personal vendetta, a point to prove after last week's loss to Joel. From the moment he stepped on court he was awesome. Ben has the ability to play incredible squash, utilising his height and skill to perfection - appearing as an immovable object in the middle of the court, impossible to get the ball past - while also displaying great touch and dexterity to the front of the court (Below). Unfortunately for Joel and Grove Park, Ben was in a mood where he could have beaten almost anybody. It was a comfortable 3-0 victory for Smith which handed the match to Warrington, keeping their unbeaten record in-tact.
Last on was Rui Soares, making the trip up-north from his base in St Albans, vs Emyr who had earlier kindly given up his time to coach some Grove Park juniors (Below). Emyr was well up for this match. After losing the first game, he made it much more physical, which definitely disrupted the rhythm of the smooth and classy Rui. This is not to undermine the skills of Emyr in any way.
Rui generally made a strong start to each game, forging a lead with his gut-wrenching boasts and smooth movement. Emyr would fight and fight, grappling his way back into each game to make the final few rallies of each game tense and riveting. After an hour of play, and the clock chiming 10pm, it was 2 games all.
Rui had a 6-3 lead in the fifth game, but as per, Evans dug deep to level at 6-6. Now it was anyone's match. For the majority of the match, both players weren't hitting their back corners particularly well, but were hitting some delightful winners, and this continued all the way until the end... just with Emyr finding a few amazing drops in a row to take the final game. A deserved victory for the Welshman to finish the match as a 3-2 win to the Warrington Wombats.
So amazingly, Warrington went the full season unbeaten - an incredible feat of consistency, especially considering the teams Liverpool and Grove Park in particular had fielded against them. Congrats to an amazing team. Nobody would deny that Warrington deserve their title, not just for their superstar No.1 players, but for their entire squad, their professional approach to every match, their inspirational home crowds, and their hospitality to all. Warrington is a truely great club. Congrats.
The only sad thing is that we now have to wait until September for the next season to start!
Photos by Richard Bradbury