On this day, John Hilton, European champion

John Hilton, against incredible odds, the 1980 European champion (Photo: courtesy of Diane Webb)

by Ian Marshall, Editor

List successes that have stunned; not just in the world of table tennis but in the whole sporting sphere, nothing can matches the efforts of England’s John Hilton on Sunday 13th April 1980.

At odds of 1000:1, he won the men’s singles title at the European Championships in Bern.

Resident in his native Manchester, at the time the 32 year old was an insurance salesman in his local area; in Bern he was very much the third player in the England team.

Under the guidance of Peter Simpson, alongside Desmond Douglas and Paul Day, John Hilton was selected for every match in the men’s team event; the younger members, Graham Sandley and Douggie Johnson were resigned to the bench.

England finished in first place in their group on match ratio ahead of Sweden and Czechoslovakia. Notably against Sweden, a 5-2 win had been the order of proceedings, John Hilton the backbone of the success. He beat Ulf Thorsell (21-23, 21-10, 21-19), Ulf Carlsson (14-21, 21-12, 21-16) and Stellan Bengtsson (21-19, 13-21, 21-11).

Facing Czechoslovakia, a 5-4 defeat had been the outcome; John Hilton lost to Jindrich Pansky (21-16, 21-12) but beat Milan Orlowski (24-26, 21-13, 21-7) and Josef Dvoracek (21-10, 21-8).

Safely through to the second stage, in what effectively was a semi-final, England lost 5-4 to Federal Germany; the results gained by John Hilton giving no evidence of what was to follow. He lost all three matches, he was beaten by Englebert Huging (21-16, 21-16), Wilfried Lieck (21-17, 16-21, 21-15) and Peter Stellwag (17-21, 21-17, 21-19).

England finished in third position, a 5-3 win over Hungary being the outcome in the play-off fixture. John Hilton lost to Istvan Jonyer (21-10, 18-21, 21-16) but beat Tibor Klampar (22-20, 21-13) and Gabor Gergely (21-17, 18-21, 21-12).

Overall for John Hilton, the men’s team event record read: eleven wins and five defeats. It was a most worthy effort; moreover, he had beaten celebrated names; the results against Wilfried Lieck, Gabor Gergely and Josef Dvoracek having a special significance.

In the men’s singles, the Mancunian started his journey with success against Frenchman, Bruno Parietti (21-13, 21-19, 21-15), before accounting for Denmark’s Bjarne Grimstrup (21-17, 21-9, 21-13) and reversing the men’s team decision, by securing victory against Wilfried Lieck (14-21, 21-14, 21-13, 21-9).

A place in the fourth round secured, he ended Hungarian hopes. He overcame Tibor Kreisz (18-21, 21-13, 21-18, 21-18), prior to securing a quarter-final win against Gabor Gergely, the defending champion, in what proved the key match on his road to gold. He repeated his team success but only just. He recovered from a two games to nil deficit to claim a five games win by the very narrowest of margins (18-21, 18-21, 21-19, 21-16, 21-19).

Drama, a step on the podium secured, surely that was enough. John Hilton had other ideas. He overcame Frenchman, Jacques Secretin (21-12, 21-14, 16-21, 21-13), prior to once again accounting for Josef Dvoracek (21-17, 22-20, 21-14) to become the only Englishman ever to win the men’s singles title at a European Championships. The records stands to this date.

A sympathetic look on the podium from John Hilton towards Jacques Secretin (Photo: the late George Yates)

Much over the years had been said about the racket John Hilton used, in those days the regulations stated that the racket must be the same colour on both sides. The colour of the rubber used by John Hilton was black, one side reversed smooth rubber, the other side was anti-spin.

He would turn the racket in his hand and thus combining attack and defence he bamboozled his opponents. The comment of now almost four decades ago still rings in my ears.

“If I defend all the time I cannot win, if I attack all the time I cannot win; if I combine the two I have a good chance.” John Hilton

They tournament was played in the Eisstadion Allmend, primarily used for ice hockey, the home of SC Bern; many felt the air conditioning, both the wind created and the noise generated, affected play, it gave the Englishman an advantage.

Equally, there is the train of thought that John Hilton won because of his racket and as a result of his success, the International Table Tennis Federation changed the rules.

Neither statement is accurate. John Hilton won because he had the skill to use the racket; try using that racket, I assure you not easy!

Equally, the conditions were the same for everyone and many players of that era were using similar combinations; notably in Bern, Tibor Kreisz did not enjoy the same success. Furthermore, Valentina Popova secured three titles – women’s team, women’s singles, women’s doubles – and she was an all out attacking player using the reversed smooth rubber on both sides of the racket.

Also it was nothing new; at the 1977 World Championships in Birmingham, China’s Huang Liang and Lu Yuansheng had caused havoc with similar combination rackets and stamping a foot when making contact with the ball to hide the sound.

Players throughout the world were experimenting. It was not uncommon for players to take a racket covering apart and glue the rubber surface to a different sponge; even players went to the extent of baking rackets in the oven!

John Hilton adapted. Was his win in Bern, the main reason for the change in the laws? It may have been a contributory factor but only one of a multitude, twiddling a combination racket with different surfaces grew in popularity.

It was not until three years after the Bern win, at the ITTF Congress in Tokyo in 1983 when the law was passed that the racket must be of distinguishably different colours and foot stamping was banned.

Moreover, five years after John Hilton’s success elapsed when at ITTF Congress in 1985 in Gothenburg, the law was passed that racket coverings were restricted to red and black on alternate sides.

Immediately following his Bern success, John Hilton rose to the top spot on the European rankings, as was the policy in those days for the European champion. He was listed at no.2 in England, at no.5 on the world rankings.

Illustrious ratings but legend states that at Manchester YMCA, no higher than no.4!!

In Bern against all the odds, John Hilton wrote his name into the annals of sport; an incredible feat, one that has stood the test of time.

He is now the President of the Veterans English Table Tennis Society.

The front cover of Table Tennis News for May / June 1980 (Photo: courtesy of Table Tennis England)