By the end of the night tonight the crown that the Hebden Bridge ‘A’ team have possessed with such pride for the past two seasons may well have been prized from their grasp. Yes, it’s time to bring readers up to date with the current state of play in the turbulent League 1 title scrap. Let’s begin today’s post with a little bit of Shakespeare to remind ourselves that all good things must come to an end.
… what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must.”
– Henry VI Part 3, Act 5, Scene 2
The last round took place exactly one month ago whilst your editor was taking his annual recreation in the Alps — that is the only excuse I can offer for the tardiness of this website’s recent reporting. Round 11 already saw the champions entering, if not the “last chance saloon”, then certainly the “next to last chance saloon”! They travelled to Todmorden and took on one of their key rivals, Todmorden ‘A’. They knew it would be a terrifically tough task to win as Todmorden had not dropped a single game point at home in the season until then. Not only that, but as well as missing Dave Shapland, they were also forced to travel without Matthew Parsons who was unwell.
That forced Nick Sykes into some last minute improvisation as the team had long planned to recruit in their “super sub” Matthew Webb in place of Dave Shapland. Now the captain was forced into desperate but soundly considered action as he managed to get hold of John Allan to play on the bottom board. This meant that Hebden still turned up with a pretty strong line up to face the Tod ‘A’ regulars of Messers Hamer, Mulleady, Clarkson, Wright and Tokeley. The night was set for drama.
Hebden have suffered in recent rounds from starting the night out well and then slipping to draws or defeats in the later games to finish. This time they couldn’t have had a worse start to the evening as Pete Leonard had a terrible accident against Pete Mulleady on board 2. It was one of those occasions when, no matter what a player tries, they only seem to make things worse. Pete was dead and buried in very short order and went out into the cold night licking painful wounds.
But, Hebden bounced back immediately as Matty Webb did what no-one else has done at Todmorden ‘A’ this season. He won with Black! It was a smooth positional victory rather than the blood and thunder triumph he had enjoyed against the same opponent in the first half of the season. Doubling up on Martin Hamer is no mean achievement and goes to show what kind of form Matty is in at the moment. He’s gone on since this match to get his Yorkshire live rating up over 200. That was his target for the season, so congratulations to him for reaching this significant milestone.
That game levelled the scores and now the bottom three boards would decide the match. This would have been about as good a scenario has Hebden could have wished for as this was where the difference in ratings between the two sides was minimal. All three games went on into the night and the balance was maintained by Andy Leatherbarrow who successfully defended himself once again with the Scandinavian against ex-team mate Alastair Wright for a hard earned half point.
Meanwhile Nick Sykes and Andrew Clarkson on board 3 had been engaged in a highly topical and significant discussion in the Sicilian Najdorf variation. Andrew, as well prepared as ever, opted for an early h3. This line has been seen at the very highest levels recently (including the ongoing Candidates Tournament) and so an interesting and lively game was in prospect here with both players well versed on the themes of the opening. As that game progressed through a see-saw middle game and into a king and pawn ending the pawn 5 game drew to a dramatic and momentous conclusion.
John Allan had managed to engineer a fine position for himself against Rob Tokeley on board 5. Using the Tarrasch Variation he’d first equalised and then gone on to secure a small but stable advantage in the middle game. The only down side was that John was burning up the same volume of time on his clock as his opponent, who is a habitual zeintot addict. Nevertheless, by move 30 John had an extra, passed, but isolated d-pawn in a same coloured bishop and rook ending. He had some winning chances and could press on and on almost without risk.
But that was when John fell foul of one of the oldest tricks in the book. Rob made his 36 move and offered John a draw. Unsure as to whether or not he should accept the offer, which was made from a position of weakness, John got up from the board to look at the match score and the remaining games. Having decided that he should continue to play and try to win he returned to the board only to be informed that he had lost on time! It was a heartbreaking return for Hebden for this board would decide the outcome of the match. A draw would have resulted in a drawn match and a win for John would have been a win for Hebden.
As it was, the loss turned out to be critical, for Nick Sykes was unable to find a win in his endgame against Andrew. In fact, subsequent analysis demonstrates that both sides missed chances to win the game. So, in the end it was a very close scare for the men of Todmorden but they’d won another home match and their first victory over Hebden Bridge for three years. Here’s the full match scorecard:
Todmorden ‘A’ vs. Hebden Bridge ‘A’
M.Hamer 0 — 1 M.Webb
P.Mulleady 1 — 0 P.Leonard
A.Clarkson ½ — ½ N.Sykes
A.Wright ½ — ½ A.Leatherbarrow
R.Tokeley 1 — 0 J.Allan
3 — 2
This defeat left Hebden 4 points behind Todmorden with just 6 points left to be won in the last three matches of the season. It got worse for the champions when news filtered through two days later that Hebden Bridge ‘B’ had been beaten by the league leaders Huddersfield 3½ — 1½ . This result, though not as decisive as the line-ups might have suggested, left Hebden ‘A’ 5 points behind Huddersfield.
The match scorecard of this match looked like this:
Huddersfield vs. Hebden Bridge ‘B’
M.Burke 1 — 0 J.Blinkhorn
G.Eagleton ½ — ½ M.Syrett
D.Firth 1 — 0 Default
D.Tooley 1 — 0 S.Priest
R.Sutcliffe 0 — 1 N.Bamford
3½ — 1½
Whilst all of this was going on Todmorden ‘B’ put a dent in Courier ‘A’s title ambitions by drawing with them at home and Halifax ‘A’ underlined their own title credentials by thrashing Brighouse 5 — 0.
With three rounds to go the Champions now need a miracle to keep their title. Huddersfield would need to lose all three of their remaining matches starting at Brighouse tonight whilst Hebden would need to beat Halifax at home, Huddersfield away and then Todmorden ‘B’ at home. Not only that but they’d also have to overtake Todmorden ‘A’, Halifax ‘A’ and Courier ‘A’. This is not going to happen. However, the King’s of Calderdale League 1 may still have the power to decide who will wrench the crown from their broken fingers as those matches against Halifax and Huddersfield could be critical for either of those two teams’ title hopes were they to lose.
Hebden Bridge ‘B’ meanwhile still have a chance to survive in league 1. They are 3 points behind Todmorden ‘B’ and 2 behind Brighouse and they have to play both of those teams before the end of the season. Two wins could still see them stay up. Watch this space for news of tonight’s 12th round.