Coach Corner

An Interview with Tommy Caffrey by Owen Kelly

First Published for TTIreland (July 2003)

There appears to be two names that Dublin Taxi drivers know whenever the subject of table tennis comes up on one of my many trips to the capital. Colum Slevin and Tommy Caffrey. That's not to say there are not a number of other players that would warrant a mention but you know you've must have done something special for anyone to have heard of an Irish table tennis player! 151 International Caps for Ireland is definately something special.

I met up with Tommy over breakfast at the Country Club on the Saturday morning of the Munster Open 2003 and where he agreed to do an interview for the TTIreland site. There is just so much more I'd like to ask him. He conjured up the days of packed venues and queues down the street, which seem hard to imagine these days, but watching him later that day battling against Na Ning in a truly enthralling exhibition of controlled defence and the powerful pen hold attacks of Ning the eventual Munster Open triple title winner. I can understand just how entertaining those late night tournaments would have been with the crowds roaring on the competitors.

Well I'll let Tommy tell you what it was like. When did you start playing?

"When I was eight or nine I found a ball under the bed once. I didn't know what its uses were until my father told me it was a table tennis ball. Bats and balls were supplied by the club he was in. The bats were not allowed to be taken out of the club by its members, but when he finally bought one home to me, I fell in love instantly with both the bat and the ball."

Johnny Leach was always one of my heroes did you get to play him at all?

"Driving from our hotel to the hall in Leicestershire, I heard Bobby Stevens and Bobby Raybould talk to other players in the bus about Johnny Leach. I was a full international player at this stage and had never seen or met Johnny Leach, only heard talk of him. To me he wasn't for real at all - just a mystical or fantasy figure! He was huge as far as I was concerned. Then I got a letter from him asking if I would become a coach at Butlins!"

"When I turned up for finals on the Saturday evening, there was a queue to the left of the entrance going up Skerries Street and around into High Street. There was another queue going down the Main Street. People failed to get in on the night and some still tell me as much. It was the 1963 Irish Open played at Balbriggan's Town Hall. In the "quarters" I beat Ian Barclay of Scotland. In the "semis" I beat Alan Tomlinson of New Zealand and in the final England's Johnny Leach. Some night!

I imagine the game has change quiet a bit?

"The Ulster Open at Newtownards packed to the rafters; The Co. Down Open at Bangor packed out; Co. Antrim Open at Ballymena packed like sardines; Co. Armagh Open at Portadown always packed. Lisburn Open at Lisburn full to capacity; all these season after season with full houses. Then came one-day tournaments and table tennis started to die. Before, it was Friday night play till midnight; Saturday Morning play till Midday and if necessary Sat afternoon play. Final Nights were then so special.

Johnny Leach and I were in the dressing room before we played an exhibition match at Butlin's Mosney, when he made a "face". It would be the type of face you might make if a plate of food was placed in front of you that you didn't like. He wasn't in love with table tennis at this stage. I didn't understand his position way back then, but I can certainly relate to it now!

When I first went to play in the English Junior Open at Herne Bay in Kent in 1955-56 I met for the first and only time Jack Carrington. To me, he looked like a solicitor! He was gentle and grey and believed totally in the game of table tennis. A great man by all accounts. Victor Barna was very much a legend and I remember winning the Munster open Doubles Championship back in the late 60's. I cannot remember the exact year. I used to call to his office directly opposite Victoria Station in London. He headed Dunlop's in London and his assistant Manager was English International player Mike Thornhill, Happy Days! After saying hello to both of them, I would step onto the train for Brighton enroute to the English Open at the world famous "Dome."

With all your experience would you have any advice for the younger player?
At the earliest possible age (Provincial Standard) they must receive coaching of International Standard. Private coaching instead of group coaching would be best. This would cost real money, but must be considered by family or ITTA. We have a nice crop of players at the moment from all four provinces, but in order for them not to remain at their present standard, the very best coaching is a must for as many of them as possible. All of them are flawed in some way regarding technique. This can only be sorted out by the very best brains in the world of coaching. German or Swedish Coaches are the best I have come across.

In order to play at the level you have achieved, how have you managed to remain so fit?
Short and Sweet - No alcohol, as it destroys the confidence!

The sport is one of the most popular in the World, what do you put this down to?
I feel sorry for players like Colum Slevin who play professional table tennis. There are 85,000,000 registered players in China. Maybe 100,000,000 more play in that country who are not registered at all. We are all involved in one of the hardest games in the world to become World Class at. I envy Snooker and Rugby players with only 17-20 countries involved in respective World Cups. There is table tennis being played in every nook and cranny around the world, making it almost impossible for an Irish player to secure a World or even a European ranking.