The Waterloo Handicap has a new winner, Paul Dale a 41 year old pet supplies specialist from Congleton beat 28 year old Lee Johnstone from Warrington in the final. Paul the son of Lee Dale, a Potteries County legend, and Lee son of the legendary Tommy.
For Paul and all the visitors to this venue the first priority should be that the future of this venue. The home to the ultimate competition in the game since 1907 has seen some turbulent times since being sold by the Greenall Whitley group and the long -term future of the venue is hoped to be resolved over the winter.
For those that stay in Blackpool for this festival week the morning check of the weather brought some reassuringly better news. For those who have qualified for finals day have done it in a variety of conditions. The suntan from Saturday washed away by the incessant rain on Tuesday. The early morning walk along the front was not a blustery battle but a calm stroll listening to the subdued waves against the shoreline.
The anticipation for the ultimate bowls day of the year had been growing all week. As ever there were shocks and the games will be talked about forever and a day. There were many heads getting scratched as those lucky to be there attempted to work out when they seen anything like it.
Anyway let’s get on with it…… the last 8:
Paul Dale (14/1) v Gareth Gwilliam (6/1)
Gareth was the favourite for this game and had the better of the initial stages. In fact it was a running bowl in the corner of the North and West stands that proved somewhat vital.
From Gareth being on what was looking like a favourite mark and 13-8 up we had Paul with jack in hand, within three points, and in a corner he had so well all week and would again.
Within a few ends Paul was in front. Gareth had a high pressure bowl when facing game down and played a length bowl on a mark of over 40 yards.
Gareth with control back of the jack launched an impressive run of ends and almost got level. Only a pair of bowls with eighteen inches over thirty yards from Paul got him over the winning line 21-18.
Michael Sweeney (16/1) v Glynn Cookson (3/1)
Glynn took control of this game early on, whilst Michael’s radar was being tuned, and his close bowls got him to swift 5 point lead.
As soon as he got the jack though Michael was a different beast as he took the lead.
A pivotal end was from the West Stand to the new bookmaker’s pavilion. A good lead from Michael was threatened until Glynn’s last bowl. He played over switching from finger to thumb peg and attempted to remove the bowl. The land he put his bowl on was wrong and the bowl pegged onto Glynn’s first and clipped it onto Michael’s bowl. It was a sheepish looking Glynn who signalled for the point that took him level and then into the lead.
After the shock Michael responded impressively and the ends were swapped. Glynn sent the jack from deep in the corner of the North / West stand to the opposite corner. It was the longest end of the game and I think it was a surprise to Michael how far it was. Glynn’s lead was nailed onto the jack and Michael didn’t threaten it with either bowl which gave victory to Glynn 21-20
Greg Smith (8/11) v Gary Wike (16/1)
Greg Smith had been in hugely impressive form all week. His lead bowls were putting pressure on his opponents and he was relentless.
In this game all the pressure was on Gary from early in the game. Gary was being called upon to play an almost a perfect game just to stay in it. For every point he scored Greg seemed to score double. Using a mark from the, rather excellent, burger van to the middle of the green, as he had all week, and the form was stunning. Gary played some excellent bowls to count but he could not the machine from winning 21-12.
Stuart King (8/1) v Lee Johnstone (8/1)
This was a game that had been talked about since both won their games the day before. They were two young men having it would seem a week to remember. Lee had been specialising in the corners to and from the pub. Stuart had shown to more adept on the shorter marks but had used the same corners the day before.
It was Lee with the better start and was soon in a 13-7 lead. Stuart had to take Lee on a tour of the edges to get a feel of the jack. The key end for this reporter was a brilliant end towards to Kop.
At 11-15 Stuart led a bowl about eight inches past the jack. Lee was just on the narrow side but was a length. The referee was unsure of who was on so Stuart had to do an assessment of his own. I can only presume he wasn’t completely sure so he made sure his plan was to tickle the jack to his own and so nearly did it as he somehow his bowl decided to miss the jack.
Lee in turn came up for an inspection. His second bowl was to attack the, presumably, counting bowl from Stuart. The pace he played it also meant that if he hit the jack it would go the Stuart’s second bowl which was sitting 2 foot past the jack. However it Stuart’s counting bowl that was hit, and quite perfectly, for a pair. This gave Lee a 7 point lead and this was too much for Stuart and a few ends later Lee won the game 21-15.
Paul Dale (8/1) v Glynn Cookson (3/1)
For those watching this game it seemed that it wasn’t going to be a contest. Paul started poorly & Glynn, a course and distance man was in charge and playing as well as you would imagine.
Good leads on a mark from the corner of the North / West stand to the pub and back and Paul was in all sorts of trouble. Paul was struggling for a length especially going away from the pub.
Then a lose end from Glynn gave Paul the chance to get on the scoreboard, which he gratefully took. Even after a few ends with the jack Paul was still facing a mountain to climb at 19-9 down. Paul however proved to be adept at climbing mountains.
Even when conceding a single to go 20-12 down Paul showed huge determination to stay in the competition. After playing a runner to sit Glynn’s counting bowl out to save game Paul played the better bowls. It has to be mention the dial on the tension gauge was showing record high readings.
An end to remember was towards the West stand. Paul probably put the jack too far; it stayed on but was like a bird perching on the edge of a building, looking down into the gutter. Paul kept his lead on but it was extremely safe, in context of the game it was a mile short. Glynn had to pass it and did; it also passed the jack and nestled off the green. Paul barely passed his own bowl and Glynn although there was some debate whether it would win was unable to avoid running into the back of the first bowl.
That made it 18-20 and in truth the crowd was that engrossed in the game anything could have happened in the outside world and it would have gone unnoticed.
A couple of ends later it was all over, back towards the west stand and Paul led well, this time leaving room behind the jack, Paul’s bowl was a foot behind, Glynn just trickled past it. Paul needed a pair for game but didn’t send his second bowl far enough. It was in the way and probably ruled out a striking bowl but Glynn could peg past it to the jack. Glynn sent his second bowl knowing just a yard out of his first bowl would be enough. To his and his supporters horror his bowl hit Paul’s short bowl, and knocked it far enough for game.
It was a stunning game dripping with drama befitting this bowling theatre. It was however not the best semi-final.
Greg Smith (4/9) v Lee Johnstone (6/1)
The crowd eventually settled and it took some time as talk moved from how good the last semi-final was and then onto this game. The question on everyone’s lips were could Greg be beaten.
Lee was able to get Greg off the mark he had played so brilliantly all week. Greg led well but they were not counting.
The game ebbed the game flowed but slowly and surely Lee took control. Using his own mark in the pub corners, he was not letting Greg settle when he got in, Lee dragged himself into a 17-9 lead. Then it got really tense.
After deciding the tactic of playing to the middle of the green was not going to work Greg decided that arrow straight marks on the edges of the green was the future.
Each end was its own little theatre show, an episode of classic bowling drama played out in front of a gasping crowd. The measurers were working over-time, the crowd debating each bowl but deathly silence greeted each delivery.
Along the West stand edge it is a knife edge mark, too low drifts underneath, too high climbs. I’m not talking huge margins here. Over the length they were playing it is barely a foot or so either way, only a roll of the bowl. The difference between one way and the other is a fraction of the width of bowl.
Crown green bowls is curious mix of the metric and imperial system, the bowls are measured imperially, the length of a mark in the metric system and other distances are almost whatever you feel like. Both Greg’s and Lee’s bowls travel about 38 centimetres each revolution, a fraction under 15 inches in the older system.
There had been numerous shouts during the day of “just a roll more” and this is what they think is required, one more revolution or roll. This meant that over the 20 metres they were going the bowl needed to travel just over 52 revolutions to get to the jack. A revolution, or roll, more or less was a bad bowl.
At the standard of these players if you sent it only 50 then you might have well not bothered at all. We were down to controlling the bowl by the half or quarter roll, or playing just over and despairing when the gap was found. A player in the zone, on top form is on fire and by now Greg was over 200 degrees.
It was a bowl from Lee of 52.5 revolutions and that seemingly refused to climb any higher than logic was telling you that is must that eventually got the jack back, and himself back level on score with Greg after what seemed like half an hour without the jack.
The crowd on the far side of the green who had been blinking in the glorious sunshine, straining their eyes against the glare who now had perfect view for what happened next.
Lee changed the mark, he’d have been shot if he hadn’t, and headed for the corner. The jack came to rest about 50 metres away, slightly pegging towards the edge of the North stand. Lee bowl was all he wanted it to be, it ran, it pegged & it finished in front of the jack about 12 inches short after something like 135 revolutions. Greg’s reply was good but just pegged short about a yard away. Lee tried to do the same again but his bowl didn’t quite peg enough, from the other side of the green about 15 metres behind and above the mat it looked like it was only one.
Greg must have thought the same as he played over. There are differing types of playing through bowls. Some are to try and sit of the bowl out, some are to knock everything in the way into the adjoining road. This was something in-between, unless it was a full ball hit of Lee bowl, this was to chip Lee bowl out. What it also could have done was what it was looking like doing. It pegged, it veered from Lee’s bowl to Greg’s.
Was it going to knock his bowl own out? Those with the best view could be heard shouting “he’s got his own”, Greg knew the same, I think you could sense a dipping of the shoulders of this phenomenally talented young man, who has been part of some of the best games seen on this green in recent years.
Stunningly the contact it made with his own bowl clipped it past Lee’s bowl and somehow avoided missing the jack, either of which was a minor miracle and needed for him to win the end.
Watching on from the side lines was BCGBA Patron and ex-World Snooker Champion John Parrot. In his formative years John played for his dad’s bowling team in South Liverpool, they were interestingly called Liverpool Nomads, before taking up snooker full time.
It’s a case of what might have been for him as a bowler but you can’t say it’s not worked out quite well for him. John will have appreciated the angles required to do clip that bowl in. He must have played a million of them on the snooker table but maybe not over 50 metres with a pegging bowl.
The crowd erupted, Greg joined them, a rocket ship on it’s way to Mars (burning through the sky and all that) makes less noise and what passers-by thought was going on behind these famous walls was anyone’s guess. It would have been interesting what a blood pressure monitor on the players or for that matter on anyone watching would have recorded.
The last end was dramatic for other reasons.
Greg sent the jack along the North stand edge. It maybe went 22 or so metres but no more than that. It was a perilous bit of land as underneath would sink quicker than the Titanic but above the land and it would climb like that rocket ship.
Both of Greg’s bowls were short of the jack and climbed and he looked devastated, both of Lee’s were not good bowls, but they counted, they won him the game 21-20. After the precision and drama of the game the last end felt out of place. A bit like season eight of Game of Thrones. The bowls not even close to the jack, which seemed to blink in the sunlight whilst trying to work out for itself quite what had gone on.
Half the crowd got up, then sat down, then got up and wandered off somewhere whilst trying to process what they had witnessed after lunch.
After a short break, and almost barely heard above the murmuring of the crowd, the players in the final were called to the start.
Paul Dale (2/1) v Lee Johnstone (1/3)
The final was the first for both Paul and Lee on the Waterloo. Both had stressful semi-finals and both had also looked to play the same corners. Although the odds said differently there had been nothing to chose between these players all week.
A feature of their play had been the ability to win a run of ends on their favourite mark. Who could settle, who could play the better bowls to their own, and their opponents, jack.
The answer to this was the man from Congleton. It was aided by Lee’s ability to miss by a fraction what he had been hitting all week. The unerring accuracy of Paul’s lead bowls took him into a 11-7 lead.
When Lee got in he was only going to head onto his favourite mark. Same corners as Paul but opposite pegs. To be hyper-critical of Lee the metronomic leads did not appear and only some skilled second bowls won the ends. That said he was quite happy to ease into a 13-11 lead, and unlucky with a bowl falling out, before Paul could reclaim the jack.
After swapping jacks for a few ends Paul led out at 15 across and had a dream of an end. With bowls either side of the jack and pressure on Lee to try and save or disrupt the end when Lee could only shave the target he went 2 clear.
The next end was looked like another good one for Paul. No change in tactic required on a finger peg mark towards the pub corner. His lead bowl was good but his second was even better. He lay to go 19-15 and the young man from Warrington responded in sensational fashion. Using the other peg he got round the closest bowl and onto the jack.
Only now did we see the first change of tactics. A finger peg mark along the Kop edge about 7 yards into the green towards the shop corner. Precision of land and length required and it was the length that let Lee down. A short lead bowl forced him to play inside it with his second and that left too much room for Paul.
Paul then led out towards the opposite corner on a finger peg which pegged towards the North stand. Yet again his lead was impressive. It forced Lee to reach and on that mark the it meant the bowl did not peg as he wanted.
Paul applied even more pressure with a slightly shorter bowl which hid the jack from Lee’s view. Yet again Lee had to be there and once again his bowl slipped out the back door and handed victory in the 2019 Waterloo Handicap to the Potteries man by a score of 21-16.
They say all things must come to an end. At the end of a long and very special day, under much better weather than previous days, the trophy was presented to Paul by John Parrott. The end, hopefully, only of this year’s competition, with a worthy winner and a crowd hungry for more days like this. We were after all having such a good time.