Disappointed Norfolk look to next season
Having won all eight of their matches in Division 1b of the Yehlex Inter-County Championships, the county first team travelled to the National Badminton Centre at Milton Keynes for the play-offs with high hopes of moving into the Premiership ahead of the three other regional qualifiers, Northumberland, Leinster and Kent.
Norfolk's first match was against Northumberland, who had reached the play-offs four times in the last seven years, without getting into the big time. However, their experience and quality quickly became evident as they raced into a 4-0 lead in the singles, with only Ian Murphy troubling the Northeners, but losing in three tight sets.
Murphy then teamed up with Justin Gerrard to maintain their season's unbeaten level doubles run with a two set victory to get Norfolk's first score on the board. But that success couldn't be matched by the other Norfolk pairings of Jon Atmore and Paul Daynes, Katherine Cooper and Toni Sturgeon and Julie Pike and Helen Newstead who all lost to strong opponents. Norfolk's strongest discipline this season has been the mixed doubles and the team lived up to their reputation by winning two of the three games, giving an air of respectability to the final score of 8-3.
Next up was a match against Leinster, who had beaten joint favourites, Kent, in their first match. Norfolk again found the going very tough in the singles, with Mike Philpott having to deputise in the number one spot for Murphy who had to pull out, suffering from migraine. This enabled Alex Wyett to get a share of the action, but both players lost in two straight sets. Team captain, Katherine Cooper kept Norfolk's hopes alive with an excellent performance to win her singles and then Julie Pike and Louise Culyer put in a commanding performance to win their doubles, which was almost mirrored in the mens doubles by Atmore and Daynes who lost in three close sets. Norfolk then again won two of the three mixed doubles, producing a final match score of 7-4 to Leinster.
The two defeats left the team in a sombre but determined mood going into their final match against Kent, a team who were fielding two national champions and ex internationals in Peter Knowles and Jo Muggeridge, names well known to Norfolk's badminton community. Knowles,still showing a great deal of class and power, was too good for Murphy, who showed admirable tenacity against a barrage of fast shuttles. Cooper won her second singles match of the tournament, having to dig deep in the second set, before coming out on top in the third with a tremendous variety of shots and then Pike and Culyer won their level doubles match, but, by then, any chance of promotion to the Premiership had long since disappeared. But this didn't stop Norfolk putting a lot of effort into their final mixed doubles. Murphy and Cooper played superbly to beat Knowles and Muggeridge and Gerrard and Pike and Philpott and Sturgeon came very close to winning their matches, but were narrowly beaten to leave the final score 8-3 to Kent.
This result, alongwith Leinster beating Northumberland, left the Irish team winning the tournament with Kent in second place, so both qualified to play in the Premiership next season. For Norfolk,it was a steep learning
curve with many of the team playing at that level for the first time. Although disappointed with their final position, they must now look to next season and continue to set the pace back in Division One. But spare a thought for Northumberland who, having reached the play-offs for the fifth time in eight years, once again failed to qualify.