Sean Marsh - Uncut!
Early Season Local Round-UpMiddlesbrough Rooks or Elmwood? These are surely the only two teams in the hunt for the Cleveland league A division title this year. After the first two matches, both teams had maximum points, stood jointly at the top of the table and had already opened up a gap between themselves and all other teams.
Defending champions Middlesbrough Rooks may have lost David Spence, whofinished his university course and is now back happily watching the Tractor Boys in his native Suffolk, but they snapped up Guisborough player Ian Elcoate as a replacement between seasons. Ian was a Guisborough regular many years ago - even before my time there - and recently returned to chess after a very lengthy break. So the Rooks are not far from the strength they enjoyed last year.
Elmwood, runners-up more times than Jimmy White, are slightly stronger than last season but know that they must somehow overcome the Rooks in this season’s head-to-heads and also not let things slip against any other team. It is now four seasons since Elmwood took the title and they are hungry for more.
The first matches of the season are never as straight forward as they appear. In the first round, Elmwood struggled to overcome newly-promoted Darlington, being in trouble on at least three of the six boards before winning by a big margin. As usual, the final score never does justice to the losing team in suchmatches. Darlington fought well and must be hoping to continue to do so if theywant their current spell in the top flight to last longer than when they werelast here.
Meanwhile, the Rooks crushed Athenaeum 6-0. The second round of fixtures saw both of the top teams produce strong performances; the Rooks bashedthe Bishops and Elmwood managed a convincing victory over the new, improved Redcar side.
The Middlesbrough v Sunderland football match led to the postponement of the Rooks v Darlington match and Elmwood duly jumped clear at the top of the tablewith a 6-0 demolition of Peterlee.
I honestly cannot see any other team reaching the level of consistency necessary to challenge for the title this year, although one or two teams may well put of spanner in the works along the way.
The relegation battle looks set to be a three-way scrap between Athenaeum,Darlington and Peterlee. Athenaeum, a small club, are struggling to put a full side out and have twice had to default boards. Not a promising start to the season for them.
The Tom Wise K.O. Cupwill be starting very soon and there is at least one other team capable of upsetting the big two.
Elmwood, as defending champions and also as the team with the best cupperformances over the last four years (three finals, two titles and a semi-final), must start as favourites. However, as well the threat from the Rooks, everyone must also look out for Guisborough. Surprisingly relegatedlast year, they have regrouped and secured the services not only of Norman Stephenson but also Richard Hall. This gives them the luxury ofplaying former top board Tim Blake as low as board three, where he should cause lots of damage. They should be a looking at a swift return to the top flight of the league and they must also be fancying their chances in the five-board cup matches.
The Individual County Championship is also up and running once again and the first of the seven rounds has been successfully completed. The lack of surprise results in round one has set up some excellent pairings for the second round. Mike Closs takes on John Garnett (John beat Mike in the same round last season), David Wise plays Steve Dauber and your correspondent faces Norman Stephenson. So early in the tournament, and some of the favourites will surely sample the bitter taste of defeat....