Craig Salmon talks to Preston table tennis stalwart Tony Rigby. In part two of the Big Interview, Rigby discusses his playing career as well as his venture into coaching
Tony Rigby has rubbed shoulders with some of the finest players ever to pick up a table tennis bat in Europe.
But if he had to pick one player who caused him the most trouble across the net, then you might be surprised to find that one particular name immediately springs to mind.
Les Dagger made his name as the player who every PNE supporter booed – only because it meant Sir Tom Finney would not be in the North End team.
Former winger Dagger – who passed away in 2011 – is most remembered as being Finney’s understudy at Deepdale during the late 1950s.
But to Preston table tennis stalwart Rigby, he will always be known as the player who gave him the hardest challenge across the net during his formative years playing the sport.
“My toughest opponent especially when I first started playing table tennis, I have to say was Les Dagger,” Rigby said with a smile.
“Les obviously played football for Preston North End and was the wicketkeeper for Fulwood and Broughton Cricket Club, he was a really good sportsman.
“He was not that talented at table tennis, but he was a very good competitor.
“Les taught me a lot. I played in the Preston town team when I was 17-years-old with Les and like I say he wasn’t the best player, but he never gave anything up.
“He was a really tough player to come up against.
“I always beat him, but you always knew you had been in a game whenever you played Les.
“I learned a lot from him in terms of doggedness and not wanting to lose.”
The influence of Dagger obviously had a lasting effect on Rigby and more than 50 years later, the 69-year-old former St Ignatius Catholic School pupil is widely recognised as one of Preston’s greatest ever players.
A county senior player for many years, Rigby can boast an impressive list of achievements both at senior and veterans’ level.
He has won the prestigious Preston Table Tennis League singles title six times.
“I won it first in 1968 and for the final time in 1992, although I did reach the men’s final at the ripe old age of 63 in 2013,” he said.
He has also won the doubles competition on 12 occasions and is a nine-time individual veterans’ champion.
Once ranked in the top-25 veterans in the country, his greatest achievement was winning the National Civil Service Veterans’ title three years running – memorably beating ex-England international Stuart Gibbs in the final of his last triumph.
“I was 19-16 down in the third game, but managed to win five points on the spin to win it,” Rigby said.
“I think that has to be my greatest achievement especially as Stuart is a bit of a hero of mine.
“At one time Stuart was ranked No.2 or No.3 in the country and played in the England team with Desmond Douglas and Denis Neale.”
Over the years, Gibbs and Rigby have forged a strong friendship especially as they both worked for Royal Mail, albeit in different parts of the country.
At a time when table tennis was a popular past-time across industries all over the world, they played alongside each other for the Post Office national team.
They represented their employers at the European Post Office Championships in the late 1970s and early 1980s on several occasions, with Rigby memorably winning the veterans’ Over-40s doubles competition in Toulouse, France. “I was the team captain for the tournament in Toulouse,” said Rigby.
“I managed to win gold in the vets’ doubles and bronze in the mixed.
“Playing in the veterans’ competition was still a good standard because you would still get a lot of players who had been really good players and were still very good players.
“For example, Stuart was our No.1 and had played for England professionally.
“He had got older and because there is not much money in table tennis, he still had to work.
“So he worked for the Post Office like me.
“He obviously wasn’t as good as he had been but he was still a very good player.
“Other countries had similar players as well – players who had been world ranked but then had to work for a living when they had finished playing professionally.”
It was not uncommon in those days for countries to partake in a little skulduggery to gain an advantage, including having their very best players masquerading as ‘postmen’.
“I always remember one year, the Hungarian Post Office team turning up for the European Championship,” said Rigby
“They were the days when the eastern European countries were still under Communist rule.
“The Hungarians had a lad in their team called Tibor Klampar, who at the time was the European No.1 and had just won the European Championships.
“We also found out that not only was he the Hungarian Post Office champion – he was also the Army champion and the Railways champion.
“Klampar was part of the great Hungarian team of Istvan Jonyer and Gabor Gergely which won the World Championships.
“They, along with Sweden, were one of the first teams to oust the Chinese.
“But I remember the next competition two years later in Folkestone, the rules were changed and everybody had to have their P60 to show that they actually worke d for the Post office.”
While Rigby has enjoyed a fine individual playing career – and still continues to perform to a high standard for his team Astra – he is also one of the main reasons why the sport continues to thrive in Preston.
An organiser of many competitions, practice sessions and events, he has run the Preston Championships for the past 30 years with the help of his family.
A two-star qualified coach, Rigby helped mastermind, alongside Jim Clegg, the setting up of the St Augustine’s Table Tennis Centre in Avenham, which is owned by Newman College.
Although it provides facilities for a whole multitude of sports, it is widely regarded as one of the best table tennis venues in the North West.
“Sixty-six percent of the clubs in Preston play at St Augustine’s,” said Rigby, who underwent triple heart by-pass surgery in 2008.
“It’s probably got the best conditions for table tennis in the North West.
“This year we’ve had more teams coming in and players are coming from all over the place to play in Preston.
“It really is thriving at the minute and has been since we moved in there.
“A lot of other leagues have gone by the wayside.
“I think Blackburn only has one league with only a few clubs in it.
“Burnley, Nelson – those leagues have all gone and a lot of Burnley lads come to play in Preston now.”
A coach since the age of 25, he particularly enjoys watching the progress of young players and admits the centre boasts a number of talented juniors.
“We get a lot of youngsters coming down on a Monday nights,” Rigby said. “On one side of the room, we have juniors who can play and who we will be looking to push on.
“Then on the other side of the room, we have got those who are just learning to play.
“The coaching side of things is something that I really enjoy.
“It’s all about making the centre an enjoyable and friendly place to play.”