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An Ulster Log: Champion who came out to bat in Belfast

By Eddie McIlwaine

Former world champion table tennis player Johnny Leach, who has died at 91, was in the RAF during the war and was based at the Aldergrove Camp as a ground staff radio operator. And Johnny used to hike six miles to Antrim town, where in the British Legion Hall he and fellow top player Ron Craydon, who was also in the RAF, gave exhibitions.

But back at RAF Aldergrove when he had nobody as opposition he played against himself by hitting a ball across a table and against a wall in the mess.

"Sometimes when things were quiet during the Second World War, I would practise through the night," he once recalled. "I wonder if the marks of the ball are still on that wall."

Leach, the star who transformed table tennis out of its original ping-pong image, saw his hours of practice pay off when he emerged as the UK's No 1 after the last all-clear was sounded in 1945. One of his first major successes was winning the Ireland singles title in 1948.

He won his first world title in Stockholm in 1949 and his second in Vienna in 1951, just as the Japanese were starting to dominate the sport.

Johnny, from Bow in London, returned to Northern Ireland several times as a coach after retiring as a player and called at his old haunts, including Aldergrove and the site of an RAF base in Belfast where he also served and gave demonstrations to Servicemen.

Johnny and Daisy, his wife of 63 years, had two sons; John, who died last year, and Jeff. Daisy died in 2009 after seeing him awarded an MBE in 1966.

He wrote several books on his sport, including one called Table Tennis Made Easy. And he even invented the Johnny Leach bat to give performances at the London Palladium at the peak of his popularity.

Bangor set to bloom again

Summer arrives officially in Bangor tomorrow when the bandstand in Ward Park shakes rattles and rolls to the music of North Down Borough Council's Summer Sundays programme which goes on every Sabbath until the last one in August.

It was announced by flower fairies Rihanna Lilley and Hannah Orr who are in my picture and who will be there every weekend to brighten up the scene.

The programme kicks off at 4pm with Ken Haddock and Scott Flanigan recreating the music of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane.

Summer Sundays have been running in the park for nine years and this time there will be a market in which to browse as you tune into the music and tuck into your picnic hamper.

It will all come to a head that last Sunday in August with an open house bluegrass picnic.

Cheers to Ivan for his praise

Ivan Little, equally at home on stage as an actor or with pen in hand as a journalist, wrote in flattering terms about me when he took over my column while I was ill.

As I recover I have to say a belated thank you to someone I respect and who is a friend. Thank you not just for writing the stories, but for calling me a legend. Nobody else has ever referred to me like that before.

I'm moved – I'll put it on my tombstone one day in the distant future.

By the way, I loved the one Ivan wrote about a real legend, footballer Charlie Tully and how he scored a goal direct from a corner kick in an international at Windsor Park only for the referee to order the kick to be retaken because of some minor infringement.

So what did Charlie do? He put the ball down and took the corner again – straight into the net for a second time.

On the day he scored that famous goal I was on the terrace directly behind the corner flag from where he took the kick.

A final word about Big Ivan: I'm convinced that if he hadn't chosen to be a reporter and kept acting as a hobby he would have made it in the movies.

Know something Ivan – there is still time!

Keeping Suarez hungry for success

There's one obvious way of solving the Luis Suarez biting habit which has upset the World Cup and I'm surprised none of those football types have thought of it before now.

Hire a soccer-loving dentist to pull all of his teeth out.

And the hungry Uruguayan, gums and all, will be able to play on, providing no danger to the opposition at all.

I'm sure a toothless Suarez would be just as good a player and Liverpool will be able to transfer him to Barcelona for £80m no bother.

No doubt he would agree to take a seat in the dentist's chair if it meant avoiding that ban from the game.

Beeb should pay homage to Willie

You Praise Me Up, the gospel series presented by Marie Lacey, director of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir returns to BBC Radio Ulster on an eight-week run tomorrow at 4.30pm.

She will be playing hymns performed by the likes of Whitney Houston and Ella Fitzgerald.

So I hope Marie doesn't forget the gospel tracks recorded by Willie Nelson.

There's one piece in particular Willie sings called Nothing I Can Do About It Now that I find particularly appealing. He has also recorded In the Sweet By and By, How Great Thou Art and What a Friend We have in Jesus. Willie is singing better than ever at 81.

What about his way with Sunday Morning Coming down, written by Kris Kristofferson?

History circle honouring stalwart

Peadar Barry was born in a farmhouse at Corrags near Newry on December 4, 1895.

And he lived there all his life. So it is appropriate that the Ulster History Circle is unveiling one of its famous Blue Plaques there in honour of the man who had 31 years of unbroken service as secretary of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Co Down.

From 1926 until 1957 Barry carried out his unpaid administrative role to the Down County Board of the GAA and its 60 clubs.

He was also a respected referee going to matches every Sunday on his bike, some as far away as 30 miles.

And Barry, who died in 1966, also found the time to produce and act in local drama, especially around the Christmas period.

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