The unlikely hero of 1980 European Table Tennis Championships – John Hilton

Table tennis history has seen some truly inspiring stories, when the relatively unknown “dark horses” show up big at the highest level tournaments, such as European & World Championships. You don’t need to dig deep to find an example. Remember the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships in Budapest? Who would have thought that the 20-year old An Jae-hyun will make it to the semi-finals and win the bronze medal?

The story of the Englishman John Hilton is even more exciting. At the age of 32, he caught his moment of glory in Bern, Switzerland. Hilton was a late bloomer, joining the national team at the age of 29. Few years later, he enjoyed the first success, winning the silver medal at the 1978 European Championships in team event. Hilton was far from being leader of that squad, so there were no high expectations for him in the 1980 ETTC.

Many consider the fact that Hilton used two same color rubbers (anti-spin & smooth) as one of the main factors, why Hilton became the European champion. However, this is more of a myth and attempt to diminish his accomplishment rather than a serious argument. Yes, there were changes in rules three years later that now forbid to use same color rubbers, but Hilton was not the only one to play in that kind of style.

Let’s look at his journey to the European gold. In the Round of 16, Hilton gets past the 1979 World Champion, Hungarian Tibor Kreisz 3-1. In the 1/4 final, the Englishman went against another Hungarian – European & World Champion Gabor Gergely, who was World ranked 5th at the time. A hard fought 3-2 victory that led to semi-final match up against Jacques Secretin. 3-1 for Hilton and the decisive game was played against the Czechoslovakian Josef Dvoraček. The Englishman gave no chance to his opponent and got a solid 3-0 & became the first (and to this day only) English player to win the European Championships gold medal in singles event.

Can a racket give such an incredible boost? Surely not. It may haven given slight advantage, as well as the underdog status, but Hilton’s skillset was the primary reason he won the title. Equipment does not play by itself.

Win at the European Championships gave Hilton a chance to become a professional player at the late stage of his career. He soon joined the German Bundesliga side ATSV Saarbrücken and won the ETTU Cup in 1982 together with Dragutin Šurbek and Peter Engel.

With the 2020 European Championships approaching, who knows – maybe we will see another unexpected champion in Warsaw?


John Hilton
3-1 vs. Tibor Kreisz (18-21, 21-13, 21-18, 21-18)
John Hilton
3-2 vs. Gabor Gergely (18-21, 18-21, 21-19, 21-16, 21-19)
John Hilton
3-1 vs. Jacques Secretin (21-12, 21-14, 16-21, 21-13)
John Hilton
3-0 vs. Josef Dvoraček (21-17, 22-20, 21-14)

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