FROM DEPTHS, MERSEY LOOK TO RISE

merseytigers_walsh 5680-35. Zero wins, 35 defeats. The stats don’t lie. The Mersey Tigers are, officially, the worst team in British Basketball League history. But success and failure aren’t always measured by the numbers.

The inescapable truth is that the Liverpool club, just two years removed from winning the championship, are now the first to go through an entire campaign without once savouring the sweet smell of victory.

It didn’t bode well when they lost by 61 to Surrey Heat on opening night. “That first game was soul-destroying,” recalls Chris Bigley. There has been little of note to lift the spirits since.

“I hate losing,” the Liverpool-born forward confirms. “I made a joke that I won’t sleep until I get a win but I’d be a pretty tired guy by now. It’s just very difficult.”

He’s rarely been close to getting a sound night’s kip. There was one time, against Cheshire, where there was hope until the final minute but the Tigers still lost by six. A couple more reverses by nine. More often than not however, it’s been kind to call it a blow-out for a team whose reserves of effort and application have simply not been matched by talent and experience.

Bigley: tough going

Bigley: tough going

And so, with the season done, and with the unwanted additional record of the longest losing streak ever in the top flight (36, dating back to last term), this will be a group which will forever be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

And Bigley knows it. “It’s never going to go away is it? It’s always there and it’s something that will never leave me. Whether I use that as fuel in the future or not, it’s happened and it’s not been good enough.

“I take a fair whack of that responsibility. I’ve not been good enough so I have to bust a gut to get better and if I get a chance to get back into the league, then I want to shake that tag.”

But that was never the point of the current campaign. Ws and Ls were not the priority laid down to first-year coach Tony Walsh by low-key owner Steve Brookfield.

Past debts, largely accumulated during the crazy calamitous reign of Gary Townsend, had to be cleared. Fences have needed mending throughout Merseyside and beyond. “The name of the Tigers wasn’t good within the city,” Walsh acknowledges. Players have been paid, and on time, while strenuous efforts have been made to interact with the locals and achieve a reputation built on trust.

“It’s starting to go the way we want,” Walsh declares.

“We’ve talked about sustainability. We’ve achieved that. We’re going to be here next year. The owners have promised me they’re going to put more money in to the team. And at our home games, we’re getting the crowds back up – and that’s without winning a game.

“That’s because we’re out in the community. That was missing before, when the Tigers were just throwing money at players. They won the league but there was nothing underneath. Now we still have the top part but we’re building foundations underneath as well.”

In the autumn, the Tigers will launch a youth academy, engineering a link between this generation and the next. Walsh, who has been assured of his future in charge, will bring the knowledge gained from his past role as a development officer to construct the pyramid, brick by brick. “We’ll get the standard of coaches we want to raise the standard of our young players,” he outlines.

That, however, brings only long-term returns. Mersey, for some critics, are still a club that does not deserve to remain in the BBL.

Huison will return next season

Huison will return next season

Look more carefully at the results, Walsh pleads. On strength of squad alone, it was “like we were Accrington Stanley going  against Liverpool Football Club.”

But, he states, “I can take the positives that at the start of the season, some teams were beating us regularly by 60 and 70 points and rotating their bench. Now they’re keeping their starters on and beating us by 20 or 30. That’s a plus.”

All on a playing budget that, sources claim, is under £30000 per season. Walsh drives the minibus, washes the kit and so much more. Others, Brookfield included, have pitched in to make as much out of as little as possible. Expectations, in a strange way, have been exceeded.

“Yes, we’ve finished last,” the coach nods. “But last year, they were eleventh out of 12 and it was much more expensive. But we’re sustainable and pushing forward.”

Gael Huison and Martin Calvo, two of the brighter lights in the Tigers campaign have already agreed to extend their stay in Liverpool. Both will be involved in the academy’s birth. Others may or may not remain if the promised funds allow two or three imports to be signed this summer. But there is goodwill to make this work, to ensure something really good emerges from the depths.

“Liverpool’s my home city,” Bigley states. “I want this to succeed. I don’t want this to fail. If this all goes bust, it reflects badly on the city and I couldn’t see a way back for professional basketball on Merseyside if this fails.

“That’s the long and short of it.” As the season ends, a new beginning may yet unfold.

The only way, surely, is up from ground zero.

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