HE’S 86 next month, is suffering from a rare form of cancer and knows time is running out, but Wilf Gilbert just wants to carry on doing what he loves most – playing table tennis.

Wilf is never happier than when he’s displaying his formidable skills, and coaching youngsters, at Darlington Table Tennis Academy, where he’s been made President.

After he was diagnosed with mesothelioma recently, the Darlington table tennis leagues honoured him by staging a new competition for over-40s in aid of cancer research, with the Wilf Gilbert Trophy put up as the glittering prize. Not only did Wilf insist on paying for it, but he ended up beating all-comers and winning his own trophy.

“I just wanted to put something back, and leave something behind, so buying the trophy seemed like a nice thing to do,” says Wilf, who has declined chemotherapy and been told he may have two years left to live.

“I know I might not have long but no-one ever knows what’s around the corner, do they? You could go under a bus any day and I’ve been lucky to have a really good life.”

The academy members meet off Whessoe Road, in a building known as the King’s Centre, which is a hive of ping pong activity on Thursday evenings. As well as assisting the coaches, Wilf has invented various pieces of ingenious equipment to help young players improve their skills. As the most willing volunteer on the academy’s books, he’s the first to arrive, setting up 22 tables and nets, and is invariably the last to leave.

Wilf’s been playing his beloved sport since he was ten, competing in leagues in his native Peterborough, where he ended up working as a power station fitter – a job that was to lead to him developing mesothelioma.

He retired at 55 with the aim of relocating with his wife to the tranquility of the Yorkshire Dales but, sadly, she died of cancer before they were able to make their dream move. Wilf was 70 before he finally headed north, setting up home in Darlington because it was within easy reach of those picturesque Dales.

Table tennis has always been his route to making new friends, so the academy was the place he headed when he arrived in Darlington. “It’s become my second home – I’ve always been made to feel so welcome,” he says.

The appreciation is clearly mutual. “Wilf was an asset to us before his cancer diagnosis and his contribution is all the more remarkable in the light of his illness,” says academy chairman Brian Day. “He’s a stalwart, at the centre of everything we do, and a joy to have around.”

The competition in Wilf’s honour raised £400 and it was my pleasure to present the cheque as ambassador for Darlington Building Society, which supports Darlington Table Tennis Academy as part of its commitment to share five per cent of its profits with the community.

Naturally, after presenting the cheque, I couldn’t resist challenging Wilf to a game. However, I’ve decided not to publish the score – it’s my column and I refuse to humiliate myself.

There will, however, be a competition to win the trophy every year, so Wilf will be remembered for years to come. Funds will go on being raised in his name for cancer research long after he’s gone, but his sights are fixed firmly on defending his title next year.

“Table tennis has been my life – I’ll have to be dead before I stop playing,” he says, with a smile reflected in the trophy he not only bought but won so impressively.

IT is some achievement to work anywhere for 43 years but that’s what Frank Johnson managed at The Northern Echo, writing principally about the ups and downs of Sunderland Football Club and North-East athletics.

Frank has died of throat cancer at 78 and his funeral takes place at 10.45am at Bournmoor Church on Friday.

He will be remembered as an old school journalist, passionate about his craft, and someone who was never short of an anecdote.

As his editor, I took him for a drink when he retired and he told me a memorable tale about former Sunderland player Eric Gates.

As a young man, Eric earned a few quid extra by driving a friend’s racing pigeons out of the area for a training flight. The route took Eric past a pub and he couldn’t resist stopping for a pint. Having become engrossed in conversation, an hour or so had passed before Eric remembered the pigeons were still cooped up in the back of his car.

In a panic, he drove like a demon back the way he’d come and released the pigeons round the corner from his mate’s loft.

The breeder couldn’t hide his dismay as he clocked the birds in. “They’re way behind schedule,” he lamented.

“Aye,” nodded Eric. “They’re bloody useless – you wanna get shot of ‘em.”