Sunday 30 April 2017

Snooker: O'Brien hopes to cash in on lack of great expectations

Fergal O'Brien. Photo: Getty Images
Fergal O'Brien. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

The phone rings again in Fergal O'Brien's Lucan home. "Who is this? Oh, howya John. No time to chat. Can I ring you back?"

It's just that he's too busy talking to someone else who hasn't bothered ringing for a while.

"The week of the Crucible and everybody bloody starts to ring you," he says with a smile. "Where are all these people when you're struggling!"

You know he doesn't mean it. O'Brien doesn't do angry. Never did. Sheepish shrug of shoulders is more his style. No volcanic eruptions here. Not that he's diffident about his game. "I've underachieved at the world championships," he admits.

Today marks his first visit in three years to Sheffield's storied Crucible, his ninth visit in all since his historic 1994 debut when he became the only player in history to record a century in their opening frame. Yet a 2000 quarter-final remains his peak.

Today's match against lefty Neil Robertson will be only the 38-year-old's 10th match of another disappointing season, one which has seen him cling desperately to his 31st world ranking.

"Like every walk of life, things have gone down a bit," says the 1999 British Open champion and former top-10 player. "But five or six of the last 10 years haven't been great, it's harder to get sponsors, the potentials for earnings have reduced with less tournaments.

"Like everybody, you'd like a bit more. It's not at the stage that if I don't do well in Sheffield, I have to give up and find another job. Still, if I won the Lotto, I'd still play snooker next season. I'm trying not to let it affect me because it won't help my game."

He once boasted Ben Hogan's style, that snooker wasn't what he did, it was what he was. He's mellowing a tad these days. Snooker doesn't consume him. He runs with Lucan Harriers three times a week and spends a lot of time with his nine-year-old, Isabel.

"Burnout isn't a problem," he smiles. "But these are the two weeks you need to be your best and at least I'll be fresh. There's no great expectancy on me so I have to make that work for me.

"I've been guilty in the past of preparing for a match 24 hours a day and draining myself. But there has been plenty of time off. I've time to spend with the family. So it's probably better for me to get a balance."

Finding that balance helped him deal with the foreboding of qualifying last month, when he reported that a "stench of death" surrounded the proceedings; old men and young men scrapping for their very livelihoods in front of a smattering of OAPs.

"It's the most pressurised match you play all year. Losing the world final is easier because at least you've got that far. The stench of death is probably overstating it, but there's a real sense of fear, of dread. You just want to get through it and the relief is awesome."

His opponent, Robertson, like Ken Doherty's conqueror on Sunday, Mark Selby, is a title contender. "He's won already this season so there'll be some pressure on him," says O'Brien defiantly. "He won't be doing cartwheels facing me. So hopefully I can relax and play my own game."

World Championship,

Live, Eurosport, 10.0 / BBC 2, 1.0

Irish Independent

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