Monday 24 April 2017

'It means everything to get to the Crucible' - Dubliner O'Brien on his world record route to the World Championship

Marathon man Fergal O’Brien tells Michael Verney about his world-record route to the World Championships

Fergal O’Brien had fallen at the last hurdle five times since his last Crucible appearance in 2010. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Fergal O’Brien had fallen at the last hurdle five times since his last Crucible appearance in 2010. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Michael Verney

As soon as he gets off the phone, Fergal O'Brien is heading for an afternoon nap, and doesn't he deserve it.

When the clock hit midnight on Tuesday, the Dubliner had finally secured the 32nd place in this year's World Snooker Championships with a display of skill, stamina and mental strength worthy of his spot in the Guinness World Records for the longest frame in professional snooker history.

An enthralling final-frame decider totalling two hours, three minutes and 41 seconds, 44 seconds longer than the men's marathon record, with 'The Angry Farmer' David Gilbert sent Lucan's 'Baby-Faced Assassin' through to the main draw for the tenth occasion ending "a haunting saga" in Ponds Forge in recent years.

O'Brien had fallen at the last hurdle five times since his last Crucible appearance in 2010, three of which came in the final frame (beaten once on the pink, once on a black and also heartbreakingly on a respotted black) so this was sweet redemption.

"It means everything to get to the Crucible," O'Brien told the Irish Independent yesterday. "You're so afraid of making a mistake because of all those horrific defeats in the past and that comes into your head near the end.

"You're dreading making a mistake on one of the colours that could lose you the match and haunt you again for another year. Then you get too cautious, you're double-checking everything, even things that don't need to be checked.

Resilience

"It probably made for great safety for the purists but not great viewing. But if someone asked me at nine frames apiece are you prepared to play for two hours to get to the Crucible, I'd have taken their hand off."

O'Brien's resilience is quite remarkable and he certainly went through the wringer this week, defeating Northern Ireland's Gerard Greene 10-6 in the first round before edging China's Tian Pengfei 10-9 in the penultimate qualifying round.

The final ball wasn't potted until 2.30 on Monday night/Tuesday morning with the 45-year-old returning later that day to commence his duel with Gilbert. He admits he entered survival mode, barely keeping a grip on Gilbert's waistcoat to stay in touch.

"I finished at half two coming on Tuesday morning and then I started again at 5 o'clock that afternoon. I was knackered and I did well because I was 6-1 down and somehow got it back to 6-3. By the next day I'd had a good sleep and a good lie on," he said.

"I was a lot fresher but there's no point feeling better if you're 8-1 down which I could have been. I played well to be 7-6 up, then he went 9-7 ahead and at 9-7 down I have to get it to 9-9 to give myself a chance but I'm also bringing about the possibility of losing 10-9 again."

He admits the last frame "turned into a war" and that his concentration was shot, "if you'd asked me to count to ten I would've got to five and nodded off", but he persevered as a "chess match" ensued between the pair, which included a rare mid-frame toilet break, such was its staggering longevity.

Despite watching the footage via a Facebook Live feed with a basic camera angle and no on-table microphones, you could still cut the tension with a knife. It had all the drama of the epic black ball final of 1985 between Steve Davis and Denis Taylor, without the 18.5 million viewers.

For professional snooker players, Sheffield's famed Crucible Theatre is the only place to showcase your talent and the pressure of making it there was clear for all to see. O'Brien's state of mind had noticeably changed long before he made the trip to the Steel City, however.

"Three or four days before you leave Dublin you can sense that it's coming, my wife always says she knows because I start to get quieter and sleep is a bit of a struggle. You're feeling nervous, even before you try pot a ball," he said.

"I was running out of hotels to stay in because every Sheffield hotel I've been staying in I've been going back to my room haunted, each hotel has a bad memory. I'd be walking in the door each year with a bad memory from the previous year's disappointment.

"You could win four tournaments in China during the year and no one really cares but even if you play once at the Crucible on the BBC you get much more publicity. It's like golf or tennis, it's all about the Masters or Wimbledon.

"You go back home and you're devastated and people are asking you how you got on. When you do lose you're devastated for a couple of days and you're just about coming right and then it comes on the television for 17 days and you can't get away from it. I'm just glad to be on the right side this year and not going through that."

Joining "a great gang" in Lucan Harriers and hitting the road regularly has aided O'Brien's mental and physical fitness but he'll need everything in his locker if he is to continue a fairytale journey against world number one and defending champion Mark Selby.

O'Brien was strolling in the door of the Crucible at 10.0 yesterday morning when Cliff Thorburn pulled his name from the hat, but 20 years on from Ken Doherty's famous win, he sees no reason why he can't keep the Irish flag flying against the odds.

"I'm hoping the running will stand to me. I'll get a good night's sleep in my 'winning hotel', rest up and take it easy on Friday. It'll be a great sense of occasion because the defending champion starts the tournament and the game will finish that night so it's special thing to be part of. Of course, winning would make it even more special."

When you've already played a marathon, anything is possible.

Irish Independent

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