Saturday 25 February 2017

Tables turn for trailblazers

Only one Irishman has made it to The Crucible this year and that tells a tale, writes John O'Brien

B ack in January the snooker circuit decamped to Blackpool for the World Snooker shoot-out at the Circus Arena. New tournament; old, familiar location. Joe Delaney stood on the Promenade and observed the faded glamour of the place, its mid-winter bleakness, and tried to remember the last time he'd been here. Must have been 10 years anyway. No, he thought. More than that.

His first visit to the town? That was easier. It was April 1991. Almost 20 years to the day. A grand old snooker yarn. Delaney's family worked in the upholstery business and had a contract with the Imperial Hotel. The manager had said if they were ever in town and needed a place to stay, their door was always open. So that year Delaney pitched up with his cue and a mind to accept their hospitality. "And how long will you be staying Joe?" the manager asked. "Er, three months," he replied.

Delaney was 19, one of the best young players in Ireland and ready to test himself at a higher level. By 1992, the imposing Norbreck Castle on Blackpool's North Shore would become the centre of his world. For three months each summer snooker would take over the hotel's grand ballroom: over 20 tables squeezed into a space where hundreds, like Delaney, would gather for a sniff of the big time.

Ah, the sheer craziness of it. There were 10 ranking tournaments on the calendar. Ten chances for those at the Norbreck to survive the cull and earn the right to face one of the game's marquee names and, if they were lucky, snag some television airtime. To do so, however, meant having to win as many as 11 matches, an ordeal that required talent as well as enormous reserves of mental fortitude.

In his first year Delaney managed to qualify for one tournament and got swatted away by Alex Higgins in Stoke. He didn't mind. Higgins became a friend and, among the bright lights and buzz of Blackpool, he was ready for an adventure. Not everybody felt the same way.

* * * * *

"It was ridiculous," says Ken Doherty. "There were too many players not good enough to be a pro. But they just paid the money to have professional status. You have to have some standard. Some sort of benchmark. If you don't have that, it makes the idea of being a professional snooker player a bit of a joke."

Sporting bodies making bizarre decisions isn't a new thing, of course. Still, try to imagine the PGA Tour or their tennis counterparts suddenly allowing anybody with a spare €700 to turn professional and the procession of wannabes and wise guys that would come knocking on their door, eager for the opportunity to be able to tell their grandchildren: "I was a professional once, you know."

Twenty years ago that's exactly what the WPBSA did. For years the professional game had been a tightly-controlled ship. Entry was at the behest of the governing body's committee. "They just gave you the thumbs up or the thumbs down," says Clive Everton, commentator and editor of Snooker Scene. "They turned down Patsy Fagan the first time he applied. It was terrible. A ridiculous decision."

As snooker's popularity snowballed, however, the pressure to open things up grew intense. By the turn of the 1990s, the professional ranks had swollen to 128, though gaining entry remained tough. Doherty had done it by winning the World Amateur title in 1989. Stephen Murphy had joined him a year later by toppling James Wattana in a Pro-ticket play-off on the Isle of Wight. Only the world's top 10 amateurs were given the chance.

Now the gates had been flung open and the hopefuls flooded in. In the first year they held qualifiers in Bolton, Sheffield and Aldershot and 500 had showed up. When they moved to the Norbreck a year later, their ranks swelled even further. "They under-estimated the numbers," says Doherty. "It was chaos. People paid nearly €1,000 to go pro but it all went on expenses. It wasn't the right system at all."

As a rude measure of the game's health, it was startling. Kids mesmerised by the skills of Alex Higgins, and the 1985 black ball final, were reaching an age where they wondered if they too might forge a life on the green baize. Doherty had left for London in 1988 and was followed by Murphy, Finbarr Ruane and Anthony O'Connor. Fergal O'Brien arrived a year later and shared a house with Eamon Dunphy's son, Tim, and Stephen O'Connor, the 1990 World Amateur champion. Doherty was blazing a trail everybody wanted to follow.

In EJ Riley's, the shop they own off Dublin's Talbot Street, John Benton and Darren Lennox share memories. They too were part of the snooker exodus, good amateurs hopeful of taking the next step. For two years Lennox stayed in Dublin and made his way over each summer. Then he moved to Southampton to be coached by Jeff Kenna's father, Liam. He was joined by Dunphy and Michael Judge.

East London was the most popular base, though. Eugene Hughes, the well-known Irish pro, ran a club in Ilford, near the heartland of Steve Davis and Ronnie O'Sullivan, and most of the Irish gravitated there. "At the start we were all living in different places," says Ruane, "so we decided the cleverest thing was to get a place together. Me, Ken, Stephen and Anthony. Then Damien McKiernan came over. A nice house in Shadwell Heath on the 86 bus route to Ilford.

"I remember walking into the club one afternoon. Ken was playing Steve Davis down the back. I'd never met Davis before. I looked at this 20-year-old kid from Ranelagh playing the six-times world champion as if they were having a casual knock-about. But that was Ken. He had that confidence. Didn't fear anybody."

At the time there was a thriving pro-am circuit. Where the previous generation had made a living through exhibitions, now the pro-ams provided the best means of learning the game and earning a crust. "You'd go to Ilford on a Friday night," says Ruane. "And you'd see Ronnie breeze through the door. He was maybe 14 at the time. He'd knock in a 147. Incredible. We'd play every weekend. Ilford, Barking or get a train to Manchester or to Willie Thorne's club in Leicester. You might get a grand for winning. Sterling. Very nice. But you'd have to beat players like Ronnie, Mark Williams or Alan McManus. There were so many good amateurs around at the time."

Richard McHugh had been on the pro-am circuit for a few years. He'd lost in one final to Peter Ebdon. Another time he'd beaten O'Sullivan 5-4. "He said, 'Rich, you should come and practise with me'. So I went over to his club one Wednesday. He beat me 15-0 and had nine centuries. 'Last time I'm going there,' I thought. Nobody practises with Ronnie. Ken Doherty will tell you that. Imagine how you feel leaving his table."

In his first year as a professional, McHugh won three matches. Nowhere near enough. Benton played his first match against Davy McLelland, a highly-regarded Scot, and won but the grind of having to win match after match was relentless and exhausting. "You lose a couple and your confidence goes. It gets into your persona. You become afraid to play shots. Afraid of missing."

It was easier for some than others. They saw the likes of Ebdon, Williams and John Higgins sail through with ease. Even in the chaos of the Norbreck, the cream rose to the top. Then there was the tornado that was O'Sullivan. Just 16 when he rolled into Blackpool in 1992, O'Sullivan would famously win 74 of the 76 matches he played that summer. Benton was one of his victims, hammered 5-1. He remembers feeling good about pinching a frame.

There were talented Irish players too, of course. But few would make it. Of the 40 or so who took the plunge and subjected themselves to the Norbreck torture chamber, only Fergal O'Brien would manage to win a ranking tournament and forge a successful career among the world's top 16. A few like Judge and Delaney would find a place on the foothills of the tour.

Few would have predicted it turning out like that. It was Murphy -- "a special player," says Lennox -- or Delaney -- "the most natural I've seen," according to Benton -- that most put their money on. Yet O'Brien had something others lacked. "He was so methodical," says Benton. "He was very gritty, very determined. Defeat never damaged him. That was the difference. I was much more fragile."

The rate of attrition was severe. In London, Ruane watched them arrive and then leave in a steady stream. Broke or disillusioned, sometimes both. When it had come to turning professional, Ruane opted out. It wasn't for him, he thought. Instead he returned home to run the family business, Crossguns snooker club in Phibsborough, and spent the next decade happily following Doherty around the globe.

Others soldiered on. In all, McHugh would make three attempts at surviving the summer. On his third go he would manage to win 27 matches, but it still wasn't enough. "You might win four in a row. Then get beat 5-4 on a black ball and get mad. You had to be capable of winning 40 or 50 matches to qualify for tournaments. Otherwise it was no good."

Benton left for home in 1993. Lennox stayed four years longer. That summer he played Terry Griffiths in the Regal Welsh Open, one match away from the landmark achievement of reaching the last 16 of a ranking tournament. At one stage, he led 3-1, a ball away from a three-frame lead. Instead he missed and eventually succumbed 5-3. When the pain of defeat had subsided, he had an epiphany.

"I'd muddled through for a few years. Got into the top 200. But I was going on 27. Things had to start happening. They didn't. When I didn't beat Griffiths, I said that's it. I'm giving up. I had a few beers with Liam [Kenna] that night. Liam said, 'if you apply yourself to something like you applied yourself to this, you'll be fine'. It was important to hear that."

They were character-forming years. He thinks of a day in London when he had only £10 in his pocket, nowhere to stay and nothing to drink but the putrid tap water in a pub where he stopped. He'd read pieces written by Eamon Dunphy about the toughness of the life they were living, tears streaming down his cheeks as he read. Still, no regrets.

"As you get older life teaches you that those things were insignificant. You look back and realise you had nothing to worry about. But at the time it was our life. Losing seemed like the end of the world. People ask if I enjoyed it. I say it was the best thing I ever did. But I'm glad I stopped when I did. It was the right time."

* * * * *

IN the end the madness stopped. Eventually the WPBSA realised their error and closed ranks again. Not without a high cost to the game, though. Lennox remembers chatting to Griffiths and the Welshman maintained a dim view of the entire experiment. "He said it had sucked the lifeblood out of the amateur game," Lennox says. "Taken everybody who ever wanted to be a player, used them up for four or five years and then dumped them. A lot of them, like me, never went back playing again."

Griffiths wasn't alone. "It did ruin the amateur game," says Doherty. "Maybe they thought it was a good way of giving everybody a chance but in hindsight it was the worst thing they could possibly have done because it left a massive void there. I'm not sure it's fully recovered yet."

And even if the sport couldn't possibly sustain the levels of popularity it had enjoyed in its 1980s heyday, the extent of the decline has been shocking. Last month Doherty and O'Brien both lost their final qualifiers to reach the televised stages of the World Championship which began yesterday at The Crucible. Mark Allen apart, there will be no Irishman in the last 32.

Even worse, the season will conclude with only Doherty and O'Brien guaranteed their places on next year's tour. All the rest from Davy Morris to Delaney and Michael Judge have fallen off. "It's a shame," says O'Brien. "It feels like the end of an era." "The standard is so high it's becoming very difficult now," says Doherty. "If you don't stay in the top 64 you either go back to tour school or give up."

These are tough times for the game here. In Doherty's day the classic misspent youth seemed a noble calling. Now there are more sports than ever to choose from. Snooker clubs aren't attractive propositions anymore. Rents keep increasing and tables take up too much space. He remembers the vivid names of his youth: the Cosmo, the Pierrot, the Mint, his own beloved Jasons. The blood has long since drained from them.

From his travels he has glimpsed the future. It is China. "They've introduced snooker to the curriculum there," he says. "Snooker tables in schools. They've seen Ding and the success he's had. They take kids out of school at nine or 10, get them playing and tutored at home. I've seen them. It's frightening. That's what we're competing against. If we don't do something here and in the UK within 20 years the whole top 16 will be Chinese."

Next month Doherty will open his new snooker academy in Terenure and he hopes it will make a difference. It will have six pristine tables, he says, and an atmosphere where people can have fun and play serious snooker. He has a vision of finding kids with potential who can come there to sharpen their skills. During holidays they could stay for intensive sessions, assisted by Doherty and other coaches.

"We have to get people back playing," he says. "Give them some encouragement. More competitions, nurture them. I hope it's a place where parents feel comfortable leaving their kids to play and get coached and harness what talent they have. I'm very excited about it. Even if we find just one or two kids with potential, at least it's something. We need someone after me and Fergal finish to keep flying the flag for snooker in this country."

Sunday Indo Sport

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