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How a mother's faith framed a champion of the world

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Ken Doherty continues to ply his trade at the green baize, but despite his many victories over the years, his mother's influence has managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Ken Doherty continues to ply his trade at the green baize, but despite his many victories over the years, his mother's influence has managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Ken Doherty raises the World Snooker Trophy at his welcome home outside the Mansion House, Dublin, in 1997. David Maher SPORTSFILE.

Ken Doherty raises the World Snooker Trophy at his welcome home outside the Mansion House, Dublin, in 1997. David Maher SPORTSFILE.

Getting a hug from his mother Rose at Dublin Airport in 1997 after returning in triumph from the World Championships in Sheffield.

Getting a hug from his mother Rose at Dublin Airport in 1997 after returning in triumph from the World Championships in Sheffield.

Ken Doherty with the late George Best (left) and Eamon Dunphy (centre)

Ken Doherty with the late George Best (left) and Eamon Dunphy (centre)

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Ken Doherty continues to ply his trade at the green baize, but despite his many victories over the years, his mother's influence has managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

'I hope your little bastard dies." They say you don't forget where you came from. More than 40 years on, Ken Doherty can still hardly erase it from his memory.

"It was the first time anyone had been mean to me and it will always live with me."

When he was just three years old, he remembers the landlord issuing this threat to his mother, before aiming a brutish boot to the relative small pile of toys.

The Dohertys - Seamus, Anthony, Ken, sister Rosemary, along with parents Rose and Anthony - were living in modest lodgings at the back of a shop in Donnybrook's Swan Place.

It was when their elderly landlady sold the entire premises to a younger family that a reign of terror began. One Sunday, the family returned to find the locks had been changed.

For ten days, their floor was flooded, bins were hurled in their hallway. They were forced to exit and enter by a back-room window; a contemporary newspaper clipping catches Ken's mother slipping him through the narrow crevice.

A portent of fame to come, perhaps.

It didn't seem like it then. A court case compensated the Dohertys for the unlawful intimidation but not enough to improve their dwelling; they moved to an even smaller house, where the kitchen was so tiny the stove had been placed on the landing.

Yet his was a happy childhood.

Rose - one of whose four part-time jobs was in Muckross Convent, where she had once trained as a nun - had managed to badger one of the student's politician parents who badgered someone else to ensure that one of four new houses in Ranelagh would be provided for the Dohertys.

Charlie Haughey wrote them a letter. "Dear Mr and Mrs Doherty. I hope you are happy in your new home."

Less than two years later, Mr Doherty was dead. An angina sufferer, he had had a clot in his leg for some time. He had been waiting for an operation but there were no beds available. Plus ça change.

Rose would often goad him. "Ah go out and pretend to have a heart attack! Sure they'll have to give you a bed then!"

Tragically, on Ranelagh Road, on a bright June day in 1983, he did just that. He was rushed to Vincent's. Ken was 15 and, as always, was playing snooker in Jason's.

"We all went to the hospital but I was too scared to go in and see him," he recalls all these years later. "It's one of the few regrets I have in my life. Nothing had prepared me for this and I didn't know how to cope."

Anthony died just a few days later. "Maybe some day you'll win the big one," he once told Ken. He wouldn't live to see his prophecy so gloriously realised.

UNHURIED

His wife could carry the family with her unique confection of grim grit and unhurried humour.

The first time I met this remarkable Baltinglass woman, about 20 years ago, a cub reporter beginning the first etching of the season that would produce a world champion, she insisted on making a pot of soup from scratch. Her kindness to strangers is legendary.

"She used to make dinner for people who lived on their own, put it on a plate and get on her bike and take it round to them," recalls Doherty. "She'd take people in who'd need a bed for a few nights.

"She was tough, because she needed to be. But she was also caring and couldn't bear to see anyone going through a hard time. She taught me to consider other people and always be grateful for what I had."

Rose was the daughter of James Lawler, a cabinet-maker from Bawnogues on Baltinglass Hill, Co Wicklow. The house is still in the family and Ken has climbed the hill many a time.

"I nearly died in Baltinglass," he reveals. He was messing about with his brother and cousin who pretended to throw money into a slurry pit and six-year-old Ken stumbled in after it.

"It was like quicksand. Next thing I'm down to my knees and seconds later I'm up to my neck."

Fortunately his cousin grasped him in the nick of time. "My uncle came down on his bicycle and carried me through the town. I had three Dettol baths to get rid off the stench."

A mother's values were seamlessly bestowed. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, for those of us who stepped in off the main street into another world of space invaders, jukeboxes and pinball, Jason's remains ineradicably woven into the fabric of so much urban Dublin history.

And, without it, Ireland would have one less world champion.

It was the home of Scobie Murphy, who brushed and ironed the tables and whose inability to eat anything hot reduced him mainly to a diet of ice cream; passers-by could regularly spy him grappling with a handful of sizzling sausages and he trying to cool them down in a puddle.

From Jason's, Doherty plotted a relentless, if not entirely smooth, path towards world title glory; the family home was 100 yards around the corner near Ranelagh Park.

Rose would regularly storm into the club, brushing past Scobie and threatening all-comers with a wooden spoon were her son not home in time to do his homework.

She was dismissive of the sport then; even when he won the world title, she couldn't bear to watch, lighting candles in her local church instead. Fifteen years earlier, he used to return from Jason's and shower her with bank notes from his winnings.

She'd admonish him for being late; then, imperceptibly but inevitably, she would smile and stuff the notes under her pillow.

"Ken used to say he practised seven or eight hours a day but if that was true, he'd have been a lot better," Rose says with unwitting acuteness.

"It would be more like three or four hours and he'd spend the other time on the machines in the club. He always seemed to win on those as well but I didn't like Ken playing them at his age."

Her pride in her son is unabashed but you reckon she still wonders when he's going to get a proper job.

"She wanted me to succeed but was worried for me in case it went wrong," he explains. "She'd rather I got a proper job, one that wasn't so risky and uncertain."

Urban myth has related that the risk also extended to his physical well-being; the story about a young Doherty toppling from a biscuit tin as he climbed over his back garden wall to escape a roller-pin wielding Rose is, alas, just that. A myth.

Still, reluctant as she might have been to initially accept her son's ambitions, even she would have to acknowledge that the commitment to snooker's inherent discipline would at least swerve him away from harm.

Rose can remember a young lad who had spent all his wages on the machines. He committed suicide by slamming his car into a wall.

"I hate card games too and I'm not happy that Ken spends time playing poker today," she says witheringly. Mother knows best.

Still, she was unable to staunch her son's desire to leave Ireland and attempt to launch his professional career in London - not before he completed his education, of course.

"The big step for me wasn't moving to England but telling my mother of the decision," he says. "She didn't want me to go. In fact she was horrified. She wanted the family to stay together. She didn't think snooker was a proper job, let alone a career I could make money at."

Rose sensed a betrayal, feeling that her dogged attempts to maintain the household after her husband's death were being thrown back in her face; her family persuaded her otherwise. To restrain her son would be a worse treachery.

And so Doherty took the ferry like so many of his ilk in the '80s, with £500 in his back pocket and a rucksack full of dreams.

Grim bus rides to Ilford Snooker Club, where Doherty practised with fellow exiles led by father figure Eugene Hughes, offered a shabby contrast to the then colourful world of big-time snooker, then only ranked second to soccer in terms of TV popularity.

A measly existence would have been scrubbed entirely were it not for the fact that one of his friends worked in Ronnie O'Sullivan's father's sex shop.

Doherty's landlord had been enacting a 'War of the Roses' script with his wife and one night - after previously failed attempts to do his worst to himself or her - he decided to turn on all the gas rings on the cooker.

Damien McKiernan, one of the Irish pros, happened to arrive home early from the O'Sullivan emporium of wonders, mercifully sober, and promptly turned off the gas and opened all the windows.

"Without that, we were all goners," smiles Doherty.

Professionally, the move was also nearly extinguished before it began. On the verge of the 1989/90 season, he was hosed 5-1 by Dave Harold in a quarter-final play-off and a career path seemed further away than ever.

It was suggested he play in the Irish Championship. "F*** the Irish championship," he told his best mate. Doherty relented. He played in it and won it. That qualified him for the world amateur title and he won that too.

He had lift-off. Fred Davis retired and obviated the need for another play-off; the 1990/91 season beckoned a fresh-faced kid with the prominent scar onto its professional circuit.

Back home, Rose followed the progress with a detachment that was as intimate as she could possibly endeavour to make it.

ELBOWED

Every time her son played, she did her damnedest not to watch, even though the thoughts of what she was missing invaded her mind constantly and elbowed every other reason to the perimeter.

Secretly, she despised the very thing that thieved her son from her. But at the same time, she also admired and deeply loved the immense pride it brought to Ken and her family.

He always wanted more. In 1997, I sat down with him to do an interview for a Sunday newspaper and the implication was put to him in bald terms.

Was he happy just being a well-paid slogger or did he have what it took to be champion of the world? His manager, Ian Doyle, was deliberately less circumspect, labelling his charge a "lazy b***ard".

It was now or never. Doherty chose the now.

Icons past and present bowed before him. In the second round, he played Steve Davis. At 5-1, the multiple former champion pulled it back to 5-2 and promplty clenched his fist.

"F*** you," I thought to myself," Doherty recalls. "I'm not having that."

The Dubliner would destroy the legend 13-3. In the final, he played Davis' successor as the sport's all-conquering behemoth, Stephen Hendry.

On the first evening of the two-day final, Doherty won a black ball frame with a double. As the pair went for a toilet break, the Scot turned to Doherty and said "I knew you'd get that".

Doherty replied coolly. "You should never leave a mug a double." In an instant, Doherty had converted a rare show of emotion from the taciturn Scot into a weakness. There would only be one winner.

When Doyle came to Dublin for the open-top bus celebration through the streets of Dublin, his taxi-driver berated him. "You should have kicked his arse years ago, I'm fed up picking him up outside of nightclubs at three in the morning!"

In Ranelagh, a V-sign from a neighbour, as Rose knelt fervently praying in church, told her what millions of Irish people already knew - he was world champion.

Top of the world, ma.

For the next year, the Crucible crown stood atop the TV set in Rose's front room. "I was so proud of him," she says. "He put his mind to it and made it to the top."

It was a harder journey than most people think. Without Rose, it would have been even harder. A mother's sternest prayers have hugged him all the way.

Even if she sometimes wonders when he might get himself a real job.

After all these years, there's still no sign of that happening.

Legends on cue

The first staging of the Irish Legends Cup is currently ongoing at Goffs in Co Kildare where it's Ireland v England.

Captaining England is the People's Champion Jimmy 'The Whirlwind' White, and Steve Davis backbones a side that also includes ten-times ladies world champion Reanne Evans.

Irish captain Ken Doherty is joined by 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor, with Fergal O'Brien and Joe Swail also on his team.

The final session takes place today.

Irish Independent