Monday 19 February 2018

The thought of retirement is very scary, says Ken Doherty

The snooker legend feels fear, sadness and frustration as he prepares for retirement, writes Niamh Horan

Lucky in love: Ken and wife Sarah. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Lucky in love: Ken and wife Sarah. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It is often said that a sports star dies twice - the first time when they retire. Professional athletes dread when the end looms after dedicating their life to the sport - and former world snooker champion Ken Doherty is no different.

The only player to have won both the amateur and professional world titles, Doherty said the day is "fast approaching" to leave the game. "I get very frustrated and sad that I can feel it coming to an end," he told the Sunday Independent, "and I don't know how I am going to cope".

Like many elite sports people, his identity has become tied in with his profession.

"It's what I have known all my life. It's what I have known since I was a kid with a cue in my hand, telling people 'I'm off to play snooker' that's just what I do," he mused.

At the age of eight, the spark was lit on his dream with a simple Christmas present from his father - a 2ft x 1ft snooker table. As a young boy, he kept the table at the end of his bed and, with not much room in the house, he had to place it on top of the kitchen table every time he wanted to play his dad or brothers.

His life would suffer a bitter twist of fate when tragedy struck at the age of 13 and his father died suddenly from a heart attack. He would never get to see his son play - but the young Dubliner decided to chase his dreams.

With only €500 in his pocket, he moved to London to compete in the big league. "I decided I was gone for good. However long it took, I wasn't coming home until I turned professional," he said.

He competed in several small tournaments but within a year, he had hit rock bottom.

"I had gotten into the top 24 of the amateurs to try and turn professional then I failed at the last hurdle, I didn't qualify," he said.

"I remember coming back to the bed and breakfast I was staying at in London and firing the cue under the bed. I didn't want to see it again. I just thought 'what am I doing here?' I contemplated giving up to go home and get a real job.''

With good friends around him, they gave him the last-gasp of encouragement he needed. "They told me I would get there. They said 'just to give it one more year'. And the next year I won the world championships," he said.

Talking about the 1997 win at the Crucible, Doherty said it was "the best of my life" but in the same breath, he acknowledged it wasn't all "champagne and hotels".

As he rose to world prominence, his confident demeanour away from the table gave little hint of the doubts that played at the back of his mind once he stepped into the arena. "When you are a lot younger you are more carefree. You go for things a bit more and you ooze confidence," he said, but as a snooker player's career develops, it's 'that little voice'.

"You get [mental] scars over the years from different matches. You miss shots. You see things happen. You lose a bit of your confidence at the table. The confidence aspect plays a huge part as you get older."

In hindsight, he said: "One of the things I learned was that I was too hard on myself down through the years. If I lost certain matches, I would have hid away for days to get over it. Whereas I should have not taken it as hard. But at the time I look back and I see I was hungry, I didn't like losing. It didn't come naturally."

Outside of the venue, he said another lesson has been hard learnt.

"Without wanting to go into too much detail," he said, if he could go back 20 years to the 27-year-old Ken who had just won the world championship, the one piece of advice he would give him is: "Don't be so gullible. Don't trust everyone. Do a bit of research. Don't dive in on first impressions. Get as much advice as you can before you make any choices."

Asked if the lesson is financial or personal, he replied: "Both! Don't get me wrong, I've had some fantastic experiences and my year as world champion was one of the best of my life. You couldn't put a price on it."

In recent years, he has made appearances as a sports commentator and radio host on Sunshine FM but he sees his impending retirement as "very scary".

"I have a radio show on Sunshine I love and I try to keep busy, but I know when it's time to give up, it's going to be very, very difficult. I am not looking forward to it but I suppose it will be another chapter of my life."

He laughed: "Some people would already say to me, 'oh, I see you are in a studio commentating, when did you give it up?' And that really annoys me. That really p***es me off. I suppose it shows you're going the wrong way, but I laugh at it too. Do you remember who I used to be?" he joked. taking a good-humoured pop at himself.

Over the next few weeks, Ken Doherty will become one of six celebrities to don an apron for the brand-new series of TV3's The Restaurant.

With an Indian-born wife Sarah, whom he said he "lucked out" in marrying, his menu will be a nod to both sides of the family with half-Indian, half-Irish influences.

On managing stress at the stove, Ken said he took it in his stride: "It gets hot in the kitchen but it gets fairly hot in the Crucible during the world championships too, so I know a bit about pressure," he laughed.

Asked about his cooking expertise however, he replied: "I have been known to burn one or two salads in my time."

'The Restaurant' airs at 9pm on Thursday, March 23 on TV3

Sunday Independent

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