After 30 years on snooker’s travelling treadmill, I reckoned it’s about time I put down my own top ten places to play. For the most part, I’ve tried to cover some of the goings on that most people don’t get to see. Here they are…
10… Bendigo, in Victoria, Australia.
Both first, and farthest away on my list is the quiet old mining town of Bendigo. Situated 100 miles north of Melbourne, you would be hard pressed in finding a more remote destination for a tournament. Having been there twice, it’s admittedly a difficult, but worthwhile journey once you’re settled in. It’s definitely my kind of town. Wide & quiet streets, with buildings no taller than five stories high, exuding a sense of calm rather than those awful skyscraper ridden cities of so many places these days. The motel style accommodation we usually stayed in was ideal. None of those ear popping elevator excursions to the 33rd floor, with four or five drop-offs to make along the way to deal with multiple times a day. We’re talking a deserted check-in desk no wider than the balk line, with the room keys on a hook behind the counter. Food wise, good old hearty fayre was typical, and as down to earth as the locals which is ideal. You’ll find that beer drinking won’t be an uncommon theme as you read on, and was a highlight of both my trips down under. The pub beer taps there were literally covered in thick ice. Cold beer you ask? Look no further. Strewth, It was good! The venue itself, home of the Bendigo Braves basketball team, has no equal the world over when it comes to snooker playing conditions. What I will say is that the best table I’ve ever played on (albeit briefly) in my life was in Bendigo against Ding in a match I lost 5-0 which tells its own story. It’s a destination that I don’t expect I’ll ever visit again, but if I had to, you won’t hear me complaining. Top people with a great outlook on life. Most of us would learn a thing or three just by being there. Overall experience = 7.5 out of 10.
9… Venue unknown, Hamburg, Germany.
Two words sums up my one time visit to Hamburg – The fans! This is the unusual location of one of the most famous shots ever played. The Jimmy White massé against Ronnie. It was January ’93 at the European Matchroom League and I was in the room, but only just. When you hear the phrase ‘hanging from the rafters’, the story is by and large embellished or exaggerated. Definitely not on this occasion. My memory of that night 27 years ago is somewhat hazy, although what is clear, are the memories of the noise the German fans made. As we now know of the successful Berlin event of recent years, and more about that later, I’ve long thought that Hamburg, untapped as it is, would be a perfect place for a new event. Great people, but best of all… noisy. What a din! Thank you people of Hamburg. Overall experience = 7.5 out of 10.
8… Norbreck Castle hotel in Blackpool, England.
Who says romance is dead? It just had to fit in somewhere on the list. Sure, facilities were basic, and most snooker people will have a few good, though mostly bad memories of where us forty something’s started off on our professional journey. I turned pro in this building on June 1st 1990. Part of my fond recollections may be down to missing out on the three months of snooker torture that so many had to endure in that summer of ’91 and beyond. Never mind a lengthy blog, most players could easily write a book of untold shenanigans that went on inside the walls of the Norbreck. Both breeding ground, and snooker graveyard of many a career, it was all part of the snooker education. Heres a surprising (if costly) fact of how the Norbreck rolled during my formative stints during those early years… At qualifying, which lasted a couple of weeks or so, someone decided a free bar was a nice perk for the lower ranked tour players to have at their disposal. Seasoned players (and drinkers) were let loose from 11am until late o’clock on the bar. Looking back, it had the feel of a professional Pontins tournament rather than the actual pro ranks. I’m certain some of my early wins were attributed to a few bleary eyed older players of the day nursing the odd hangover or two. A full breakfast in the cafe round the back for 30 bob was my perk, not forgetting the Heather Croft B&B for the princely sum of 9 quid per night, dinner included (no really)! The road to snooker hell is paved with good intention, and few players of those times were able to find their way out of the Norbreck maze of malpractice due to any number of unprofessional goings on. Halcyon days of mayhem, if ever there was. Overall playing experience = 7.5 out of 10.
7… Goffs in Co. Kildare, Ireland.
If the personal touch is used as a yardstick as to whether the famous Goffs should be ranked on this list, then it is an automatic top ten entry. A racehorse sales ring by day, its fast becoming a legendary snooker venue of the past as the years go by. This was a top eight in the rankings, plus four invitees event. As an overall package, few tournaments could compare. An official tournament courtesy car was always on hand at Dublin airport to whisk you off to the understated quiet charm of Finnstown House Hotel. You know the small mansion style property cloaked by a golf course? Yeah that! The pre-tournament dinner in the hotel was always one of the great nights of the year. The food & wine were outstanding, as was the sight of John Pullman , who did commentary for the host broadcaster every year, perched on ‘his’ chair at the end of the bar. Goffs itself, was about 15 minutes from the hotel, and was beautifully quirky. Unusually, there was no practise table at Goffs, so a loosener on the hotel practise table was a pre-match must. The arena building itself, surrounded by rows and rows of horse stables, doesn’t look much from the outside. In fact, it looked like a small, half size tin of beans, but don’t be fooled as this was the snooker equivalent of the tardis. Once inside, and packed full of enthusiastic snooker fans, the place came alive. The table, as you can tell from the pic, is in the centre of a mini colosseum where every shout and holler seems to funnel down on top of you. Hundreds of happy sponsors guests were wined & dined at every session there, and I still don’t know how they managed it with such limited space. The players were always asked to stay on after losing to do some mingling at the venue which was far from a hardship given the way you were looked after, and one year, after losing early doors, I was asked if I could wait a couple of days before my mingling appointment. As I didn’t fancy hanging around that long, Kevin Moran, the head of the tournament solved my predicament in a few short sentences… “Ach you’ll be grand” he said. “We’ll get you a hotel in Dublin for a couple of nights to go and have some fun. When you’re finished there, we’ll send a car to bring you back here for some more fun”. How could I refuse? If ever there was a tournament where the snooker got in the way of the good times rolling, it was Goffs. What a place! Overall experience = 8 out of 10.
6… Venue Cymru in Llandudno, North Wales.
Undoubtedly my favourite addition to the tour in recent years, Llandudno is one of those sleepy seaside towns that mercifully, remains stuck in a time warp of yesteryear. The old fashioned pier, the promenade with the odd rock & candy floss shop, Victorian style creaking floorboard laden hotels, yet, with all mod cons simply makes it a pleasure to spend time there. The clean sea air makes for ideal playing conditions accompanied with a perfectly sized and generally well attended arena. If you hold stock in the theory that some of the best things in life are free, then the view from the media centre is one of those. Literally a stone throw from the sea & a stunning vista on a nice day, which it usually is there. The seagulls can be vicious buggers, but all else is chilled & relaxing. The walk from hotel to venue has to be the nicest five minute walk in snooker. I’m afraid that tales of hell raising in Llandudno are thin on the ground, and frankly, the way it should be. Let’s hope we keep returning for many years to come. Overall experience = 8 out of 10.
5… Al Nasr stadium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Outside the UK, this beats all others hands down. Back in the early 90’s Dubai was far removed from the sprawling metropolis that most of us now know, and for me, the better for it. Only a handful of hotels & a small airport back then provided intimate, though no less salubrious surroundings. The tournament hotel, just a short par 5 from the airport was as good as any by today’s standards. The fabulous pool area, of which Knowsley was a perma-tanned & perma-fixture might as well have been the players lounge. Roasting hot, with a swim-up bar in the pool was, well, say no more. You get the picture. The pre-tournament banquet at the Jebel Ali hotel was like something from a late 1950’s blockbuster movie. Think Ben Hur and you’ll get my meaning. Spit roast everything being hand turned over an open fire by the poolside, alongside a stretch of sandy beach on the shores of the Persian Gulf. It doesn’t get much better, save for the sight of Gary Wilkinson I seem to remember, being chucked in the pool as the evening drew to a close. At least his drying time could only have been twenty minutes given the heat of the desert. Similar to Goffs, the snooker was in some way a distraction from excursions like our Ryder Cup style golf day at the Emirates Club. It was us lot against the ex-pat community. The Desert Rats (them) versus The Rat Catchers (us), always resulted in overall defeat for the snooker gang. Though to this day I still question the integrity of the handicap convener. (bloody cheats!) An abiding memory of the golf day was heading out there on the coach when I got chatting to Dene O’Kane. “How’s your golf mate” I asked. “Nah, I don’t play golf” was the reply, and we left it there. A few hour later as I came up the 18th hole, all became clear why Dene was there. He spent the day lounging by the Emirates Club swimming pool sipping daiquiris. You wouldn’t describe too many snooker players as refined but Dene was definitely one of them & proves that experience and lateral thinking pays off on occasion. The actual players room provided a different culinary themed banquet every day. Italian, Spanish, Indian, Persian, you name it. On one visit, Mr Hendry & myself got an invitation to a 200 person, private beach stand-up gig by Billy Connolly. I got a message that he wanted me to call him as he knew the snooker was in town. Obviously thinking this was a wind-up, I relented on calling him until finally taking the bait, or so I thought. I called the hotel number and asked for Mr Connolly’s room and the receptionist said no problem. Anyway, the phone was ringing, with me still assuming I was being had, the call was answered with that unmistakable voice…”HELLO!” It was the big yin sure enough. He had read that I played in a club where he grew up in Finnieston near Glasgow’s west end. I mean, where else could that happen? A very cool, uncool place, if you get my meaning. For me, It’s a pity it has changed so much. Overall experience = 9 out of 10.
4… Tempodrom in Berlin, Germany.
The nicest surprise of recent years has to be the blossoming success of this outstandingly cool arena in one of my favourite cities. From a players outlook, all your needs are catered for with typical German efficiency. Hotels aplenty, within easy walking distance. The Ideal practise room separated from the playing arena only by a curtain gives a nice atmosphere for pre-match prep. Just like Hamburg, this is an event where the fans come into their own. Strangely, as I’m led to believe, the German fans prefer watching to playing. Perhaps the precision & discipline of snooker appeals to their studious nature? Whatever it is, we are all grateful for the warm way they have embraced the German Masters, which grows stronger every year. Always freezing cold when the snooker rolls into town, which for me, is a home from home. Thank goodness for the amazing food, warming gluhwein & the odd weissbier. Overall experience = 9 out of 10.
3… Gmunden, Austria.
This left field inclusion may hold a surprisingly lofty position in these charts, but as you read on, it’ll become apparent why Gmunden is as far removed from Black Lace or Joe Dolci as it gets. Although I only played there once, in the European Matchroom League, it provides me with both vivid & memorable recollections. On the day I arrived there back in the early 90’s, I somehow or other contrived to spend the evening in a billiard club playing my maiden game of 3 cushion billiards (carom) with Steve Davis. You know one of those cosy places where a lemonade & lime doesn’t fit in with the local custom of a mass (stein) of beer? It would obviously have been the height of rudeness to renege on sampling some local libation. Anyway, a few hours of carom and a high break of two (yes 2) later, it seemed sensible to retreat to the hotel. The combination of beer and fresh air on the saunter back resulted in the inevitable symptom of late night munchies taking a firm hold. Just opposite the main square from our digs, was a late night deserted diner which looked the perfect post beer remedy. The only problem was a lack of local currency at the time (schillings). Whether or not we looked like trustworthy scruff I don’t know, but the guy spotted us a couple of pizzas and a few drinks on condition that we drop the money in the following afternoon (something that wouldn’t happen on your local high street). One of those places where the more senior locals spend the afternoon in the town square playing chess or boules gives you an idea of the easy going vibe of the place. The next day’s match, unsurprisingly, felt a touch foggy in both body & mind. If you ever make it to Gmunden, be sure and replicate what was a red letter day, in one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Overall experience = 9 out of 10.
2… The Wembley Conference Centre, England.
It was a sad day when this Goliath of auditoriums was razed to the ground in September 2006. The spiritual home of The Masters, when full, really was a sight and sound to behold. The special events director for Benson & Hedges, Mr Jim Elkins, ran such an operation that if a handbook was ever written on how to run an event, he would be your go to guy. From the second you walked in the building, you knew you were entering into a world of class. The first thing to greet you was the prize for a 147, usually a gleaming Jaguar XJS or the like. When you think of hospitality rooms it was take your pick. There was the usual player guest lounge offering comfort aplenty. Or, for the lucky few, a golden ticket to Jim’s private lounge where most whims were well catered for. A good mate of mine, big Al, who worked in Brixton, always made the trip across London to come and spend a day or two. Jim being Jim, always made sure he sorted Al out with a plentiful supply of his favoured Guinness. How’s that for making sure your guests (and there must have been daily dozens of them) are well looked after? My abiding memory of The Conference Centre is the 25th anniversary parade of champions during the 1999 final, when oddly enough the only non winner completely stole the show. The great Kirk Stevens was flown across from Canada to be honoured for perhaps the most popular 147 of them all. Jim sent him along to a tailor and hairdresser to get the famous white suit & hair just so. Needless to say, Kirk brought the house down when he appeared from the tunnel to be received in warm embrace by Jimmy White. Some moments in life are both cool and beautiful. This was certainly one of them, and was a privilege to witness. Overall experience = 9.5 out of 10.
1… The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England.
It just had to be didn’t it! Snooker blasphemy, as well as a gaggle of pitchfork wielding die hards waiting for me outside stage door, dictates that this was always going to be the chart topper. There are multiple reasons why it perhaps shouldn’t be held in such high regard. Too small, can’t get enough spectators in, limited backstage facilities, dressing rooms akin to a one night lie-in on Alcatraz island. However, what the hallowed ground lacks in logistical luxury, it more than makes up in good old fashioned charm. As a player, and even after all these years later, it feels like being in a movie set while you’re out there playing. That’s the beauty of the place. Hardly anything has changed down the years which gives an air of belonging to something once you have served enough time there. What we as snooker fans tend to overlook when we think of the place is that it’s a regular working theatre where plays & other productions are the norm. It’s really us you see, that are changing it from what it’s supposed to be like and perhaps that’s where the genius of the place lies. The seats are always the same colour, the twinkling overhead arena lights have never moved from their fixed positions etc etc. As a player there, I’ve never quite come to terms with whether or not I prefer playing with the dividing wall up or down, and therein lies another of the Crucible’s quiet secrets. Again, it doesn’t change, it’s us who do as people. Maybe that’s why the place is able to chew you up and spit you out, while at the same time drawing you in like a moth to a flame. For even the most passive snooker fan who hasn’t been, I have one word of advice….Go! Once inside, and our best event introduces itself to you, you’ll have a loyal & trusted mate for life. The Crucible? Don’t ever change. Not ever! Overall experience = 10 out of 10.
Thanks for taking the time to read.
Yours in snooker…