Your viewing guide to Championship League Snooker

After a 77 day snooker hiatus, I’m certain we are all looking forward to the action resuming tomorrow in Milton Keynes with the new and improved Championship League. I say improved, because I want to not only explain the format, but give you the lowdown on a few plus points & what to expect. I’m not going to dive deeply into the safety measures that I know are being employed these next eleven days. I will simply give you one example of how thorough WST have been… ‘On entering the venue/hotel, don’t leave anything in the car because you won’t be allowed to fetch it later’!

Firstly, I’d like to touch on why historically, the ‘four in a group’ set-up hasn’t always been palatable for both competitors & punters alike. I’m happy to say that full credit must go to WST on this occasion, having got the new Championship League format the way it should be, and later, we can explore the reasons why.

Those old enough to remember, may recall one major sporting event where a four team group format became farcical was the 1982 Football World Cup in Spain, where the final group match between West Germany and Austria became a training exercise. Basically, if West Germany won the match 1-0 both teams would qualify. Amazingly enough, the Germans scored after 10 minutes and the rest of the match played out with few, if any, attempts on goal. I hope that whoever decided that this final group match was to be played AFTER the Chile v Algeria (who lost out) game, had their P45 administered on the full time whistle! It’s worth mentioning that the two beneficiaries can’t be held culpable, as they only played their match according to FIFA scheduling.

So, what of the tournament? Cutting it short, a field of 64, consisting of 16 groups, will play round robin format, with the winner only, of each group progressing. With this in mind, the dual positive is that each group placing carries improved prize money, therefore providing no wriggle room in terms of players easing off (not that they would) with final standings riding on virtually every frame. Secondly, with only the winner surviving, and while not every group having all spots up for grabs come the last pair of matches, there will definitely be financial incentive regardless of past results. My hunch is that we will have quite a few situations where all four players will still be able to top the standings as the last two matches are in action. Let’s hope so!

Once down to the last 16, it’s as you were. Four more sections with the winner only progressing to the business end, and with increasing prize money all the way, the pressure will ramp up a notch during the last five days of combat. The final group is certain to provide squeaky bum time, as remember, the winner will bag that coveted spot in The Champion of Champions as the winter swing gets underway.

With each match offering 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw, it’s possible, and perhaps likely that more than a few groups will end in tied placings. Here is a breakdown of what will be used to determine a winner in the event of two or more players being tied… (1) Points total. (2) Net frame difference. (3) Head to head result (if three or more players are tied, a mini table, using the previous criteria) of those players will decide the group. (4) Highest break in the group. (5) If still tied, the next highest break will apply.

What it will take to win a group could differ massively with a possible four frames to be played in each match. I say possible, because if someone reaches 3-0, the match is done and dusted. It’s worth assuming that a 3-0 victory could, in the end, swing the group in that player’s favour, therefore any such win could be golden!

While each player can only control their own destiny, other results will play a no less significant role. As mentioned above, there really isn’t a final points total for any player to target, other than the obvious three wins that would guarantee progress. Here’s why… and it may seem outlandish, but you could win a group by not even winning a match! I know it won’t happen, (it will now obviously!) but if all six matches are drawn then the highest break will win the group. By the same token, you could win two & draw one, whereas player X has a 3-0 win in amongst his very same results that outranks your own.

As my permutations are getting sillier by the paragraph, I’ll leave it there. Just to say that if you’re a snooker fan of almanac proportions (it always gets a mention) and want to figure out the in-running standings, once you’ve run out of fingers ‘n’ thumbs, keep an abacus handy. It’s gonna be too close to call!

As a footnote, I’d like to pay tribute to our friend & colleague Olivier Marteel. You will know him as one of our many outstanding referees. Over the last few months, Oli has been serving in his proper job on the front line of the coronavirus fight near his hometown of Gijveinkhove in Belgium. This is a fella who spends most of his annual holidays serving our sport in the most professional way imaginable. You know that first time you meet someone? and you think… what a diamond fella he is! That’s Oli! He once said in an interview… “I need snooker”! Well, It’s reciprocal my friend. Be sure to give him a special welcome if as I expect, we get to see him at Sheffield in a couple of months time. Me?… I’m gonna buy him a nice cold one, first chance I get!

Thanks for taking the time to read, and let’s all enjoy some live sport.

Yours in snooker,

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TV Times and breakfast with the gulls at Llandudno

Having been fortunate to spend lots of time in the studio & comm box over the last few years I thought I’d try giving snooker fans some insight into what goes on behind the scenes.The first thing to say, as with most things, is that there’s so much more to it than meets the eye.

The production crew you don’t see : From directors to programme editors, script supervisors to cameramen, set riggers to sound men, and floor managers to runners. Generally, there’s a ballpark figure of around thirty or forty on site crew at each tournament. In these times of social distancing, the picture below may add perspective, regarding logistical issues where putting on a live televised tournament is concerned. In addition you have World Snooker staff, referees, security & venue staff. Without wishing to paint a bleak picture, it illustrates the challenges ahead that we all face.

When first morphing from player to pundit, a novel, and cool aspect is the realisation that you are now part of a team. As a player, it’s straightforward stuff. You practise, turn up, play, and when it’s over, you head for the hills, usually asap. I was gonna say that in the beginning, it feels like turning up at a new job but how the heck would I know, save for my four week tenure as a trainee motor mechanic as a 16 year old. Four weeks you ask? Well, the first two were spent filing a piece of metal into a square. The final two weeks was spent freezing my knackers off every time the foreman opened the workshop shutters, which was often, and it was January.

In life, I’m sure we all get frustrated on occasion when tasks or jobs aren’t done properly. From my experience as part of the crew, this rarely happens. It’s worth bearing in mind that without exception a live tv broadcast has to go on air at the scheduled time. Being five minutes late just isn’t an option, which fortunately as a snooker player isn’t an issue as we’re well used to being on time (okay, maybe not Robbo on the odd occasion). You quickly learn that each member of the crew are incredibly skilled in their own job. Cameramen & women, programme editors, producers etc spend long, sometimes really long days hemmed in a production truck working to strict deadlines, putting together montage pieces that involve mixing together multiple VT’s (video tape, to you & me), adding in some funky tunes courtesy of Martyn, or some of Kieran’s filming wizardry with one of those fancy drone thingummyjigs. I remember one time in the comm box while Ronnie was making his 900th century, I stupidly mentioned it putting me in mind of a song called ‘The 900 number’ and after jumping back to studio a very short time later, Martyn, the fella who puts together the closing pictures had ran them to that very tune. How in blazes do they manage it in double quick time! All I can tell you is it involves lots of gadgetry & twiddly joystick button things. I’m certain there’s a technical term.

For all the studio looks glossy to the viewer, the reality is wee bitty different. At ITV4 I would say the studio is about the size of a small living room. Jill obviously adds the glamour, while myself and fellow stooges Fouldsy & 7T do a grand job of making the room look untidy. Usually there will be three main cameras on tripods numbered 9, 10 & 11 (the other eight must be somewhere?). Two or three cameramen (men in black), the floor manager DB (aka The Duke of Montrose) who runs a tight ship let me tell you, and was also the right hand man of David Vine way back when. Max, the sound guy, who by the way, is a sound guy, keeps everyone hooked up with microphones & earpieces. After a quick (and needed) visit to make-up around 12 o’clock, the usual on-air time of 12:45 means heading to studio around 20 minutes beforehand.

At first, the most difficult, and strangest part of live on-air chattage as we call it, are the various voices going on through your earpiece while having a conversation about the match. The director & editor gives info on any number of things, from how long we have before the ad break (which can change in a heartbeat), any footage be floated in that needs talking about, or perhaps a player interview that Jill will tee up. Usually, during the ad break we get to look at the shots picked out or talking points to be shown once back on-air.

I make no secret of the old Karen Young’s ‘Hotshot’ hit being an enjoyable part of the tournament. I defy any snooker fan of the 80’s era not to love the pure funk of that track. I await with loaded pelters, the day when Stephen digs out a safety shot as his favourite, even though deep down there ain’t a snowball in hell’s chance of that ever happening.

The comm box is actually fairly comfortable, although on occasion, you could grow tomatoes in there. Which reminds me – Alun the comm box techno sound guy (who is sound too) always has all sorts of foodie goodies to hand back there. Thank the stars then, for floor manager II (big Johnsy). Whoa betide anyone trying to enter his turf. Turfed out on your ear you’d get! Sorry, I digress – back to the food… We’re talking artisan cheese, grapes, crackers, chocolate (you know that 70 or 80% cocoa gear? (yeah that). He even provides a daily dose of espresso, usually fresh from the upper slopes of the Chilean or Peruvian Andes, no really!

There are ground rules requiring steadfast observation, and here’s one involving breakfast table etiquette in Llandudno…. DB the floor manager has deemed his top table sacrosanct. In point of fact it’s his domain. The criteria for inclusion escapes me, maybe I’ll find out around 2035. What I can say is that Fouldsy has been trying to sneak a spot for some time, alas with no joy. For now, we cop a pew with the herd and gaze longingly at the table by the window. Maybe one of these days!

Talking of Fouldsy, he’s been taking some pelters from the gang of late. The reason? Well, there are dark forces at work here (no, not the almanac). He keeps landing a fancy room in the hotel and frankly, I’m getting bloody well fed up with it (for fed up, read jealous). It’s got to the stage that when he turns in of an evening Stephen asks him what wing he’ll be sleeping in.

When the evening matches get underway at 7 o’clock, thoughts often turn to food. Rule number one… never ever predict an early finish thinking we’ll catch a late curry somewhere. Far more prudent to expect a 6-5 thriller and off to bed with no supper. Either way, it’s a win win actually.

If you’re wondering where the gulls come in, I’ll explain… On our first or second visit to Llandudno I had a room through the wall from Fouldsy (big mistake!). We had these adjoining balconies overlooking the promenade. Perfect you would think? Well, you’d be wrong, especially if you want a lie in. On the morning of check-out, the big man decided to leave the remains of his toast on my balcony which was about 18 inches from my pillow. In they swooped and an almighty kerfuffle ensued, resulting in an unscheduled early morning alarm call. After scarpering, he even had the temerity to text me with his cunning plan. Retribution may have taken a while, but a year or two ago it was sweet, swift and merciless. On his way to the venue he was gull-pooped on the lapel of his jacket. Thank you my feathered friends.

I can’t help be grateful for getting to work at The Crucible, not least because I’m allowed to spend plenty of time in the press room. I say allowed, because as a player you’re not really supposed to be in there for a number of reasons. There could be a player giving a post match presser, a regular interview, or even a radio or print journalist talking out loud. You wouldn’t want a player hearing a less than complimentary piece about them being prepped to go out on whichever platform. Not the type of situation that would crop up regularly but can happen. There’s usually a good atmosphere in there, something always happening or latest news being filtered around, and everyone brings something different to the party. When I say party, it’s not exactly TVs being lobbed out the window material. It’s more half a dozen die-hards in cravats & cagoules having an in depth (and yes, dark) perusal of the outstandingly riveting pink pages of the almanac. Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Meanwhile back in the studio – I recall an incident that I refer to as Nandosgate! With food high on the agenda one evening (as per), someone decided an ungodly amount of Nando’s delivered to studio was a good idea. Now, I would never grass the culprit that made the order (he won quite a big tournament seven times in the same decade) but a short time later, enough grub had arrived to feed the venue. I swear that jacket and tie still has a whiff of it. It’s a good job DB wasn’t on duty that night. He’d have had our guts for garters. Now I’m thinking, perhaps he got wind of it. Maybe that’s why we remain banished to the cheap seats at breakfast?

Thanks for taking the time to read.

Yours in snooker…

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In absence of knowing whether the Crucible curse is truly alive and well, which player could, should, or might have lifted the silver lady last Monday evening. Let’s delve into what has become the most mulled over snooker argument of recent times. For purposes of non bias, their names will appear alphabetically. Even that is a close contest!

Before we do, it’s worth mentioning that in locking horns 56 times competitively, Ronnie winning 30, Stephen 21 (with 5 draws), their rivalry, to me at least, feels a short lived affair. Looking back, their respective careers dovetailed away from each other in many ways. By the time Stephen lifted number seven in 1999, I reckon Ronnie, given his unquestioned talent, was still some way from truly finding himself as a snooker player. Where Stephen was generally a sure thing up until the new millennium, Ronnie, too often, was a mixture of sweet ‘n’ sour until the dawn of year 2K.

Both being partial to a century, I have broken down ten key elements of what makes a great snooker player, and given marks out of ten for each. Also to say, I’m ‘blind’ writing this, so the final marks out of 100 will be how they end up, and not by design. There are dozens of categories to choose from, and the final result may be dependent on which categories one cares to critique. Anyway, it’s a bit of fun, and not a real match (more’s the pity)! Let’s explore and see where it takes us…

(1) THE LONG GAME

Straight off the bat, this is a tough call. Based on likelihood of both players nailing a long red there’s little to separate. What type of long red would both take on, risk wise, is based on a couple of factors. On one side, Stephen would undoubtedly pull the trigger more often regardless of consequence, chiefly because he could only forsee a positive outcome, which can be an asset or hindrance, depending on your outlook. Taking on, or reneging a long red based on gut feel wasn’t always Stephen’s strongest suit. Ronnie, on the other hand, and again, touching on finding himself as a player since the turn of the century, is in recent times more likely to have a go only when the match situation dictates he should. Logic should play greater prominence while vital experience is garnered. In this case, Ronnie was more flexible in adapting to varying challenges, especially in later years. These reasons are symbiotic of the O’Sullivan longevity. As an opponent, I’d be more comfortable having Stephen take on a dodgy long red, purely because he’d more likely find hardship in refusing, regardless of confidence levels. The other side of that fence I suppose, is that paying scant regard of impending danger dramatically improved his chance of getting it. To be fair to Stephen, he would usually slot it home, but still…

Verdict – Ronnie 9 – 8.5 Stephen

(2) CUE BALL CONTROL

Two main factors to this one. Firstly, it can depend how comfortable they are with not being super perfect on the next ball? Secondly, if they want über tight position, they’re forced to play to a tighter radius, making the initial shot more challenging both physically and mentally. When marginally out of position, I always felt that Stephen relished the next shot more than Ronnie, who on occasion, looks almost insulted when the cue-ball runs loose. Here is one major disparity between them in terms of break building – Stephen often played on a high black through choice, to attack the pack of reds (which doesn’t happen a lot these days, mainly due to more modern cloths taking the spin later than ever before), consequently arching round the bunch at pace from a high black, whereas Ronnie almost always plays off a low black. Probably the best gauge of a top pro’s cue-ball control is how often they fail getting top side of the blue. In both cases, hardly ever. The century count alone speaks volumes…

Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen

(3) BOTTLE & BRAVERY

Perhaps above all others, this is an asset that can’t be taught. Yes, results are of paramount importance, however, it’s the polar opposite approach to pressure, of both men, that has intrigued down the years. I have always thought that a large slice of the O’Sullivan approach was to almost treat the big moments dismissively in a matter of fact way. (Note the looking around at the crowd, the comm box or even studio while administering a pressure clearance). While this wouldn’t be your textbook way of going about it, it could be a deliberate ploy to trick his own mind and have not all, but the majority of the job in hand to the forefront of his attention. Whatever the mindset, his reserves of arse, (as we say in the trade) are more than considerable. Of the Hendry arsenal, this category is surely a trump card. In terms of pure good old fashioned bottle, he simply has no equal. Here is the difference… where I said Ronnie appears dismissive of pressure, Stephen, to me, embraced pressure to the extent that he actually looked like he enjoyed it, and couldn’t wait for the big moment to arrive. He looked almost smug at times, as if knowing a secret that everyone was dying to discover. Remember that brown against Jimmy at 14-9 down was it? Yes, it was special, although the coolest thing about the shot is it wasn’t played as a last chance saloon / last throw of the dice job. It was coldly dealt with by someone who fully believed they were gonna win!…bottle & bravery?…. forget about it!

Verdict – Ronnie 8.5 – 10 Stephen

(4) RESILIENCE

Stephen won (at a canter) at Sheffield with a broken arm, whereas Ronnie triumphed following a year’s sabbatical. We have to look at Triple Crown big final evidence on this one. These occasions after all, are where both scrutiny & level of opposition are cranked up a few notches. For all his 19 Triples tucked away, Ronnie should really have at least a handful more to his tally. Let’s remember, he’s lost quite a few having held a better than promising lead. Positions, to my mind, from which Stephen wouldn’t have failed to deliver.

Verdict – Ronnie 8 – 9 Stephen

(5) SAFETY PLAY

A one horse race this one. To put it bluntly, and by his own admission, Stephen wasn’t overly interested in the nuances of the so called dark side. Sometimes however, one must be willing to travel a dark tunnel if they are to reach the light. The artistry that Ronnie has displayed in his safety play during the last 10 or 15 years has, for me been a major reason the aforementioned longevity is still going strong. Not only is he a master, he appears, crucially, to enjoy the puzzle.

Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 7.5Stephen

(6) SCORING POWER

With this, being by a distance the most important weaponry of any top player’s game, there is little anyone can add in the break building department that we don’t already know about these two. All I will do is throw in a judgement based on century frequency. On average, O’Sullivan makes a ton every 11 frames, where Hendry’s strike rate was every 15 frames.

Verdict – Ronnie 10 – 9 Stephen

(7) TECHNIQUE

Strangely, and not for the first time in this article, the gift of hindsight exposes certain key elements of both careers to be heading in conflicting trajectory. Stephen’s cue action in let’s say mid 90’s was as smooth and rhythmical as anything you could ever witness. I remember a small invitation event in Épernay, France, around ’94 or ’95. With little else to do at the venue, we all watched the matches. Stephen’s action at that time looked more polished and grooved than anything I’d seen before or since. Only he can pinpoint when the yips crept into his mental make up around the early noughties, but it must have been soul destroying to deal with. With the old familiar rhythm ebbing away, who can blame him for stopping when he did. Ronnie’s early action, by contrast, was a bit jabby (for him) in his early pro years. I would put the early quickness of action down to one simple reason – the exuberant keenness of youth! It was like he couldn’t wait any longer than necessary to make an impact. There’s no question his action has gotten longer, with added control, & timing in the second half of his career. If I was ultra picky, which I tend to be, although both are technically outstanding, I would favour O’Sullivan purely on his weight distribution which is marginally the more neutral of the two.

Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen

(8) WORK ETHIC

An area well worth inclusion. Being extravagantly gifted might produce a good club player, perhaps even something approaching pro level? What it won’t produce is a true great without deep desire to practise untold hours. Snooker, you see, is massive in respect of creating not just muscle memory, that memory must be recent & regular come match day. I hardly ever practised with Stephen but we all heard reports of military style scheduling. Fortunately for him, I think he genuinely enjoyed putting in the hours, which is half the battle. If you’re not prepared for hard graft, it’s best you try something else because you’ll not get a foot in the door, never mind last the distance. In Ronnie’s case I can only go with what I’ve witnessed first hand. The detail of his practise is far more varied than you’d imagine. The layman would be astonished at what these guys would practise. Think about this…. as Ronnie is quite good at playing the game to start with, what would be the point in rolling in easy ton’s all day long? Someone of his ability would only brush a few sets in, by way of creating a stress free arm loosener. There’s no doubt they both enjoyed the graft, though I sense Stephen was marginally more conscientious!

Verdict – Ronnie 9 – 9.5 Stephen

(9) TABLE PRESENCE

Being unable to touch or even see, this isn’t easily quantifiable. If you were to appoint judge & jury, the players themselves would best advocate what this actually means. Three elements to this I would say… Firstly, giving an air of confidence, arrogance, swagger, (call it what you will) can’t be underestimated. As accomplished as both clearly are, it’s vital to make the physical part of playing appear nonchalant while executing. Secondly, making it seem like a stroll in the park is sure to have some detrimental affect on an opponent. Finally, if you can make everyone in the room believe that you are in total command of proceedings on & off table, which both could, then better still. I’m gonna fence sit this one, as both were able to produce it in bundles.

Verdict – Ronnie 10 – 10 Stephen

(10) ERA DOMINANCE & LONGEVITY

Yes, I do realise these are different categories but let’s try combining them if that’s possible. Without fear of contradiction, Stephen’s domination from 89 thru 99 is without rival. The span of his 18 Triple Crown titles from just 31 attempts is other worldly by any standard. In terms of dominance, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to venture we won’t see the likes again. Ronnie’s 19 TC’s over a 25 year span can’t compete with the senior man, but having been at, or near as damn the very top for such a long time just gives him the upper hand. He’s played through not just an era, but several generations the more you think about it. With the sheer numbers of top quality players around since 2000ish, total domination just isn’t possible, albeit he has shown pockets of dominance in that time. He wins this one by a knat’s knacker, as Steve James once said.

Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen

FINAL SCORE = Ronnie O’Sullivan 92.5 – 90.5 Stephen Hendry

Thanks for taking the time to read. Every little helps in times of lockdown I guess. Stay safe, and let’s hope we get live matches & tournaments in the near future.

Yours in snooker…

The Great Pub Debate (for when they re-open)

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Time to embrace the Shootout?

In certain quarters, the Snooker Shootout suffers a harsh critique. Naysayers deride this annual fun (but serious) event with steadfast loyalty. Others, accept the funky format for what it is. Here is my take on the four day festival of fright…

The pros : What’s not to like? It’s fast, furious & fan friendly. As a competitor, you pitch up in the arena secretly hoping that the next 10 minutes skip past devoid of outrageous incident or embarrassment. Players thinking, “Please present me with an easy six or seven red cherry tree around the pink spot” comes the whisper from the back of your bonce. Needless to say, this rarely transpires. In truth, the first five minutes are about as comfortable as it gets. That little devil on your shoulder provides ample excuse should malfunction ensue, which it does…a lot! “not enough time to execute my regular technique or shot selection” or “who smeared the bikini wax on this slick baize anyhow? are just some of the thoughts of a player quickly vanquished.

The truth is, fifteen seconds a poke is plenty time for players of pro standard. It’s not until part two kicks in, that your cue, arms & brain feel like total strangers caught in a snooker maelstrom. The chief problem being that every shot played in under ten seconds is accompanied by those blasted beeps! In a regular tournament, a player’s subconscious tends to think something along the lines of… “nice and sweet on delivery” or “just make sure I’m high on the black” or “I’ll use green, brown & blue as cover on that red” before & during a shot. All of these thoughts, along with your elbow, go out the window during the second half of a Shootout match. It’s a distinctly unnerving feeling to think “was that the third beep, or was it the fourth” just as you’re preparing to strike the cue ball.

Further consideration, and perhaps most pertinent of all, is the look on pretty much every face in the crowd. It’s humbling to see the joy & laughter out there for every second of every match. Whether it’s a top player, young man or lady competing, the punters are happy to watch and support all in equal measure. Let them have a few beers and blow off some working week steam. Let them invent a silly, but respectful chant about their favourite player. Give them license to let their hair down I say! It’s not a premier event in terms of prize money. Furthermore , it’s only on once a year.

Once upon a time, we were all newly fledging teenagers. Imagine someone informing you that you’re being invited to play against a top pro, in a big event, live on the telly. How would you have reacted at that age? You would be over the moon, and rightly so.

The cons : Yes, it’s unconventional. Yes, it’s not snooker as we know it. Some people are so busy typing & screaming from the rooftops that the Shootout isn’t proper snooker, or moaning about it carrying ranking points. I could easily understand the negativity if we had five or six Shootouts every season. That would be ludicrous, but we don’t. This isn’t akin to 20/20 cricket flooding the calendar, causing a split among the snooker faithful. No player, or viewer for that, need participate. Here’s an example, and I could list plenty… Like most of you, I enjoy my music. I’m not especially partial to watching The Eurovision Song Contest every year, so I tend not to watch it. Something else I don’t do is whinge about people who do tune in.

Often, it’s the case that people who bleat constantly that they refuse to watch are, in all likelihood, glued to watching The Shootout, and so they should be. There’s no such thing as a snooker snob for my money. I just wish some people would quit pretending they are one!

I’m a fan myself. Some events I like more than others, but I’ll watch any format. I certainly don’t feel the need to portray the purist as a form of self congratulatory claptrap.

Often, players are accused of complaining. At least when they do complain, which isn’t as often as some people make out, there is usually good reason. To the bah humbug division, I say… get over yourselves for goodness sake!

Another small point worth remembering : Whoever wins the Shootout it won’t be by accident. Think about the tons by Ricky & Gouldy in round one this year under that pressure, in one 10 minute frame, in a noisy cauldron, for a few quid and ranking points to boot. The balls don’t go in the pockets by themselves.

The verdict : Enjoy it for what it is… an annual four days of something a bit different. For the players, many unheralded or unheard of, it’s a chance of some financial reward, a few ranking points, and vital (if brief) main arena exposure. For the true snooker fans who pay their money? well, they get to feel they are an integral part of a professional tournament.

Surely we can’t deny them that? Not once a year!

Yours in snooker

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Snooker’s return to The Guild Hall – and a look back in time

Ranking event snooker makes a return next week albeit qualifying only, to the venue I would call the grand old lady of snooker auditoriums. The Guild Hall in Preston will be sure to hold a myriad of memories by players of a certain vintage. As I’m one of them (just) I thought I’d pen a few of my personal recalls purely for nostalgia. As I’ll be writing this strictly on memory, you’ll have to excuse if one or two of the dates are a touch off.

The venue itself is quite old school in style, ideally situated in the heart of the city which can’t be said for a lot of modern venues. The playing arena I’d go as far as saying is as good as anywhere in terms of both the player and punter experience. Usually an eight table set up (four on either side) with more than enough seating and the added plus of a walkway around the top with easy access to view your match of choice. In taking a vantage point up the back, you would comfortably see three tables in action. On the playing side, the tables always seemed to run beautifully there. Perhaps the fact we only ever played there in winter or early springtime helped. 

With the UK Championship at that time firmly ensconced throughout the 80’s in the fair city of Preston, you wouldn’t have picked many venues ahead of it to make your TV debut, as I did in the november of 1990. Now some of these opposition names I’m about to divulge might be giving away my age, but with JV and Dennis mentioning it the odd time just recently, I’m fair game. Anyhow, my first match on screen back then was against the South African Silvino Francisco (see, I did warn you) in the last 16, which was always the start of the TV stages back then. I have a few vague recollections of the match, the obvious one being winning 9-4 and making a nice century in the fourth frame I think it was? Times were very different back then, in that the young whipper snappers of recent years just weren’t around in those days (on screen at least). As I was still a teenager, there wasn’t anyone to bounce around any preconceived ideas in regard to playing in front of the cameras etc. It was very much a case of venturing into the great unknown. Not a terrible thing now I come to think of it. 

This next part will surprise more than a few given the snooker climate of today….Having come through the Silvino match I was now through to play Jimmy White in the quarter-finals. I mentioned that you might be surprised because up until the night before the match with Jimmy, I had never even met him, or in fact even been in the same room as him up until this point. Actually, I think the only time I seen him in the flesh prior to this was when I watched him play Alex Higgins in the Langs Supreme Scottish Masters in Glasgow when I was about 15. You can imagine how I felt when the great man came over to me in the hotel reception the night before our match, shook my hand and said typically “Hi Alan, my name’s Jimmy. Pleased to meet you”. I honestly couldn’t believe he knew I even played the game, far less my name. It was quite a thrill I can tell you.

It was also the year of perhaps the greatest UK Championship final of them all, when Stephen Hendry defeated Steve Davis 16-15 in an incredible final. Yes, the very match that the 7times potted THAT blue with the rest into the green pocket at 15-14 behind. After rolling in a 70 or 80 odd in the decider it’s fair to say that would be the critical tipping point of Stephen truly assuming the mantle of the world’s best player. Getting away from The Guild Hall for a moment, and on a similar theme to the Jimmy story, I actually met Stephen for the first time just six months prior to that tournament. It was at Pontins Prestatyn in Wales, where I was playing in The Home International amateur team event with my mates. The word was that Stephen was appearing in the eight man Pontins Professional event, but having won the first of his world titles just two days earlier he’d have been forgiven for opting out. Anyway, as myself and the lads stood in the bar one night I felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned round to find the new world champion shaking my hand and saying well done for winning the Scottish Amateur championship a few weeks earlier. Taken aback, as again I wouldn’t think he’d even know my name, I mumbled something like “aye cheers, well done yourself for winning the Worlds last week”. It was a very cool thing for him to do, and not something I’ll forget in a hurry. With the lads winning the HI series that week for the first time ever, it was a decent couple of weeks for snooker in Scotland. Needless to say, Stephen won the Pontins event as well. Hungry much?

Some of you will be aware that the World Championship qualifying also used to be held at The Guild Hall in the early 90’s. I for one would love to see it return there one day, as I know just how good an atmosphere it created. That brings me to a match I played there in the ’92 Worlds. My opponent was none other than Alex Higgins. A quirk of that match was that Alex was out to continue what he was calling in the press as the ‘ten year cycle’ having won it in ’72 and ’82. I imagine he was the only one who remotely thought he had any chance of keeping the run going, but still. I recall going into the match feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension, and with good reason. We’ve all heard stories of his colourful adventures let’s say, so there’s little point in me going into them. His form then was patchy let’s say, although you never did know what he could produce given his unquestioned talent. In the end, I came through the match with a decent victory but it really was an education seeing him play up close. The consistency in his game was gone but it was obvious through some flashes of genius what he was once capable of. What I did get was the full package of sharing the table with one of true legends of our sport – the smart suit, the obligatory gold watch and bracelet, the snappy shirt and waistcoat, the quick walk around the table and the trademark twitching before, during and after each shot. We sometimes hear the saying that they were hanging from the rafters…that certainly applied to playing Alex in The Guild Hall.

Having mentioned a couple of match wins, it’s only fair that I throw in a defeat there that sticks in the memory. I’m not sure of the year but I’d guess mid 90’s, and not for the first time it was Mr Hendry administering the pain. To be perfectly honest the reasons I remember it was that it was the semi-finals and he gubbed me 9-1. My main recall is starting the 7pm night session 7-1 down, two big breaks by Stephen and 15 minutes later I was in the car and heading back north. I swear I was home in time for News at Ten, followed by the snooker highlights (or lowlights) on BBC. Needless to say, I didn’t tune in.

As ever, thanks for taking the time to read, and let’s hope The Guild Hall sees lots more snooker in the years ahead.

Yours in snooker

Alan 

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A travellers guide to the snooker galaxy

When I decided to start writing my blog, I never thought I’d be doing the old Judith Chalmers bit. The more i thought of it though, i reckoned why not? It’s not like I haven’t been around the snooker block more than a few times. And besides, young players aren’t exactly given the copybook guide to managing time, finances, what, where, and when to book hotels / flights / entry fees etc. The main objective will be giving a few pointers to any newbies on tour, and at the same time, give snooker fans some idea of the logistical problems faced by every player regardless of ranking. 

First off, snooker players constantly face the question of when should I book not only my return flight, but often the outbound flight too. Remember, this isn’t a week in Majorca when your return flight is cast in stone, and you can start mentally packing away the flip flops a day or so before flying home. Unlike I’d guess 99.9% of travelers, a snooker player rarely knows when he or she will be returning home. The obvious downside is that thanks to sometimes hefty changing fees, you can be considerably out of pocket once the necessary change is made. As is usually the case, booking your flight asap will secure the cheapest price whether you fly economy or business class, and some good early deals can be found for both. That’s why we hear players complain on social media when draws and formats are released at such short notice, and I don’t blame them. It can be very frustrating (and costly)! In an ideal world we’d have draws and formats put out a month or two in advance. Players would then be able to save quite a bit of hard earned I can tell you. 

So what can be done? Well, for a start, be as organised and disciplined as you can. For example, before playing in let’s say a qualifying match for China, and providing the final venue dates are confirmed, have a look at the various flight options before qualifying even starts. Try to get the lowdown on the best deals so that upon qualifying you’re ready to strike while the iron is still hot. Bear in mind that the other players have similar flights to book also, so don’t delay. With PR activities having to be attended in Asia and the like, and always the day before play starts, be aware of the dates and arrive in plenty of time to attend (usually 24 hours). Another thing, don’t be lazy and put off joining the various airline travel clubs. If you’re going to be doing a fair bit of travel, get yourself in there. After all, it’s free, and in my experience if there are any good deals or free upgrades being handed out, you can be sure that their own members will get first refusal on any good offers. Again, don’t put it off. You might as well start building up those air miles as they might just come in handy somewhere along the line.

Another recommendation is to avoid using a travel company to take care of your flight bookings. It’s fair enough if money is tight and the cost of them booking it for you comes off your prize money, but avoid this if finances allow. If you do use a travel agency, check the change restrictions on whichever fare you buy. I’ve seen players desperate to get home, but the ticket they have (although reasonably priced) is non-changeable until a certain date.  This is something the agent may not verbally tell you when booking, but can be found in the small print, so do ask the question. The solution, if you’ll excuse the pun, is to fly solo on these matters, where booking it by yourself online means you have a level of control of your change options when that time inevitably comes along. Also, it’s likely that the flight you now want to catch home after a match loss, will be within the next 20 hours or less. So, depending on the time of day back home, you mightn’t even have time to make that ‘office hours only’ phone call to the agency, whether it’s changeable or not. Basically, do it yourself online, you’ll learn the travel ropes quicker, and at least you then have a fair amount of control over your return flight. Oh, and do ask advice of the other players who know the drill. They’ll be only too happy to advise, once they’ve gotten their own flight sorted that is.

I know it’s obvious to say that the ‘get in early’ mantra for flights applies to hotels also, but there are ways of making sure you get the best deal possible. When travelling to continental Europe etc, where you will have to pay your own hotel, do your homework. I’ll give you a good and current example – take the PH Classic in Furth. Even although the tournament is in late august, I’ve already booked a good hotel with air-con (a must at that event with minimum 25c temperatures) with free cancellation right up until the day of arrival. Another plus to this is you can then pay only on departure, so losing early means only paying for the nights stayed, rather than the amount of nights booked. So, do ask the relevant people at World Snooker if the event dates and venue are cast in stone, even if it’s still many months away. If it is, shop around on Booking.com or the like. If you know your travel dates, which are fairly standard for those events, it’s worth booking early. Not only will you and your roomy save a few bob in the long run, you may even be fortunate to get that free cancellation up until the day of arrival, which takes the pressure off. For flights to this type of event, the main problem is that you are rarely able to cancel without some financial penalty. Again, check that the event is cast in stone if you are booking flights well in advance. 

One piece of good news for UK players is the latest change to the China visa rules. Down the years we’ve been given various options of both visa duration and prices when filling in the application forms. In short, you used to get a 6 month single entry visa for say £80, or a 12 month double entry visa for around £140. The bother with this, aside from not really knowing which visa will suit best, is having to regularly re-apply every time you happen to qualify, where leaving your passport with the visa people for a week or two sometimes isn’t an option, especially if there’s a Euro event to attend that week, and your passport is required for entry. Anyway, the good news is that in the Edinburgh visa office at least (I assume others are the same) we are now granted a 2 year unlimited entry visa as standard for £151. A right result you might say, considering it saves time, hassle, travel and money. Maybe the visa people have calculated that most people only visit China once, so might as well offer a longer duration, but a bigger price as standard? Either way, I didn’t argue. I just said thanks very much. Like I say, I assume and hope the other UK offices now offer players the same visa deal. As for countries outside of the UK?, I’m afraid you’ll have to find that one out for yourself.

I know most of this is standard stuff, if a tad mind-numbing of almost Crucible almanac proportions. As you know, I’m trying to give non-players and fans out there a bit of an insight into life on the snooker tour. With snooker Q-School happening right now, if it helps any of the youngsters in any way then it’s been worthwhile. And besides, it’s taken up quite a chunk of my summer holiday flying time……now that’s what us snooker players call proper mind-numbing.

Have a great summer. Thanks for reading. And I’ll try to come up with a few new blog topics as the new season gets under way. With more than a few changes on the horizon there will be plenty to talk about – The Home Series events, some new tournament destinations, ranking cut off dates, some new faces on tour and whisper it quietly – the Shootout gaining ranking status which caused a minor kerfuffle on social media. It’s all go, so crash helmets at the ready. One thing is certain, it’s going to be entertaining!

Yours in snooker    

Alan McManus 

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The Crucible – behind the curtains from a players eye view.

Watching the US Masters golf from Augusta recently, we are always given a sense of the history surrounding that tournament. Same venue every year and all that. Being the massive golf fan that i am, it’s far and away my (and plenty others) favourite event of the sporting year. The drive up Magnolia Lane, Amen corner, the drama of the back nine on sunday. It’s always a xerox of what happened on the same grounds 12 months previous, the only change being the faces under the baseball caps, and we golf nuts just can’t get enough.

The Crucible, similarly, has never lost that sense of history either. Sure, it’s nowhere near as glamorous as the pristine, Persian rug like fairways of the Deep South. What it has in spades though, is something I’m a fan of in general – very little change. Now in my 25th year of playing at the Crucible, i find comfort in knowing every metaphorical blade of grass behind it’s famous doors.

A basic geography behind the scenes goes something like this….. As most players will enter through stage door, you are met at the security desk by the lovely Lynne, and Gary Wilkinson, a top player himself over the late 80s and 90s. A player, and his guests will be issued their relevant security passes which must be worn at all times. Players are generally allowed two access all areas guest passes which gain entry to the coveted Champions Lounge – more about that later. As you venture through the swing doors there are two options, hang a right which leads behind the stage and comm boxes and you’ll find the practise room. Not much has changed there down the years, save for there now being three practise tables. There used to be just two, with the other space being used as the main studio. I have to say it was a lot of fun with the studio in earshot of your practise time. There was always a story or an interview with a match winner, the odd celebrity visitor, or simply listening to the master, the one and only David Vine deliver his sermon in those famous headmaster like dulcet tones. With the studio moving across Crucible Square to the winter gardens ten or so years ago, it’s actually better from a playing perspective. Three tables are ample, and it’s very quiet in there most of the time. You see, snooker players are a pernickety bunch – four walls, in a dark room with no distraction is the ultimate nirvana for players to prepare quietly. And obviously as the tournament unfolds and the body count drops, it’s easy to get at least two or three hours a day if needed. 

With practise done and dusted, it’s back along the corridor, past stage door and you come to the dressing room area. Whether it’s deliberate having four of them, which suits the snooker perfectly I’m not so sure. But anyhow, the refurb of a few years ago has made them a tad bigger, nicely fitted out, with the major boon being the dispensing of the strange single bed with the burst springs that used to adorn them. I always thought they looked like something out of Cool Hand Luke. I could have mentioned Shawshank Redemption, but as every male in history has watched it at least 1,000 times (snooker blogger’s even more), i won’t bother. Even though I just did.

Personally, i never like to spend much time in the dressing room. It feels a bit cold and soulless to me. Some players will sit and read the newspaper at the interval, others will have a snooker debrief with friends. I tend to hit the practise room in an attempt to stay loose, hit a few balls, and pass the 15 minute interval as quick as possible. One thing I do miss about the dressing room is the pre-match snooker tunes that used to hum out from the little speaker above the door. Yes, The Entertainer, the Pot Black theme tune, and To the Unknown Man by Vangelis were all in there. Mind you, those tunes were at times a sharp reminder of the impending doom that might lie beyond that famous walk on. Maybe one day they’ll bring back those haunting tunes? In fact no, hold that idea – it was way too nerve wracking.

From the dressing rooms, and heading farther away from stage door, you’ll slip past the tournament office and eventually come to the press room. It’s by far the largest room backstage. I’ve always enjoyed spending time there. It’s good to watch a few frames on the big screens and scoreboards. There are always plenty of friendly faces among the press pack in the Crucible who enjoy a good light hearted natter about the day’s events. It’s the one place backstage that feels strangely removed from the tournament. Everywhere else just feels a bit serious and tense, especially when you have a match to prepare for. One of the time honoured traditions of the Crucible is to be found in the corridor just outside the press room. Basically every newspaper story on the championship is printed off and pinned to the wall. It’s quite a sight, and a good read too come the end of 17 days i can tell you.

Upstairs you would find a series of rooms, mainly used by the tv crews for interviews, make up, dressing rooms and the like. The one place for players guests to relax with a nice drink and a sandwich, as mentioned earlier, is the Champions Lounge. There’s always a relaxed atmosphere in there with the matches being shown live, and invariably you’ll find one or two players killing time in between practise times. It’s not a big room, so when the commentary teams are in there pre-match, you’ll usually hear Dennis, Willie, JV and the rest ribbing one another about anything from football to dodgy golf handicaps, although it does appear that JV is the self appointed h’cap convener. The rule of thumb seems to be – if you play off 14, the big fella will promptly reduce it to 12. What a shrewdy!

All in all, it’s just a fabulous place to play. Even with Vangelis on in the background.

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