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