Two things that virtually all professional snooker players have in common is a graduation from the amateur game – and a fondness towards it. After all, it’s of a time when you learned your trade, made your first century, became a scratch player, pocketed that first hundred quid in some pro-am etc, lifted your first silverware (well okay…it was plastic really)!
Added to that, you can be sure that most pro’s will retain a connection in some shape or form, be it some friends who still play either for fun or because they can’t quite shake the bug, or they’ll know a few local lads who are looking to make the jump to the main pro tour.
If I’m being honest, it’s the scale of the jump that would most concern me if I were a teenager trying to make the grade in today’s snooker environment. I’ll get down to the reasons why just shortly.
There have been differing routes to the pro ranks over the last 30 years or so. Be it by invitation, the old pro-ticket series, scrapping through against the 500 or so takers in the ‘buy to play’ era of the early ’90s, various ‘open’ or ‘PIOS’ tours, or winning one of the premier English, European or World amateur titles on offer.
You can bet your bottom euro that all of the above were extremely difficult pathways towards gaining full pro status. Why?…..because to come through any of those systems you had to come out on, or very near the top of an amateur game that in its own way was every bit as competitive as the professional game itself. Sadly, those days are all but disappearing.
For me, I’ve always been a bit dubious as to the merits of allowing amateur players to enter PTC events. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good in a sense that World Snooker allow pretty much anyone the chance to play and compete against seasoned pro’s in good conditions on a bigger stage than they’re used to. After all, Barry Hearn has stated many times that he’ll create opportunity for all players regardless of their standard, and he’s been as good as his word on that score. But at what cost to the amateur game? – are they really getting a regular chance to play against the pro’s? – and most importantly, does it help their development? For some, you could argue yes. But for the vast majority, I’m not so sure.
First off, the expense involved in the PTC trips are considerable. At an estimated £500 a time once flights, hotel and entry fee are factored in for a UK based player, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of amateur players are trying to run before they can walk? I’ll reiterate that I don’t lay the blame at the door of World Snooker – after all, they’re simply giving players the opportunity to enter. There’s no rule that says anyone has to. The main problem as far as I can see, is the lack of regular amateur events for UK based players, and a qualifying structure to the pro tour without the expense I’ve mentioned. There are a few initiatives outwith the amateur bodies who do sterling work in putting on local tournaments for youngsters to enter, Paul Mount and his staff at the SWSA in Gloucester, and the Snookerbacker series of events are two that can be commended for their efforts, but they can’t do it all on their own. Perhaps a coming together of administerial minds would go a long way to finding a better solution for everyone?
Take my own country as an example, and this may surprise you – I know that it’s been 5 years since any Scottish amateur player has won a penny in a PTC event. In that time, I would estimate that there’s been somewhere around 150 to 200 entries in that time. If my arithmetic is correct, we’re getting to the better part of £100k of expense to travel around Europe, 9 times out of 10 not even making it through the amateur rounds. And that’s just Scotland! It doesn’t make any sense to me.
The point is – there’s a way to learn your trade in our sport, and it doesn’t involve traipsing around Europe 6 times a year, with little or no practise facilities, spending 5 days or so playing one or two best of 7s against guys you should be competing against in the far less expensive haven of your own back yard. Now I know there’s a wider issue here, with the game expanding to Europe and Asia having to be considered in any tour qualifying criteria, but that’s for another day. I would add that I’m all for the mainland European players being allowed entry to PTC events, at least their expense is far less, more of them would obviously make it through to the main draw, they’d get to see the required standard up close and personal, and it might just push a few of them on towards becoming better players. But surely resurrecting some kind of UK players tour for our home based players would be a better solution all round? Let’s face it, it would mean a huge drop in cost, easier travelling, no more hanging around for a few days waiting on a flight after being beaten, keep the entry fee at a similar level to PTC’s, and quite a few of the players would actually pick up a few quid for their troubles, while being regularly competitive. Amongst other upsides to that kind of set up, would be virtually guaranteeing that the very best players over an 8 or 10 event series would top the rankings and justify them gaining however many tour places are on offer, while gaining valuable experience and plenty of match practise at the same time.
I could give you dozens of examples down the years of players coming through to the pro tour in what I’d call the proper way with the proper attitude, but let me give you two of fairly recent times. Firstly Judd Trump – as a junior player I know that pretty much all he did from the age of 12 until turning pro in his late teens was travelling around England playing in almost any tournament he was eligible to play in. I first saw him play in a big Pontins final in the early 2000s against ex pro Mike Hallett. The first thing that struck me was the attitude. You didn’t have to be Einstein to see that all he cared about was having a cue in his hand, a table with 6 pockets, and an opponent to play against. Considering his undoubted talent and obvious hunger to learn, it would still take 10 years at least for Judd to make the top 16 and onto becoming one of the very top players that he is today. Think about it – that’s 10 years of hard graft, doing it the correct way……ie constant tournaments almost every weekend, a strong practise ethic and a willingness to learn. Even then, I’m sure Judd himself would admit it that it took him 3 or 4 years as a pro before he started performing to anything like the standard we see from him today, and there are good and typical reasons for this. But the key thing is that the hard yards were firmly tucked under his belt, so that by the time of turning pro, he was match tough having served his snooker apprenticeship under all sorts of conditions.
The other is young Oliver Lines. I first got to see him play in a PTC event in Sheffield around 4 Or 5 years ago against Jamie Burnett. I could see that he had plenty of tools in the locker, but was a million miles away from the standard required for that level. Oli is fortunate to have had the wise advice of his dad Peter, who is himself a very fine and current professional player from my own era in his corner. As I’m a big fan of his game, I often ask him how young Oli is getting on with his snooker, and I’m sure Peter won’t mind my giving you a small, but crucial insight into his development as an amateur…..Peter was willing to enter him in a few Sheffield PTC events as they were only 30 mins drive away which made sense, but as far as sending him around the costly European events before he was ready for that level – he would much rather Oli practise or play a smaller event at home, or he would send him to the Star academy in Sheffield regularly where he got the benefit of a full day’s practice against one of the established pro’s who play there. The beauty of this, although you don’t know it at the time, is that while you might be picking balls out all day long against a Ding Junhui etc, you’re actually learning far more than you’d think. It’s very much a sink or swim scenario, you either think ‘nah, this ain’t for me’ – or you knuckle down, watch and learn, go back to the practise table and get back in amongst it, armed with what’s been learned. It’s a certainty that you’ll take plenty of heavy trouncings, but with the proper application, desire, and a bit of talent….the day will come when you’re the one who starts dishing out the pain so to speak. It’s no easy path I can assure you. But it’s vital to serve a tough schooling if you have aspirations of mixing it on the main tour.
This may come across as a harsh assessment, but I’ve got to call it as I see it…..and what I’m seeing are the same amateur players over the last 5 years, most of whom look farther away from making it to the main tour than when they started entering PTC events. Look, I’m not having a pop at anyone in particular here, as I see this as a collective problem. Obviously there’s never going to be a return to the heady days of the 80’s and 90’s when you could play 4 or 5 days a week in any number of tournaments, be it weekend national events, to pro-ams 4 or 5 nights a week as I was fortunate to do myself.
If the amateur game in the UK is to thrive as in the past, then changes have to be made if we’re ever going to produce a batch of quality anything like the O’Sullivan, Williams and Higgins era of the early to mid 90’s who as we know came through the amateur ranks competing against each other regularly on a domestic level – and those three were just the tip of the iceberg. Back then, you could bank on a whole new battalion of talented and match hardened players coming over the hill every couple of years. It all comes down to regular and affordable competition. The platform or conditions in which amateurs compete isn’t important in the slightest, simply give them competitive knockout events to play, and the rest will take care of itself. It always has when it comes to producing talent.
Here’s a final thought – I’m sure we’ve all heard the sentence “It’s a young man’s game” uttered over the last 20 years or so……Well in 1995 it was fast becoming that, with a Top 32 average age of 29 at that time (and twenty players under the age of 30)….. Fast forward to today, and the average age of the Top 32 stands at 34 (with just nine players under the age of 30). It’s simply a consequence of what’s lacking at amateur level.
Yours in snooker. Alan McManus