I thought, as we are in a quiet week, I would regale (or bore) you with a story from snooker’s past in the first of what is almost certain to be an irregular regular feature.
The year was 1998. Rex Williams was WPBSA chairman, Clive Everton was banned from press rooms (the latter information is related to the former) and at the UK Championship had to follow a trail of plastic chickens stuck to the floor by sponsors Liverpool Victoria that led from the venue entrance to the arena, never deviating in case he inadvertently ended up in the media centre.
We all thought it ridiculous but now it seems like a golden age.
Amid the political chaos, the Williams regime managed to get an extra ranking event on in Ireland.
There were, however, to be a few snags with the Irish Open.
The first was that it was not on television, the first ranking event for six and half years to be played without cameras.
The second was that it was played in a somewhat rough and ready area of Dublin, which led to the head of security spending much of his time chasing young miscreants around the arena.
The venue was a basketball arena. It would be fair to describe space backstage as limited.
At the time, I was working as WPBSA press officer, not a job to be coveted then or now.
I arrived in what I believed to be the tournament office, a small, poky room barely big enough to house the two tournament directors, one of whom informed me that, yes, it was their office but it was also to be the press room.
My colleague Phil Yates described it as “the TARDIS in reverse: it turns out to be even smaller inside than it looks.”
The thing was, the Irish media turned out in force to cover the event. Snooker has always been popular there and the press were full square behind tournaments.
The Irish journalists were extraordinary characters to a man, and woman. One would later be drunk for 27 hours straight at the Irish Masters, but that’s a story for another day.
To give you an idea of where snooker was at this time: the UK Championship finished at the end of November, some players went straight to Malta for an invitation event, won by Stephen Hendry, and then to Germany for another one, which John Parrott captured.
The next day John was sat at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin ready for the next tournament. That’s how it was in those days.
To add to the media circus, Ronnie O’Sullivan was back in action having mysteriously pulled out of the UK Championship a few weeks earlier.
It meant the Sun’s then snooker correspondent came over, plus various other British journos.
They were hoping Ronnie would lift the lid on his troubles and give them a big story. They were to be disappointed. He gave very little away (sensibly), lost in the first round and disappeared (with my pen as I recall, but I don’t hold it against him).
The Sun’s man was aghast. He’d been given loads of space for his story and had very few quotes to go on.
As luck would have it, Quinten Hann played the same night, wildly smashed the pack in one frame, lost 5-0, and then told the Sun reporter that he had booked his flight home before the match.
The snooker, although few people saw it, was very exciting, helped by a bearpit atmosphere for some matches.
One such was for Peter Ebdon’s first round contest with Jimmy White. Obviously, 99% were cheering – vociferously – for Jimmy. Not only this, they were jeering – vociferously – against Ebdon, who kept his composure admirably until the final ball of his 5-4 victory, where he promptly turned to the crowd and shouted ‘come on then!’
He left by a side entrance.
In the next round he played Tony Drago, another crowd favourite. The noise for this one was extraordinary. Drago, often a bag of nerves, was playing extremely well at the time and won 5-4.
The crowd got so excited that a WPBSA official was called in to calm them down. His timid cry of ‘quiet please’ was heard, I would say, only by myself and Phil, who were standing next to him at the time.
Drago then played Hendry in the quarter-finals. Hendry led 4-2 but Tony enjoyed, to understate things a tad, some fortunate running in fighting back and in the end again displayed steely composure to win 5-4.
Remember, Hendry had lost 9-0 to Marcus Campbell in the first round of the previous ranking event and was thus not in the best of spirits generally, as I was to find out at the post match press conference.
It was clear from his general demeanour that Stephen was not especially looking forward to talking to the finest flowers of snooker journalism.
It was also clear that almost all of them were a little nervous of asking him anything.
An awkward silence developed that lasted for about 20 seconds but felt more like three weeks.
As I was in an official capacity, I thought I should break it and so ventured the following observation to the game’s greatest ever player: “Well, Stephen, you must be disappointed.”
The game’s greatest ever player fixed me with a look pitched somewhere between contempt and pity.
“Shrewd,” he said.
I can’t say it exactly cooled the atmosphere.
Someone else asked a question. Nothing from Hendry. Not a single word. Then someone else tried and...still nothing. A couple more questions followed but Stephen had had enough and we let him go.
As I pondered suicide, one of the Irish journalists examined his notepad and said, in a voice far too cheery for the occasion, “Well, it’s not going to be a quotes piece, is it?”
And so it went on. Absurdly, the venue had pre-booked a children’s charity bash for the Friday of the tournament and so all the tables had to be taken out and we had a ‘rest day.’
The next day they were all put back in. A few stray balloons were still stuck to the ceiling.
The final pitted Mark Williams against Alan McManus, the latter having been able to continue after I caught his cue just in time as it was sent crashing to the ground in the cramped tournament/press office.
Mark won. This was really the start of his ascent to the top because for the next four or five years he was in a string of major finals and of course won two world titles.
The Irish Open, however, did not return to the calendar.