16.9.13

STEPHEN LEE: FINE CAREER ENDS IN DISGRACE

I've covered most of Stephen Lee's professional career. I was present at all five of his ranking title victories and have interviewed him many times.

His has been a fine career but today it ended in disgrace. It seems likely he will be handed a lengthy ban.

Lee was a member of the class of ’92, part of golden generation of teenagers who had grown up during the British snooker boom when the game was a major television attraction.

Born in Wiltshire in 1974, he had a multitude of junior tournaments in which to play as snooker took a foothold in the sporting landscape of the UK during the 1980s.

The junior events were highly competitive due to the sheer number of entrants and helped forge some formidable talents ready to turn professional. Lee was among the leading lights poised to do some damage in the pro ranks after he won the 1992 English amateur title at the age of 18.

And so to the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool a few weeks later where Lee lined up with hundreds of other hopefuls. The professional game had gone open the previous year and the Norbreck ballroom heaved with new faces, old stagers, solid match players and the deluded.

Lee was certainly one to watch, as were his contemporaries Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams, all of whom were also taking their first steps on the pro ladder.

Lee fared well that first season, at one point winning six successive qualifying matches by way of whitewash and racking up a record run of 33 consecutive frames. He would go on to reach the quarter-finals of the European Open and finished his debut season 101st in the world rankings – higher than both Higgins and Williams.

He did not quite match the pace of O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams, either in the next few seasons or his career as a whole, but his overall record makes him one of the most successful players of the last 15 years.

Lee’s major professional breakthrough came at the 1998 Grand Prix, in which he defeated Marco Fu 9-2 in the final, a brilliant performance which included two centuries and eight half centuries.

In addition, Lee beat Fu, Stephen Hendry and O’Sullivan to win the 1999 Millennium Cup invitation title in Hong Kong. He finished runner-up in the 1999 Irish Masters – losing 9-8 to Hendry from 8-4 up – and the China Open later that year.

Lee was edged 9-8 by Higgins in the 2000 Welsh Open final. I remember his father, Colin, back then a regular on the circuit, sitting watching every ball in agony in the pressroom.

Lee, over whose silky smooth cue action many purred, was by now firmly ensconced in the top 16. In 2001 he won a second ranking title, the LG Cup in Preston. Victory was all the sweeter because of who he beat in the final.

Six months earlier, he had been beaten 13-12 by Peter Ebdon in the second round of the World Championship. In the decider, Ebdon celebrated triumphantly after potting a black to leave Lee requiring two snookers, even though the match was not, strictly speaking, over.

I was the only journalist to interview Lee afterwards. I went up to his dressing room and could see he was furious. Part of this was the disappointment of losing such a close match, but he turned his fire on Ebdon: “It was over the top. It wasn’t sporting behaviour. He should leave that kind of thing in the dressing room. I hope Ronnie beats him. I couldn’t handle it if he won the tournament.”

The summer came and went and we found ourselves at the first event of the new season, the Scottish Masters. It was Lee who immediately brought up the Ebdon incident and it was clear time had not been a healer: “If he doesn’t apologise to me then I won’t play in the Nations Cup with him” (they were due to play together for England, but the event was ultimately cancelled).

So Lee’s 9-4 defeat of Ebdon was a source of great satisfaction and proved how much – back then – winning and losing meant to him.

Lee won the 2002 Scottish Open and 2006 Welsh Open, was runner-up in the 2002 Thailand Masters and a semi-finalist at the 2003 World Championship. Having achieved a highest ranking of fifth, he remained in the top 16 until 2008, his form becoming patchier and playing opportunities fewer.

It was in the period that followed that he is judged by the investigation to have deliberately lost frames and matches.

The irony is that he was very much back to his best by the time he was suspended following a Premier League match last year.

In the second half of the 2011/12 campaign he reached the German Masters semi-finals, Welsh Open quarter-finals, World Open final, China Open semi-finals and won the PTC Grand Finals in Galway, his fifth world ranking title.

When his career came to a premature halt last October, Lee had earned just over £2m in career prize money, but we have no record of how much he spent.

Off table, like most players, he was down to earth and good company. He seemed to be well liked on the circuit.

Stories of suspicious performances emerged but hard evidence did not. Lee was arrested in 2010 but the police investigation was dropped.

The WPBSA’s integrity unit did pursue the case and the Sports Resolutions inquiry has now found him guilty of cheating the sport he once dreamed of simply being a part. The evidence against him is both damning and shaming.

11 comments:

Snookerbrain1968 said...

Shameful.
Life ban is the only appropriate sentence for the greedy cheat.
Only regret is that the NOTW didn't actually give John Higgins the money to deposit in his bank account.
Otherwise, he'd be toast as well.
Winners never cheat, cheaters never win.

Snookerbrain1968 said...

As a result of this clown's participation in the game, how many tournament results have been rendered inaccurate?
Impossible to calculate. How this will affect the ability to attract sponsors is of huge concern.
I am sickened and feel for those trying to pursue a career and therefore a worthwhile living.
6 months inside would not be disproportionate.

Neal Clague said...

It's already been stated by Mr Lewes that he won't hand down a "life ban". I accept that 6+ yea
rs will equate to thus but let's keep it factual.

And DaveH, you're presuming Mr Lee will lose his right to appeal ? As well as be banned to that sort of length as to equate thus ?

Snooker seems keen to extract SL yet on other scenarios it's been indifferent at least ...

John Michael White said...

Could not be angrier about this. When the death of snooker is predicted again and again by those ignorant of the sport we all snort, but this, this right here, is the one thing that could kill the game stone dead.

If sponsors and TV and the viewing public start to see every unexpected miss, the very things whose possibility makes for such fine drama, not as something to send shivers down their spine, but as something to raise their suspicions, then the game is finished as we know it. Its theatre, its excitement from individuals against a table under sometimes huge psychological pressure, make integrity absolutely vital.

Lee shouldn't ever pick up a snooker cue again, and if it's at all legally possible every penny he's taken from the game should be recovered. Utterly disgraceful.

Adam Bell said...

He will take the abuse he will get on the chins

Geoffrey Mc Donnell said...

Whilst i am surprised by this i watched in July 2012 Stephen Lee win in VERY impressive style a match in Bendigo,Australia. Next day he plays very badly and looses.....i remember thinking then why had his excellent form one day gone so unbelievably 'bad' by the next match? maybe now i know why!!

Cloncurry said...

Any ban over a year is the sane as a life ban? The 2 million is over 20 odd years, can't imagine he got many endorsements - dont know about exhibitions. Out of 100k a year 65-70k will go on tax, manager, travel so can't see him having any reserves as a 39 year old married man with 4 kids and no job

ANON said...

Having had time to think about this, only hope is that Lee doesn't go ahead with the threatened appeal. If he has the financial means to appeal available to him he would be better using the money to buy a business and give himself an income.

Only issue is the sentence, the quite ridiculous leniency shown to John Higgins will create a precedent and may preclude the WPBSA giving a life ban. The WPBSA have to wear this as a consequence of letting Higgins off.

stuartfanning said...

Has anyone read Ronnie O'Sullivan's comments on this? He suggests that Lee was just unlucky to be caught out and that many players have done the same thing. If this is the case then Lee is just a fall guy, so that World Snooker can claim they take corruption in Snooker seriously!

Cloncurry said...

Can't imagine he has any money really which is maybe why we got to this stage. A 5-7 year ban is likely rather than life but who cares it will have the same real result. He would, please correct me, fall off tour during ban and then in his early 40s have to requalify. Possible but unlikely

ANON said...

I found Ronnie's tweet apologising for cancelling an exhibition so he can play in Chengdu more interesting (how times change!)

Anyone who has followed the game for a while can probably think of at least 5 matches where there was significant speculation and a World Snooker investigation - and none of them resulted in charges.

Just one question - is World Snooker now filming all the qualifiers (or at the very least any match where there are suspicions)? That has been part of the problem in the past, inexcusable for them not to be doing so now.