By Fin Ruane
England in 1988, and particularly in London, was a hotbed of snooker, some of the world’s finest snooker talent converged there to improve and fine tune their skills. Ilford and Barking Snooker Clubs in Essex were just two of the many gathering points for a new breed of player, a more aggressive player with one objective, to win at all costs.
Eugene Hughes, who had settled in the Barking area several years before and was enjoying a successful career on the professional circuit, answered the SOS call from Ireland and welcomed a handful of its greatest young prospects to the big smoke. He deserves immense credit for helping the lads such as Ken Doherty and Stephen Murphy settle down by firstly putting them up in his home and then more importantly securing them practice facilities in Ilford SC, which was run by the likeable Ron Shore.
I followed my mates over and based myself in Kings Cross where I ran a bar belonging to an old pal of my fathers. There, I joined up and began to play league snooker with the Kings Cross SC which was a stones throw away, and became good friends with pro players Tony Drago and Joe O’ Boye who both played there. Young aspirations I had of becoming a top player had since gone but as long as I was still involved in the game either playing or watching I was more than happy.
Ken and Stephen used to drop in a few times a week as they had joined up with another up and coming player by the name of Peter Ebdon, himself based in Kings Cross, and the three went on to win a London club title to further enhance their growing reputation on the circuit.
In fact, walking into the club in Ilford and seeing the boys practising with the likes of Steve Davis and Jimmy White became such a regular occurrence that I was soon on first name basis with these two greats, such was the respect Ken and Stephen were earning in snooker circles.
The other top young players from Ireland such as Anthony O’Connor, Damien McKiernan and Sid O’Connor soon joined us, as did Gay Burns who had already enjoyed a few successful years in London. I packed in the pub in Kings Cross and moved out to Essex, where we shared a rented house and settled into the Essex community. Some weeks we were flush and other weeks we were scrimping about, best of fives down in the club against the English boys for money you never had was a regular occurrence. But I found it improved your bottle as the pressure you were under was huge, playing with or even for your rent money had that effect!!
As well as Eugene helping us settle we had another good friend of the Irish over there and Ronnie O’Sullivan Snr did a lot more for us, and me in particular, than a lot of people know. He had a lot of time for us as we had for him and although very proud of his son Ronnie Jnr’s talent as a player, he would never see us stuck for anything. Incidentally, I bumped into Ronnie Snr and Jnr at the recent Jimmy White testimonial in London and although having not seen Ronnie Snr for over 22 years he knew me straight away. We must have spent the next hour or so chatting about the old days. A framed photo of myself with the ‘two Ronnies’ has a deserved place on the wall in CrossGuns.
Pro-ams were held every weekend the length and breadth of the country and sometimes the boys would have to travel to other hotbeds such as Birmingham, Manchester and a popular venue ‘Willie Thorne’s SC’ in Leicester. The cream of snooker talent soon began to rise to the top and there was no surprise when Doherty and Murphy were mixing it with and soon beating the best there were.
I loved travelling with the lads on the train on the saturday morning to the various host clubs. Players such as Nigel Bond, Anthony Davies, Gary Wilkinson, Mark Davis, Joe Swail, Mark King, Paul Davies, Chris Scanlon, Mark Johnson Allen, Sean Lanigan, Steve Judd, Stefan Mazrocis, Dave Grimwood, James Wattana and Barry Pinches, along with Ken and Stephen, were all regular winners of these pro-ams. Even midweek there was always a flyer to be found most nights, a particular favourite of mine was the ‘Tottenham Graveyard Flyer – this was a midnight event up in North London and would see 64 entries most Mondays.
At this time the only way to gain professional status was to win the World Amateur Championship or to win via a series of amateur events played in several holiday camps where the top ranked amateur players joined the tour. Stephen swept all aside including a young James Wattana and joined the tour through this route. Ken, on the other hand, suffered defeat at the hands of Dave Harold, and this defeat gutted Ken more than any I’ve ever seen him suffer.
I honestly believe he contemplated packing the game in but he knuckled down and refused to be beaten. He returned to Ireland, won the Irish Amateur Championship, travelled to Singapore to represent Ireland in the 1989 World Amateurs and, after defeating England’s Jonathon Birch 11-2 in the final, became Ireland’s first ever World Amateur Snooker champion. More importantly, with that win, came his professional status. In between that Ken still found time to travel to Iceland and win the World Under 21 Title, so in hindsight that defeat to Dave Harold had galvanised Ken and shaped him into the player he was eventually to become.
After all the hard work they put in to achieve their ambition of becoming professional snooker players, Ken and Stephen were now looking forward to life on the pro tour, but unknown to them the tour was about to see a dramatic change that would not only affect them but the entire professional game.
Next week ‘The Professional Years’
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.