By Fin Ruane
The year was 1990 and the number of registered professional snooker players stood at 128. The governing body WPBSA held all the strings and had the final say on who would and would not be allowed to join their exclusive club. Amateur snooker was thriving and every player had the same dream of turning pro, but with only the world amateur champion and the top ten amateurs allowed in each year there was now immense pressure on the WPBSA to open up the professional ranks.
Eventually the powers that were relented and, seeing the obvious financial windfall, bowed to the pressure and opened the game up to the amateur players. At first this seemed like a logical move but soon it proved catastrophic as not only did the top amateur players join but average players with no experience at all of tournament play paid their membership fee and jumped on the professional snooker bandwagon. Such was the interest that in the first season over 500 players paid up for their pro status. I remember Ray Reardon saying in an interview at the time that it was ridiculous that window cleaners, for example, could now join up and call themselves professional snooker players!
Most of the players in Ilford and Barking jumped at the chance to join Stephen Murphy and Ken Doherty on the tour. Stephen, who had now been a professional one season, had qualified for several venues and was making fine progress towards the top 64, whereas Ken had qualified the following season as world amateur champion.
With the numbers swelling, a big venue was needed to accommodate the players and tables required, and in 1991 the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool was selected as the venue for qualifying rounds for the forthcoming season’s ranking events. This time over seven hundred players were competing for final round places in the ten ranking events for the next season and with that a chance to play a top name and get that all important television time. For the next few summers the qualifiers were held during June , July and August, and sometimes players had to win at least eight matches to reach the final stages of a ranking event.
Joe Delaney, Sid O’Connor, fresh from his world amateur title win in 1990, Darren Lennox, John Benton, Fergal O’Brien, Tim Dunphy, Michael Judge and Richard McHugh were just some of the many Irish players who travelled to the Norbreck in Blackpool for the annual summer jamboree. It was constant snooker for three months for the boys. Such was the amount of rounds needed to qualify for venues, players would find themselves one day qualifying for the British Open, the next the Grand Prix, and strangely enough players would then find themselves qualifying for the World Championship even though the action in the Crucible was nine months away.
That first summer I stayed in Blackpool for two weeks and, along with Stephen and Ken, players such as Peter Ebdon, Mark Williams and John Higgins began to make their mark by winning through to the final stages of the majority of the ranking events. There was of course some legends of the game such as Alex Higgins and Cliff Thorburn still plugging away and grinding out wins. On the other hand there were some guys who really had no business calling themselves professional players. It was obvious they signed up just for the title or maybe the chance to play a name and I personally felt the whole thing cheapened the professional game. Many players had worked hard to gain their status whilst others just had to pay their fee and they were in – there were the exceptions of course. I remember in ’92 when O’Sullivan showed up in Blackpool aged 16 and won 74 out of 76 matches!
Off the table it was great fun as everyone knew everyone. The local bars at night, such as our favourite ‘The Mariners’, became meeting points where snooker was hardly ever discussed as these few hours away from the game brought some light-hearted relief to all involved. Those players not playing at 10am the following morning would then sometimes continue on to the nearby nightclub, anything was better than going back to the four walls of your room in the local B&B.
Eventually, after several seasons in Blackpool the madness stopped as the WPBSA saw how this was panning out and closed up shop again. Lots of players lost out but I believe the biggest loser was amateur snooker. Amateur snooker is the learning curve and pathway for young players to gain that all important experience before they contemplate life as a snooker player, yet for those several years they fast tracked themselves onto a tour with a standard they couldn’t keep up with. Many players didn’t stand a chance, became disillusioned and have since given the game up and moved on. Worldwide amateur snooker has never fully recovered and I believe with the changes the professional game has seen since Barry Hearn took over I doubt that it ever will.
Out of all the Irish boys only Ken, Stephen, Michael Judge, Joe Delaney and Fergal O’Brien survived the annual cull in Blackpool and forged their way onto the main tour. They all qualified for ranking events in their own right and all enjoyed some great personal moments in the game. I was privileged to be at many of these events and for several years I was fortunate to have travelled on the tour. I was fortunate to visit many different countries and experience exotic cultures, and above all fortunate to make many good friends in the game. From crash landings in New Delhi to winning at the Crucible, travelling on the professional tour with the boys certainly had its moments!
Next week ‘Life On The Tour’
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.