By Fin Ruane
The first time I watched any of the boys play at a ranking event venue was October 1990 when myself, Ken Doherty and a sizeable contingent from Ilford travelled up to see Stephen Murphy play John Parrott in their pre-televised match of that season’s Rothmans Grand Prix. Stephen never really did himself any justice that night and Parrott, who would become world champion the following May, ran out a 5-1 winner. Although I left Reading gutted for my friend, little did I know what the next nine years would have in store for me.
Due to my father’s illness I moved back to Dublin early in ’92. I missed the fun and banter of the snooker crew and swore that I’d get back over as often as I could. Several appearances at ranking event venues over the following season would confirm both Ken and Stephen’s place on the main tour but it wasn’t until the British Open in Derby in ’92 that one of them would make the breakthrough.
That season saw a new format introduced in the tournament when there was an open FA Cup style draw held before each round by a special guest. Ken’s progression to the last 16 was without much incident until the Tuesday night when guest of the evening Stuart ‘Physco’ Pearce drew out Ken’s name followed by favourite Stephen Hendry. I watched the draw back in Dublin and first thing the following morning I booked my flight to Derby. Internet booking was not common practice then so phone calls to travel agents were still the only way to book your flight. I was late arriving at the Assembly Rooms in Derby for his showdown with Hendry but got there in time to see him clear up to win 5-3, a remarkable achievement but all the more remarkable when it was revealed that Ken had been suffering from a serious dose of shingles throughout the tournament. That night we went for a Chinese meal and for the first time I saw what the trappings of fame would bring as a free round of drinks was served up by the owner of the restaurant!
Ken eventually lost to James Wattana in the semi-final that week, but I decided to stay on and we continued onto Bristol were he had qualified for the Strachan Open. Another good run saw Ken eventually lose to John Parrott in the semis and from Bristol we flew back to Dublin. To say I enjoyed those two tournaments was an understatement, I loved every minute of it and I couldn’t wait to go back over.
Sadly, after a long illness my father passed away in May of ’92. It was heartening, though, to me that I recieved a message from both Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry expressing their condolences. I had only got to know these guys over the last couple of years but it summed up the quality of these two greats of the game.
The 1992/93 season started off with The Rothmans and back to Reading we
went and a brilliant week in the Hexagon saw Ken lose 10-9 in the final to Jimmy White. Although gutted at losing and being so close to winning a maiden ranking event, the manner in which Jimmy applauded Ken after made it slightly easier and, for me, meeting one of my heroes Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood at the party that night made me instantly forget the result!
The Hexagon never really brought much luck for us as the following season Ken lost again in the final, this time to Peter Ebdon in what was now called the Skoda Grand Prix.By now I was on first name basis with some of the top names in snooker but the people I enjoyed spending time with at the events were the lads in the pressroom, distinguished snooker reporters such as Phil Yates and John Dee became good friends. There were days I’d just sit there in the pressroom watching the snooker on the monitors or join in trying to answer the sometimes ridiculous trivial questions that were banded about.
1993 saw me travel overseas for the first time to follow the snooker. A trip to Dubai for the Dubai Masters was first up on the agenda. Dubai, although full of wealth, was nothing like it is now. There was no skyscrapers and man made islands, no shopping malls full of western stores, but what it had was a golf course in the middle of the desert, I hadn’t started to play golf then but I recall caddying for Stephen one afternoon when he joined his friend Cliff Thorburn for a round of golf after a heavy night of ‘hospitality’ from the sponsors. Before we set out we were politely informed that playing in the sun without adequate shade was not advisable, but of course nothing would deter us and the boys drove off on the first hole. Big mistake! By the sixth tee a car had to be called to rescue us from the 40 plus degree heat and whisk us back to the safety of the air conditioned clubhouse!
It’s a pity the ranking event had only a few years there but Asia and in particular Thailand was now the preferred destination of the WPBSA to grow the game. Our first trip to Thailand and its capital Bangkok was an incredible experience. The city is such an eye opener, from poverty and squalor on the streets you enter the lobby of a five star hotel and basically into a different world. The opening ceremonies were always a great occasion to catch up with some of the boys you hadn’t seen in quite a while. Funny, but it seemed that the same lads always qualified for Thailand – I’m convinced the same effort never went into qualifying for the Regal Welsh in Newport. Not to mention Thai Airways were always one of the main sponsors and provided business class tickets for the players involved. Referees and WPBSA staff flew economy whilst players’ guests like myself and reporters paid our own way. I recall on one particular flight ‘The Great WT’, i.e. Willie Thorne, popping down after his champagne dinner upstairs in business class to check on our well-being in steerage, as he called it.
It was on one particular midnight flight back to London from Bangkok that provided me with the most surreal experience I think I’ll ever know. Stephen, myself and Dave Harold, along with several other players and the couple of hundred other passengers, were informed by the captain 30 mins into the flight that the aircraft had developed serious engine trouble and we were diverting to the nearest airport immediately. The closest airport was New Delhi so the plane began to desend almost straight away, the oxegen masks were deployed and after shaking hands and a quick hug we hoped for the best. The plane came in with three sharp bumps and after what seemed like an eternity it came to a stop. The doors were opened but we were spared the slide down the chute as stairs had arrived at several of the plane’s exits.
With no available flights to London for 36 hours we were put up in an airport hotel in New Delhi. I’ve never known heat or humidity like it and with no chance of sleeping we congregated in the hotel bar for several hours recalling the ordeal we had just been through. Eventually after a few days we got back home and I promised myself I’d never go back to Thailand. Three weeks later Ken rang and asked me would I go to Bangkok for the Kings Cup all expences paid – my promise to myself didn’t last long.
Over the next few seasons both Ken and Stephen qualified for the majority of the events. Stephen began to struggle, though, as the financial pressure to continue on the tour was huge unless you were regularly reaching the business end of the ranking tournaments or had a very generous sponsor. Ken began to achieve the success we all knew he would but Stephen seemed to have no luck at all. Even when he won several matches to qualify for the Cruicble he ran into the defending champion Stephen Hendry in the first round. Ken on the other hand had reached several finals, most notably the UK where he lost to Hendry in the final. Stephen needed a boost, and more importantly a financial boost, and the Snooker World Cup in ’96 couldn’t have come at a better time.
The powers that be had in the past run team events, most notably the Home Nations event won by the Irish team of Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor and Eugene Hughes, but holding a world event was something complete different. Finally in October 1996 the World Snooker Cup was held in Bangkok. Three-man teams with one sub from all over the globe took park. The venue was the outstanding Armari Watergate Hote and from day one we knew something special was going to happen.
The camaraderie between the Irish team of Ken, Stephen, Fergal O’Brien and sub Michael Judge was incredible. I got so involved in geeing the boys up before each match that many of the other players and journalists called me the ‘fifth man’ of the Irish team. An easy enough passage through to a quarter-final against Canada saw the first week pass without much fanfare. Every night in the hotel bar all the players met up, and even the Scottish dream team of Hendry, Higgins and McManus joined up for a few drinks along with the WPBSA staff and journalists. Everyone was determained to win but the atmosphere was incredibly laid back.
Ireland brushed aside Canada to earn a semi-final showdown with England. This England team was made up off Ebdon, Bond and O’Sullivan but something was missing and reading between the lines there didn’t seem much love lost between Ebdon and O’Sullivan. Both teams shared frame after frame until the match reached 9-9, and with the time 2.30am the deciding frame was to be contested by O’Sullivan and Ken. Sitting in the players room, I could barely watch but Ken being Ken he grafted out the victory to win on the pink and a place in the final two days later against Scotland. Whilst the boys did their post match press interviews I was organising a taxi and locating a watering hole for a celebratory drink.
The final saw the run come to an end when the boys lost 10-6 to Scotland, no disgrace but I knew what the boys knew and that was that they gave the Scots too much respect. I still feel to this day that if they had gone at them from the start the final may have had a different ending. I thought that was going to be the highlight of the 96 /97 season for me but what was to happen at the last event of the campaign would soon change that.
Ken arrived at Sheffield in pretty dismal form – a whitewash to Steve Davis in Goffs that March really summed up his year so far. Mark Davis, just like in the first round the previous year, was his first round opponent and at 8-8 with Ken struggling it looked like history was going to repeat itself. However, Ken scraped through 10-8 and from there he didn’t look back. I arrived in Sheffield the following day and watched every remaining frame he played in that tournament. He brush aside Steve Davis in round two, John Higgins in the quaters and Alain Robideoux in the semis. In practice, as in his tournament play, he was hitting the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him hit the ball and more importantly he was becoming more and more confident.
Hendry was the final hurdle, champion for the last five years. Ken led
throughout the final and the only time did I feel nervous. Ken led 14-12 and he let Hendry in but a missed red along the top cushion allowed Ken back in to clear up and lead 15-12. Three frames later it was 18-12 and Ken’s ambition and my proudest moment in snooker came through when he was crowned world champion. I remember that night sitting in the hotel room with the trophy whilst Ken was on the phone to his family in Dublin, just reading the names that were engraved on it brought home the enormity of what Ken had achieved.
The following summer was one long party for everyone involved, and the perks of being world snooker champion rubbed off on us all – no more queing up to get into Dublins hotspots. Tickets for concerts and football matches were easy to come by and all the time the world trophy sat on top of the television in his mum’s living room in Ranelagh.
The following season Ken reached the final again in Sheffield but lost out to John Higgins. Higgins deserved his win and for me it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve met and his family and late father John Snr are a credit to him
Stephen packed in the game and moved back to Dublin that year. In my opinion he’s one of the most natural players I’ve ever seen and it’s a huge pity he never really got the breaks he deserved in the game or that the public could see how good a player he was.
Fergal’s biggest achievement in the game was his British Open win in 1999. He’s probably one of the toughest players on the tour ,yet behind the seriousness you see in his face whilst playing he’s one of the funniest people you could meet.
I stopped travelling mid that year. I was still running CrossGuns but needed to spend more time at home. I did fly over with Stephen to Sheffield in 2003 to witness an almost miraculous World Championship win from Ken over Mark Williams and have since then attended the Masters in London just to catch up with some of the old crew. One year I thought we were going to have a nice drive to Holyhead from London in a brand new sports car but a missed black off the spot from Ken put paid to that.
I’ve enjoyed some great times, too many to mention and met some incredible people. My highlights are the World Snooker Cup in ’96 and without doubt the Cruicble in ’97, but in contrast the biggest low for me was the passing of Paul Hunter. He was a great person with a big heart and it was a pleasure to have known him – without doubt he was a future world champion in the making.
The professional game has changed a lot in the twenty years since I started travelling on the tour but I believe the game now has a great future. Barry Hearn has taken the sport from the brink and totally reinvented it. Every tournament has a sponsor and the prize money, along with the number of events, is increasing each year.
The game has a great past and a bright future, it has played a huge part in my life and will continue to do so.
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.