By Fin Ruane
On Friday the old master Steve Davis again rolled back the years by qualifying for next month’s UK Championship. It has to go down as an incredible achievement for the 55-year-old who once again has defied the odds and the pundits by qualifying for one of snooker’s major events.
Throughout his glorious career Davis has seen hundreds of players come and go. He has seen players with outstanding snooker talent try and fail to reach the dizzying heights his success helped him reach, but what of those players, who although blessed with a great snooker game, just never seemed to make that breakthrough.
Many players come to mind but one in particular really sums up the fact that having a great snooker talent is only half the battle to becoming a successful player.
Dubliner Paddy Browne was one of those snooker players. He had the talent, the looks and the personality to make it in professional snooker but a catalogue of personal and health issues put paid to his chance of making it in what at the time was a cut-throat business.
It was 1977 when a 13 year-old Paddy walked into CrossGuns. He was working as a messenger boy next door in a printers so the chance to escape work and pass the hours playing snooker really appealed to him. My father Fin Snr immediately noticed a player with the rare gift of a natural snooker ability. Offering Paddy free practice time and entry into the various junior events his talent soon began to emerge.
By 1979 Paddy’s game had developed so quickly that he had made his way from playing 4th Division in the Dublin Snooker Leagues to the 1st Division and he enjoyed a starring role in the all-conquering CrossGuns team which featured, amongst others, Eugene Hughes.
1979 was the year Paddy made himself known on the main Irish circuit by winning the National U-16 Championship. An invite to appear on the BBC’s Junior Pot Black followed where Paddy mixed it with top English juniors John Parrott and Dean Reynolds.
The following year he moved on and won the National U-19 Championship. These wins earned Paddy the first of his Irish Senior Caps at the Home Internationals in Prestatyn. All through this time Paddy learned the finer points of the game on and off the table under the watchful eye of Fin Snr. Even CrossGuns regular and now successful comedian Brendan O’Carroll saw his potential and with Fin’s blessing he became Paddy’s manager. The two travelled the country in a white van ablazed with Paddy and two other players’ names in search of money matches against more experienced opponents.
Aged just 17, the next year Paddy became the youngest winner of the senior Irish National title when he beat fellow international Dick Brennan in the final, and two months later completed the slam when he beat Belfast man Sammy Pavis to win the All Ireland National trophy.
That year, as National champ, Paddy travelled to Calgary in Canada to compete in the World Amateur Championship. He qualified from his round robin group but fell at the last 16 to eventual runner-up Canadian Jim Bear. Welshman Terry Parson’s swept all aside to win his maiden World title but recorded only one defeat in the whole event and that was to Paddy in the round robin stage.
Returning to Ireland, Paddy made the decision to turn professional and make the move to England. Paddy set up base in Manchester and found digs with fellow Irish player Tony Kearney. Slowly, Paddy made his way about the qualifying circuit and although he enjoyed some success by reaching the latter stages of the qualifying rounds he failed to reach the final stages in his first few seasons.
Homesickness began to affect him and he thought several times about returning home. Finally, in October 1986, Paddy’s prospects began to look up when he qualified for the final stages of the Rothmans Grand Prix.
Paddy won through several rounds to reach the Hexagon Theatre and after winning his first round match he found himself up against new sensation Stephen Hendry. Billed a battle of the young guns by the BBC’s David Vine, the match was shown live on the Tuesday afternoon. Back home we all gathered around the TV in CrossGuns and watched the drama unfold. Paddy raced into a 3-1 lead at the break and in the fifth found himself clearing up to go 4-1 up, but only needing yellow and green Paddy suffered an agonising kick when potting the yellow. The ball stopped short of the pocket allowing Hendry to clear up and go on to record a 5-3 victory.
It was a big disappointment and a cruel piece of luck to Paddy but one that he would have to endure over the next few years. The following season alone Paddy lost five final qualifying round matches by the odd frame – it was disappointment after disappointment but still he kept plugging away.
In his personal life Paddy had met Manchester girl Susan and was now the proud father of a baby girl, Jodie.
Beginning to make inroads and more importantly a living from the game, Paddy looked forward to the 1988-’89 season. That September he enjoyed his best performance as a profession player when he won the Professional Players Satellite Tournament – beating Silvino Francisco in the final.
A first prize of £8,000 was handy but the win was soured somewhat when World Snooker announced that Benson & Hedges would be sponsoring the event from the next season with the winner gaining a wild card for the lucrative Masters at Wembley.
Later that year Paddy enjoyed an incredible run to reach the final stages of the World Championship in Sheffield. 8-1 behind to Englishman Steve Meakin in the final qualifying round, Paddy somehow overcame the odds and won through 10-9. Myself and my dad travelled over to the Crucible to watch Paddy make his debut at the famous venue, where he played Willie Thorne. Paddy built up a 5-4 ahead overnight, but the following afternoon the luck deserted him once again and Thorne ran out a comprehensive 10-6 winner.
That summer Paddy was practising more and more in preparation for the new season and one player in particular he played with began to rub off on him but in the wrong way!
Alex Higgins and Paddy became firm friends but began to spend more time together in the pub adjacent to the snooker club rather than on the table.
Slowly but surely Paddy’s game began to decline. Over the following seasons he flirted with several final qualifying rounds again but as the professional game opened up and hundreds of hungry snooker players appeared on the scene Paddy’s game descended into free fall. As if his struggling form wasn’t enough Paddy began to develop serious pains in both his legs. Unable to take strong medication due to enforced drug measures by the governing body Paddy decided to stop playing in order to work on his health. The pain was put down to osteoporosis and surgery was required – by the age of 32 Paddy had both hips replaced. Shoulder surgery followed and his snooker playing days came to an abrupt end.
I’ve kept in contact with Paddy over the years and he still lives in Salford, is the father of three and has recently become a grandfather. He now earns a living managing a friend’s snooker club which keeps him close to the game he loves.
Probably not many people remember Paddy as a player – in fact he’s probably more remembered for possibly one of the game’s funny moments as recalled recently by John Virgo. It took place during the qualifying rounds of the Strachan Open in the early 1990s. Paddy was playing Franky Chan of Hong Kong and after a heated end-of-frame argument between the two over a free ball Franky decided to visit the gents. As he approached the door he noticed the door locked and an ‘out of order’ sign stuck to it. Walking back to the venue he met a still irate Paddy heading towards the same toilet. Franky, in his best English, said, “Out of order, Paddy, out of order.” Paddy, thinking this was in reference to the free ball row, grabbed Franky and screamed at him that he was perfectly entitled to the free ball!
It was only when Paddy pushed Franky aside and came upon the sign did he realise his error. That moment was the talk of the players room for the rest of the tournament.
Two years ago I met up with Paddy at the funeral of Alex Higgins in Belfast. He flew in that morning to pay respects to his friend as did many other players. It was nice to see Paddy chat that day to fellow Irish players Ken Doherty, Stephen Murphy, Joe Swail and Stephen O’Connor. However, one moment really stood out to me and that was when Stephen Hendry came over to Paddy and asked him how he was keeping and how his family were, etc. The two chatted for several minutes before Hendry left but not before the two shook hands and wished each other the best. Paddy was surprised that Hendry would have even remembered him let alone the fact that he came over to say hello.
It was a great gesture from Hendry and you could see it meant a lot to Paddy. Whenever I hear from him now he always mentions their chat to me. I recently said to Paddy that I’ve always wondered what else they talked about during that few minutes and, always one to exaggerate, simply said that Hendry told him that only for that infamous kick Paddy got on the yellow Hendry wouldn’t be where he is now!
That’s Paddy Browne – a great snooker talent and an all-round good guy.