Features

Fin’s Fables: The future of Amateur Snooker in Ireland

By Fin Ruane

With the cancellation of this year’s Irish section of the Snookerbacker Classic, Irish based snooker players now find themselves ruing the lost opportunity of a shot at the end of season Q School and a possible crack at the big time, or will they?

This event was announced last May and has been publicised since then on all snooker forums, most notably by the Snookerbacker himself, on this website, by our own esteemed national coach PJ Nolan and player Johnny Williams.

Yet, the event which offers the overall winner and runner-up a paid place in Q-School and the chance to join the pro snooker ranks with a two-year exemption never really seemed to generate much interest on these shores whereas in the UK all the Snookerbacker events have been filled with a waiting list of players on standby to fill any vacancies should they arise.

Is it a lack of ambition from Irish players? Or is it something deeper than that?

I’ve been saying for quite some time now that the heady days of 1997 when our own Ken Doherty ruled the snooker world with his World Championship final win over Stephen Hendry will never be repeated again. Nor will we have another ranking event winner such as Ken’s fellow Dubliner Fergal O’Brien did when he won the 1999 British Open. Even the Republic’s wonderful performance in reaching the 1996 World Cup final is all but a distant memory.

Many will point to the decline in the number of clubs in the country as the main reason behind this but the same cull in clubs happened in the UK as well and they still produce great players.

Arguments and banter have been recently had on social networking sites as to what was the better era in Ireland and many point to the current crop as being the best. So where are these players when an event like the Snookerbacker is organised? Where is their ambition and drive to further their game?

Sadly nowhere and that’s why the tough decision of cancelling the Snookerbacker classic was taken.

Over the last few seasons I’ve heard how fewer players are entering the Irish ranking tournaments and mumblings at how the game is set up in this country by our national association RIBSA.

From an ex-player’s point of view and now from a business outlook too I feel the set-up of the game in Ireland is flawed. Its flaws lay solely at the feet of our association and the players that represent it.

AGM’s come and go, motions are passed and denied, new members elected and even this season new formats were announced for several tournaments.

The fact of the matter is none of these changes will make any difference to our game. The solution to help grow the game of snooker in Ireland is simple, get the game back to the grass-roots, get it back to where we all picked up a cue for the first time. It must be brought back to the clubs that are spread throughout the country and this in turn will lead to more entries and an increase in standard.

When the decision was made many years back to hold all ranking events in the Ivy Rooms in Carlow many including myself questioned this. Yes, the Ivy Rooms was a fantastic club with first class facilities but to players outside the top 32 it was a club that favoured the top guns. Fast cloths, tournament-sized pockets, a venue without the hustle and bustle of a regular snooker hall all helped make this club a perfect venue for the top players to showcase their talents. Even now with the new Ivy Rooms the set-up remains the same.

Slowly over the following seasons entry numbers began to drop and the decline continued to the point when our own national championships attracted a dismal amount of entries over the last two seasons.

RIBSA, in all their wisdom, are forgetting one thing – there is more than one snooker club in Ireland that can be used as a venue. Yes, they have made the decision to add another this season, and in Letterkenny they couldn’t have made it any more difficult to attract entries to the events, but to grow this game, to attract new talent, you have to go to the real grass-roots of the game and that is in the many clubs scattered throughout the country.

During the early 1980s to early ’90s the calendar consisted of visits to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Galway, Ballina, Sligo and of course the two or three that were held in Dublin.  Some of these places were visited twice such was the number of tournaments held each season. Entry numbers were always well on excess of over 100 players. It was always the players who came from Dublin who prevailed but as the seasons went on the local player’s game developed so much that it became no surprise to see somebody from outside the capital win an event.

As I mentioned there has been a decline in the number of clubs but all one has to do is look at the amount of clubs that are registered to RIBSA now and you will realise that the venues are there and waiting to be used. Club owners are not looking for much in return. The publicity a ranking event garners along with the income on snacks and refreshments sold over a ranking event weekend is enough to keep the club owners happy.

So why isn’t this decision made to return the snooker calendar back around the country again?

That answer lies with RIBSA and none more so than with our chairman and recently voted president of the International Billiards and Snooker Federation Jim Leacy. It’s up to Jim to help grow this sport and with the power he now has in international snooker circles surely his first task is to reinvent the Irish game.

Along with his elected members it is up to them to reignite the ambition and drive RIBSA once held. Remember, this is the same governing body that held two very successful World Amateur Championships in Ireland with less money to spend but with the determination to make things happen.

The fact is the players are there, the clubs are there, all it needs is imagination to get this sport back where it belongs. Beginners couldn’t have it any better as in PJ Nolan we have one of the game’s finest coaches who is prepared to travel to anywhere in Ireland to assist players of any standard with their game.

I along with many others did my coaching course under PJ’s watchful eye and it has helped me develop as well as aiding some promising young talent in my own club.

It was when I looked at the RIBSA calendar to select some events that they could enter that the problems became all too clear. The junior events have now been split into different age sections and, disastrously, they have also been split into regional zones.

For instance, only before Christmas I attended one of these zones held in Dublin’s Spawell Club. Nine players had entered, two were mine with the remaining majority made up of players from the Spawell. Other zones had near enough the same entries. Why couldn’t they just hold one zone and have all the players enter just that one? That way, with a bigger field, there is more competition, the players can get to know their opponents, the standard will be better and more importantly the players will have a genuine feeling that they are playing in a proper junior event.

If the junior players have this to look forward to you can almost guarantee more juniors taking up the game.

Again this is up to RIBSA and its elected members to move ideas like this forward.

The same can be said about the Intermediate, Senior and Masters events.

Another angle in which RIBSA should take a long hard look at is the financial reward for those competing. Recently a top player told me that after reaching a final of a ranking event he received €125. How can this be if there was over 50 entries in the tournament? How is RIBSA ever going to entice more to the game if the rewards on offer are so poor? It doesn’t take a genius to tally up the entries and work out that the prizes on offer are poor compared to the entries received.

Last Good Friday Fairview Snooker Club under the guidance of Tony Nolan ran a handicap event. The number of entries that flooded into the event was so large to the extent that a standby list was created for those wanting to play. Every single cent paid in went out in prizes and the tournament was a huge success. This Easter Tony has asked me to host a joint event between our two clubs such is the scale of entries we are expecting.

If two club owners can do this then why can’t our governing body?

The fact is RIBSA has lost its direction, it has lost its appeal amongst most players and quite frankly the organisation of their tournaments is laughable.

It’s time RIBSA took a long hard look at itself. I appreciate that the members have lives to lead and businesses and jobs to do outside of their RIBSA remit and that they feel they are trying and doing their best but sadly this is not the case.

Snooker in Ireland is at a crossroads. It can go either direction, but only one direction will guarantee that perhaps someday we can be cheering on another world champion. The talent is there, of that there is no question. Only last autumn the Irish Senior team won the Home International Series in Wales. What has been built around that since? how have these players on that victorious team been rewarded or acknowledged?

There is a generation of players out there, and they know who they are, who play in every single tournament. They put in the hours on the practice table and graft out wins in league matches week in week out. These guys want to go further in the game and all they want is support and help from the governing body.

Ireland lost its annual card for the main pro tour last season. Was an appeal lodged by RIBSA? Were any questions asked as to why this happened?

With his new role as IBSF chief, Jim Leacy has huge influence now on the powers that be and can make some inroads in establishing Ireland’s place back in the winners circle again. It’s many years since we had back-to-back world amateur champions in Ken Doherty and Stephen O’Connor and its about time we had one again.

There can be no excuse. We have the infrastructure in the clubs, the owners are ready and willing to help, we have a great national coach and more recently two more qualified World Snooker coaches in Gay Burns and Dan Carroll to help grow the game.

RIBSA need to reorganise and reshape the council, get the people in who know what is going on, engage with them and more importantly listen to their ideas.

It’s up to the players then to grasp the initiative and enter the tournaments and build Irish snooker back up again.

If Irish snooker continues to lose supporters and events such as the Snookerbacker Classic the game and our players will continue to suffer.

It’s now up to everyone involved – past, present and indeed future – to stand up and make yourself heard.

Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.