Features and Interviews

The Big Interview: Josh Boileau

By the time the next World Championship comes around in April and May it’ll be 20 years since Ken Doherty’s famous Crucible triumph.

Josh Boileau

Boileau has represented Ireland in big amateur events for the best part of a decade – photo courtesy of PJ Nolan.

Irish snooker is still waiting for a young talent to emerge and compete with the records that the Dubliner set – a world champion, a six times ranking event winner and a former world no.2.

There have been many young hopefuls labeled as the next big thing to come out of Ireland, but the likes of David Morris, David Hogan, Vincent Muldoon and Brendan O’Donoghue have all ultimately come and gone.

The latest name to shoulder the expecation is Josh Boileau, who makes his bow as a professional this Thursday against Matthew Stevens in the World Open qualifiers.

Without doubt, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the County Kildare cueist, as there has been ever since he began to dominate the domestic junior scene a number of years ago.

It was inevitably a matter of when, rather than if, he would gain his professional status and, by capturing the European Under-21 Championship in February at the age of 20, Boileau wasted little time in fulfilling his first dream.

“I’m only starting now, it’s only the beginning,” Boileau candidly opens our conversation with a reminder that the hard work is yet to come.

It all started, like with most who eventually aspire to reach this level, when Boileau was barely tall enough to reach a table.

“I was six or seven and I was on holidays playing pool first of all, before I kind of gradually started watching snooker on TV.”

“I remember watching the year Shaun Murphy won the World Championship in 2005. After that my dad decided on my birthday to bring me down to the local snooker club in Naas.

“I was so small, I couldn’t believe the size of the tables when I went in. I kept going then at the weekends for a few hours and it started from there.

“I used to play football at the time but it was around when I was 11 or 12 that I decided to stop because the matches would be clashing with tournaments at weekends.

“I had to choose one or the other and I didn’t even think about it, I chose snooker straight away.”

Another important decision was made a few years later, one which it seems many of the game’s leading players make before forging a successful career in the sport.

“Every day I was in school all I was thinking about was playing snooker,” Boileau admits, and he wouldn’t be the first competitor with that kind of restless mindset.

Despite understandable reservations from his father, Boileau quit school ahead of the penultimate year on the eve of his 17th birthday.

It was a risk, but one worth taking as he began to think of snooker more professionally as his future career.

“It was hard with school as I didn’t really enjoy it. My dad was more in favour of me getting a job first but my mam was 100% supportive, she knew it was what I wanted to do.

“My dad was supportive obviously but he was just a bit afraid if it didn’t go well or something like that. In anything you do there’s a risk and you need to have a Plan B – he was just looking out for me.

“I picked the thing I loved more so than the thing you’re obliged to do. And I was always thinking that, well, if snooker doesn’t go to plan I can go back as a mature student.”

Maturing as a player will be the next major step for Boileau as he embarks on his debut campaign, with potentially the stark realisation to come that he’s not going to be featuring at the business end of competitions with such regularity any more.

Boileau has always threatened the latter stages of junior events, both nationally and internationally, while in recent years he began to make his mark on the senior set-up as well.

“At the beginning I wasn’t really winning events, I was maybe getting to semi-finals and finals. That would qualify me for Irish teams and things like that.”

“I was winning little ranking events here and there but PJ Nolan, my coach, was always saying how nobody is going to remember at the end of the season who finished no.1 – it was who won the National Championship, that was the important event.

Josh Boileau Trophies

Boileau’s won a few trophies – photo courtesy of Josh.

“It’s the same as who’s world champion and who’s world no.1. You’re going to remember the world champion. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I won a National Championship. Since then I’ve become more confident and it’s just built from there.

“Representing Ireland was a dream. Just knowing that was there at the end of the season, if you were good enough to qualify.

“You see the likes of the football on TV and you want to be a part something similar in your own sport. Especially when you love where you live and you love your country so much, you want to be proud and represent them.”

“In the last few years it hasn’t been quite as much of a thrill as I’ve kind of treated it more so as a job rather than a hobby like it was back then. But back then it was everything I wanted to do.”

Of course, a lot of Boileau’s biggest moments as an amateur came while representing Ireland in major international competitions.

Twice in 2014 the then teenager came within a whisker of glory and what would have been an early ticket onto the Main Tour.

“In the first defeat at the European Under-21s I didn’t expect to get to the final to be honest. I don’t think many did.”

“I got a shoulder injury in that tournament. I was playing Oliver Liners in the group stages actually, and after I beat him I was thinking about pulling out of the tournament because I was in too much pain. I was struggling to even get down onto a shot, it was unbearable.

“The further I went on the adrenaline started to kick in and I must have been getting excited.

“Once I got to the final that was the first time that Oliver had actually beaten me. I put too much pressure on myself I think because I had beaten him four or five times in Home Internationals and things like that. I was thinking ‘you have never lost to him and if you beat him now you’re a professional snooker player’. I was only 18 so I think I got a bit too ahead of myself.

“I was more confident at the World Under-21s after what I achieved at the Euros. But I remember I got off to a terrible start.

“I think I lost 4-0 in my first game and then I beat Yan Bingtao. If I hadn’t beaten him I don’t think I would have got out of my group.

“Something then kicked in as I got into the knockout phase. I just strolled through up until the semis and had a tight match with Zhao Xintong.

Boileau and Lines

Boileau after losing 6-1 to Lines in the European Under-21 final – photo courtesy of PJ Nolan.

“I played Hossein Vafaei Ayouri in the final and he’s a brilliant player obviously. I was confident I could win but I wasn’t putting pressure on myself. I was thinking whatever happens, happens.

“It was a great experience and I think it was that final, rather than the first one, that gave me the push this year to win because the nerves were gone. Against Lines I didn’t really take anything from it because I thought about it too much.

“Dubai and the World Under-21s then pushed me on. Looking at Oliver now also gave me the inspiration to keep going.

“He’s doing very well. He’s in the top 64 at the minute and has held onto his card.

“Obviously, he’s had the two years experience on the pro tour compared to what I’ve had but at the time we were just as good as each other. It gave me inspiration, knowing that if he can get there then so can I.”

Two years later and Boileau was back in another major amateur final, again in the European Under-21 Championship, as he was looking to make it third-time lucky.

A couple of months previously, at the tail end of 2015, the youngster had already got a monkey off his back by capturing his maiden Irish senior ranking title in his fourth final, so subsequently went to Poland in a confident mood.

After breezing through the round-robin phase, the challenge fully commenced in his second knock-out encounter, where lady luck was on Boileau’s side.

“I had Alexander Ursenbacher in the last 16 and he was ahead. It went 3-3 and I got very lucky with one shot.

“I missed a straight-forward black into the middle and it somehow went back up into the yellow bag. PJ said to me that this must be your tournament because that black was ridiculous.

“I played well in the quarter-finals and then I had the semi-final with Joe O’Connor. I started quickly and went 3-1 ahead but he played three very good frames to go 4-3 in front.

“He was a long way ahead in the next frame but I managed to come back and get a re-spotted black. He took a double on and I remember PJ telling me after the match that it was in but it drifted off and he left it hanging.

“It went 4-4 and I won the decider easily enough. I didn’t even think about the final, I was just expecting it to happen. I felt like it was meant to be.”

And the cycle was complete, with Boileau reversing his 6-1 defeat to Lines by inflicting the same scoreline on Brandon Sargeant in the final.

“He reminded me of my position a couple of years ago and I wasn’t going to let that slip this time – and to another Englishman especially!”

Unfortunately for Boileau, he was unable to revel in his glory as the next morning he was due to compete in the European Men’s Championship as well.

Josh Boileau European U-21 Champ

The cup that made him pro – photo courtesy of PJ Nolan.

“I wanted to go out but nobody would go out with me because they were playing the events. So I had one drink, went to bed and treated it like nothing happened.

“But the response on Facebook was just brilliant. I knew I had a lot of support at home but you kind of forget sometimes until something big like that happens and then you see just how much support you have. It’s even more than you think.

“My family was obviously delighted but my mam was a bit disgusted. She has been travelling with me for the last ten years but she didn’t get to go this time.

“She was crying on the phone and they were all having a drink for me in the pub so that made me happy.”

With the breakthrough, the Naas native earned the potentially lucrative two-year card onto the Main Tour but earning a living from the sport is far from a guarantee.

Even with his upgraded status, Boileau, who opened up a gofundme account to help raise money to support his first season, has struggled to find the sponsorship which is almost a necessity nowadays in order to survive on the circuit.

With events hosted all around the world, it can be very expensive to travel and support oneself for an entire campaign – particularly if the results are not going your way.

“If I had a sponsor I’d play everything. I’m still looking for someone to come on board but it’s very difficult, especially in Ireland.

“Snooker really isn’t that big here at all. Nobody really talks about it any more compared to the Goffs days.

“When I was an amateur I was looking for sponsorship anyway because it was full-time. Even the Europeans, Worlds and PTCs were costing more or less the same as being on the tour. Maybe slightly less but it was still a lot of money that I didn’t have.

“With the professional status I thought it would have made it a little easier. Every day I’m finding someone new to email and go in and have a chat with. Hopefully one of them will see sense.

“The club here in Newbridge is doing everything they can as well and have supported me as much as possible.

“It’s tough because you’re called a professional but if you have a bad season then you’re down ten grand rather than making a living. It’s difficult but you have to stick with it I think and see where you get.”

Winning matches and earning money may be his best offensive, and his opening bout on Thursday is a familiar face as he comes up against Matthew Stevens in the World Open qualifiers – the man who recently hammered him 10-2 in the World Championship qualifiers at Ponds Forge.

“Hopefully I’ll get some revenge this time. The last one didn’t go too well!

“It wasn’t as bad as the scoreline suggested, he won about four or five frames on the colours. But I’m more confident now as I benefited from even having that invitation into the Worlds just to see what it was like.

“I might have been nervous if I was playing him now having not played him in the Worlds, but the fact that I’ve kind of gotten that out of my system has given me more confidence to go out there and beat him.

“I want to be confident in myself and try to win as many matches as possible. I’m not going to put too much hype on myself because I know how tough it is but I am confident that I can get into the 64 within the two years.

“It’s a lot of time and there are a lot of tournaments to play. You don’t know what tournaments you’ll have a good run in and it could just shoot you up the rankings the way the money list is nowadays.”

Where Boileau, who references world champion Mark Selby as a player he admires, will be two years from now will be down to a bit of good fortune and a lot of hard work.

Whether he can challenge the higher echelons like Doherty before him obviously remains to be seen but, in terms of his snooker ability and temperament, he certainly boasts the required tools.

“If you can turn professional obviously you have talent. You have to have some kind of talent to be able to play it.

“That’s why I look up to Mark Selby because I doubt that when he was my age or maybe a bit younger that many people would have thought this is where he’d be now.

“The way he manages to find a way to win a match, to win a tournament, is something I’d look up to.

“It’s the same in any sport really. If you put the work in then you’ll see the results.”

Josh Boileau plays Matthew Stevens at 2:30pm on Thursday, 2nd June.

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