By Fin Ruane
Just over two months ago the snooker world was fixated on Sheffield as the blue riband event of the season took place.
This year, the World Championship was even more special as it was the 40th anniversary of the prestigious event being held at the iconic Crucible Theatre. The tournament continues to grow each year and, alongside increased prize money and viewing figures worldwide, one wonders why a world team format has not enjoyed such success.
Since 1979, several tournaments have been held under the banner of a snooker World Cup. Success was limited but the tournament only began to catch the mainstream public’s attention in the mid-1980s when an all-Ireland team of Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, and Dubliner Eugene Hughes won the title three years in a row. Coupled with Taylor’s famous world title win in 1985 it really was a golden time for the World Cup and indeed the sport in general. The event ran for three more years before it was terminated off the calendar in 1990.
Early in 1996, a press release from then WPBSA chairman John Spencer announced that the World Cup was to be added again to the calendar and that it would take place in Bangkok in late October of that year. In addition, it would coincide with celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s accession to the throne. Tournament sponsors and the venue were soon announced with the format increased to include the many countries now playing the sport. There was also a massive £400,000 prize fund with £105,000 on offer to the victorious team.
Bangkok in the early 1990s had become the new mecca for snooker, which was solely down to two people – Sindhi Pulsirivong, the hardworking president of the Thai snooker association, and Bangkok born player James Wattana.
The Thai snooker boom saw snooker clubs opening up right across the vast city, and sponsors and television companies didn’t hold back in jumping on the Wattana bandwagon. At one stage Wattana was more famous in Thailand than the world number one golfer Tiger Woods, whose mother hailed from Thailand.
A once largely unnoticed ranking event, the Asian Open became the Thailand Open, then the Thailand Masters. Kloster and Singa, the top selling beers at the time in Thailand, became sponsors and coupled with the exotic location of the country the event grew to become one of the most popular on the calendar. Thai Airways also jumped on board as sponsors and it was not unusual to see a 747 leave Heathrow Airport bound for the Thailand Masters each March laden with snooker players and accompanying family and friends.
The Castrol Honda Snooker World Cup format was released in early Spring of 1996 and, with 20 teams of three players each, this was looking to be a tournament not to be missed. I had previously enjoyed four trips to Thailand, with my pal Ken Doherty almost coming home with the Thailand Masters title in 1996 except for an agonising 9-8 deciding frame loss to Alan McManus in the final. I was looking forward to travelling East again, more so when it was announced that my great friend Stephen Murphy was on the Ireland team alongside Ken and Fergal O’Brien.
The flights were booked and in the lead up to travelling more teams were announced. It was clear that this wasn’t going to be any old World Cup when the likes of current world champion Stephen Hendry and the “Rocket” Ronnie O’Sullivan were down to play for their respective countries alongside another good friend Joe Swail for Northern Ireland.
The fabulous Armari Watergate Hotel was chosen as the venue for the tournament and, with all players, officials, friends, and family staying in the hotel, the signs were there that something good was about to happen.
The Scotland team with Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, and Alan McManus were overwhelming favourites for the title with the highly fancied England team of Peter Ebdon, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and Nigel Bond expected to be their biggest threat. Wales with Anthony Davies, Mark Williams, and Darren Morgan and Northern Ireland’s Dennis Taylor, Terry Murphy. and Joe Swail had to be considered also alongside the Canadian team of Jim Wych, Alain Robidoux, and the Grinder Cliff Thorburn. Of course, the Republic of Ireland had the three Dubliners in action.
Hosts Thailand had their talisman James Wattana leading their charge alongside Noppadon Noppachorn and former Buddhist monk Tai Pichit. Australia and New Zealand had Quinten Hann and Dene O’Kane on board while Malta was led by Tony Drago. Other notable players were Silvino Francisco and Shokat Ali, lining up for South Africa and Pakistan respectively, with Bjorn Haneveer competing for Belgium.
The lavish open-air opening ceremony for the tournament was held on the 28th October and it really was a who’s who of snooker players. Alongside the competing players were the assembled press and it was great to see John Dee and Phil Yates in attendance, as were the BBC commentators who travelled – including Clive Everton, Willie Thorne, and veteran Ted Lowe, who was lured out of retirement for the event. Ted unfortunately became ill on arrival in Bangkok and even though he stayed for the duration of the event he didn’t commentate a single word. Thankfully Ted made a full recovery. The very likeable table fitter Andy Kennedy was also present.
Everyone right down to the tournament directors and officials were in great form and were eager to get this huge event started.
The format was a simple one. Four groups of five teams would play a round robin series of matches with the top two teams in each group going through to the quarter-final knock out stage. Each player would play each other in a nine frame match.
As expected, the Scotland team or ‘Dream Team’ as they were now referred to went about their business dispatching Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Canada en route to the quarter-finals, losing only seven frames along the way. Incidentally, Silvino Francisco, who was the oldest player in the tournament, defeated Hendry, Higgins, and McManus, yet his team still lost 6-3 to Scotland and failed to qualify.
Most of the matches not featuring the top teams turned out to be long, drawn out affairs as some countries had no professionals so in their place amateur players were allowed to compete.
After a few days of play, the tournament began to take shape and the contenders for the title were clearly seen. However, despite a 5-4 loss to Northern Ireland, something was beginning to click with the three Dubliners on the Republic of Ireland side. Here were three lads who played and practiced as amateurs from an early age, shared many a homesick night in London, who were now representing their country on the international stage.
I had known each of them as well as each other so to be considered a big part of the team and the spirit by their talisman skipper Ken Doherty early in the event summed up how much each of the lads were supporting each other. Here there was no egos or star status and that to me and everyone out there who witnessed the incredible camaraderie amongst the team is one of the main reasons these guys went so far in the event. Obviously being superb snooker players helped too.
At every snooker event anywhere in the world there’s a watering hole where everyone meets up to, excuse the pun, banish the day’s blues or simply just to chill or debate a talking point that popped up during the day. At the Castrol Honda World Cup that watering hole was the hotel’s basement bar Henry J. Beans. Here was a bar that served American type food and snacks, had live music, but most importantly of all served alcohol into the wee hours. With jet lag taking hold and body clocks messed up, this bar was a godsend. Some of the funniest moments I’ve had around snooker happened in this very bar, from Cliff Thorburn doing his Mohommad Ali and Arnold Palmer impressions, to Stephen Murphy and John Higgins Junior and Senior singing ballads, to Tony Drago moaning about Robbie Foldvari’s slow play, this bar was the place to be.
Some nights just for pure amusement we would fill a jug full of water and we would all put our newly purchased fake watches in to see whose would last the longest. This was great fun until Hendry walked in one night. Before he could ask what was going on John Higgins Snr whipped his watch off and threw it in the jug. Unbeknown to John Snr and the rest of us, Stephen’s watch wasn’t a fake and we all held our breath to see how his Armani would fare out against the various Rolex and Tag Hauer timepieces that were slowly beginning to come apart as they submerged to the bottom of the jug. Hendry’s watch survived but only with a fogged up screen for the rest of the tournament.
Soon everyone knew about this place and it became a nightly ritual after play finished to get down to Henry J. Beans and join in the fun. Probably the funniest thing that happened during the tournament was the night all the so-called “La-Di-Das” (this was what Peter Ebdon’s manager Troy Dante called the top players) were invited to the Michael Jackson concert taking place in Bangkok. Better still, they had been informed that they were to meet Jackson himself after the gig. So off go all the team captains whilst their fellow team members waited in the bar for the review of the gig and, more importantly, what exactly Michael Jackson was like. If memory serves me right, an autographed cue was even brought along to present to the King of Pop.
The boys saw Jackson alright, from behind his huge security screen as he was whisked through the lobby of his hotel into a waiting limo and off to the airport. I’m open to correction but rumour had it Stephen Henry was left holding the autographed cue in a by then empty hotel lobby. Trust me, the stick the guys got when they returned to Henry J’s was comical.
The tournament continued the following day with the quarter-finals taking place. Eight new players had arrived in Bangkok as subs for their teams. Michael Judge became the fourth Dubliner on the Irish team while Billy Snaddon was Scotland’s and Gary Wilkinson England’s. As runners-up in their group, the Republic were drawn against Canada, which turned out to be an emotional affair as this was Cliff Thorburn’s last game as a professional. Stephen Murphy, who for many years was great pals with Cliff, found it tough to play against his old friend but in the end the Irish ran out 10-6 winners. England defeated Australia 10-5, Scotland knocked out Northern Ireland 10-6, and Thailand rode the wave of massive local support and defeated Wales 10-9.
With Thailand in the last four publicity went through the roof and snooker was front page news on all the local papers. TV coverage was absolutely saturated as everywhere you went the snooker was on. If you travelled to the infamous Patpong night market every stall had a potable TV rigged up to a generator. The snooker players were mobbed and even someone asked me for my autograph simply because i was with the players.
It was semi-final day and, even though the boys were drawn against the old enemy England, confidence was so high in the team that talk of getting Scotland in the final was mentioned once or twice. This was soon shot down by Ken and, despite the fact he was struggling to play as he had got glandular during the event, he was still as sharp as ever on and off the table.
The match was a classic. With England in command at one stage, it was again the incredible resilience and determination of the Irish lads that they were able to force a decider. We could hear the English lads arguing amongst themselves and we knew we had them, inevitably it went to a final frame shootout to decide who would make the final. No surprise and with absolutely no discussion up stepped Ken and his opponent was Ronnie.
Reminiscent of the famous black ball World Championship in 1985 this was a late night finish, and as the clock passed 3am local time we were down to the blue. Twice Ronnie needed two snookers and twice he got them but he still couldn’t handle Ken’s match play at this crucial stage of the frame and Ken duly pot blue and pink to seal a famous win. The three boys made a speedy visit to the press room for a quick Q&A with the press while I organised a taxi and located a late night bar where we could all celebrate.
The cheers that came from the audience and press room alike almost drowned out the cheers from myself and Ken’s teammates. There was no denying it but this was a hugely popular win and even the several U.K. journalists present couldn’t help but be pleased for these very popular Dubliners.
Their opponents in the final came as no surprise when the Scottish dream team ended host nation Thailand’s hopes when they won through comfortable winners 10-5. With the host nation now gone the locals adopted the Irish team as their own and in no time both sessions of the following day’s final were completely sold out.
The day of the final soon arrived and we all met downstairs in the hotel for breakfast. It was remarkable how calm the three boys were. Even Fergal had us in stitches laughing, telling us his jokes in his unique deadpan style. A visit to the practice room was arranged, then soon after both captains handed in their team sheets to the tournament director.
The first session was a dogged affair and the Scots raced into a 4-0 lead without hitting any real form. The boys soon got going and won the following three. The next frame had for me the match turning point. Stephen was up against McManus and, after opening with a 50, then put McManus in trouble. McManus took a bash at a long red and missed it by at least a foot only for the red to fly around the table and go in the green pocket. He got back into the frame before a tussle on the colours. Stephen then potted the pink but landed high on the black. Attempting the difficult cut he left the black hanging, which MaManus gleefully accepted. 5-3 instead of 4-4 soon became 6-3 at the end of the first session.
During that few hours before the final evening session the five of us, now including Mick Judge, went for a bite to eat in Henry J’s. I could see and feel the sense of frustration amongst the boys because they knew as well as I did that they simply showed Scotland too much respect in the first session and didn’t go at them from the start like they did against England in the semis. Quite simply, they let the Scots off the hook and believe me the Scots knew it. I could sense that the evening session was not going to be the same, though.
True to their world the boys got off to a flyer and won the first two frames with Ken and Stephen outclassing McManus and Higgins to get within one frame at 6-5.
The next few frames became scrappy and the Scotland boys soon knew that they were in a proper battle. Two agonising 50-minute frames were lost on the blue and pink respectively and made the score 8-5. Not going down without a fight, the Irish lads battled back with Ken beating Hendry and Fergal defeating Higgins. Back to 8-7 and suddenly it was game on, but Scotland were not tournament favourites for no reason and, living up their Dream Team tag, they won the next two frames to see off the Irish boys and win the final 10-7 – collecting the £105,000 cheque and the gold trophy commissioned especially for the event.
At the reception held later that evening the Irish boys were in great form. Don’t get me wrong the boys were gutted losing because they knew if they had played anywhere near their best in the first session and had a run of the balls it would have been a different name on that trophy.
The Scottish boys joined in and, along with all the officials and several players of other countries who had stayed on in Bangkok, the party soon got into full swing. I’m convinced to this day that Henry J. Beans had its most lucrative 18 days and nights in its history whilst the tournament was on.
God knows what time the party wound up but several of us never made it to bed that night and went straight to breakfast. Checking out was a great laugh too, Stephen joked that the he may struggle to have much left out of his runners-up cheque of £18,000 once his bar bill was settled. Likewise I also dreaded checking out, and I heard someone joke that half a rainforest was used such was the amount of paper required to print out our bill.
Thai Airways TG911 departed Bangkok later that night bound for London carrying the Scottish and Irish teams, and the remaining officials, friends, and family. I think as soon as the plane hit cruising altitude every one of us was asleep.
On arrival at Dublin airport the following morning, following a transfer at Heathrow, we were welcomed by some family and friends. Stephen quipped that we were three frames away from an open top bus journey through Dublin. Instead it was a taxi ride home. We couldn’t help but break into fits of laughter.
A perfect end to an absolutely incredible 18 days.