“I fancy our chances. People forget that twelve months ago we were favourites to win the league again and we were the best team in the world.”
Having the opportunity to talk with any player is always a pleasure, but when it’s a fellow Liverpool football fan it makes the process that little bit more enjoyable.
After nattering away for a good ten minutes on the team’s chances this year, Liverpool’s title rivals, and Man Utd’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, I had to check myself and remember that I was actually supposed to be conducting an interview with a snooker player.
A Londoner with an Irish background, it was clear that I had a lot of things in common with Martin O’Donnell, and our chat together left me with the impression that we’d probably have no problems sharing a Guinness or two.
“It’s a slow start to the season, isn’t it?” reflected O’Donnell, the world number number 46, when we finally change pace and talk about the opening to this 2021/22 snooker campaign.
“You have a tournament and then three weeks off, you have another tournament and then three weeks before a qualifier. It’s quite a steady start, which kind of suited me because I moved house in the summer and I’ve been busy with that.”
“I’ve got another qualifier coming up in the English Open, but I’ve got Mark Allen in the Scottish Open so I’ll be held over in that one.
“Then I go to Belfast in October, and it’s good to have got through the qualifier in that because when I looked at the calendar I thought if I don’t get through here, October looks pretty bleak for playing opportunities.
“It’s not that condensed, we’re still suffering from the effects of COVID massively with the loss of the overseas tournaments. It’s annoying and it’s worrying.”
“The people at WST – you know, Barry Hearn has stepped down but the new guy has come in and created a couple of new tournaments – and along with Jason Ferguson they have been fantastic for snooker over the last ten years.
“People are very quick to get on their backs, but they do need to start producing a bit more for us. Lads need earning opportunities, and you’re getting to a stage now where only the top 20 or 25 in the world are financially comfortable with this amount of tournaments.
“From the lads I talk to, everyone else is pretty worried about things – when is the next pay cheque coming in?
“It’s a lovely wake-up call in a way, because maybe we shouldn’t be depending on the Far East too much. It’s literally half of our earning opportunity because the money is so big out there. That’s potentially half of your wages gone for the season.”
“It’d be nice to make some bigger events over here, and I think the Home Nations could be developed to be bigger than what they are.
“From a players point of view, there’s quite a good buzz at the Home Nations when there are fans there – they feel like big tournaments.
“It just goes to show the support we get in the UK. You could play for more money in China, but the feeling for the Home Nations tournaments is that they are bigger. It’s just that the financial rewards are not quite as big.”
At the most recent ranking event in August, the revamped British Open was played in Leicester with a huge £100,000 top prize countered by the somewhat peculiar decision to contest the majority of the matches over the best of five frames.
O’Donnell, who has a career-high snooker ranking of 32 but is currently closer to the top 64 cut-off point in the provisional end-of-season rankings list, is well aware that the shorter formats can benefit the lower-ranked competitors but nevertheless feels that the structure of the prize money needs changing.
“I don’t want to give them too much stick, because quite a few years ago we asked snooker to beef up the first-round cheques, and to be fair they produced.”
“It’ll take time then to beef up the second and third-round cheques, and hopefully that happens year on year so that you’re getting better rewarded for getting further in tournaments.
“Your third match in the Home Nations isn’t going to be worth as much as your first match, but you’re definitely going to be playing a tougher game, which doesn’t seem right.
“It was great to have the British Open back, but how can you have a best-of-five tournament worth more than a best-of-seven tournament?
“When you’re doing the prize money rankings, they’ve got to rectify that. These Home Nations tournaments, they have such a big feel to them and you get big crowds, they should be a minimum of £100,000 to the winner, and the rest of the prize money that filters down should follow with that.
“You’ve got things like the Shoot Out and nobody agrees that should be a ranking event. But they’ve told us that if it’s not ranking, TV and broadcasters won’t want it so we’ll lose the event.
“You are better to have it than not have it and you can take that with one tournament a year, but you can’t really have best of fives in the rankings worth more than best of sevens and longer formats.
“They are a little bit of a lottery, and you don’t have to do a lot wrong to lose a best of five. Next thing will be that Pro Series worth £150,000!”
O’Donnell first turned professional in 2012, graduating from snooker Q School on the back of winning the inaugural Snookerbacker Classic, and while he was relegated after his debut stint, things have generally improved since getting back on in 2015.
He reached at least the quarter-final stage of four events during the 2018 calendar year, including a run to the last eight in the UK Championship at the Barbican Centre and a semi-final appearance at the Shoot Out.
“To be honest, it goes so fast that I can’t believe I’ve been on tour for ten years. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like that, it feels like five.”
“In some ways, I probably enjoyed the tour a little bit more at the beginning. Sometimes, it can be a little bit cut-throat and a bit business-like.
“But since 2015, it’s been progressing nicely. I managed to move on and stay on the tour properly by getting into the top 64 and have stayed there ever since.
“Obviously, you always want more – I’m not overly happy with the last year and where I am ranked, so I want to start climbing the table again, pushing on, and getting to the latter stages of tournaments because I know that’s what I’m capable of.
“It was probably the birth of my eldest son, Charlie, that kind of sparked my run of form in 2018. Before you have kids, you think you’ve got time and you’re settling into things.
“You’re already working hard and wanting to achieve things, but that gave me a real sense of responsibility. He was born in December of 2017, and it kind of gave me a big boost and a big lease of life, which came out on the snooker table that year.
“But I made a mistake really as I altered my cue after that season. There were a couple of things I wasn’t happy with so I was looking for a bit more. And I messed it up, I messed it up badly actually that I wasn’t even sure how to hit the ball any more.
“Although I didn’t have a bad season money-wise, I felt like I should have kicked on at that time and that’s a massive regret of mine.
“Luckily, I took the cue back to John Parris and he got it back to pretty much how it was before I altered it, so I’m lucky and I’m fully happy with it now. I’m enjoying my snooker again.”
An English Amateur Championship runner-up in 2006 and 2012, O’Donnell has aspirations like any other snooker competitor on the main tour, and the 35 year-old has set himself a few immediate targets ahead of the seasons ahead.
“I definitely want to go deep into a tournament where I get into a one-table setup,” the Englishman, who counts Stuart Bingham and Anthony Hamilton among his regular practice partners, freely admits.
“At the end of the day, I want to win tournaments. I know there’s a couple of things that probably need to change for me to do that, which is fine because I’m willing to do anything.”
“I want to climb back up the rankings and I think the top 32 is probably a decent target to start with. A big dream of mine is to play at Alexandra Palace for the Masters.
“I grew up in London, it’s where I played, and it’s where I first used to go and watch live snooker when it was in the Conference Centre at Wembley.
“That would be huge for me. To get myself in the top 16, that would be a massive boost. There’s a long way for me to go to achieve that, but that would be a big target for me.
“At the end of the day, we’ve all just got a piece of wood in our hands trying to pot snooker balls on the table. It’s about trying to have that good week that could potentially change your life and kick you on.”
And, unable to resist the temptation to end our conversation on that other mutual passion, what about Liverpool’s chances this season?
“I’m quietly confident. There’s Chelsea and Man City, and I think it’s going to be a tight title race, but we’ll definitely be in the mix.”
Featured photo credit: WST