Not so long ago, Snooker looked to be heading into the corner pocket of sporting mediocrity. We pay tribute to the characters that have helped bring a bit of drama back to the table.
Ronnie O’Sullivan joining Twitter is the best news I’ve had since Waitrose started knocking out half-price chickens with a Delia Smith recipe the other week (delicious it was, and under three quid). One of the most emotionally honest people in the world having direct access to his fans and vice-versa – what could possibly go wrong?
So far Ronnie’s tweets have steered well clear of the controversial, taking time out to compliment rivals, express his love of The Only Way is Essex and offer delightful vignettes on his day-to-day at the World Championship such as this little gem on the first morning of his quarter-final against John Higgins:
‘Loving being in Sheffield this year. There’s a good feel about the place. Just going to Mark & Spencer for some black socks.’
Apart from the random but important sock detail, a couple of things struck me about this tweet. One, Ronnie’s enjoying himself, and when he’s happy, we’re all happy because we want him to love playing the game as much as we love watching him play. Second, he feels there’s a real buzz around the championship.
Watching from the couch, I’m feeling it too. The standard of play so far has been mostly awesome, the last eight of Ding-Selby, Higgins-O’Sullivan, Williams-Allen and Dott-Trump was the most exciting for line-up for years, and the TV presentation is lively and engaging.
For me, a lot of the credit for this has to go to Barry Hearn, World Snooker’s new chairman/Godfather. Why?
For a start, the players are actually full-time professionals again. A couple of years ago, due to the amateurish mismanagement of the sport by previous regimes, there were just half a dozen major tournaments per season. Ali Carter was forced to take a second job piloting Easyjet planes back and forth to Fuerteventura, snooker’s Sixties throwback Mark Selby was auditioning for a role in Mad Men while Stephen Hendry was selling cleaning products door-to-door just to get out of the house between competitions. Now, with Bazza in charge, there’s PTC tournaments every other week, One-Frame shootouts, speed snooker and ranking events that actually have sponsors. Consequently, when the players arrived for the big one at Sheffield this year, they were match-sharp, and not just trying to remember which end of the cue to chalk.
Rory’s been a pro for twenty years now, and by my calculations, if his steady but remorseless rise up the rankings continues, he will be the number one player in the world somewhere around 2017.
Second, Hearn has brought to snooker the energy and flair his Matchroom organisation have previously applied profitably to the TV presentation of other sports such as darts and pool. I’ve thought the BBC coverage of the sport has needed a kick up the arse for many years. Previously, the player profile video montages before matches, which should give viewers with little snooker knowledge some insight into the personalities involved, usually consisted of footage of the player wandering round a field somewhere for no obvious reason looking depressed (as you would be if someone told you to walk round a field while the filmed you for no obvious reason). Or if they really couldn’t be bothered, the player lying on their bed staring at the walls in a soulless hotel room looking depressed. These were hardly images to sell the game to the kids. The other day, I caught a short profile of Mark Selby with images of him sauntering around Sheffield in sunglasses, getting fitted for tailored suits, and hanging out with his pretty fiancee. All a bit more aspirational.
Back in the Eighties, Hearn memorably described the game as “Coronation Street with balls”. Since those Snooker Loopy days, people have lamented the lack of characters in the game for audiences to identify with, but this championship is proving that the snooker soap opera is undergoing revival. I mean, who could fail to be moved by feisty Mark Allen putting aside his off-table troubles to record an emotional first-round 10-9 win over Matthew Stevens, capped with a kiss for his daughter Lauren in the front row. It was like Hurricane Higgins in ’82 all over again.
Meanwhile, World Snooker are cleverly using BBC coverage of the event to emphasise this is a sport with a bright future. Witness the previews of the forthcoming Q School in May, where players, from the prodigious Luca Brecel to former star Tony Knowles, can take a shot at their dream of qualifying for the main tour. Knowlesy is playing Mike Hallett in the first round, an Eighties revival match that personally I think should be televised live on the Beeb. Hearn’s even appears to have persuaded Robbie Williams to take time out from his busy Take That touring schedule to compete (seriously – check the draw).
Fundamentally, as Ronnie tweeted, it just seems like there is a feelgood factor about the sport again. Even poker-faced Ding looks like he’s having fun these days. And people seem to be enjoying that Street Snooker malarky going on outside the Crucible – looks properly mental to me but each to their own.
A couple of years ago, due to the amateurish mismanagement of the sport by previous regimes, there were just half a dozen major tournaments per season. Ali Carter was forced to take a second job piloting Easyjet planes back and forth to Fuerteventura.
That’s the thing about Barry Hearn – and I’ve seen this as a journalist covering Matchroom-organised pool, darts and poker events from London to Taipei to Las Vegas – he understands that you need to entertain to grab your audience, is not afraid to experiment and innovate, and really knows how to put on a show. Thankfully, he’s finally returned to the sport where he first made his name and given it a new lease of life.
I can see just one possible issue for the Brentwood impresario as the snooker revolution continues apace. What to do about my new favourite player, Rory McLeod?
There’s something about Rory I find really endearing. I loved his blank denial of responsibility for the snail-like, negative play in his first round match which had Ricky Walden considering smashing the bottle of Highland Spring by his seat, severing an artery and putting himself out of his misery. And, maybe, as I get older I am drawn less to the naturally gifted, for whom success comes easily, than to journeymen like Rory who’ve had to struggle with more limited talents to fulfil their dreams. As a failed snooker pro who gave up pretty quickly, I’m full of admiration for the way McLeod has persevered and made a career in the sport he loves (and he must really love it, the amount of time he spends playing matches). Whether you like watching him play or not, his achievements deserve respect. And as for that magnificent beard, what’s not to like?
But with the best will in the world, Rory’s not really “box office” and if him and Peter Ebdon ever play each other in the world final it could signal an unintentional return to the Joe Davis era of week-long matches.
Rory’s been a pro for twenty years now, and by my calculations, if his steady but remorseless rise up the rankings continues, he will be the number one player in the world somewhere around 2017. That gives Hearn just six years to work out how to sell Rory’s attritional style of play to the masses, a tricky one even for a master promoter. Will leave that one with you, Bazza…
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