Snooker loopy Essex
PUBLISHED: 10:35 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:35 28 April 2015
Essex has been home to some of the world's most gifted snooker players and with the World Championships climaxing this month, don't bet against another Essex boy lifting the trophy, writes Hector Nunns
TALK to World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn and he will tell you that in the 1970s, as he was unleashing a young Steve Davis onto an unsuspecting world, it was a pivotal moment for not just snooker, but British sport.
‘It was one of the most exciting times of my life,’ explains Barry. ‘We were at the cusp of changing the face of British sport — and it all came out of Essex, and in particular Romford.’
When the now five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan was eyeing a professional career in the game in the 1980s, and learning his trade in Ilford, he judged Essex as ‘where all the best players were to practise with, learn from and feed off. It was a Mecca for snooker’.
The county has played a huge role in creating a multi-million pound global sport with stars that are recognised the world over. And that influence is still being keenly felt.
At the 2015 Snooker World Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, O’Sullivan, Stuart Bingham and Ali Carter are born and bred Essex men who will be among the favourites, and they will be joined by Romford-based Judd Trump. Essex stars of the future might yet join them in the draw by making it through the gruelling qualifying process.
And overseeing it all is Barry Hearn. From Dagenham to Debden, and later Romford, Brentwood and East Hanningfield, Hearn has lived and worked in Essex his entire life, but it was the purchase of the Lucania chain of snooker and billiard halls in 1974, with its HQ in Romford, that changed everything for him.
‘From way back there were snooker halls in working class areas, and parts of East London spread out into Essex and elsewhere,’ says Hearn. ‘I bought the Lucania clubs in 1974, initially as a property investment. You had these billiard halls in Romford, Barkingside, Dagenham and Hornchurch.
‘But as soon as I walked into one I felt at home. In the day in them you had older people, those out of work, sick or having a day off, and in the evening it was the office workers. The Essex people as we came into the Thatcherite period worked hard and played hard, and were happy to spend their money on a bet, a game of snooker and a drink. There were queues at snooker halls.
‘Vic Harris, who very sadly died recently, was key at Romford because he was a great player, and Steve Davis came to play him — that is how we met. If Vic hadn’t have been around, I might never have met or managed Steve, or be doing what I am doing now. Fate can be strange.
‘We set up a small room, calling it the Matchroom, where we brought the Ray Reardons, the Alex Higginses, John Spencers and Doug Mountjoys to play this young upstart, Davis.
‘And people used to gamble a lot on these games. There were 300 seats, no windows, no fire exits, it probably broke every health and safety rule, but there was this wonderful atmosphere and the famous Romford roar for Steve. We were the hub and you can chart the rise of snooker from Essex.’
Davis, now off the main tour but still playing at 57, was the catalyst and after years of a four-hour round trip commute taking three buses from Plumstead to Romford, he moved to the area and has never left. The six-time world champion is these days living in Stock near Billericay.
‘I wanted to go and find good opposition to test myself — a bit like a gunslinger,’ says Davis, ‘and I found that in Vic Harris at Romford. I found my spiritual home in that club. People were committed to snooker and I felt I was among my own people, who lived and breathed the game.
‘In the early days it was always Romford but more recently for practise I went to Witham to play Ali Carter, and at the club he had in Chelmsford. I have been to Leigh on Sea to play Stuart Bingham when he was there, and Basildon later. Over the years I have been asked to open a few of these clubs.’
O’Sullivan still pays the occasional visit for informal chats with Hearn at his Matchroom HQ at Mascalls in Brentwood, the former family home sold to the promoter by Ford back in 1982 that for sentimental reasons he has never been able to sell.
Ronnie ‘the Rocket’ is the Essex standard bearer these days, and widely acknowledged to be the most talented player ever to pick up a cue, but now striving to equal Scot Stephen Hendry’s record haul of seven world titles.
‘As everyone knows, I love my athletics and growing up in Essex for a snooker player was what growing up in Kenya must be like for a runner,’ says the 39-year-old O’Sullivan. ‘You were surrounded by the best of the best.
‘Essex has had a great part in snooker history. I grew up in Ilford when I was younger, that is where I went to school and where I practised. I live in Chigwell now, but Ilford is more my area. I practise now a few hours here and there, at the Grove Academy in Romford or other places. But back when I was young, everyone knew we had real depth in our snooker talent.’
Bingham and Carter, both winners of multiple ranking titles, the ones that generally define a player’s career, will also be gracing the Crucible — while the likes of Mark King, ranked slightly lower, will only be there if they have won three tough preliminary best-of-19 frame contests.
All connected with snooker, and many outside the game, have been delighted to see the 35-year-old Carter, living in Chelmsford and using Witham as a practice base, back on tour this season after taking time out to battle cancer. He was given the all-clear to play again last year.
And the two-time World Championship finalist is another one fiercely proud of his roots and his home county’s snooker tradition. ‘Until I was about 12, I lived in Tollesbury and then moved to Tiptree,’ says Carter. ‘Then I moved to Chelmsford when I was about 25 and have lived here ever since.
‘I owned my own club in Chelmsford for a few years, but sold that and I now have my own table at the Stepfield club in Witham, a lovely place where they look after me so well.
‘I was lucky to practise a fair bit with Ronnie when I first turned pro as a teenager and learned a lot from him, and you also have Stuart Bingham over in Basildon and practising in Rayleigh. It has always been very strong, a real hub, with a strong amateur scene and tradition.’
Don’t be surprised if it is an Essex-based player that lifts the trophy at the Crucible this year, as the county that nurtured the snooker boom takes on the world once again.