By Michael McMullan
While sportspeople around the world find competitive action put on hold by the Covid-19 crisis for the time being, two of snooker’s longest-standing professionals remain in an enhanced state of limbo, as they wait to play in a tournament which could be crucial to their careers.
When the circuit was effectively suspended almost two months ago, Dubliners Ken Doherty and Fergal O’Brien both knew they would need to win at least one match in Betfred World Championship qualifying to finish the season in the top 64.
The final stages of the Betfred World Championship are scheduled to start on July 31, and WST intends to announce dates for the qualifying rounds in due course
Discussions between WST and WPBSA in terms of how the revised tournament schedule will affect tour promotion and relegation are ongoing, but retaining a top 64 spot would ensure another season for the two popular Dubliners.
Both grew up in an era when the game’s explosion just across the water in Britain was being mirrored in their home city. It was a time when there were around half a dozen high quality places to play within a few minutes’ walk of O’Connell Street in the city centre, and the suburbs were typified by one corner of south west Dublin boasting two snooker clubs within a mile of each other which had more than 100 tables between them.
With so many people playing the game, it was no surprise that Ireland enjoyed an exceptionally strong tournament scene at the time. Doherty and O’Brien became by far its two most successful products, and all these years later they are the only Republic of Ireland players currently on the professional circuit.
From the hundreds of players who entered the professional game when it was thrown open in 1991, O’Brien is one of the very few still around. A ranking tournament winner at the 1999 British Open, he came within five balls of winning The Masters two years later, and in between there was a Crucible quarter-final which took him into the world’s top ten.
“You’ve got to try not to think about something you don’t want to happen,” he says of his ranking predicament.
“For me the issue is more about whether the World Championship isn’t played, and how it will all work if it is. Will the hotels be open, will there be somewhere to get something to eat, will there be taxis and transport to get around?”
The suspension came at a particularly unfortunate time for O’Brien as he had just produced some of his best form in years to reach the last 16 of the Gibraltar Open, where he was edged out 4-3 by Kyren Wilson before being confined to barracks on his return.
“I flew through Spain on the way back, spending about five or six hours in Malaga airport, so I had to quarantine by staying in the house for two weeks. I’ve not played for seven weeks since Gibraltar.”
With Ireland now in the early stages of its gradual exit from lockdown, O’Brien intends to be back on the table in the coming days, but as a precaution will put his regular sessions with players like Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen on hold and get down to work on his own.
“If I’m playing with Shaun and he pots a ball which I then take out of the pocket, that isn’t illegal but it is a risk. I have the keys to the club so it’ll just be me there. I’ll even bring my lunch with me so I won’t have to leave all day.”
With his wife Jean working in the ambulance service and their 19-year-old daughter Isabelle keeping up with college work, O’Brien has had plenty of time on his own recently, but has made the best of it and established a routine of sorts.
“I’m up early to go for a jog. I recorded the Crucible Classics series on the BBC so I’m watching all of those. There have been plenty of times when I’ve not touched a cue for weeks but in those times I’ve been playing golf and seeing friends, so this has been very different.”
In the race for tour survival, Doherty has been down this road before, having dropped out of the top 64 in 2017. His standing in the game saw him given a two-year invitational card to continue on the circuit, a reprieve he used to great advantage by climbing back up to 56th and earning another season by right.
His last match was on 13th March when Luca Brecel made a century in the deciding frame to knock him out of the Gibraltar Open in the first round, and that remains the last time he picked up a cue.
“I came back on the Sunday and Spain’s lockdown had started the day before, so I was just happy to get home,” he explains. “My practice base is at the Radisson Hotel in Stillorgan and that’s closed at the moment. I’m looking forward to getting back hitting some balls and into some sort of routine because it’s been such a strange time, so difficult for everyone.”
As a long-established member of the BBC team, Doherty would have been involved right through the World Championship had it gone ahead as planned, whether he had qualified or not.
“I miss Sheffield so much, the excitement, the matches, all the BBC lads. There’s just so much atmosphere; it’s a festival of snooker.”
Like everyone else in the game, the 1997 champion still hopes the showpiece event can happen on its new dates later in the summer, but in the meantime he has had plenty to keep him occupied during the unexpected break.
“I’ve been doing a press-up challenge online, starting with ten a day and building by one each day from there, so by the time I finished on the day the World Championship would have ended I was doing 45. I have to admit my arms are sore now!
“My son Christian is off school so we’ve been spending a lot more time together, going running and having walks. He’s been playing a bit of tennis up against the wall. It’s helped that the weather has been so good in Dublin.”
On the weekend when Doherty and O’Brien were both playing in Gibraltar, Cork’s Aaron Hill was winning the European Under 21 Championship around 150 miles away in Albufeira, earning himself a two-year tour card.
Snooker fans in the Republic will be keeping a close eye on the World Championship qualifiers later in the summer, hoping their country’s two best ever players will prolong their own careers, and ensure Hill won’t be flying the flag alone next season.