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Ian Walker’s Snooker Passion

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Former Tottenham, Leicester and England goalkeeper Ian Walker has done plenty in football, racking up over 300 Premier League appearances and winning four caps for his country, also making the national team squad for Euro 96 and Euro 2004.

By Hector Nunns, snooker correspondent for The Times

But the 42-year-old, now coaching goalkeepers with Shanghai East Asia in China, reckons one of his greatest achievements was to persuade French international and former White Hart Lane team-mate David Ginola to give snooker a try.

“I have always been a huge fan of the game, right from my time as a trainee,” says Walker. “It is just a very sociable way of relaxing between matches or after training. There were some good players at Spurs, Darren Anderton as well – but David had never heard of it. Somehow we got him playing, and he wasn’t too bad.”

Walker is sitting in the opulent surroundings of Shanghai’s Peninsula Hotel just off the famous Bund next to the Huangpu River, a grand monument to a bygone 1920s age of merchants and shipping in the city of 25 million people which he now calls home and that also stages annually the Shanghai Masters, one of the most prestigious tournaments on the snooker calendar.

Walker was originally persuaded to go out to China by former Bolton team-mate Nicolas Anelka, also overlapping with ex-Chelsea striker Didier Drogba’s brief stay.

“Shanghai is an incredible city, as anyone who has been here would tell you, the most international one in China for sure. There are some cultural challenges,” said Walker, who jumped at an invite to come and see Ding Junhui beat Xiao Guodong in the Shanghai Masters final this season. “I really like Chinese food but it is not what you are used to being served under the name of Chinese food in the UK. Sometimes you ask for chicken or duck soup, and you get the whole bird in some boiling water, head and everything.

“The humidity in the summer can be something really tough to cope with, reaching 80 or 90 per cent, then it changes – in winter it is freezing cold, a cold that goes straight to your bones. I tend to go out to the bars and restaurants along the Bund, where you are next to the river and have that great view of the famous PuDong skyline
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“Mr and Mrs Bund is a great restaurant. I hear Steve Davis and John Higgins struggled to get a table there in September, they should have given me a call! And there is another place called Bar Rouge I really like.

“Work-wise, I had a brief spell as manager at Bishop’s Stortford, I wasn’t happy with the way it went and with hindsight it wasn’t the right time to try it. But when Nicolas asked me to come out here I jumped at the chance and have really enjoyed coaching the keepers. Being asked to look after goalkeepers seemed like what I should be doing at the moment, and just very natural.

“With pre-season you are here from January to November, then I come back to the UK for a bit. It does make it difficult to get coaching badges and things like that, because the courses, apart from one in the USA, are mainly in the European summer when we are busy.

“Being a good goalkeeper is one thing, to be a good coach you need to pass that on, I’m sure it is the same in snooker. Maybe one day I could be the coach at Spurs or Leicester, I would love that, but it is about the opportunity and getting the licences sorted somehow. But I am happy here for now, my son Jaxson is here with me and he has lots of friends and is busy with kids’ clubs and the like.”

Even meeting Walker for the first time in Shanghai, it is immediately clear that his passion for snooker is genuine and deep-rooted. After watching all the big matches on the BBC in the late 1970s and 1980s, the game then became one of the main ways of escaping from the intense pressures and spotlight of playing for a high-profile club like Tottenham.

“I was always a big snooker fan, watched and played as a kid and then after training at Spurs,” says Walker. “I wasn’t very good, but I just loved playing – and I went to quite a few of the tournaments as well.

“I saw a few players at the World Championship at the Crucible in the 90s – Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams and Jimmy White. And I also went to the old Wembley Conference Centre for the Masters, and the Hexagon in Reading for the Grand Prix, as I had a lot of family from there.

“I even got to know a few players, Ronnie was around when I used to live near and play at Hanbury Manor Golf Club. He was from Chigwell, close to the Spurs training ground, so I got to know him, also Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty and a few of the others.

“I just appreciate the huge skill, because I have played so much and I am still absolutely useless. The top players are so consistent, but I think you’ll find that a lot of the British footballers still play to relax. It was part of the culture at Spurs.

“Obviously snooker is very big in China. It was fantastic to be able to come to the final in Shanghai, a treat for a real fan. I really enjoyed watching Ding win what was clearly a historic all-Chinese final, and I would like to thank, the promoters, World Snooker and Jason Ferguson from the WPBSA for arranging it and for their hospitality.”