It’s only a game. How many times have you heard that said about the sport you love?
By David Hendon
It’s only a game, so why get so involved, so emotional, so caught up in the small dramas and subplots and arguments and debates and general noise that surrounds it?
Why care so much about a missed pot, a badly executed safety, an untimely kick? Why care so much if someone you may never even meet has lost to someone else you may never meet? Why feel anxious about a game? Why feel exhilaration or despair over it?
Well, yes, it is only a game, but when the game unexpectedly stops you are reminded of all the reasons why you were so invested in the first place.
Snooker, like all other professional sports, has been forced to take a sabbatical due to the continuing coronavirus crisis. Suddenly, there is time to reflect. A season which has barrelled from one tournament into another in a dizzying whirl of breaks and matches and trophies has come to an unscheduled pause.
So, let’s reflect. Why snooker? What is it about this particular sport that appeals to so many?
Everyone will have their own answer to that. For me, growing up in the 1980s, it was a central part of the culture. With four television channels, each showing snooker, there was no getting away from it. It was discussed in the school playground. It was part of national life.
Snooker has never been easy to play but it is accessible compared to several other sports. Many kids at the time had small tables at home. Joining a club was relatively cheap. You always had heroes to watch on TV, people to try and emulate.
This was the era of Steve Davis, the man who raised standards of play and professionalism to previously unthought of levels. It was about to become the era of Stephen Hendry, who would somehow raise them even higher.
I remember as a nine-year old compiling a scrapbook of that year’s World Championship, which mainly involved crudely cutting photos of the players out of newspapers and magazines. All the main contenders had a page. Joe Johnson ruined the scrapbook by winning the tournament. It was 1986. Joe didn’t have a page. I’d never heard of him.
I first went to the Crucible thirty years ago, in 1990. Like everyone else, before and since, my initial reaction was puzzlement as to how it could possibly be so small. Television distorts perception. This was the World Championship but it felt very different being there, like Mia Farrow in the Purple Rose of Cairo, suddenly being dragged through the screen and into a world only hitherto experienced from afar.
The match was John Virgo v Gary Wilkinson. No one remembers it, not even them, but there was a magic in the air that day. This was no longer something just on television. It was real. It connected.
I know many other people with similar stories. In recent times, the sheer number of enthusiasts has risen massively due to worldwide television broadcasts and streaming. Our sport resonates around the world. It reaches people, affects them, plays on their emotions.
Snooker fans are a particular breed, adding uniquely to the live atmosphere through their silence. It’s like the opposite of Beatlemania: there’s no screaming or swooning here, just quiet reverence, punctuated by the occasional cough, whisper, rustle of a crisp packet and, of course, bursts of applause.
Nowhere is the link between fans and venue more tangible than at the Crucible. How many other major TV sporting events are there where you know the names of several members of the audience?
This is a genuine community of snooker lovers, making a pilgrimage to the sport’s holy temple. People take holidays to be part of it. They gather after play in venues like The Graduate pub to dissect what they have seen, to be among their own kind, mixing too with officials, media and assorted other members of the wider snooker family. Drinks and conversations flow. And everyone is ready to go again the next day.
Snooker thrives because it is terrific entertainment but also because it’s a place where so many have found themselves and can be themselves. Team sports don’t favour introverts. An individual sport, rich in complexity and nuance, is the perfect outlet for those looking for a different form of expression.
It’s only a game, but it has transformed lives. Graeme Dott was brought up on the notoriously impoverished Easterhouse estate in Glasgow where life chances and opportunities were narrow. Mark Williams was raised the son of a South Wales miner at a time of pit closures and economic despair. Mark Selby relied on free practice just to play snooker due to hardship at home. A young Neil Robertson stood in a job centre queue in Australia long enough to reconsider his decision to pack snooker in.
They, and many others, ended up standing on top of the snooker world, against all odds, stitching their own stories into the ongoing fabric of the sport’s history, a continuous thread which joins them with the iconic moments – a tearful Alex Higgins beckoning his baby daughter to the stage, Cliff Thorburn sinking to his knees after completing his 147, Dennis Taylor waving his cue over his head and wagging his finger, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s five minutes, eight second exhibition of genius, Judd Trump’s rampaging display of potting. Choose your own. There are many. There will be many more.
I’ve been fortunate to witness several myself in various roles from press officer to journalist to commentator. There was a moment three years ago when we were celebrating 40 years at the Crucible where I looked from the commentary box over to where I had sat back in 1990, as a spectator, when I had been wowed by just being there, being part of it. And I looked to my right, to my fellow commentator: Joe Johnson. The man who ruined my scrapbook. How was any of this possible? After all, it’s only a game.
It’s only a game, but what a game. For now, the tables stand empty. Everything is on hold. Health and security must come first, but when all of this is over, new memories will be made.
Think of it as a mid-session interval. We will be back.