Joe Swail, one of Northern Ireland’s greatest snooker stars, put away his cue and called time on a 28-year professional career at the end of last season. We caught up with the popular cueman to reflect on his fascinating life on the baize…
Swail turned 50 in 2019, and having dropped off the tour at the end of last season, decided his days as a pro were over.
Nicknamed the Outlaw, after the similarly named Clint Eastwood character Josey Wales, Swail turned professional in 1991. Years earlier, his introduction to the sport came during turbulent times for his country.
Swail grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. It was a tough time for every child in the city, but for the snooker-mad young potter the biggest challenge was finding his way to a baize-covered table.
“My first memory is that there were barricades at either end of our street,” he remembers. “There were often soldiers in the middle of the road and barbed wire and dividing walls were all over the place. Even though I had a very happy childhood, because I was brought up really well, I grew up in an area where there was a lot of poverty.
“Bomb scares and hoaxes happened often. There was a lot going on. You would get a knock on the front door from the police and they would be telling you not to leave the house because it wasn’t safe. We were used to it. We were used to gunfire and bombs. My brother and I got to the stage where we were fed up being cooped up all day, so we would hoof it over the back wall, go up side alleys and get ourselves into the snooker halls. We would go to spots on both sides of the religious divide and we were welcomed on both sides. We played snooker anywhere. It was a bit exciting, but they were hard times.”
Swail’s first decade as a professional player saw him reach the semi-finals of six ranking events and climb as high as number ten in the world. Two of those semi-final appearances came on the grandest stage of all. He reached the one-table Crucible set up at the World Championship in back-to-back years in 2000 and 2001.
In the first of those he played Welshman Matthew Stevens, who looked to be coasting after opening up a 12-6 advantage. Swail showed his resolve to claw his way back into contention and trailed by just a single frame at 13-12. But Stevens then regained control of the encounter, taking four in a row to emerge a 17-12 victor.
A year later Swail played an emotional quarter-final against compatriot and friend Patrick Wallace. Swail won 13-11 win but admits it the match was very tough mentally for both players.
“Looking back again to my teenage years, I needed to get out of Belfast so I used to travel to Dungannon, which was in the countryside, to play with Patrick,” he said. “There was very little trouble there, so it used to be a bit of an escape for me. We formed an unbelievable friendship over the years. To find ourselves facing each other in the World Championship quarter-finals was amazing really.
“He didn’t expect to get that far. It was a weird match in the end because neither of us had that killer instinct to turn the other over. Each match before that we had all of our family and friends in and it was quite loud. When we played each other it was muted and a strange feeling. It was a great experience to face Patrick though.
“I was against Ronnie O’Sullivan in that second semi-final and because I had been there the year before I was kind of content. I was happy with what I had done, got a few quid and paid off the mortgage. It was all unexpected success and I received a lot of exhibition work off the back of those matches.
“I actually felt like I was playing well enough to win it in 2001 and if I was up against anyone other than O’Sullivan I probably would have been ok, but I lost 17-11. He was just playing some special stuff and pulled off some ridiculous clearances. Those two years were great times though. Playing in the one-table set up was a bit of a blur. I’d love to go back in time and sample it again. Sometimes, since I have packed it in, I look back and ask myself whether I really did play in two World Championship semi-finals.”
Swail lost nine semi-final matches in ranking events before eventually reaching the final of the 2009 Welsh Open, where he played Ali Carter. Both players were going for their maiden title and Swail looked to be in the box seat to secure it when he led by a 5-2 scoreline in the best of 17 encounter.
However, Carter stormed back into contention and claimed seven frames on the bounce to win 9-5. That turned out to be Swail’s first and last ranking final appearance. Although defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, the Northern Irishman admits that even reaching the final came as a surprise.
He said: “I had really been struggling for about six months before reaching that final. It was all very unexpected. All throughout my life I have been burning the candle at both ends. Whenever I felt I was partying too much during my career, I would get my head down again and the results would start picking up. That was what happened for the Welsh Open. I started working harder and all of a sudden I found myself in a final.
“At 5-2 up I was totally in control and two things happened. Firstly I thought about winning and what it would be like, and secondly Ali played some unbelievable snooker to force his way back into the match and into the lead. I was glad I got to a final, as I thought my chance to do that had passed.
“I know I should have been winning titles long before that. My lifestyle caught up with me. There is no way that you can get away with that. You need to be totally dedicated and sacrifice a lot of things to win titles.”
Swail finished his career with plenty of silverware – notably he won the Irish Professional Championship twice as well as the English Amateur Championship.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” he muses. “My father always used to tell me that I had underachieved and I take that as a compliment.”
Last year, Swail had to deal with the devastating blow of the death of his father. Health issues have also affected his ability to perform at the top level. He was born partially deaf, and more recently has developed tinnitus.
“Towards the end of my career the tinnitus really came to the fore and there were also migraines,” he said. “A viewer wouldn’t notice anything but it really does impact on your ability to practise, let alone play matches. My hearing difficulties never stopped me from performing, but the tinnitus changed things.
“The older anyone gets the more things come in and take their toll. It comes to a stage where you can’t compete any more and you get caught out. I couldn’t explain things publicly because I didn’t want to give the upper hand to my opponent. The pressure was beginning to catch up with me as well. Ever since I have packed it in I haven’t had one bad dose of stress and the tinnitus is much better. That tells you everything you need to know.”
A 10-1 defeat to Joe O’Connor at 2019 World Championship qualifying saw him lose his place on the circuit and this turned out to be his final match as a professional. Now, Swail is turning his attention to coaching.
He added: “There is nothing in the way of my coaching now, so I can spend a lot more time pushing it. I have a lovely snooker room and a steady roll of clients. Everything is good. You need to have a lot of patience for it, but I believe I have that. It is very nice to be going to my own bed at night rather than hopping around hotels all over the country. I have my badge from World Snooker and I’m just starting off. I’m not saying I know everything about the game, but it isn’t all physical and technical. A lot of it is mental and I have the experiences which I can share with my clients in that regard.”