Almanack: Reardon pots the big prize

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OUT to lunch on Wednesday. Bit of a do. The Cafe Royal, as a matter of fact: you know, all those mirrors, big chandeliers, nice Peppercorn Steak, Panache of Veg, Pastry Tulip Filled With Seasonal Fruits, Coffee and Liqueurs, the business. It was, as that smooth Mr David Vine put it, 'The number one social event in the snooker calendar.' Petits Fours, too.

Snooker people have a particular style, and they were all dressed up for what everyone called 'the Oscars of the Snooker World'. For the men, shiny double-breasted suits with big shoulders were in order, or snappy jackets in cerise or mustard. For the ladies, a tan was de rigueur; dainty gold-clipped shoulder-bags dangled at mini-skirted hips. The products of snooker's many tobacco sponsors were enthusiatically incinerated by all.

All the greats were there, except Steve Davis and Alex Higgins and Jimmy White. Stephen Hendry (he's bigger than he looks on telly, sort of boxier) sat next to Mr Vine on the same table as John Virgo; Willie Thorne's gleaming pate reflected the chandeliers' bulbs; Jim 'Nick Nick' Davidson behaved conspicuously well; John Spencer shot the breeze with John Higgins; young Ronnie O'Sullivan sported a striking black jacket with gold buttons.

And there, at a table in the middle of the room, beaming at all and sundry, immaculate as ever in smart, sharp black suit and matching hair, the Bela Lugosi of the green baize, 62-year-old Ray Reardon.

Reardon was there to receive the Press Writers' Services to Snooker Award, and nobody would question his election. Six world titles in the 1970s, and a huge impact on the public imagination in the days when the sport was taking off. One of the first great entertainers in the game, everyone said. And such a nice man.

David Vine gave a speech about how many people watch snooker on television.

The sport seems to have a bit of chip on its shoulder at the moment. There are still staggering television audiences for major finals, but there is a sense that the glory days of the Taylor-Davis final have gone for good. Not so, according to snooker types. Look at all these young tyros coming through, they say. Exciting, eh? Look at these viewing figures we happen to have in our pockets. Exciting, eh? Well, up to a point.

The point is that snooker is up against the same charisma challenge as tennis. For John McEnroe, read Alex Higgins. For Pete Sampras, read Stephen Hendry. It is surely significant that the loudest cheer on Wednesday was launched not by a trophy award but by the sight of Jimmy White on the highlights video.

Coffee and liqueurs were served. A rather blue comedian appeared and told salacious jokes aimed at eminent snooker figures ('X has been having a tricky time with premature ejaculation. For a while it's been touch and go'). The players circulated and chatted. Willie Thorne put a call through to his bookie; Ronnie O'Sullivan searched for a waiter with a needle and thread as one of the gold buttons had fallen off his designer jacket.

Ray Reardon was having a whale of a time. It was touching to see him greeting the younger players, patting them on their backs, playing the nice uncle. 'How's it going, Ray?' Stephen Hendry asked. 'It's more fun doing what I'm doing than what you're doing,' Ray responded.

We had a chat with the great man. What is he doing now? 'Oh, I'm six months on, six months off. I play the holiday circuit in the summer: Butlins at Bognor and Minehead. The rest of the year I play golf. My golf is better than my snooker these days.' Does he still follow the sport? And what does he think of the youngsters? 'Of course I still follow it. The young lads are all so good that it's impossible to pick winners from among them. And they make mistakes, you see, because they're young, and that makes things unpredictable, and that's exciting. That's drama.' Very Welsh, very intense, very happy. 'That's lovely.'

(Photograph omitted)