Mosconi Cup 2014: Christmas can only mean the hustlers' convention

Most worryingly of all, this year Earl 'The Pearl' Strickland was tragically missing

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The Independent Online

For some it’s the twinkling lights in the streets, the drink-driving adverts or the sudden rapacious consumerism of tiny children that signals the arrival of Christmas. Personally, and for nigh on 20 years, it has been the guiltiest pleasure of the sporting calendar, and I hope it always will be.

No, not the barely disguised, 800-man stag do that is the darts at Ally Pally. That has gone far too mainstream now. And it’s arguably more shameful than that.

Some clues. Shout out when you know the answer. Lou Butera. Marcus Chamat. The Goresbrook Leisure Centre (come on...). Mika Immonen. Mika Immonen. Steve Davis, and for anyone left in... Earl “The Pearl” Strickland.

There we are. We got there. If there’s anyone still reading who’s been living on the dark side of one of Saturn’s moons since 1994, or indeed anywhere unfamiliar to the cheap end of Sky Sports’ subscription package since around the mid-Nineties, I speak, of course, of the Mosconi Cup, nine-ball pool’s answer to golf’s Ryder Cup.

This year’s event, which came to an end on Thursday night, was not a classic. Europe, lacking as ever many of the game’s brighter stars, but who play more cohesively as a unit (a system that has since been mimicked with great success by their golfing counterparts) won it at a stroll. It’s hard to tell whether home advantage played a part, as one would have to guess that even the European players would rather have been at the Mirage, Las Vegas, as they were last year, than the Tower Circus at Blackpool.

It was Europe’s fifth straight win, and by a landslide, but good on the whole team for jumping up and down in unison on top of the table as the crowd bellowed, “Easy! Easy!” into their opponents’ vanquished faces.

Such a procession of processions does make one wonder whether the Mosconi still ensnares the imagination of bored teenage boys as it once did with such devastating effect on my big brother and me.

Most worryingly of all, after a spine-tingling reappearance last year, the game’s towering figure, Earl “The Pearl” was tragically missing again. Some have dared to suggest that the mulleted, mustachioed, wild-eyed 53-year-old Earl, son of a North Carolina tobacco harvester and a man seemingly permanently high on life, may finally have lost all contact with the universe around him when he claimed to be “one of the greatest athletes America has ever produced”.

I’m not so sure. He is the clearest glimpse most of us in this nation of closet Yankophiles will ever see of the real life pool hustler, of Paul Newman in The Color of Money.

He is the only real life person we’ll ever hear talk of the “steer men and road agents” who toured the wood-floored pool halls of the Deep South, and the “strong arms” (the man who carries the gun) who’d stand beside them.

It’s a life Strickland gave up to play in the tournaments, because “people don’t clap for gamblers”, and set himself on a road that would one day lead all the way to Lakeside Shopping Centre, Thurrock. That was where I happened to pass by on my lunch break in the late Nineties, and saw him standing outside Bentalls in the central atrium at the end of an exhibition match, bellowing into the microphone: “Thank God, I wanna THANK GOD, for letting us play here today. Lakeside, you are incredible.”

The other irreplaceable force, of course, was the late and incomparably great Sid Waddell. Best known as the truly unique voice of darts, he saved so many of his greatest lines for the Mosconi: “Oh, and would you see the look of denouement, on the face of the Romford Slim, here at the Goresbrook Lesha Centa!” I can hear it now.

Ah, Waddell. Has anyone put better the terrifying challenge of the commentator’s art, its immediacy and brevity, than he once did: “It’s not like Marcel Proust, you can’t muse fa forty pages aboot the bottom of a daaigestive biscuit.”

But most of all, it is an annual reminder of the irresistible power of European eclecticism. For all the dangerous pool-hall glamour of Strickland and his pals, the great satisfaction, at least in the last half decade, is watching them all quietly be utterly vanquished by granite-headed metronomic Finns and Germans, and the no-nonsense brutality of the rough-edged ageing sons of English pub landlords, not least as we don’t even play the game. Not the nine-ball version, anyway. There was a glorious incident, probably a decade ago, when Ronnie O’Sullivan briefly turned up, and had to ask his apparently legendary opponent the rules as he wiped the floor with him.

Oh well, that’s it for another year. And the drink-driving ads aren’t even on yet. Bring on the darts.