Snooker: 'I'd rather be in the bingo hall than in the players' lounge'

The Interview - Mark Williams: Snooker's home-loving world champion is not one for the cliques, the back-stabbing or the celebrity culture. Nick Townsend meets him
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The Independent Online

You steer cautiously through the narrow, winding streets of Bargoed, a former mining town, before turning into a small car park. A cheery council workman directs you towards an unprepossessing, small brick construction that you could mistake for a tool store or perhaps a public convenience. As you enter, it's just possible to make out the name on the broken, faded, graffiti-covered sign: "The Emporium Snooker Club". It's reminiscent of Dr Who's Tardis, except here you descend a few stairs into a cavernous sanctuary, a hall of countless snooker tables. Above, a caco-phony of vehicle engines starting up and shoppers chatting as they go about their business; here, all you can hear are the clacks of cue upon ball, ball upon ball, the occasional whirring of a fruit machine, and the gentle murmur of bar customers.

Our subject, clad in jogging trousers, a loose top and trainers, is the recipient of not a second glance as he completes a practice game with Lee Walker, who, snooker aficionados will recall, made it from nowhere to the quarter-finals of the World Championship seven years ago but failed to maintain that progress.

Before departing for the Welsh Valleys, it appears prudent to consult a website listing everything you ought to know about Bargoed, with offerings by local residents. One section, "Local Heroes", includes a girl who did her best to portray Patsy Cline in Stars In Their Eyes. Then there is Peter Davidson, the Dr Who actor, who - somewhat tenuously - is "believed to have once helped out friends in Bargoed market". Oh, and there's a chap called Williams (snooker) with the observation "can't think of his first name".

Mark Williams prefers it that way - even here, where the world No 1 practises regularly eight miles from his home village of Cwm. "Nobody takes any notice of me here," he says. "No one harasses me. I've been around here so long, I feel like I'm part of the wallpaper." You introduce names like Ronnie O'Sullivan, Jimmy White and Steve Davis, who, in contrast, have to accept the vicissitudes of celebrity. "Some people enjoy the attention. In fact, they seek out the attention," says Williams. "But I'm not one of them. If I could win a tournament without any press coverage at all, that would be marvellous, really. I hate stuff like that. But to be fair, I don't get much of it."

Though normally a placid character, he has a reputation for winding up his opponents. It explains why he enjoys a rapport with Davis and Stephen Hendry, who respond in kind. "Beating Stephen 10-9 in the 1998 Masters final, winning the deciding frame on a respotted black, always stays in my mind," he says. "It was my best moment in snooker. I know as soon as I get beat, Stephen will be texting me within 20 seconds, taking the piss out of me. But I just remind him of that occasion. It's all a bit of fun."

O'Sullivan is another matter, though. The index to The Rocket's autobiography, Ronnie, tells you everything about him: under A, there's Addiction and Alcohol; under P, Priory Hospital; D has Dad, arrest for murder. You speculate, in contrast, on the index of any forthcoming Williams life-story. What about B, for example? Well, there's Bingo and Babies, both of which more later. Not too much, you suspect, under W for Wild.

He interjects that there will be no auto-biography, anyway. "Apparently, I'm not famous enough to have a book," Williams adds pointedly, fully aware that O'Sullivan, his bête noire, remarked last year that "nobody will be writing any books about him [Williams] because he's not interesting. When you are great, people want to know about you, but he's just normal".

A debatable point. Some may contend that Williams's involvement in a fight at his local golf club, which caused him, his father and brother to be barred for life, and his crashing of his rare Ford Noble M12 GTO sportscar could grant him membership of the Richard Harris hell-raisers' club. Yet he dismisses his participation in the punch-up, which produced some unfortunate headlines, as "more of a free-for-all". He adds: "I just got caught up smack in the middle of something nothing to do with me. There were fists flying and mine were flying as well. But I'm the one who gets his name in the papers."

The antagonism with O'Sullivan was reinforced when the two took opposing views during a period when the players were engaged in a civil war over snooker's future in the summer of 2002. "It looked like a split was coming in the game and there were a lot of lies being spread around about some of us, a lot of back-stabbing," says Williams. "Since then, the atmosphere in the players' lounge hasn't been the same. A lot of players don't get on now. That's why I just arrive, play my match and get out of the place. It's not a nice place to be at the moment.

"When all that stuff was going on, I just used to go to the local bingo hall. I'd rather be sat there with all the friendly old people than in the players' lounge listening to all the shit that's going round. I'd still rather do that now."

Williams adds: "Financially, the game's struggling at the moment, with sponsors gone [the cigarette companies who are now barred from sponsoring sport]. All that going on doesn't help. It looks like we're in for a rough time; we need to find sponsors or the game could be potless very soon." That Government ban on tobacco sponsorship means that Williams is the last- ever winner of the Benson & Hedges Masters at Wembley, defeating Hendry 10-4 in last year's final. Tonight the Welsh left-hander begins his defence of the event against Matthew Stephens in what is now simply The Masters. Victory is conceivable, but surely, there can be no repetition of 2003, a year of remarkable achievement for Williams?

"A one-off," he agrees. "I just clicked into form and hardly missed anything. I was just playing well every match, every tournament. It was unbelievable going to the table, knowing you were probably going to clear up most of the time."

He attributes much of that success to his mentor, the former world champion Terry Griffiths. "He was very important after I won the World Championship in 2000," says Williams. "After that win, I went downhill - rapidly. I was still getting to a few finals but I wasn't practising at all. I was taking things for granted. I was also going a bit wild off the table then, to be fair. I was having some good drinking sessions regularly, which I never used to do. It caught up with me in the end and I didn't win a tournament for about two-and-a-half years.

"I was getting down on myself very early and that set the tone for the match. I was getting humbled. I mean, I lost 9-1 in finals, people were thrashing me 9-2, 9-3. Terry gradually helped sort out my mind and I started playing a lot better. He didn't coach me on my game that much. He hasn't helped me pot any balls. He just got me to think in a positive way."

This year's challenge to retain his world title at The Crucible may be the subject of interference. His fiancée, Joanne, is expecting their first baby during the World Championship at the end of April. "But I'm not going to pull out, if that's what you're thinking... unless something goes wrong," he says. "Fingers crossed, it will pop out when I'm not playing."

If he had not wielded a cue with such dexterity, Williams would almost certainly have followed his father, Dilwyn, down the pit. "When I was about 15 I did a 12-hour shift. It was a frightening experience. I went down in the lift with 12 or 15 other miners. It was pitch black, all you can hear are all these chains rattling, and it was the scariest thing I've ever experienced.

"At the bottom you are crawling through gaps just big enough to get shoulders through for 50 yards. You have got rats the size of cats running over you. I couldn't wait to get out of the place. I thought to myself, 'I'm never going down there again'."

Fortunately, his talent allowed him to exist in the rather more inviting subterranean atmosphere he is inhabiting when we meet. From miner's son to master potter, with a few bouts in the boxing ring on the way. He was undefeated in 12 fights as a schoolboy boxer.

Williams points out a nearby table. "That's where it all started. I played my first tournament on that when I was 13. My schoolwork went downhill, of course. In the end, the school gave me permission to have Friday off to allow me time to practise for the weekend tournaments."

And so, the collection of trophies began. Not that they mean much to Williams. "I have got the World Championship trophy in the house. Somewhere. I haven't got a clue where it is." He adds: "I only realise I'm No 1 when people like you remind me, but it doesn't make that much difference to my life. I would be a liar to say that I am here to win tournaments; I am here to win as much money as I can out of the game. Whether I was No 1, or No 80, I would still come in here and have a laugh with the boys I play against."

As Tom Jones would no doubt testify, nothing can quite beat the green, green baize of home.

Biography: Mark Williams

Born: 21 March 1975 in Cardiff.

Turned professional: 1992.

Career earnings: £3m.

Ranking tournament wins: (14): Regal Welsh 1996, 1999; Grand Prix 1996, 2000; British Open 1997; Irish Open 1998; Thailand Masters 1999, 2000, 2002; UK Championship 1999, 2002; Embassy World Championship 2000, 2003; China Open 2002.

Highest tournament break: 142 in the 1994 Strachan Challenge.

Also: Williams was a promising amateur boxer in his youth and is a friend of world super-middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe. Hobbies include golf, badminton and fast cars. Once owned a rare Noble M12 GTO (0-60mph in 3.9 sec) but crashed it.

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