Johnson's baby power

Andrew Baker finds a former world champion polishing up his successor
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The Independent Online
There is always a poignancy about sporting confrontations between young and old, and in snooker such meetings happen often. The players who established the game in the great television boom era of the late Seventies and early Eighties are now, without exception, past their best, overtaken by leaner, meaner, younger talents.

For some of the trailblazers - Alex Higgins springs irresistibly to mind - the outlook must seem bleak and bitter. But another hero from bygone days has wisely hitched himself to a rising star. Step forward Joe Johnson, world champion turned journeyman, player turned manager, and his protege, Paul Hunter, 1996's Young Player of the Year and, his mentor is convinced, a world champion of the future.

Johnson's victory at the Crucible in 1986 was the biggest shock in snooker history - he started the tournament as a 150-1 outsider - but the following year he proved it was no fluke, reaching the final once more. Now he remembers both the elation of that first win ("Brilliant. It feels like two minutes ago, not 10 years") but also the desperate worry of the subsequent years when he lost first his form, and then his health, with a series of heart attacks.

Things are looking up for Johnson at the moment, and he cut a smart and enthusiastic figure in the lounge at the Manor Leisure Centre outside Leeds, where he and Hunter practise. "I've lost a stone and a half," Johnson said, torching a defiant Silk Cut, "and I really ought to lose another stone. But I'm having a little 'op' next week on my -" his hands flittered eloquently just to the left of his tie - "and after that I should be fine."

Despite the entreaties of his doctor and his wife, Johnson is determined to carry on playing "while I am still winning matches". But he is determined that the 19-year-old Hunter, now ranked 20-odd places higher than his mentor at No 35, should not face the same pressures that have accompanied Johnson's career.

"I always had to rely on the money I made in tournaments," Johnson recalled. "I've got seven children - another one popped up last year - and if I had a bad year, my family had to make sacrifices. I didn't mind for myself, but I never wanted them to go without." Thanks to a deal with the Manor, arranged by Johnson and Paul's father, Alan, the young player need not have such worries.

The club also provides two tables for Johnson and Hunter, and the two often practise side by side. But the older player insists that such sessions have more to do with companionship than coaching. "There's nothing I can teach him," Johnson said. "He is a natural talent, as I found when he nearly took a frame off me here when he was only 12. But it helps when there is someone at the next table doing what you are doing, working hard."

The two play the odd practice match - "only when I'm playing well, mind", Johnson cautions - but for the most part his advice is technical, setting problems for the youngster to solve. He may be past his best, but he can still lay a canny snooker.

Hunter, smartly dressed and clean-cut, a better-looking version of Stephen Hendry, who he frightened in the quarter-finals of last November's UK Championships, seems genuinely to enjoy his four hours a day of table time. "Most of the time I feel good about it," he said. "But it's hard work - I treat it just like I am going in to the office. Some of my mates give me a hard time about it, say it's an easy life, but it isn't."

Today Hunter will be at Wembley for the start of the Benson & Hedges Masters, for which he has a wild-card entry. He seems relaxed at the prospect of playing in front of nearly 3,000 people, snooker's largest live audience. "I love playing big venues," he said. "They don't come bigger than Wembley."

His manager jokingly pronounced that Wembley lacks a little in atmosphere: "The crowd are miles away, I don't know how they can see what's going on," before going on to recall the venues of his early days. "Some of the clubs I used to play in, you had to move the audience out of your way to play a shot." It was a rare backward glance from a forward-looking man.

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