Keith Elliott at Large: Hard day's nights in a theatre of dreams: Backstage with the cricket and golf fans responsible for bringing snooker to the boil at The Crucible

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IT'S 7.45 on a damp Sheffield morning, and Mick Reynolds is taking off the metal bars that lock The Crucible's stage door. During the day, he will be a receptionist and switchboard operator, information officer and security. The one thing he will not have to do is watch snooker.

'I'm a cricket fan. When I was an usher here, I had to sit and watch it,' he says, as if talking about eating slugs. But snooker's the only sport in town during the next two weeks for more than 35,000 spectators (never mind millions of television viewers), The Crucible itself, the world's best players, Imperial Tobacco and even a few groupies.

Reynolds' blond skinhead haircut belies a snooker whisper of a voice. If you're after a seat in the auditorium, he'll direct you to the main entrance, though you'll have to wait until 10am before the doors open. Press? Then try to convince the two Embassy women, their two-tone outfits looking like a vermilion dollars, that you're the real thing, not merely a fan claiming to work for a new magazine called Green Baize. They try all sorts of tricks (especially the groupies) to get backstage.

The holy place is a muddle of crooked passages, stairways and doors. A compass is no use here. Open a door and you may be under the false stage, in a mop cupboard or the untidy office of duty manager Helen Shilton.

She is on early call today. With 80 regular staff and 40 extra ones who work during the world championship, this jolly, no-nonsense woman has a complicated juggling act to organise rotas that can finish as late as 3am. These three weeks will be far more of a hassle than the Danceworks Festival and The Three Musketeers that follow, but snooker has put the 22-year-old Crucible, built for just pounds 875,000, on the map.

'We're really a theatre, but snooker has made us known across the world,' Shilton says proudly. It will also quadruple the bar takings. Watching snooker is thirsty work.

Another try to find the press room. But this time the door leads to the theatre foyer, where William Hill (never on a Sunday, even for snooker) vies for fans' money with cues and pictures of the players. White, Hendry and McManus are the best-sellers at the Cheddar Classics stand, though there's an extraordinary oil painting of Steve Davis, looking more like Butch Cassidy, for a mere pounds 45.

Back along the curving corridor, past the noticeboard advertising a 2CV for pounds 675 and curtains made up for pounds 4 a pair, past the newspaper clippings that will spread right along the passageway by the final day, and into the press room at last. Referee Len Ganley, who raised pounds 8,800 for muscular dystrophy last year by lifting a tenner off all-comers, is quick to spot a strange face, because everybody here knows each other - though few know backstage better than Pete Godwin, tournament manager for Riley.

When nothing is happening, Godwin gets very busy. He makes all the tournament tables (he's built 106 alone this season) and it takes him about 10 hours to assemble each one before the championships. At every interval, he scurries around like an overburdened housewife to brush and iron, his engineer's spirit level checking each is absolutely true (the tables are built on a false stage, their one-and-a-half ton bulk supported underneath by hidden supports).

'These are very different to club tables,' he says, polishing fingermarks off the gleaming mahogany. 'People think these pockets are bigger. They're not: they're much smaller. The average club player would be lucky to make a double-figure break here. These people make it look easy because they are professionals. Put them on a club table and they can't miss.'

Other adaptations make the balls even harder to pot. The cushions are cut differently so there is no natural run towards the pocket, and the five sections of one-and-seven- eighth-inch slate are not cut to help the ball into the pocket either.

Godwin has serviced the world championship and every other ranking event for 10 years, though he doesn't play snooker. 'I'm a golf man,' he admits. But he has invented several aids, from the template that ensures every top table is identical, to built-in heaters keeping them at an even temperature. He's experimenting with a static conductor to reduce the 'kicks' that bedevil players.

He works 16 hours a day, right through the championship, tending to the four tables (two official, two practice) like the only nurse on an intensive care ward. If a wild shot cut the cloth, Godwin could save the day. 'It would take me about 90 minutes to re-cover it.' He even carries six sets of spare balls. You wouldn't want to carry his luggage, though it's been stolen twice. (Police are looking for a snooker-playing linebacker who does his own ironing.)

Watching him, you get the feeling that he would prefer his beautiful tables to be unsullied by sweaty hands and chalky cues. But he is respectful to all the players, those wizard manipulators of angle and juxtaposition. Pasty-faced from too much living under fluorescent light, they wander around backstage like lost children, only truly coming alive when it's time to perform in this pounds 2m circus.

At least they can go back to their hotels when their part is played out. For dozens more, this marathon runs uninterrupted for three weeks. For Mick Reynolds, who opened the doors on that first day, it will end in the middle of the night on 3 May. And Crucible life can get back to normal.