Keith Elliott at Large: Jolly giant of the green baize: The chimney sweep turned professional snooker referee was once described as the 'godfather of punk'

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PSYCHOLOGISTS claim the car you drive provides far better insight to your personality than any astrological analysis. So you can just imagine their reaction to Len Ganley's Granada when they spot the numberplate: FLG 936. 'Ah ha] Subject is suffering from personal estimation dissufficiency syndrome, which he conceptualises by purchasing a personalised potency substitute. The absence of forename in his everyday existence is clearly disassociation with an unsatisfactory fundamental nomenclature, probably Foster or Ferdinand, but his subconscious id has not allowed him to disencumber his birthright.'

Actually, it stands for Fat Len Ganley.

But the man known as the Jolly Green Giant can afford to laugh at himself. From humble beginnings as a chimney sweep in Lurgan, he has risen by a mixture of talent and personality to become the world's most famous snooker referee. He has travelled the world, had a song written about him by a Liverpool band (whose album sleeve notes describe him as the 'godfather of punk') and appeared in perhaps the most enduring Carling Black Label advertisement of the lot.

Ganley, a teetotaller, wasn't even first choice for the commercial, which went out on television eight years ago and ran for just six weeks. The gaunt John Smythe was originally chosen but didn't look intimidating enough. Of course, it wasn't really a snooker ball that Ganley crushed with his bare hands. But the polystyrene snooker balls proved useless because they crumbled into chunks rather than powder. The problem was solved by filling a condom with sand.

Fans of the punk band Half Man, Half Biscuit know Ganley well. He was immortalised in 'The Len Ganley Stance', featuring such memorable lines as:

Keep your arms out rigid as a juggernaut

Clench your fists, point your knuckles straight ahead

Do your best to look like a teddy bear . . .

Ganley describes the song as 'a beautiful accolade', which says a lot about the man himself. He obviously has very poor musical taste, and he really is Mr Nice Guy, whatever the lager ad may say. His charity efforts at the world championships and elsewhere have so far resulted in 138 wheelchairs being bought for children with muscular dystrophy. Very few refuse to give when Ganley looms over them, asking for a contribution.

But then, his imposing bulk (he's 17st 9lb and trying to slim) got him into snooker in the first place. One of 11 children, he left Armagh to see his sister in Burton-on-Trent, liked the place and dropped anchor.

For a while, he drifted. Burton was well off for chimney sweeps, so Ganley worked as a milkman and a bus conductor. He was a pretty good snooker player (his best break is 136, and he's made four other century breaks) and one night in 1976, he played for New Hall Social Club against a visiting Ray Reardon.

After being comprehensively stuffed by the world champion, Ganley volunteered to officiate because the referee hadn't turned up. (He had actually done the job before, earning a halfpenny for keeping score in Lurgan). There were 600 people in the hall, and when Reardon reached 102, with 27 still on the table, the crowd went wild. Ganley turned to them and put his index finger to his lip. The hall hushed.

Reardon was amazed. 'I've never known a crowd go quiet so quickly,' he told them. 'Ah, but have you seen the size of the bastard referee?' someone from the crowd replied.

Ganley admits: 'I was pretty large then: 22 stone.'

Reardon suggested that the big man took up refereeing. It has been his life ever since. All the players frankly admit they wouldn't do it even for Stephen Hendry's earnings, but Ganley retains a boyish enthusiasm for the game, despite its crippling demands on his personal life.

It takes him away from his family - two girls, four boys - for weeks. He has lost his appetite for playing snooker (would you want a frame or two after watching for 16 hours, seven days a week?) and is a 24-handicap golfer instead. It's been bad for his health. A stroke earlier this year left him paralysed down one side, though he's now prowling round the tables again. Most of all, his constant weight battle can never really be won when the only food available is sandwiches, pizzas and fry-ups. A diabetic, Ganley now takes a salad to work with him.

'Walking around the table for up to 16 hours can be very hard on your feet,' he says. 'I always carry a pair of shoes half a size bigger. It also demands intense concentration. The players can relax when they are not at the table, but the referee must be alert all the time.'

Of course, you need to know the rules upside down. Do you know how a player can legally pot a ball touching the cue ball, or the four occasions when a player incurs a penalty of seven points, not directly involving the black ball?* On the plus side, referees are helped by the players' honesty. Even if the referee cannot see, all top players admit a foul if they accidentally 'feather' (touch) another ball with their sleeve or hand.

Being a snooker referee is better than bossing a football match, where the ref's status is somewhere between traffic warden and amoeba. But what makes Ganley want to keep on working longer hours than a junior doctor?

'I just love the game,' he admits. 'And I like to see the young players coming on.' He tips Ronnie O'Sullivan, Declan Hughes, John Higgins and Stephen Lee as names to watch.

Lee, a chubby 18-year-old with stick-out ears, already holds a world record 33 professional games without losing a frame. I am watching him play, and Ganley referee, in an early round of the Strachan Challenge at the elegant Jimmy White Snooker Centre in Aldershot.

Ganley's instinct for the game is admirable. He is always in the right place to watch player and shot, his eyes constantly on the move. And though it would never happen at a top tournament, Ganley occasionally mutters: 'Good shot]' to encourage the young professionals.

A referee's life may be unglamorous, but there is still a steady stream of newcomers wanting to join their ranks. Except for televised matches, the pay is dreadful: at the Strachan Challenge, they earn just pounds 50 a day. Five years ago, it was pounds 60 plus accommodation and travel. But the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association takes a tough line. 'It's because they were vastly overpaid. They have the choice of working or not working,' the tournament director, Ann Yates, says briskly.

This may sound hard-nosed, but Yates has actually opened up the game. Once only a select group handled the top matches. Now there is a rota system that ensures many more referees will get the chance to officiate at televised tournaments, where the pay is much better. The youngest Class I referee is just 21. Although a couple of the old guard may mutter at this, Ganley is happy enough. 'It's good for the game: now everybody gets a fair crack of the whip. We've got to bring younger referees on,' he says.

Ganley worked part-time until 1983, when he was asked to become one of five full-time referees. And while he may not be in the Steve Davis bracket, he's earning more than all but a handful of snooker's 719 professionals. The money at a small ranking tournament may be poor, but the season now lasts nearly all year. In the past decade, he has acquired his own snooker club, a house in Blackpool, another in Burton-on-Trent and a caravan. There is plenty of gold (wristwatch, bracelet, chain) adorning the Ganley frame. Then there's the car. And that number plate. Not bad for a fat Irish chimney sweep, eh?

* (a) By playing away from the touching ball and returning after making a contact with a cushion. (b) When the player commits a foul before nominating a colour after potting a red; when he plays at reds in successive strokes; when he uses any other ball than the white as a cue ball; when he uses a ball off the table (for example, to see if it will spot) before making a stroke.

(Photograph omitted)