Primed for pressure

profile Peter Ebdon Simon O'Hagan meets the single-minded snooker player who is at ease in a difficult world
Click to follow
IF playing snooker for a living is the legacy of a mis-spent youth, then Peter Ebdon can look back with satisfaction on the moment he walked out of school at the age of 15 and decided that the future lay in potting not swotting.

For many aspiring young players, snooker, like boxing, offers the prospect of an escape to a better life. A hall full of green baize and cigarette smoke is as valid and meaningful an educational establishment as the one in which they might call out their names for the register.

Not Ebdon, however, who as a pupil at Highbury Grove School in north London had abilities, both academic and otherwise, which marked him out as somebody who could go far in one of a number of fields. To the dismay of his parents, young Peter decided that snooker was the career for him.

Nine years on, with Ebdon ranked No 10 in the world, that decision looks long vindicated, and if he were to win the world championship beginning in Sheffield this Friday - and plenty say he can - he would surely point to it as the best reason anyone could ever have for giving up Greek O- level.

But the passage of time, not to mention marriage and fatherhood, have given Ebdon a different perspective on his teenage actions. "I wouldn't advise anyone else to do what I did," he said last week between matches at the British Open in Plymouth. "From my parents' point of view it must have been horrifying. But I was preparing to take eight O-levels, and feeling a bit pressured I decided to cut all ties and go my own way. Who knows - I might have gone on to further education and not be playing snooker now. So you never can tell."

Far from being one of those adolescent protests born of confusion and the search for identity, Ebdon's rejection of things that his parents held dear can be seen now as all of a piece with a single-mindedness and self-knowledge that make him a feared opponent.

Even by the standards of dedication and concentration that are required of any player with pretensions to success, Ebdon is exceptional. "In all the years I've been in professional snooker Peter is mentally probably the strongest player there's been in the game," says Dennis Taylor, the former world champion - an astonishing claim considering that Taylor's career, which started in 1972, spans the entire modern era. "Steve Davis was very focused in the 1980s, but Peter's got that added something." For his part, Davis talks about Ebdon having "good intensity" in the way that you might describe a cricketer as having good footwork or a footballer good balance.

As a result, something of a mystique has built up around the gaunt figure of the 24-year-old Ebdon, with the eyes that don't blink when you want them to and the monkish haircut that has now replaced his pony-tail. He can seem aloof, but has his demonstrative side as well. And if there is an ambiguity within Ebdon, so there is an ambivalence in the feelings he inspires in his fellow-professionals - on the one hand, respect for the nervelessness with which he goes about his business; on the other, scepticism about a manner and a method which none of them seems close enough to him to understand.

As for the footballer-style celebrations Ebdon occasionally indulges in, these have certainly upset the game's traditionalists, of whom Taylor is proud to call himself one. "I think the sooner he stops his antics the better," Taylor says. "Television might think it's OK, but personally I think it's bad for the game. I can think of one instance when he was doing all this punching the air and he hadn't even won the match. He still needed to pot the blue. He's possibly doing it to psyche out his opponents, but I think Peter can do enough with his play without resorting to that."

Davis takes a more relaxed view of Ebdon's excesses, if that is what they are. "I don't think any of the players are that concerned," he says. "We just have a sweepstake on when the first punch is going to be." Ebdon denies there is any gamesmanship involved. "If you've just come back from 4-0 down or whatever, then you're bound to want to show it. For me, it's just a release."

The uncomfortable fact from Taylor's point of view is that in the last five years a new breed of thrusting young player has emerged, among it Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty, Alan McManus and John Higgins, from whom Ebdon differs only in the degree to which he sticks to his own way of preparing for matches, whether by practising yoga or using other mental training techniques, or simply keeping his distance from his rivals.

When Taylor says wistfully, "Gone are the days when eight of us would go off on a tour Australia and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together", it is clear that Ebdon is the sort of player he has in mind. "I don't mix with the others much," Ebdon says. "Not because I think I'm better than them but because it's my way of being professional. I wouldn't be happy about drinking and having a good time with people who the next day I want to destroy on the table." Ebdon does not fly entirely solo - he practises with his brother-in-law, and in one of his two managers, Ramsay McLellan, has "a great motivator". His other manager, Troy Dante, a former Sixties pop singer, adds a raffish touch to Ebdon's otherwise ordered world.

In spite of going against their wishes as a teenager, Ebdon cites his parents, Michael and Barbara, as the source of his determination. He and his father, a prison officer at Pentonville, hardly spoke in the six months that followed Ebdon's leaving school ("a rift that's now healed") in which the youngster spent all day at a snooker club in King's Cross while technically employed by a businessman friend as a warehouseman. The friend, in effect Ebdon's first sponsor, started out paying him £60 a week, but as the amateur titles began to roll in, it soon rose to £150 a week.

Ebdon turned professional in 1991, and in his first world championship, in 1992, gave notice of what he was capable of by beating Davis 10-4 in the first round. It was perhaps the most precocious start ever by a player making his debut in the tournament. Since that year, when he went on to reach the quarter-finals, Ebdon has made little impact at Sheffield, having lost twice in the first round, to Davis in 1993 and to James Wattana in 1994. But elsewhere he has shown he can beat the best, with one ranking tournament victory to his name, the New Skoda Grand Prix of 1993, and wins over all the top players.

This season his improvement has continued, and his victory two weeks ago in the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters, although not a ranking tournament, came at the expense of Stephen Hendry in the final and suggested that Ebdon is moving into form at the right time.

Defining what type of player Ebdon is tests even as astute an observer of the snooker scene as Davis. Asked whether Ebdon is closer to his own brand of scientific excellence or the inspired unpredictability of a Jimmy White, he says Ebdon is neither and both.

"He can play safety and be dogged, and he can produce the shots as well," says Davis, who puts Ebdon alongside Higgins and O'Sullivan as three players who have never won the world title but could do so this year. "Peter's like a piece of the jigsaw that won't fit in. But he's got tremendous heart for a fight. He's unorthodox and brave enough to be a genuine contender. I like his attitude, I think he can unnerve players. He's so positive that you can never feel that confident playing against him, even if you're well in the lead. Just because he has had a couple of bad frames, there's no reason why he can't then have a couple of good ones."

Ebdon himself accepts that he has "never paid much attention to the technical side", and it is this that may be why, according to Davis, he rarely looks as if he is in a particularly good rhythm even when he is compiling big breaks.

Certainly, Ebdon's record of recovering from poor starts stands out, and the length of the matches at the world championship, he says, is one reason why he is approaching it with confidence. That and the fact that while he says he can see other players close to cracking up under the pressure, it is the pressure that Ebdon most enjoys. He always wanted to do the difficult thing, whether it was learning the oboe at school rather than the trumpet, or bowling leg spin rather than off-spin in his days as a promising young cricketer. Presumably, winning the world snooker championship carries with it a high enough degree of difficulty to satisfy even Ebdon's appetite for a challenge.