Snooker enters the post-war era

Clive Everton argues that after the infighting the deeper problems must be solved
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The Independent Online
SNOOKER'S BITTER civil war, which ended on Friday with the resignations of Rex Williams, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chairman, and his ally, Bob Close, from its seven-man board, leaves two former world champions, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, and the world No 50, Jason Ferguson, in control once the formalities of two EGMs are completed in Preston tomorrow.

This trio are pledged not to repeat the mistake of past boards by attempting to run the association on a daily hands-on basis but will instead support the restored chief executive, Peter Middleton, in his introduction and implementation of proper management systems.

Already, the EGM called by Davis, Taylor and Ferguson to remove Williams and Close will be a mere formality to comply with company law. The outcome of the one called by boardroom supporters of Williams - Ray Reardon, Jim McMann and Close - to oust Davis, Taylor and Ferguson is not in doubt either, through the weight of proxies submitted in their favour. From an electorate of 78 - the top 64 in the world rankings for the last two years plus members of the board - 50 proxies were lodged on Thursday giving Williams and Close the thumbs down.

The 67-year old former worldbilliards champion tended his resignation to the WPBSA president, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, whose recommendations on key appointments await formal approval by the board tomorrow. Mark Gay, a sports law specialist, is to take over from Matthew McCloy as company solicitor; Gerry Boon of Deloitte & Touche will carry out the "forensic audit" demanded by Davis who specified seven areas of serious concern. Middleton, whose dismissal after only nine weeks in the job sparked the civil war's concluding battles, was invited to resume.

To conclude an opening and closing of doors sequence worthy of a Feydeau farce, Martyn Blake, the company secretary, whose resignation Middleton negotiated before reinstatement after Middleton himself had been dismissed, has again had his services dispensed with.

Middleton, who often used to arrive for work on his Harley Davidson when he was chief executive of Lloyd's of London, is at present chairman of the Football League. "Nothing in my previous business experience prepared me for how things were run at WPBSA," he said.

He told players and press at Plymouth two weeks ago: "There is no management process at Bristol. Decisions and debates are not recorded. There is no auditry of expenditure and departments. Money is being spent to little purpose. The way the association are losing money at the moment is a threat to snooker becoming the commercial success it could be and that should make people think we have to do things differently in the future. I didn't have any doubts that I could sort the WPBSA out. It's not that difficult if you take the politics out."

Much of snooker's internal strife has arisen through those who are primarily players attempting to run the substantial business WPBSA became in the honeymoon period with television in the Eighties.

When mistakes were made and criticisms came their way, successive ruling factions tended to take them personally. Ill-feeling was generated and, when one group was replaced by another without the underlying problems being addressed, the process was repeated.

Within such a small electorate, the securing of votes and the retention of power often became paramount. There was pressure, there was lobbying, there was patronage as snooker at times resembled a "rotten borough". Williams was elected in March 1997 on a mandate that a chief executive would be appointed and a proper management structure established.

Jim McKenzie, whose subsequent actions for breach of contract and libel were settled in his favour out of court, lasted only five months as chief executive as it quickly became clear that, after all, Williams wanted to run the show. Amidst the ensuing hostilities, snooker's viewing figures, the bedrock of the sport, remained eminently satisfactory but the calendar boasts only one non-tobacco sponsor with the end of tobacco sponsorship looming.

Now that the game has stopped tearing itself apart, sponsors may look on snooker more favourably.