Snooker: Plight of the twilight game

'What sponsors want is good snooker; they don't want to be picking up the papers and seeing everyone slagging each other off'; Andrew Longmore reports on calls for peace moves behind the velvet curtains
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The Independent Online
OUTWARDLY, all is mannered serenity. Cameras glide round the baize like daleks. Only the whirr of the air-conditioning and the occasional click of white on colour disturb the silence. So much emotion channelled through the locust-like motion of arm and cue. On the table, Peter Ebdon and Nigel Bond are playing a horrible, edgy game, shot through with nerve and mistrust. Ebdon is suffering from flu; Bond is just playing badly. The audience at the Wembley Conference Centre groans at each elementary infringement of geometry. The spotlights take on the air of interrogation lamps. Bond's father watches on television. "No one's playing well at the moment," he says to nobody in particular. "It's all wide open."

Ebdon is managed by an "independent", Troy Dante, once of Troy Dante and the Infernos, Bond by Ian Doyle. If one settled the match with a stiletto slipped from the end of his cue it would only reflect the character assassinations taking place every minute behind the arras at the Benson and Hedges Masters. Snooker has always been a twilight world, but lurid tales of bugging, phone-tapping and paper-shredding, of whispered plots and averted glances have turned the old dear's soap into a cross between Dallas and The Third Man.

If the players did not suffer from a collective case of lockjaw, they would tell you of cold shoulders and friendships strained. At Wembley, Doyle holds court in the press-room where his influence is widespread; his enemies patrol the players' lounge. "There's no question, good friends are walking past each other without speaking," he says. "It's becoming very vindictive."

It is starting to become personal in the front office too. "It's a real case of them and us now and I think that's getting through to the players," Dante says. "All the independents desperately want to beat any of Doyle's players." It is not easy, given that Doyle's all-powerful troupe of 16 includes Stephen Hendry, the world No 1, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty, the world champion, Mark Williams, besides Bond.

Values have been so warped by snooker's schism, victory has become a moral imperative, no longer a convenient plotline to lure the millions into their armchairs but dramatic reality. Both sides claim the moral heights. Doyle wants the game run more professionally than the arcane constitution of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association allows; the independents want the game run by anyone other than Doyle and the two sides are aligned behind hard-boiled egos: the urbane Williams, chairman of the WPBSA, versus Doyle, the self-made Glaswegian businessman.

Banned by the WPBSA from attending any tournament events run by the association, Doyle is only able to appear at Wembley because of an invitation by Benson and Hedges, who own and promote the Masters. If he tries to infiltrate any WPBSA event, he risks forceful ejection by some establishment heavies, which along with the threat to suspend Hendry, the six times world champion, from the world championship would be conclusive proof that snooker halls had finally turned into theatres of the absurd. Hendry's claim that the game is "poisoned from top to bottom" earned him Williams' wrath, but looks as dead-eyed as his snooker.

"If it comes down to a matter of principle, Stephen will miss the world championship," Doyle says. "But sponsors would think that was crazy." Sponsors are already beginning to wonder. One has pulled out; others are known to be unhappy and good judges believe that if snooker does not come to its senses the sport will miss out on the rush for non- tobacco sponsors. "If it goes on like this, the game could be ruined," Dante warns. "What sponsors want is good snooker; they don't want to be picking up the papers and seeing everyone slagging each other off."

For all the protestations of innocence by both sides, the conflict is all about control. By the rules of the constitution, power lies with a Board of six former players led by Williams, one of whom is a driving instructor, another the owner of a guesthouse in Cheshire. All are well- meaning, says Doyle, but singularly ill-equipped to run a multi-million pound business. Jim McKenzie, the newly appointed chief executive, brought in to professionalise the game's administration, was summarily sacked by Williams on 1 December, a move which in effect marked the beginning of outright civil war. Williams thought McKenzie was Doyle's stooge.

"We've got a great product," Doyle says. "Snooker is the second most-viewed sport in the country and yet for the past 20 years it's been run by former players. That has to stop. The next seven or eight months is critical for the sport because we have got to introduce new sponsors to the sport. Unfortunately, this has become a campaign to stop Ian Doyle, but it's nothing to do with ego, it's all about the professional administration and management of the sport so that snooker is well respected and the players are well rewarded."

Even his critics would agree that Doyle does well for his players. His latest capture, Ronnie O'Sullivan, did not change managers because he liked Doyle's jokes. Doyle wants snooker to emulate golf, would like to emulate Mark McCormack himself by managing players, promoting tournaments, attracting sponsors and handling television rights, powers invested largely in the WPBSA, who are understandably reluctant to relinquish them.

At an extraordinary meeting of the WPBSA early next month, Doyle will challenge the constitution. To do so he needs a two-thirds majority of the electoral college made up of players who have been inside the top 40 over the past two years (in practice about 50). He can rely on the 16 votes of his players, but the suspicion of his motives among the rest is hardening all the time. The official independents' view is that Doyle should manage his players and leave the running of the game to the WPBSA, for all its faults. "We have as much right to run the game as he has," Dante adds. "The only way we can stand up to him is by sticking together."

The group with the most power, as ever, are the players, but snooker players are not boat-rockers by nature. Give them a table, a time to play and some prize money and like athletes the world over they are happy in their work. Which hand feeds them is no business of theirs.

None would speak at Wembley. The veterans, men such as Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis, who have seen it all before, just shake their heads with dismay at the state of a game they once famously set before a record television audience of 18.5 million. Davis's victory in the Masters a year ago, which attracted just on half that number, was still a reminder of the game's extraordinary pulling power. The viewing figures for the final tonight would make most sports swoon with envy. "I don't think the game will self- destruct, it's too big for that," Jim Elkins, the tournament director of the Masters, says. "But the players don't deserve to have all this stuff going on around them."

Like many family feuds, conflict is becoming a habit now and unless Jeffrey Archer, the new president of the WPBSA, can broker a truce, the split might not end at the velvet curtains. Snooker would not be the first sport to suffer a breakaway. Someone needs to open the window on this twilight world and let the daylight in.