Snooker: The road to prominence or penury

Blackpool in mid-winter is a place of broken dreams and sporting poverty for all but the lucky few
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The Independent Online
THE RAIN was bouncing off the prom and being taken up by an icy, spiteful wind to form what looked like plumes of smoke. The pleasure beach was deserted and even the night clubs had a forlorn and neglected air of a resort in winter.

Blackpool, naughty but nice in spring, summer and autumn, is neither in January, and even the town's tourist board would have given up on a day where the weather was at its most malevolent. Barely anyone stirred outdoors and, if they did, it was reluctantly. Or they were snooker players.

The Norbreck Castle Hotel on Blackpool's North Shore bustled like a train station, which in snooker terms it is because the 16 tables are platforms to fame, anonymity, hope or despair. You buy your ticket and find out where you are going only when you get there. But, for most, the destination is a town called Disappointment.

They are the losers in the cock-fight that is the qualification process which gets you into the televised tournaments and the big time. That is glamour and the hint of renown, but there is very little of that commodity at the Norbreck Castle, just hard, taut games cooped in 16 little cubicles that look like a small chess board when viewed from above.

Last week the British Open was the end game for the up-and-coming and the down-and going, this week it is the biggest carrot off them all, an appearance at the Crucible and the World Championship. To get there some players need to win nine successive matches, all of them a lottery of "is it my day?" contests.

Skill, of course, is essential but so is luck and timing. Jason Prince was knocking on the door of the top 32 this time last year but has barely won a match since and will be lucky to stay in the elite 64. One game away from the British Open and possible ranking points, he achieved perfection, a 147, and a lot of use it was to him. He still lost 5-4.

"It's the worst start to the season I've ever had," Prince, only the fifth player to get a maximum and still lose, said. "It sounds daft when I've just done a 147 but I'm not playing well. I've won one match in eight which tells its own story."

In his previous match he broke off in the decider and then had to sit and suffer as Jimmy Michie made 96. On this occasion he had also got to 4-4 only for Ian Brumby to reach the British Open at Plymouth with a 68 clearance. There was nothing he could do in either case- but bad luck stories are two-a-penny at Blackpool.

Some would love just to have been where Prince has lived, nine successive years in the top 64. Others have to eke out an existence in the sport by supplementing their winnings with work, and the various occupations among the people attempting to storm Norbreck Castle include a trainee chiropodist, a croupier, a prison officer and a delivery driver for a maggot farm.

Nick Manning is fortunate in that he can gain employment labouring for his father, who is a builder, but building bricks are a long way from building breaks and the allure of matches in packed venues. He comes from the south London territory of Jimmy White, but the comparisons do not extend much beyond that.

"If you're at the top it's a nice life," Manning, 21, said, "but until you get there you're struggling. You have to be in the top 64 to earn the equivalent of a good wage. With me, if you're not earning playing snooker, you're not earning. You pay your own wages and try to get by somehow.

"It can get depressing, always staying in. You've never got any money to spend. You can't do this, you can't do that. At least when you're working you can have a normal life, you have a choice."

Manning's dream of reaching the Crucible ended almost as soon as he reached Blackpool, and his immediate fate is events on the lesser UK circuit held in snooker clubs. Swindon and Stockport will decide if he can join the tour proper, if not the slog to join the Higgins and Hendrys will begin again next year.

Has he ever thought he might not make it? "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he replied with earnest defiance. "If you think about it, you're halfway there to not getting there. You just have to believe until the time comes when you've had enough."

The cold of disillusionment can hit at any time. Dennis Taylor will quit the grind of six hours a day practice at the end of the season, but at 50 today he has had his day. Others are worn down by the severity of the slope to the top.

On the face of it, Barry Hawkins has everything going for him. At 19 he has done well enough in the UK events to believe he can join the tour proper next season, and his money problems are alleviated by a sponsor. But even he temporarily lost a love for a game that first bit him as a child, and for two months last year he quit the sport to temp as an office junior.

"It got too much," he said. "I was going to jack it in but people at the snooker club persuaded me to carry on. The first month I enjoyed earning the money, going out and that, but by the second month I was desperate to knock some balls round a table."

Hawkins, also from south London, won his first World Championship qualifier on Friday, beating David Coles 10-3 to feed his dream of reaching a big time that he has visited only once, when he played a money match with White for pounds 750. He lost that encounter 5-3 but gained, he reckoned, plenty of experience. "It'll hold me in good stead," he said, not conceding for a second that he might never be in the position to properly use the lessons he learned.

But then anyone who travels to Blackpool in January is seriously addicted. Joe Johnson won the title in 1986 and has suffered several heart attacks since, but he was at the Norbreck Castle testing the strength of his arteries and his nerve. At 46, he still needs a fix.

"I just enjoy it," he said, a rational man trying to explain the irrational. "I like giving people scares. I don't think I'll ever win tournaments again, but I have to play. I love the butterflies inside.

"I turned pro at 30 and today some of them are burnt out at 25. That's the money they're playing for and the amount of hard matches. Make no mistake, a match like today takes it out of you, and if you lose it you are thinking about it for weeks because it hurts. And, the next time you play, you're just that little bit afraid."

Fear and loathing. In Las Vegas they can make a book and a film out of it. The losers in Blackpool this week are just left feeling cold.