Snooker: Williams in a battle of black and white

The president of snooker's ruling body is determined to fight on as internal strife threatens to tear the game apart.
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The Independent Online
EVEN REX WILLIAMS' wife thinks he should step down as chairman of snooker's governing body. Not because she believes the accusations levelled at her husband but because, she says, it is unjustifiably ruining his reputation. It crosses his mind to go, too, every time he travels from his Midlands home to the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's offices in Bristol. Yet he stays.

Perhaps, he and his opponents are trapped, too enmeshed in snooker's political intrigue to make a clean break. Perhaps the infighting that has plagued the sport for the last decade is too potent a drug to kick of your own free will.

Victim or oppressor, there seems to be no grey areas when it comes to Williams, it depends on who you talk to. Barry Hearn, for example, has described Monday's attempt to oust him and his principal supporter, Bob Close, as part of a "life or death struggle to see whether professional snooker has any future at all".

Williams would agree with the sentiment if not the source of the problem, pointing the finger to forces within the game which, he says, are trying to run snooker for the benefit of the elite. His counter, which will also be voted on at Monday's egm, is to call for the removal of his opponents, Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor and Jason Ferguson, from the WPBSA board.

Confused? Most people are, but clear the smoke and noise of this bloody conflict and a few facts stand out. Last month the part-time chief executive of seven weeks' standing, Peter Middleton, left the WPBSA; the game's principal commentator, Clive Everton, and snooker correspondent of the Independent On Sunday is banned from press rooms; several tournaments, including last week's British Open, are unsponsored. Writs fly like confetti, accusations are even more readily airborne. Snooker, in short, is in a mess.

"It is," Williams agrees. "but it's not of my making. This will be the fifth general meeting in 20 months and I haven't called a single one of them. Every time you get a decision that someone does not like it's a case of `call an egm, get rid of them'. And it won't stop. If I'm voted off the board it won't make a difference. It won't stop until certain people have got control of the game."

Williams, 66, was talking in a Birmingham hotel whose peaceful drawing room was a long way removed from the rabid atmosphere in the build-up to Monday's meeting. Urbane to the point where he personifies the word, a founder member of the WPBSA and a former world billiards champion, he seemed to be an ideal figurehead, a unifying force even, when he became chairman for the third time two and half years ago. Instead he has become the focus for discontent.

Opponents, including Ian Doyle, the manager of Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, Ronnie O'Sullivan and 20 leading players, describe Williams as autocratic and using the WPBSA as a personal fiefdom. If things were being run properly, they argue, then sponsors would be queuing up to be associated with a game that commands high television audiences. He, in turn, accuses his opponents of undermining his position to the point where he is unable to undertake the reforms the sport needs.

"If you're Mr Sponsor," he said, "you look at snooker and think that the sport is tearing itself apart. That's not the image I want for my product, so you look somewhere else.

"I've had two and half years there and I haven't had six months where I've been able to get down to what I want to do because I've been fighting egms, agms and a constant stream of abuse."

Monday's attempt to cure the ills centres on Middleton's dismissal. The chairman of the Football League and former chief executive of Lloyd's of London, he was identified as just the sort of business heavyweight the game was crying out for. Instead he went barely before he got his foot in the door.

Williams maintains Middleton was not dismissed and had simply been unable to agree terms with the board, but it was the last straw for the former world champions Davis and Taylor, who describes the situation as "utterly shambolic".

In a world of black and white, naturally Williams does not agree. "I had someone in to look at the WPBSA organisation and he told me, `this place is very, very efficient'. I know that. The financial side is run tightly, the tournaments run like clockwork and no one can say what they see on the television screen isn't very good.

"The latest thing people are saying is that Peter Middleton went because of my ego. Rubbish, it's an easy thing to say. He wanted to change the terms of his employment and the WPBSA board didn't agree. It's as simple as that."

All the time, as Williams was politely answering the questions while sipping his coffee, you wondered why he puts himself through this. Why not become the figurehead for which he seemed ideally suited? Why get involved in the politics and the accusation?

"My great love for the game," he replied. "I don't want to see it get into the hands of people who I think are more interested in their own personal gain and a limited number of players rather than the whole association. I could go but it's not in my nature to walk away.

"I don't know what my opponents want because no one has told me, there isn't a manifesto. It's easy and glib to say we want professional management but we've got that. I'm an experienced businessman, I've run businesses all my life which is why they want to get rid of me. I'm the stumbling block in their argument. If I was given a free hand I'd surround myself with people with business expertise.

"The only way this civil war can be stopped is altering the voting structure so it is more democratic. When managers have a block vote, when you've got to have a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, and when there's only 78 members, it's easy to block anything. To win any election is a gigantic job. Until that power is diluted and the managers are told `you look after your players and don't interfere with the rest of the game', there's no answer to it. And that is whether I go or stay."

It was a compelling argument, but the opposite would be voiced with equal conviction by Williams' opponents. Like a lot of civil wars you need to be on the inside to fully understand the threads of the dispute and even some snooker players admit to being confused by what they are hearing. "I just want to play the game, I don't understand what's going on," is a message that emanates from many of them.

On Monday the WPBSA board might be reduced from seven members to two, or, in the worst case, it might remain intact, with two sides glowering at each other from behind their entrenched positions. Considering the one common theme for all parties is a professed concern for the game, it will be an extraordinary general meeting in more ways than one.

Snooker's bitter political merry-go-round is still spinning viciously. And no one seems inclined to get off.

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