Snookered by his ambition

A world away from the Crucible Paul Hefford, ranked 454, has made nothing from the game he loves. Yet he keeps playing
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The first question that Paul Hefford, snooker professional, asked me was highly revealing: "Do I get paid for this?" he inquired hopefully.

Money is a magic word unless you are among the game's elite. Trouble is, it's harder to get than three snookers and all the balls to win when you're one in a cast of hundreds and slipping rapidly down the rankings.

There are 628 professional players registered with the World Professional Snooker and Billiards Association. Many of these, household names like Fred Davis, Ray Reardon, John Virgo and Clive Everton, no longer play tournaments. But there is still a mass of hopefuls like Hefford who never appear on television, never play abroad and never win anything. Glamorous events like the Embassy World Championship will only ever be a dream for them. Yet they potter on.

"The only people who make a good living at the game are those in the top 50, and the rest just struggle," says Hefford, a professional for five years. "But even the person who is 50th probably only earns about pounds 10,000 a year. That isn't a vast amount of money, is it?"

Since Hefford became a professional at 24, he has won precisely nothing from the game he loves. His situation is not unique. "From 90th to 250th, everyone is about the same. There is nothing much to choose between us. But the game is so much more competitive than 10 years ago, when there were 120 professionals and only about 40 were any good. Now you have a really high standard all the way down, and it's so hard to start from the bottom unless you're a John Higgins or Ronnie O'Sullivan."

For Hefford, who lives in Peterborough, the name of the game has not been snooker but survival. He still lives at home with his parents and hasn't had a holiday for years. It costs pounds 100 to enter one of the nine scoring tournaments and pounds 250 for the world championships. Qualifying matches are generally played at Blackpool, Aldershot, Sheffield or Bolton. So Hefford jumps in his 1972 MGB ("I don't know how many miles it's done because the mileometer has broken") and prepares for a few days or a couple of weeks, depending how well he does, living in soulless B&Bs and getting homesick.

"I've still got the same suit. I can squeeze into it at the start, but after three weeks it will be too big for me." When money is tight, even food becomes a luxury. The other players are friendly, but not overly so. The seven colours may be different, but they are all chasing the same rainbow.

He was nearly 15 when he took up snooker, but found that he had a natural eye for the game. Like many young players, he skived off school to spend hours crouched over a cue. At 24, he had a steady job in his father's signwriting business, but threw it all up to play snooker full-time. "One of my friends was professional, so I had an idea of what the standard was. I thought I would do all right at it." Unfortunately, his decision coincided with the governing body's move to open up the game. Suddenly, there were hundreds of youngsters like him who saw their cue to fame and fortune.

Hefford, who has made four maximum breaks, is painfully honest about his success and his prospects. "It was a lot harder than I thought. I played all right but that wasn't good enough. It took a while to get used to the different tables, and there is tremendous mental pressure. I didn't handle it very well.

"I have beaten a few players ranking in the 120s, but I've never had a good year. I've never played Peter Ebdon or Stephen Hendry or anyone like that. With me, it has been lack of confidence largely brought about by financial worries."

To earn enough money to compete, he has worked as a roofer or a labourer. "But you can't play your best when you're knackered from working. With this game, you need to practise six or seven hours a day and it's very hard to do that when you're worn out."

Hefford's only sponsorship was pounds 500 in his first year from a local snooker club. Although two Peterborough clubs give him a free table whenever he wants, he can't play club snooker because he's a professional. In any case, he finds the club tables too easy after playing with the big boys who, despite popular belief, use tables with smaller pockets.

Most of all, he needs that green stuff to stay in the black. "I didn't play last year because I just got disheartened. You can't just keep going to Blackpool or Sheffield and doing your money. But I might start playing again because there are moves to introduce a league system."

This is a three-tier system of leagues that aims to help players win through to the top rank on merit, rather than financial back-up. For a player like Hefford, it would mean the chance to win some money by playing his peers, with the incentive of promotion to a higher division.

We are speaking in the Q Club in Peterborough. "Look at that," he gestures, pointing around him. "Once this place was packed with snooker tables, now it's half-full of pool and nine-ball. Snooker has to be aware of the challenges it faces. I don't think there is a lot wrong with the game, but it needs to look after the players at the bottom as well as those at the top, so young players will keep coming through."

Even though snooker has given Hefford nothing except a lot of late nights and an empty pocket, he's still convinced he's in the frame. "If I could find a sponsor so I could play full-time, I still think I could make it." But to Hefford, Embassy will remain the name of a cigarette, rather than the apex of his career, unless he gets some extraordinary breaks - and those seem unlikely when you're 29 years old, broke, and ranked 454 in the world.