The Monday Interview: Now Doherty must face the really hard part

The Embassy World Snooker Championship starts in Sheffield on Saturday. Guy Hodgson meets defending champion Ken Doherty, an unlikely hero who discovered a ruthless streak at the right time
Click to follow
HOW can you measure the impact of what you have done? Walking out to be acclaimed by 55,000 people at Old Trafford perhaps, or parading the World Snooker Championship trophy in front of Lansdowne Road? In Ken Doherty's case you could explore the crime figures.

When Doherty became world champion last May, Ireland ground to a halt. Not only were the decent drawn to watching the thin, pale features of the boy from Ranelagh, but the dishonest rested their light fingers too. From 7pm to 10pm on a famous Sunday, not a single crime was reported at Dublin's central police station.

That takes some taking in and Doherty, 28, struggled longer than anyone. How do you come to terms with achieving something that has been your aim for all your adult life? He did not have a clue. He and the rest of the planet had heard the words "world snooker champion" and, for five years, immediately thought of Stephen Hendry. Now it was him.

"It was like all my dreams and birthdays coming together," he said before confronting the chasm that opened alarmingly in his life. "Everything happened so quickly, I didn't know what was next. I'd achieved what I wanted to achieve. Where do I go from here? What's my next goal?"

Speak to Doherty, who will begin the defence of his Embassy World Championship at the Crucible next Saturday, and there is a good chance he will say: "I've not changed, I'm the same person." Which is not true. Doherty might exude the same easy-going, languid personality, but something is different.

A few years ago, women promoting the sponsor's product in Sheffield looked at his spindly frame and pinched features and felt maternal emotions running through them. He seemed like a young man who needed looking after, a waif who required protection. It was a false image then, and not one that could be mistakenly assumed now. The facade of fragility and vulnerability has gone.

Last year, as his momentum built towards the world title, Doherty rang his longtime friend and journalist Eamonn Dunphy and told him: "This is No More Mr Nice Guy", cutting off the flow which seemed to have him destined to be a talented but unfulfilled player. There is a ruthlessness about him; an assurance that deep within there lies the real thing.

"The confidence is there. I don't have to look for it," he said. "I know I've competed with the best when it's mattered most. I've beaten Stephen Hendry, who is probably the greatest player there has ever been, in the final of the world championship. If I can do that to him, I can do it to anyone."

There have been many points in his life when Doherty might have veered away from his destiny - God knows there were enough temptations at the Cosmo - the club where he hewed his trade near O'Connell Street in Dublin - but a cathartic one was undoubtedly a confrontation with his manager, Ian Doyle, a little over 12 months ago.

Doherty had been crushed by Steve Davis in the Irish Masters, a tournament he cherishes only slightly less than the World Championship, and Doyle, losing patience with his gifted but unpropelled charge, tore into his dressing-room and called him lazy. "You're wasting your talent," he said, "and ultimately you'll waste your life."

Whether Doyle was really raging through a red mist is a moot point, but as a piece of motivation it was inspired. Doherty believed he was and, furious and hurt, he channelled his anger into hours of practice with Ronnie O'Sullivan in Ilford. When he arrived at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, he was prepared like he had never been before, and the result was an 18-12 win over Hendry and the World Championship. Up yours, Ian.

"I still find it hard to get up really early in the morning," Doherty said, smiling at the memory of Doyle's tirade, "but I learned a lot of lessons and one of them was that I have to work a lot harder. I now know what it takes to be successful now, and when you've won the World Championship it makes you more hungry to keep up that standard.

"If anything I have to work harder to stay where I am. I'm a target now. People raise their game, it's part and parcel of the job, I understand that. I have a lot more to lose than they have, so it's necessary to practise and practise.

"Now I go to an event and I know I'm prepared. Psychologically that's an advantage. I'm not expecting to find it at the tournament, I have it. There's a saying in golf: `If you don't have it in the locker room you're not going to find it on the course', and it's the same in snooker. I know I've done my homework, I've given myself every chance of doing it."

That has not always been the case. On winning the World Championship Doherty embarked on a whirl of activity, taking the trophy to wherever it would be welcome. A fierce patriot, he had a need to visit his old haunts to repay debts of time incurred in his formative days and to give Ireland its share of the glory. As he puts it, there can hardly be a hall, shop, supermarket or hospital that has not had a visit from "our Ken".

Then there were trips to the homes of Manchester United and Celtic, the meetings with the Prime Ministers of Ireland and Great Britain, the million- and-one photographs. "These were the perks," he said. "I went to Lansdowne Road when Ireland played Lichtenstein in the World Cup qualifier, with 35,000 people there. As I turned to each side of the ground it was like a Mexican wave of people standing up. You had to be there to see it. Incredible. Unbelievable."

The schedule was incredible, too, and the perks inevitably had an effect in terms of results at the start of this season. Doherty, troubled and distracted, could barely win a match. "It was a roller-coaster ride I was on and it took me a time to come off it," he said. "Maybe people saw me as different, I know I did. I was conscious they expected more from me as world champion, and perhaps I tried too hard.

"Joe Johnson says it took him two years to get used to the idea that he had actually won the World Championship. That's what I've learned in the last few months: to really enjoy the snooker, not worry about being world champion and just worry about me. Forget what has gone, it's history."

Certainly snooker history will touch him as he walks through the curtain at the Crucible on Saturday as title holder, launching the World Championship as the modern greats - Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry - have done before him. He loves to be bracketed with these people, but to be truly be included he knows needs to win again and again.

To that end the draw has been kind as Hendry, John Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan are in the other half. In theory he has a relatively easy ride to the final, but theories have counted for little in the past. Not even Hendry and Davis won their second world title in the year immediately following their first.

"I'm not worried about the draw, I'm just worried about my own first game against Lee Walker," Doherty said. There'll be a lot of going on. It's the first match, the first day, the defending champion. There will be pressures I've never experienced before."

Can he cope? "I'm looking forward to it," he replied. "Can't wait, I really can't wait. If you'd asked a few months ago I'd have said: `No, put it back, I don't want it to come'. Now I'm ready."