by Ken Doherty.
As a kid, I used to watch snooker on the BBC. The “Pot Black” days. I was only about eight at the time, watching with my Dad, he was a big Ray Reardon fan. I saw Alex Higgins play Ray Reardon and I was captivated… He was so fast, he was Irish, he had that charisma about him.
That’s the moment I fell in love with snooker.
I got a snooker table from Santa that year. It was at the bottom of my bunk bed, about two feet by one. Me and my brothers would put it on the kitchen table when the plates were cleared and I’d play away with my brothers or my friends, endless hours of fun!
I never won those first games, I wasn’t very good at all. My brothers always had the upper hand but before long I started to get the hang of it. I’d plead with my eldest brother Seamus to bring me around to Jason’s of Ranelagh (snooker hall) which opened in 1976. It had just opened, and it was a step up from other snooker clubs. It had a jukebox, the space invaders machines, an Evil Knievel pinball machine, a pool table and the snooker table. It was like the hub of the area, but I wasn’t allowed in at that stage, I could only go in on a Sunday afternoon for about an hour.
”For an eight-year-old it's daunting when you first see a full-size snooker table, it's bigger than it looks on TV! I used to have to stand on a biscuit tin to reach the table, I'd play my shot, kick along the biscuit tin and play the next one.
When I was old enough, I would get off the bus from school and wouldn’t even go home, it would be straight to Jason’s and my schoolbag would be thrown under the table. I had to earn my game. I’d empty ashtrays, clear out bins, sweep the floor, whatever jobs needed doing about the place so that I could get a free game of snooker or space invaders!
I started to beat some of the older lads at snooker. On occasion, my biscuit tin went missing, hidden away by someone trying to gain an advantage! They were great times.
The cue I have always used just turned up one day in Jason’s out of the blue when I was about 10. Someone had left it behind on the cue rack. I knew every cue in the place but this one appeared from nowhere. I started to play with it and loved it, it fitted me perfectly. I asked the manager if I could keep it if nobody claims it, he said I could have it for a fiver.
I ran home, and I begged my Mam to give me the fiver so I could buy it. It was a lot of money to hand over at the time. She knew how badly I wanted to own my own cue, so she gave me the five-pound note. I went into the post office and broke it into five single pound notes. I went back to the manager and said my Mam could only afford two pounds. He said “OK give us the two quid then”.
That’s how I came to own my second hand, slightly warped, two pound cue that I still use today. Everything I’ve won from the time I was a Junior to the World Snooker Championship, I won using that cue. Not a bad investment, I hope no one ever comes back looking for it!
When I look back, it was my Dad who got me into this. He loved snooker.
One day I was in Jason’s playing a few frames when I got word that my Dad had a heart attack. He was making his way home from my sister’s school play. Two days later, he died in St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was thirteen at the time. It was a huge loss.
I miss him. I missed him more as I grew older, because I know how much he would have loved to see me play, just like I love to watch my son play tennis. Dad would have met Ray Reardon, Alex Higgins, Jimmy White… he would have just loved it.
It was a difficult time after Dad died… my Mam had to raise four of us on her own. I got a lot of support. The people who owned Jason’s, the Cosgrave family, gave me free practice sessions every day and then offered to sponsor me in tournaments. They knew money was tight… I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I did without the Cosgrave family. It’s funny the way life goes sometimes.
The school were a great support too. I remember a teacher looking at the register from the past year and pointing out that I had missed 25 days. He said he hoped I would spend less time in snooker halls and more time in school.
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“Funny you should say that sir, I’m off to New Zealand to play the World Amateur Championships. I’ll be back in three weeks.”
”He said "Give up that game Doherty, there's no future in snooker, you'll need an education to get a real job."
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There are two snooker tables in my old school that I donated to them and from time to time I help to organise fundraisers for equipment for the classrooms. Now they’ve students knocking on the door at 8:30am to get a frame in before class – the irony is not lost on me.
There were three snooker clubs in the city centre within a few hundred yards of each other – the Cosmo, the Home of Billiards and the Pierrot. I’d get on the Number 11 bus and stop off on the quays, a fiver in my pocket and set about competing with the older lads for cash. I gained so much great experience. I got to be known as “Crafty Ken”.
“Crafty Ken” won the Irish Under 16 Championship at 13 years of age.
It went on from there. I had decided that, once I finished school, I would give snooker a real go. I finished my exams and moved to England with 500 quid in my back pocket – all the money I had in the world.
In England, there were another hundred players as good or better than me. I kept going. I won the world amateur and junior championships in 1989. I knew then I was good enough, it was time to turn pro and see where it took me.
I had free digs and free practice at Ilford Snooker Centre, thanks to an Irish professional called Eugene Hughes. The digs were the other side of the city. Thirty-six stops on the District Line and two buses but it was worth it to get to play everyday and work towards the goal of being a champion.
It nearly ended before it started.
We were living in a bed and breakfast run by an Irish couple. My friend who I shared the twin room with was out one night, I was tucked up in bed dreaming of being world champion. My friend got in late and was heading up the stairs when he smelled gas. The kitchen light was on. He looked in the kitchen and saw that the oven and all rings of gas on the stove were switched on, with only one of the rings lighting…
The man of the house had decided to end it all… blow the house up with all of us in it. Only for my mate who came in, switched everything off, opened the windows and raised the alarm, that would have been it. The house would have gone up and no more snooker for Ken Doherty! We packed our bags and left before the sun came up.
I used to dream about winning the World Championship all the time.
I watched Alex Higgins win it in ’82 and Dennis Taylor in ’85 and I thought “I want to lift that trophy. Kiss the trophy. Wave to the crowd”. I wanted to emulate those players that inspired me to play in the first place.
”When I reached the final in 1997 I was up against Stephen Hendry. He was going for six World Championships in a row. 30 matches unbeaten, an incredible feat. I was basically playing Stephen on his table, in his backyard. I could not have been more of an underdog.
I wasn’t afraid of Stephen Hendry, I had that vision of me lifting the trophy. I could see it and it kept me going. It gave me a calmness, a belief that I could win. Because of that belief, I played out of my skin and kept Stephen out of it. I could see him getting frustrated.
I was 15 – 9 up going into the last session and that… that was when I felt the pressure. I could see the winning line, but he came back strong, winning the first three frames before I managed to make it 16-12.
Going in for the mid-session interval I could feel the belief coming back. I went back out then finished the job. My dream came true! It was a fantastic feeling, a moment I will never forget.
The homecoming was so special and unexpected, there was more than a thousand people at the airport. The open top bus through the city centre and down O’Connell Street. There were people hanging out of office block windows, cars blowing horns, then on to Ranelagh for a street party.
There was a civic reception in Dublin’s Mansion House. A Chief Superintendent from the Gardai told me that during the final session the Central Police Station in Harcourt Street didn’t receive one phone call, normally they would get a call every five minutes! They called the phone company to see if there was something wrong with the lines. The girl on the line at the phone company said, “Are you not watching the snooker?”. The Garda said to me, “Doherty, you should be on TV more often, you’d make my job a hell of a lot easier!”
”So, I stopped crime in Dublin for three hours one Bank Holiday Monday. I've no doubt the criminals made up for lost time afterward.
The buzz of that homecoming was incredible – the following year, I got to the final and lost and had to get a taxi home so there’s a big difference.
I had been in a complete bubble during the 1997 World Championship. I tried to keep myself away from the Crucible, away from some of the hype that I was starting to hear coming from back home.
A TV crew and ten journalists had descended on my home in Ranelagh. My Mam was finding that difficult. She suffered from high blood pressure and could never even watch me play live.
The morning of the final day, she left the house and cycled into town. Then she headed to Donnybrook Church to light some candles. On her way home, she got a puncture so had to walk from Donnybrook. On her way someone she knew stopped her and said, “Your son‘s just won the World Championship!”
Although she really disliked the acclaim and media fuss that came with being the mother of a world champion, she was very proud. The World Championship Trophy sat on her TV in the living room, she’d shine it every day and give it a kiss every morning. Anyone that knocked on the door asking for a photo with the cup, she obliged.
Mam passed away last year. She had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed… and she was gone in about four weeks. She never smoked or drank in her life.
She couldn’t watch me play, she came up to Goffs once, I was playing Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final and she thought “oh it won’t be too bad, he’s in the final, I’ll go up and watch him” but she spent the entire time out in the car park with her rosary beads with the car park attendants! That was quite nice but it’s tinged with a little sadness for me.
She was a great woman. A strong woman. I miss her dearly.
The greatest match I ever played at the Crucible was the semi-final in 2003 against Paul Hunter. I was 15 – 9 down. He had to win two frames, I had to win eight. I beat him 17-16. I was in the final again – this time against Mark Williams.
We went toe-to-toe all the way to 16-all but he won the last two. It broke my heart. I was devastated. It took me a long time to get over that loss. I had climbed Everest so many times during that tournament but failed when the Championship was in my grasp. That was one that got away.
After that, snooker as a sport had fallen back. We were down to six ranking tournaments in a season as sponsorship and TV money reduced.
Barry Hearn took over the promotion of snooker and he’s changed all of that. We’re now up to 20 ranking tournaments. Prize money’s gone from £3.5 million to £15 million, there are millions of people watching around the world so it’s a great time to be a snooker professional.
There are lots of great young players coming through from all corners of the globe, the game is growing and it’s wonderful to see.
The travel doesn’t thrill me like it used to, but I still love the game and competing among the best on the tour.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is our talisman. We used to be in the same club. I would regularly beat him 10 – 2 or 10 – 3… he was only twelve at the time, but it still counts in my book!
In my view, Ronnie is the best to have ever played the game. There is no doubt that he’s a genius, his stats are unbelievable. He shot a 147-maximum break in five minutes and 20 seconds! We’re deeply indebted to him because he has brought so many people into the game in the same way that Higgins and White did for their generations.
He probably needs to win seven World Championships to truly surpass Stephen Hendry in everyone’s mind as the greatest ever.
”It amazes me how he has never been nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year despite being one the best sportsmen that Britain has ever produced.
These days, I also work in radio which I love. Leinster and Ireland star, Reggie Corrigan and I have a show called Dublin’s Talking Sport on Sunshine 106.8 over the last five years. Reggie and I have great fun. When the red light goes on and you’re live, it’s a great buzz. It doesn’t feel like work!
But I still have my snooker career. I’m one of the oldest on the circuit now. At least Jimmy White’s still playing and Joe Swail too so I’m not THE oldest yet, but I am one of the elder statesmen of the game.
Some days, I wish I was starting all over again, being an 18-year-old with ambition to win and few responsibilities outside of the game.
But most days, I am just happy to be able to say that I had my hands on the World Championship trophy.
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