Tony Drago was a regular feature at the recent PTC7 in Gloucester, often seen around the venue watching matches, and with a wicked sense of humour and a truely remarkable commentator’s eye to boot. It is clear from spending time with him that he loves the game of snooker and loves being involved down at the South West Snooker Academy and being amongst the players who reside there. He is a snooker fan through and through, and when not present at the venue itself, still takes a keen interest in all of the results. I caught up with him for an interview and during the write up phase, I chose to leave the broken English for authenticity so if you spot any apparent typos or grammatical errors, they are deliberate! Without further ado then, here is the interview:
When did you first start playing snooker?
When I was about 8 so 38 years ago.
How many snooker clubs were there in Malta at that time?
Well it was more social and event clubs and especially in those days we had one, maybe two tables at most. There was a lot of table around the island but in one club minimum one maximum two.
So how old were you when you made your first century?
Late, very late. 16. Because, they used to change the cloth once every year and a half, they used to have a heavy set of balls. I would say if I was in England I would maybe had my first century at 12 or 13. When I was that age I was knocking in a lot of 70s and 80s.
Did you teach yourself or did you watch and learn from anyone else?
No, I am just natural.
When did you decide to try and make it a career?
I was in Malta and this guy who used to run the Malta Airlines brought the team over from England, and one of them was Vic Harris who used to be a very good amateur player and very good professional for a number of years. And he spotted me and said why don’t you come to England and play? So I did that and I won a lot of pro-ams straight away. So Vic didn’t teach me how to play but he spotted my talent and he helped me along.
So this would have been early 1980s.
This was about 1981.
When did you turn professional?
1985. I was accepted as a pro 1984 but in my country they wanted me to play in the World Amateur. I didn’t succeed and lost in the quarter-final and then I turned pro the following year.
How did you come to play so fast? Did you have to pay for the light?
It could have happened like that. I mean obviously I wasn’t from a rich family, it was never the poorest of families but I never used to have more money than a kid should have. So I would put the money in the light and play quick to make sure I can play another frame. But I don’t think that’s the reason but it’s probably got a few per cent to do with it, yes.
Have you ever thought after missing a shot “I rushed it”?
No because I always enjoy playing like that. People said that to me and give me a headache! People don’t say nothing when I make a 100 break in 2 minutes, they say great, then you miss a ball and they say you rush.
What’s your fastest timed century?
Television wise it’s on youtube, I think it’s 3 minutes something but I’ve made faster in practice obviously.
How many world records do you hold?
I’ve been in Guinness (book of world records) 4 or 5 times. I made a 149 break which at the time was a record. I have a match with Danny Fowler won a frame in 3 minutes. I have a 5-0 win in 34 minutes. I have a 9-0 win against Joe O’Boye in 81 minutes and I’ve got the one on television with John Higgins (fastest televised century).
Has Ronnie taken any records from you?
Well Ronnie made the maximum in 5 minutes something, and my maximum I don’t know what it was, something like 6 or 7 minutes but it wasn’t on television, and I had 3 reds behind yellow, green and brown as well!
So have you beaten the 5 minutes 20 second maximum in practice?
I did one. I did it in practice in 4 minutes and 6 seconds.
They timed it for me. It was in Malta and I can’t remember who I was practicing with but it was timed 4 minutes and 6 seconds.
What are your career highlights?
My career highlights… although I did well and have been in the top 10 and been top 16 for 5 years, I did underachieve because the first 5 or 6 years as a pro I got homesick after every week. So that affected my game. But highlights I did reach a couple of massive finals, the Scottish International 1997 lost to Hendry, and I lost in 1991 Mita World Masters which at the time was the biggest tournament ever. I have won small invitations, I beat Steve Davis in a final in China and I did win a ranking event, a Strachan which was a small one like a PTC. It was a minor ranking event but there was only 5 or 6 didn’t enter it and I beat Ken Doherty in the final. And, it was only 400 points for the winner but that year I got in the top 16 by 200 points. So when people say to me “Have you won tournaments?” I say no because for me to say you have won a lot of tournaments you have to win it on television, but I did win; that was a ranking event.
When you talk about being homesick, can you relate to players like Ding in today’s game?
Yeah but Ding has got another 25 Chinese players here. If I had another 25 Maltese players I would never get homesick! When Ding first came here there were at least another half a dozen Chinese players that came with him.
Do you have any regrets in your career?
Well I’m known to be very very generous with my money. You know if I go out in a bar or a restaurant I’m always the first one to offer to pay. It’s nice to be, I don’t want to be called “stingy” like a few of the players. Not mentioning names but there are a few who have so much money and when you go to a restaurant they have to look at the prices to see how much it’s going to cost and I don’t wanna be like that. But at the same time I wish I had been more careful because financially I should be better now than I am but other than that no regrets. If I had to do it all again I’d do the same, but I’d be a bit more careful.
Can you tell us about your experiences at the Crucible Theatre.
I never did that great. I got to quarter-final once and a few last 16s but then again it’s not that easy to go past that hurdle. That is why I have got so much respect for Neil Robertson. To come over all the way from Australia as a young man and to be single minded and to block everything out and win the World Championship after a short time, I have got so much respect for him because I know how hard it is for a foreigner to win it.
When did you decide to take up 9 ball pool seriously?
I always used to watch on Eurosport the two German giants play, Ralf Souquet and Oliver Ortmann, and I always used to say I’d try it someday. Then I got a letter from Matchroom and I spoke to Barry Hearn on the phone and asked him about it and he said the invitation is there for you to play in the World Championship. So I started to play and I got to like the game. As a game I love it, but I don’t love it as much as snooker. So I entered the World Championship and never looked back and I won big tournaments. I won the World Pool Masters, I won the Predator 10 ball, I won the MVP (Most Valuable Player) in the Mosconi Cup in my debut in Vegas, so I have had success at the game.
Can you practice pool and snooker at the same time?
No I don’t practice pool. I believe that when you play snooker you’re ready for pool because you’re going from a big table to a small table. But then when you play too much pool it’s hard to play snooker because you go from the small to the big table.
Do you use a different cue?
Yes, John Parris made me a pool cue. It looks like a snooker cue but it’s a pool cue. And I use a Predator break cue (for the break off shot).
Would you say 9-ball is a more creative game than snooker?
As in with snooker you play a lot of the same types of shots and you have situations occurring frequently such as in and around the black, but in 9 or 10-ball each game is more different.
In pool you always play for one ball but in snooker we all play for 2 or 3 reds so if you’re not on this one you’re on this one. In pool you can’t do that, if you’re not on the next ball in pool you’re in trouble.
Do you use the markers around the table to work out the angles?
No, they do (other professional pool players) I don’t.
What’s your highest number of consecutive run outs?
I did a record in 8-ball, I ran out the whole match 10-0 but that was 8 ball. In 9 ball not much, maybe 3 or 4.
Which should demonstrate how hard a game it is. Do you play any other cuesports such as 3-cushion?
No. 3-cushion is one of my favourite sport to watch but not to play. Table without pockets is not for me!
Back to snooker, what is your opinion on PTC events and is there anything you’d like to change?
PTC events, I enjoy them. But, if we gonna carry on in Sheffield, make it an open plan. The way it is now, I’m sorry I don’t enjoy it. Because you go there you play you, your opponent and the referee, maybe 2 people watching. And if they cough or they move they gonna put you off. So I’m in favour of PTCs but not in Sheffield, no. Not unless they gonna make it open plan. I love all the PTCs abroad and here (SWSA). I mean look at this, Gloucester is the perfect place to hold all the qualifiers. I mean Gloucester’s not exactly Las Vegas but the place to play is fantastic. I know Sheffield has got contract and all of that and I’ve got nothing against Sheffield, but if you’re gonna play in Sheffield you got to open the place up.
What about the number of PTCs and the structure of them?
Listen I agree with PTCs but I don’t like people say “It’s costing us money” because if you’re not good enough then don’t enter! Yes it’s costing us money but nothing is stopping me from winning the first prize of £10,000. It’s there for me. If I’m good enough I can win it. It doesn’t matter for me as long as we can play in an open place with spectators watching. What I do mind is going to Sheffield, pay for the hotel, then go in a CAGE and play one match with nobody watching you! I mean come on!
When we get a PTC in a proper place, we always get a top player win it. There’s been a few where maybe there’s a player who has won only one or two match in the season and they’ve been and won a PTC! But good luck to them.
Do you feel as well that it’s because the players in question are used to the conditions?
Yeah because they more used to playing in a pro-am. You see guys like John Higgins and one minute they’re playing in front of 5000 people and the next they’re playing in front of a referee. You know, I’m not successful like John or Ronnie but I’ve been there a long time and I’ve played in front of 3 or 4,000 people. I can’t get myself up for it to play in those booths.
Which event in the coming season are you looking forward to playing in most?
Well I love the UK but unfortunately it’s gone down to 11 frames but I still look forward to it. But from what I see on tv last year I would love to qualify to Berlin. That was the best event by a million miles last year. And obviously being Maltese I would like to see an event in Malta again, but that’s not in my hands.
If there was a rule in snooker you could change what would it be?
(thinks)… well like most of the players I would try to correct the miss rule but how can you?
You were given 3 choices earlier in the year and the consensus was to keep it as it is, and when you watch the young amateurs playing among themselves they seem to sort it out ok don’t they
Yes but it’s hard. I always said though, that when it came to the miss the best referee was always Alan Chamberlain. Instead of he looked at the rules more, he looked at the knowledge. There’s a lot of great referees now but when it came to him and the miss rule, I always felt comfortable with him. He always used his knowledge, instead of the rule.
Who is the best snooker player you’ve ever played against?
Well the hardest player I have ever played is Steve Davis. The most talented player I have ever played against is Ronnie O’Sullivan. But the best, the greatest player all round with the pressure, the nitty gritty and everything is John Higgins.
Not to put words in your mouth but what about Hendry?
Well ok. Hendry was the best scorer I ever played. Davis was the hardest. Ronnie the most talented but Higgins is the best. I mean don’t forget that Hendry won 7 World titles, and John won 4, but Hendry won his last World title at 30, and John won his last World title at 36 in the 2000s (actually 2010’s but point taken).
He won 3 in his 30s in fact.
Yeah and he’s doing it in a harder era. So that’s why I include everything and say he’s the best player I ever played against. The others when you get flare and everything you get Ronnie and when you get high scoring you get Hendry, top with knowledge you get Davis but John is as good as them in their departments, and even better than them under pressure. So the best player I’ve ever seen is John Higgins.
Have you got any tips for the future?
For who? John Higgins? I’m not gonna give him any tips!
(laughs) ok then any tips for the younger players?
Yeah when I was young, like most of these players here you had to grab me by my neck to get me off the table. Because now I can’t do more than 4 hours. I don’t enjoy the practice as much as before. You’re not gonna enjoy it much when you’re older, so make the most of it when you’re younger.
I’ve got a question from Ian White who wants to know what is your favourite snooker club?
My favourite snooker club without a doubt is Kings Cross in the 80’s.
That’s the right answer, to quote “if he doesn’t say King’s Cross in the 80’s then kick him in the bollocks from me!”
Oh no no no no! But I tell you what, King’s Cross now is called Hurricane Rooms and it’s got more pool tables than snooker, and it’s probably the busiest club again. It’s still the only 24 hour club in London, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
What was so good about it in the 80’s?
Well in the 80’s you’ve got people like me there, Peter Ebdon, Eugene Hughes, you had all the Irish players coming there, Ken Doherty…
(reading from twitter @smarterskills) Joe O’Boye, Billy Chivers, Jerry Williams…
Jerry Williams yeah but all of them, all of them. All the overseas players, you’ve got people coming to fly out to the World Amateur and they stop in England before they catch a flight, they come 2 days before so they can come to Kings Cross.
Thanks for your time Tony!