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Tom English | Snooker: China on my mind
Published Date: 21 March 2010
By Tom English
FRIDAY MORNING he's away, out the door and around the world. Beijing calling. Only six tournaments left on the emaciated calendar now and this is the maddest of the lot. Snooker loopy. It's the 1980s there. Chas and Dave top of the charts. Kirk Stevens still cool. Stephen Maguire's been through this time warp a dozen times before and he's still trying to get his head straight. They queue for his autograph and he thinks, "Why?" He ain't no Higgins or O'Sullivan or
The world No.2 is sitting in his home from home, the splendid new Q Club in Glasgow's south side, and wants to tell us that Beijing has broadened his horizons, that he's done the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, that he's been across Tiananmen
Square and up to the Great Wall. He'd like to say all of that and more, but he can't. Truth is, he's stayed in his room until it's time to go play. Hotel-snooker-hotel and then home. That's been the way of it. That's the life.
"Every year I say the same thing. 'I'm gonna do the Wall'. But you get there and you're knackered from the flight. You play and you crash. You might have a drink in the hotel with the boys. A game of cards, maybe. I'm gonna take Sharon with me one time so she can see what it's like. I think she thinks I'm having a great old time to myself, but I'm telling you, it ain't rock 'n' roll."
China: law unto itself. "You get big crowds and they're very loud. They're on the phone, fidgeting about and all that carry on. The ref will try his hardest to keep them quiet but basically they don't listen. They cannae listen, they're too busy talking on the phone. There was one last year, I was playing Ronnie in the semis. Ronnie's a megastar over there. It was five-each. I played a bad safety and I left the white down here and I'm thinking 'Ronnie's gonna make at least 40 here and win the match'. And they all started clapping. Last thing you need. Clappin' and all that. They didn't mean any harm. They just love Ronnie. You can't take it personal over there, you just have to roll with it."
Rolling with it. Aye, that's right. He's been doing that for the past year. Rolling with the allegations of match-fixing that hang over his head, rolling with the frustrations of the most ponderous investigation in snooker history.
The background you might know. Before Maguire's clash with Jamie Burnett at the 2008 UK Championship, bookmakers noticed some irregular betting activity on the match, some suspicious looking punts on the game finishing 9-3 in Maguire's favour, which it duly did. Both men were called in and questioned. And since then? Nothing. The investigation is pending, that's all he knows. Been that way a while. He'd like to know when it's going to end, but there hasn't been sight nor sound of a dickey bird. He's been left twisting in the breeze for too long.
"It's over a year now. I don't know any more than what's been written in the papers. Haven't heard one single thing about it. I try not to think about it, because if I do I'll go on a downer, you know what I mean? I'll carry on playing and it'll sort itself out in the end. I just wait to get the phone call that it's over and done with. An apology at the end of it would be quite good. See, you win a snooker match and people don't want to talk about how I've played. They say, 'What's happening from last year?' and I don't know. You say, 'I actually played OK out there today, it was quite a good match, that'. But it always goes back to the other thing. Police asked me all the questions. I told the truth in everything. I don't know what else to say. That's it."
There aren't many sports where you will find its protagonists talking so honestly about the complicated wiring in their heads. Snooker is such a game. These boys don't hold back, don't talk things up for the sake of making themselves look better. If they choked, they'll admit it. They'll beat themselves up in front of you and there's no PR flunky gonna stop them. They don't get involved in that football thing. No massing of the image here. No prima donna bull. What you see in this world is a bit of reality.
We're talking at the Q Club and the world championship trophy happens to be perched on a table across the way. This is the pot that Maguire wants. He's 29 and he says he thought he'd have won it by now. Been close once or twice. No finals or anything, but he's had his opportunities.
"I despise it sometimes, you know. You hate what it does to you. The semis against John (Higgins, 2007] was the closest I came, gave it a right good go that year. I was well up in that one; 14-10 in a first to 17. He come out like a train for the last session and done me. Year after that, in the quarter-final against Joe Perry, that was even harder. I never gave him the respect I should have. Played him the year before and beat him 10-2, so I'm looking beyond the quarter-final and into the semi and maybe wondering who I might be playing. But he's a good player, Joe Perry, and I couldn't shake him off. I just thought I was gonna run away with it any minute. I'm thinking, 'What's going on? I should have been out of here an hour ago'. It goes to 12-12 and I miss a chance in the final frame and all of a sudden I'm out. But I deserved to lose. The way I treated the match, I deserved to go."
The Crucible is just a month away. This is snooker's time now. Maybe it's Barry Hearn's time, too. That's what Maguire is hoping anyway. As the new boss of the sport, it's Hearn's job to shake it up. Brought to the brink by the old guard, snooker has a chance now that the ultimate showman is in charge.
"I'm on board with Barry, no question. Listen, the way things were going I was demented. We've got six tournaments. Six! And it's not as if you're playing donkeys the first couple of rounds in these things. So we've got fewer chances to make our money and more and more boys vying for it. It's serious pressure. "
One of Hearn's more madcap ideas is for a one-frame speed event, where each loser exits the arena via a walk of shame to a curtain where the Grim Reaper awaits. "I only heard what you heard. If you lose you have to walk off and you get gunged or something like that. Listen, that's the kind of thing that'll get a crowd in. You wanna see Ronnie getting gunged. Basically, that would make a crowd's day. I'm all for that. I'm up for most things.
"Barry came and talked to us in January. I could have listened to him for hours. In fairness, the only thing you could do was listen to him, because you couldn't get a word in. See the previous regime? Never met them before in my life. Not one of them. Right away, when Barry becomes chairman, he sits down with the boys and that's an improvement straight off. I like that. I don't know if he can turn things around but I know he'll give it a really good go. There's talk already of things happening. I'm along for the ride."
Next stop, a hotel room in Beijing. After that, the Crucible. It ain't rock 'n' roll, but he wouldn't change it for anything.
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