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It was about being in the right place at the right time, says Ray
Thursday, October 20, 2011Herald ExpressFollow
He's 79 years old but six-time world champion snooker player Ray Reardon remains the centre of attention when he's out and about in Torbay. Sports Editor ANDY PHILLIPS reports
DESPITE having barely set foot in the basement room of the Paignton Club, Ray Reardon is already being swamped by smiling people with their hands outstretched when I first meet him.
The 79-year-old had arranged to meet me at the club as he is an ambassador for Torbay Council's Driving Safer For Longer scheme.
Aimed at helping older drivers to remain safe behind the wheel, the programme involves a team of people, from driving instructors to opticians.
But Reardon is the 'posterboy' – if that's an appropriate phrase – having had his face and name emblazoned upon related literature.
It is not difficult to see why the team behind the event are delighted to have the Welsh snooker legend on board – and not just because he is a household name.
He is also a genial and popular figure, with a smile and a greeting for almost everyone he comes across. And there are plenty of people who are keen to cross his path.
Considering his name is synonymous with the snooker boom of the 1970s – when he won six world titles – it is difficult to imagine a more down to earth figure.
It is also difficult to think of what to ask him first, as so much has already been written about Reardon.
For instance, it is well documented that he began working in a coal mine at the age of 14, where he admits he wore special gloves to protect his hands so he could still play snooker.
"I got a lot of stick for that," he admits later.
"I was an apprentice mechanic to start with – though I only did five weeks – but gave it up because of all the grime and such that would get in your pores."
Having followed his father down the pit, Reardon's mining career ended when he was buried for three hours in a mining accident in 1957. Though he escaped relatively unscathed, the incident led to the closure of the mine, and his family were forced to move to Stoke-on-Trent, where he became a police officer.
Equally well known, at least to anybody familiar with the era, is his dominance of the game for a decade – and his nickname of Dracula.
So, having followed him up to the club's lounge area, I'm interested to know how he ended up living in South Devon for 25 years.
His association with the area began when he travelled down to do exhibition matches at holiday camps.
Now settled in a comfortable retirement, he admits his life now is a long way from where he started out, making money on the holiday camp circuit.
"I was driving 960 miles a week, and there were no motorways in those days," he says.
"Pontin's had six holiday camps down here, and I would leave home (in Stoke) at 5am to do one exhibition match at 10am, and another from 12-1pm.
"I was doing 10 shows a week, and it's not easy to perform well when you've driven so many miles."
It was years later, in the twilight of his professional career, that Reardon moved to South Devon permanently.
He lived in Brixham for 17 years, before moving to Torquay where he has lived for the last seven years.
A keen golfer with a handicap of 13 ('it's 12.9 to be exact', he adds) he has been President of Churston Golf Club for the last 10 years.
"But I first became a member at Churston in 1972," he reveals.
"When you finish at 1pm you've got nothing to do everyday – so I joined Churston."
Yet Reardon believes his remarkable career only began thanks to 'being in the right place'.
"I never had any ambitions to be a professional," he says.
"My ambitions were to win the English Amateur Championships – a bit strange considering I'm Welsh."
Already a talented player as a teenager, Reardon won his first Welsh Amateur Championship in 1949 – the year he turned 17.
He would win it six times in total, the last win coming in 1955.
But despite finally winning the English Amateur title in 1964, it was just the beginning.
Reardon turned professional in 1967 after an amateur tour in Scotland with John Spencer led to an invitation to an exhibition tour of South Africa.
It was Ken Shaw of Union Billiards in Johannesburg who offered Reardon the chance to become a touring pro.
"There's a certain saying about being in the right place at the right time," says Reardon.
"Ken said to me 'You've got all the makings of a professional – though we will have to knock a few corners off' so I had to decide whether I wanted to leave the police force and play professionally.
"I did that three months and came home and was able to buy a three-bedroom bungalow. I remember it cost £4,200.
"When I was in the police force, I was on £1,000 a year – and that was only in my final year doing that. But it was only three months and I had bought a home."
It was then that Reardon began travelling down to the holiday camps to earn his living as a player. Despite the amount of travelling involved, it was after a season of exhibition matches at Pontin's in 1970 that Reardon won his first world title.
It would light the fuse on a career which features some startling statistics.
Reardon went on to clinch the world title again five times over the next decade, including four successive crowns between 1973 and 1976. His last world title came in 1978, when the event first moved to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
A true father of the game, Reardon won the first ever Pot Black in 1969 (winning it again in 1979).
When the world snooker rankings were introduced in 1976, Reardon was number one, a position he held until the 1981/82 season.
And he remains the oldest player, at 45, to win a ranking tournament.
Yet despite the experience setting him on his way to success, he isn't sad to see the demise of Pontin's camps including Barton Hall and Wall Park.
"The only reason I went to the holiday camps was to make money," he says.
"Most people who worked at holiday camps in those days were seasonal staff. They'd go there with the idea of making some money, but at the end of the season, because of the holiday environment, the staff would have got involved in that, and end up having a lot of fun.
"It's a wonderful life for a young person, but it becomes a way of life. It's not something you can do forever."
Reardon's feelings towards the camps are clarified when he goes on to reveal that his brother gave up a decent job in the potteries in Stoke to work a season as a barman at a holiday camp near Bognor.
Despite supporting him initially, one year became three and Reardon eventually lured his brother away to become his driver on a three-month tour of South Africa.
"When we were about to come back he said to me that he wanted to stay on in Johannesburg," says Reardon.
"So I managed to put him in touch with a company which trained him as a billiard fitter."
Reardon officially retired as a player in 1992, but continued to provide tutelage to top players including Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan.
When Reardon describes the charismatic yet unpredictable O'Sullivan, you can't help thinking he could be talking about a younger version of himself.
"Ronnie is a wonderful guy – very warm and friendly," he says. "I've had him down here before. He played at Churston Golf Club and spent a couple of hours with the members.
"He didn't have to, but he is just very sociable."
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