http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/stor ... 04,00.html
The Great Unknown
He's Jimmy White's hero and he could have been snooker's first TV star. But drink, gambling and prison deprived Patsy Hoolihan of his chance of glory. Jonathan Rendall tracked down the hustler who should have been a contender.
It was Jimmy White who first told me about him. I asked White who was the best player ever to pick up a cue. Was it 'Hurricane' Higgins, Hendry, Davis (Joe), Davies (Steve), himself? 'None of them,' White replied rather absent-mindedly. 'It's a fella you won't have heard of.' The interview was taking place in a betting shop in Tooting, in company of a friend of his, a man called Jelly Baby, and they both had other things on their minds. Come on, I persisted and, having placed yet another £100 in the safe-keeping of Corals, White said: 'A fella named Patsy Hoolihan.'
Later, I asked Clive Everton, the doyen of snooker commentary and a man who should know, about Hoolihan. 'A terrific player, Patsy,' Everton replied. 'Very fast and very good.' Everton said Hoolihan had once played Ray Reardon, then the world champion, in a behind-closed-doors money match. And? 'Patsy annihilated Ray.'
That being so, why hadn't we heard of him? Why hadn't the legend grown? Why, if Hoolihan was out of the Reardon era, hadn't he appeared on Pot Black? 'Joe Davis froze him out,' Everton said. 'Because of his criminal record.' Davis was the dominant figure of postwar British snooker, and what he said went. 'Davis put the dead hand on Hoolihan,' said Everton.
He did not know what Hoolihan's criminal record was for. In fact, he didn't know whether he was alive or dead. The last time he'd seen Hoolihan was about a decade ago, in Blackpool, where he was still trying to qualify for the world championships. 'He must have been about 60 by then,' Everton recalled. 'He was sleeping under one of the tables.'
Tracking down Patsy Hoolihan is no easy task. All documented phone numbers for him were defunct. The sport's governing body, the WPBSA, didn't even know where he was. If Jimmy White knew, he wasn't saying. There was only one lead - The Deptford Arms in south London, where someone said Hoolihan had been known to 'drink and hustle pool'. But this had been years ago.
The narrow market streets of Deptford retain a Dickensian feel, and the Deptford Arms is an old-style pub for old-style drinkers. Despite it being past three in the afternoon, it was nearly full. It also had an old-style brassy barmaid, but she'd never heard of Hoolihan. She directed me to a rather fearsome-looking man on a barstool whom I was to address as John Jock. Surprisingly, he turned out to be Scottish. 'I know Hoolihan,' John Jock said. 'And I know where he drinks.' But he said he couldn't tell me yet. 'Because Patsy's a man who keeps himself to himself and I want to be sure you are who you say you are. I'm going to have to vet you first.'
Thankfully the vetting procedure turned out to be cursory - it did occur to me that it was fortunate for Hoolihan that I was not a hitman - and John Jock gave me directions to another pub where I would recognise a man 'from his glasses and swept-back hair'. 'That will be him,' John Jock went on. 'And when you talk to him say these words: "John Jock sent me and John Jock has vetted me."'
I thanked John Jock and went to the other pub, its battered, low-slung Sixties exterior bedecked with peeling Irish motifs. It did have a name, but as part of the vetting process I had agreed not to reveal it, so I shall call it The Crucible. It wasn't difficult to spot Hoolihan because there were only two people in the pub, and only one of them wore glasses. He was a dapper, seventyish man of medium build in a jacket and tie, standing at the bar with an older, taller man. He acknowledged that it was he. I said the words John Jock had told me to.
'Yeah, I know John Jock,' Hoolihan said slightly warily, in a south London accent so deep and earthy it could have come from the bottom of the Thames, 'But not close, like.'
I explained what Jimmy White had said and Hoolihan seemed more shocked than anything, muttering only: 'Jimmy's always been a beautiful player.' However, he then reluctantly conceded that as well as Reardon he'd beaten several other world champions, including Joe Davis, John Spencer, Eddie Chamon and Hurricane Higgins. I offered to buy drinks for Hoolihan and his friend, Fred, but Hoolihan was most insistent that he pay. At the same time, he said this was not the time to talk, so we drank in virtual silence. Finally Hoolihan said, 'Come back Tuesday and we will have a proper chat.'
The next Tuesday I went back. Hoolihan and Fred were standing in exactly the same positions at the bar, upon which sat only a plastic plate of cheese rolls, presumably designed merely for soaking-up purposes. It was clear that this was how the pair spend most, and probably all, their days, but they were not drunk and, though they were most certainly drinkers, did not have the mottled complexions of drinkers. Instead they both looked so pale as to be almost white. When I entered, they looked like two ghosts. Hoolihan was evidently a man of manners. When someone he knew came into the pub, he made sure to greet them, and when they left, he made sure to say, 'Ta-ra.'
He was born in 1929, in Deptford, in a building in an alley that abuts the pub. His father, a stevedore, took him as a youth to The Lucania snookerhall on Deptford High Street. It is now a church. 'And, er, I came on quick,' he recalled. 'I was what you'd call a natural.' Despite what his name, shall we say 'suggests', he does not like to be thought Irish. 'I'm not. I'm bred and born in Deptford.' Yes, Deptford is important to him, in many ways.
At 71, Hoolihan is not always lucid, and his memory is not always good, especially with dates and numbers. In any case, the verifiable life of a travelling snooker hustler, which is really what Hoolihan is, or was for more than 40 years, is as murky as the smoke-filled halls he inhabited. Though, as we shall see, he played and beat great champions, mostly he played anonymous working men in basic clubs in the poor parts of towns.
In the Fifties and early Sixties, his official career progressed in orthodox fashion. He was English junior and senior champion - the latter accolade then being the only way a player could turn professional. It meant there was only one new pro every year: the elite group controlled by Joe Davis, which would emerge - sans Hoolihan - as the cast of Pot Black once colour television had arrived.
It was his unofficial career that was of more interest to him. Hoolihan says he began hustling in earnest when he got married in 1955. 'I was a gambler - horses, dogs - and I'd done my money, and we had to have new this, new that, everything new. So I said, "Don't worry. I've got to go away for a week." And the next day I was back indoors before she got up. I put the money on the bed and said, "Pay your debts, love."'
What was his opening gambit? 'What I used to do was walk in, go up to the counter and say, "Cup of tea, please, and I'll have a roll" and then all I'd do was pull out a few quid, and all of a sudden you've got people coming up to you going, "All right, mate? Fancy a game?" I'd say, "Nah," and I'd sit down and have my tea and then some fella would say, "Anybody else?" and I'd say, "Oh, all right then."
'I'd let them win for not a lot of money and they're thinking, "This is all right," and then I'd start coming back. Once a fella said to me, "Want two quid on it? I'll give you a 16-point start." I ended up getting £140 off him, which was a lot of money in those days. I went all round the country, Manchester, Leeds, down to the coast.'
Such was Hoolihan's reputation in London snooker clubs that he had to give opponents starts of up to 100 points, and sometimes this wasn't enough inducement. 'I played left-handed and right-handed, one-handed, everything. I played a fella for money years ago with the bottom of my cue.' Equally, provincial kingpins came to London to take on the great Hoolihan, 'Yeah, and I sent them back. They had a bit of dough, you see, and that's what it's all about.'
The Sixties was, with hindsight, Hoolihan's golden decade. For one thing, alcohol was not yet permitted in snooker clubs. He entered the record books for scoring the fastest century break (just under four minutes: a record next broken by Jimmy White): it is about the only written evidence of Hoolihan's playing existence. He was almost certainly the best player in the world; albeit a snooker world much reduced than now.
In 1965 he beat the rising star of the game, John Spencer, 11-3. The assumed No.1, Joe Davis, had long since acknowledged that Hoolihan had his measure. 'I played Joe Davis on five occasions and I think he won one. After that he wouldn't play me unless I gave him a start. He just shook his head. But he was the king. For 20 years he was.' Hoolihan may not have been invited onto Pot Black, but in the late Sixties he did appear in a short-lived ITV tournament called TV Trophy, which pitted the top professional players against each other. Hoolihan won it easily, again beating Spencer.
But it was also the decade when things, on the face of it, started to go wrong. 'I was sitting in the pub next door,' Hoolihan said, of a day in 1966. 'And I was with two other chaps, drink after drink, after drink. I'm not blaming them. Anyway I done something and I ended up in nick.' What was it? 'Breaking and entering. I got four months. I started off in Wandsworth and I ended up in Ford [an open prison].'
In the Seventies, as snooker crept out of the shadows through Pot Black, with its carefully cultivated image of elder statesmen in dinner suits, it is easy to see how Hoolihan's criminal record - hardly extensive though it is - could have been successfully used against him. He was in his forties by then, and probably past his prime, but so was practically everyone else on Pot Black. One wonders if the same would have happened to a less exceptional player, and indeed if every player who appeared on the show could speak of an unsullied past. Joe Davis, incidentally, also tried to keep 'Hurricane' Higgins out as an 'undesirable', but Higgins, unlike Hoolihan, had both a world championship in his pocket and a public following, so he had to be let in.
What did Hoolihan think of Davis putting the 'dead hand' on him? 'He never said it to my face. Joe Davis was a good player, but as a gentleman - no.' As Davis, Reardon, Virgo, Charlton et al established their pension funds by acquiring a celebrity that would keep them in appearance money for years to come, Hoolihan kept doing what he did best - hustling.
In fact, he remembered the Seventies as bonanza years for the profession. 'There was so much money in the snooker halls,' he recalled. 'The reason being all the barrow boys had taken it up. The money was unbelievable. It was £10 a game but that would be £200 today.'
Jimmy White first met Hoolihan in the mid-Seventies when Hoolihan played at the now defunct Pot Black snooker club in Clapham. The 13-year-old White was already a full-time snooker hustler, having gone permanently truant from school along with a friend of his, Tony Meo (later a pro, but whose current whereabouts and circumstances are unknown). They formed a team. Hoolihan's memory of this period is hazy but White told me: 'There were four of us - me, Patsy Hoolihan, Tony Meo and 'Dodgy' Bob Harris. We went all over the country playing for money.' Then White grew wary and added: 'We didn't hustle them or nothing. We just beat them straight up.'
Hoolihan made a handful of appearances in the world championship during the Seventies and Eighties, not making much of an impression. He was bedevilled by conjunctivitis in both eyes, which he thinks he picked up in prison. He was not putting in the practice he should. 'They would do eight hours; I would do two.' He retreated to Deptford. There was a snooker club on the high street, Shades, where he still plays sometimes. 'But, don't get me wrong, they're not champions over there. I've got to give them a 60, 70 start.'
His last competitive match was in 1993, fittingly against White. Hoolihan only lost 5-3. Surprisingly, the player he found most difficult to beat was Cliff Thorburn. 'He was a hard man. But he was a grinder, and I was a fast player.'
That, I think is the most pertinent thing about Hoolihan as a player. Today, we have got used to watching almost constant attacking play. Hoolihan played in the era of the slow, ultra-defensive snooker, as personified by 'Steady' Eddie Charlton. No one else played like Hoolihan, or had done before. And in addition, as Hoolihan pointed out: 'The old balls, they were heavier. Today you see the balls going all around the table, and screwing all the way back. But in my day it was hard to do that.'
Was Hoolihan the best ever? He said he didn't think so. He thought Hendry was. There again, he wouldn't say it if he did think it. Hoolihan invented the romantic and selfless idea of the gunslinging fast player, the player of pure panache - romantic and selfless, because the selfish thing to do would be to play pragmatically like all the rest. Without him, would the torch have been passed to Jimmy White, who idolised him, and in turn to Ronnie O'Sullivan, who idolised White?
However, that would be to ignore the x-factor - or perhaps that should be x-rated factor - of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, perhaps the fastest of them all, and no admirer of Hoolihan, or vice versa. 'He thought he was God's gift,' was Hoolihan's opening observation. 'He was a good player and all that but Spencer beat him enough times. Reardon beat him enough times.'
Ironically, Hoolihan beat Higgins by playing slow. 'Alex couldn't keep still in his chair. He was up and down, up and down. And that's how I used to beat him. I'd slow him down something terrible. Alex had the shots but he was...' Hoolihan struggled for words: 'a nutter' seemed to be the ones going through his creased brow. 'Put it this way. One time he fell out of a window and broke his leg, and he played in the tournament with a leg in a plaster.'
Their rancour dates back to an incident in the Seventies when Higgins was 35 minutes late for their match, and which might illustrate why the snooker authorities were wary of having not just Higgins, but also Hoolihan, around. When Higgins arrived, Hoolihan attacked him with his cue. 'I got the cue but I didn't hurt him or nothing, did I?' Hoolihan appealed to Fred. 'I didn't cut him or nothing.'
Since we seemed to have exhausted the conversation, not to mention the bar's stocks of Light Ale, I asked Hoolihan if he fancied a game of pool. It was a risible challenge but he gamely accepted. It did feel slightly surreal lifting the triangle from the balls with Patsy Hoolihan poised at the other end of the table saying, 'Shall I break?' The white ball went careering upwards, three feet off the table into a mantelpiece. I did for a second think I might be the victim of one of the great sporting wind-ups. But his cue tip was broken and soon Hoolihan was effortlessly clearing up, getting faster as he went along, the urgency and vigour in his step - indeed his whole body - suddenly that of a much younger man.
After each of his more difficult pots, I banged the bottom of my cue on the floor, because I thought that's what you did, and I noticed afterwards, on the rare occasions when I potted one, he started doing it too. I realised he didn't usually do it, and that he was just doing it to stop me feeling embarrassed about doing it. He let me win by missing a large number of balls on purpose.
Back at the bar, I asked if it was hard knowing he had remained in the outer darkness while so many mediocrities had been lit up, and he said: 'No. Because what I'm saying is that I was a drinker.'
He said this not regretfully, but with a quiet defiance, as if talking about his vocation. There is an aesthetic behind the way Hoolihan has lived - the Deptford Aesthetic, if you like. With a different background and talent, he might be called bohemian. Just as he played fast, whatever the risks, he lived according to his own code, of manners, of pleasures, whatever the consequences to himself. The small routines of his Deptford world might seem banal to us, but they contain magic for him, because he knows what they mean.
I left Hoolihan standing on the spot where, give or take a few yards across an alley, he will have been from birth to grave. It really is his Crucible.
'Ta-ra,' he said.
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