Desmond Kane

Snooker players need a reality check

Desmond Kane

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Mark Allen

And they said there were no characters left in the game. This week's UK Championship in York has been gloriously colourful without the need for the colours. Much of the nonsense has swirled around Mark Allen's public tête-à-tête with Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, a figure whom the Northern Irishman feels has left the sport snookered with his willingness to shorten the format of the UK event.

Allen swore in an outburst about Hearn before being charged with bringing the game into disrepute. He appeared in a press conference with his kisser dubbed up with masking tape after intimating he was being denied freedom of speech by the sport's governing body.

And then there was Ronnie, but then there is always Ronnie. Ronnie O'Sullivan, never one to hide his light under a bushel, has threatened to walk out on the sport (again) in a bid to find that special someone to share his life after an agonising loss to Judd Trump. Not to be outdone, Ali Carter - O'Sullivan's beaten opponent in the World Championship final three years ago - lost to Allen before claiming he does not enjoy playing the sport after 25 years potting balls.

Amid all this grunting, a tournament has been breaking out, but who needs snooker when there are tastier morsels to be found in the taller grass. Allen - nicknamed 'The Pistol' and described at the Masters earlier this year by an unfortunate MC as the 'explosive talent from Northern Ireland' - has a touch of his countryman Alex Higgins about him. He plays with an air of arrogance, and seems to have a penchant for speaking before he thinks.

When he takes a dislike to someone, he tends not to keep it to himself. For no discernible reason, Allen called fellow player Stuart Bingham a 'bottler' before they met in the Australian Open in July. Bingham promptly dispelled such accusations by despatching Allen on his way to usurping Mark Williams 9-8 in the final. Allen was wrong about Bingham. He is wrong about Hearn.

Allen feels Hearn is leading snooker down a ruinous path, but it remains difficult to substantiate the value of his point. It is ironic that Allen has landed in the semi-finals with the best-of-11 frame format not unduly harming his prospects of a first ranking title.

Speaking as someone who interviewed Sir Rodney Walker, the previous chairman of the game's governing body, a couple of years ago when snooker had only seven tournaments etched on its calendar, the effect Hearn has had on the sport has been startling. He has been full of promise since being elected 18 months ago. There are over a dozen worthy ranking and invitational events in territories ranging from Germany to Brazil with scope for growth, including novel concepts such as 'Power Snooker' and the one frame shoot-out in Blackpool. 

Hearn is a rich man. With interests in boxing, darts and football, Hearn does not need snooker, but having made considerable gains from managing a dominant Steve Davis when the sport was at the peak of its popularity, Hearn is aware what a gold mine he could be sitting on if he can revive the public's interest. Hearn likes to hear himself talk, but snooker needs such a figure to try to sell what has been a sport on the wane since the early 1990s. It is not really a role for a deaf mute.

Allen was entitled to state his opinion that the earlier rounds of the UK Championship should not have been shortened, as John Higgins did, but judging by the numbers washing up at the event, Hearn's judgement seems to be correct. He is well qualified to map out a plan for the sport. To call for Hearn's resignation makes no sense.

If the format of the World Championship is tampered with, Allen would have a point, but away from the game's most celebrated tournament, snooker must try to embrace the public mood. Snooker has to sell itself to survive, and it badly needs television exposure. It was a sport made by and for television. These are far from the days of Steve never mind Joe Davis. 

When snooker was at the peak of its powers in the 1980s, there were only four terrestrial channels. People have plenty of choice about what they want to watch these days. People have shorter attention spans. The public tends to crave results in sport.

If one does not subscribe to such a belief, study the rise in popularity of 20/20 cricket in comparison to Test matches. The punters who have meandered through the doors at the Barbican Centre have probably walked away nourished having witnessed an outcome in one session. The feeling must be that the shorter format will sate their appetite for the longer, more considered spectating style of the World Championship.

O'Sullivan remains a fabulous, swashbuckling component of snooker, but must decide whether his heart is truly in the sport. His threats to retire are monotonous, and should be treated as such. In this age of austerity, his comments about feeling like he was being 'raped' for playing for a £10,000 winner's cheque at the new PTC events are an insult to the average snooker fan, some of whom will not earn more than that in a year.

Hearn once commented that snooker should have followed the path of European Tour golf by carrying itself far and wide when players were fixtures in British living rooms. Like golfers, the elite of snooker tend to be cocooned, even cut off from the outside world. Some are not very bright. They should try to earn a living away from their darkened practice tables to see how difficult life can be for others.

As much of a loss as he would be to the sport, Carter, a qualified pilot, should be allowed to go off and fly planes if he thinks snooker is such a soulless pursuit.

Meanwhile, Hearn has managed to encourage blue-chip sponsors for the UK Championship, the Masters and the World Championship since his second coming in the sport. If he is in the mood for more thinking, Allen should suggest where snooker goes without Hearn.

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