Snooker world takes pride in sport’s perseverance during coronavirus pandemic

Mark Staniforth, PA
·4-min read

As Judd Trump raised the Gibraltar Open trophy to an imaginary crowd in March last year, he inadvertently encapsulated snooker’s defiant attitude to the creeping coronavirus pandemic.

On a weekend when domestic and international sport was almost uniformly hauling down its shutters, snooker chiefs maintained they had every intention of seeing out the remainder of its season.

It did not quite work out that way, with the following week’s Players’ Championship in Llandudno abandoned on the day of the tournament, and the World Championship shifted back to summer in the vain hope that the worst excesses of the pandemic would be over.

Betway UK Championships – Day Six – York Barbican
Former world champion Ken Doherty has hailed snooker chiefs for their coronavirus response (Martin Rickett/PA)

But one year on, players and officials believe their sport has every reason to feel pride in its ability to continue in the nearest 2020 got to some semblance of normality – if normality is, for the most part, a Covid-busting eco-bubble in Milton Keynes.

Former world champion Ken Doherty told the PA news agency: “It’s been very tough for the players and the people behind the scenes, but I think all the players have just been grateful that we have still have a tour and can still compete and earn some money, and we understand how lucky we are.

“We’ve been a bit of a pioneer in that we’ve been able to provide live sport during the pandemic when most of the others were unable to continue. People at home have been hungry for live sport – they can only watch so many World Championship re-runs, even of my own success in 1997!”

World Snooker Tour chief Barry Hearn was adamant the sport would not fall by the wayside
World Snooker Tour chief Barry Hearn was adamant the sport would not fall by the wayside (Richard Sellers/PA)

False dawns – notably an attempt to allow fans into the Crucible which was dashed due to Government intervention after a single session – did not dim the snooker authorities’ belief that they could establish a sufficiently secure environment in which the sport could continue.

World Snooker Tour operations director Nigel Oldfield said: “No sooner had we flown back from Gibraltar than we began a process of establishing the best way of staging an event to satisfy the respective local authorities, and that’s how we came up with the idea of Milton Keynes.

“We felt it was a venue that could operate under almost any conditions, because it was completely self-contained.

Championship League Snooker Screen Grab
Action from Milton Keynes has been broadcast on ITV4 and Eurosport (PA/ITV4)

“For the first lockdown we operated a very strict bubble, in which nobody was allowed outside the venue. Some hotel staff came and lived in the hotel with us, and there was almost an airlock system when it came to bringing in goods from outside.

“We continued to evolve with each event, giving each tournament as much of its own identity as possible, and time and time again we have been able to prove that we have the policies in place that are capable of responding to whatever the guidelines are at the time.”

With the exception of the Welsh Open and this week’s Players’ Championship at Celtic Manor, and the upcoming World Championship, every ranking event this season has been staged at Milton Keynes.

John Higgins file photo
John Higgins was among a small number of players to test positive (Adam Davy/PA)

But for a handful of positive tests – the most high-profile of which ruled Trump out of the Masters – and minor issues like moans about the hotel food and Jimmy White complaining he had been in Milton Keynes so long he had run out of fresh underwear, that the sport emerged largely unscathed is seen a source of pride.

Former world number one Mark Selby said: “When we first got pushed into lockdown we were still out in Gibraltar and if you’d told me then that this was still going to be affecting us in a year’s time, I’d have laughed.

“It’s obviously been very difficult. But I think World Snooker has done a tremendous job, creating the safest environment there could possibly be, and that is a great credit to everyone involved.”