By Simon Cromie
Ken Doherty can’t help but smile at the memory of it all. The feelings that have eluded many of snooker’s aspiring world champions come flooding back — potting the colours that made up his victory lap, shaking the hand of a bested Stephen Hendry, lifting the famous World Championship trophy aloft — the culmination of a career’s effort and toil.
“It was what I’d dreamt of from the moment I picked up a cue all those years ago,” Doherty reflects on his 1997 triumph at the Crucible. “I watched Alex Higgins win it, I watched Dennis Taylor win it. To lift the trophy myself, beating Stephen who hadn’t lost a match at the Crucible for six years, that was just the icing on the cake.”
Almost 22 years later, Doherty still boasts the same bright eyes and cheery smile which defined that moment of glory. Although he has drifted further away from snooker’s top table in recent years, currently lying 66th in the world rankings, his work as a television pundit still allows him to revel in the thrills of the sport’s majors.
“It’s nice to be involved,” he says. “I’d be sitting at home watching it on TV anyway, so I might as well be here, enjoying the atmosphere and catching up with the rest of the lads. We just love catching up and enjoying the snooker. At the end of the day, we’re all snooker fans as well.”
The ‘lads’ he is referring to are the BBC’s familiar team of pundits and commentators. It’s a group made up of many of the game’s former greats, including seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry and six-time winner Steve Davis. With on-table rivalries long set aside, it’s the TV viewer who benefits from the team’s camaraderie.
In working as an analyst, Doherty has come to fully recognise the wide array of technical intricacies snooker’s different exponents display, an appreciation he wishes he had made in his younger years.
“Going back 20 years, I wish I’d have watched a lot more snooker,” he reflects. “I think it would have helped my game a bit more. When I was involved in tournaments I wouldn’t watch that much of it other than playing in my own matches. I wish now I had.
“If I was giving advice to young players, I’d say watch a lot more snooker. It can help you identify weaknesses of potential opponents, but also how the top players go about making breaks, and the safety shots they play. I think that’s important. You never stop learning, that’s the key.”
Now one of the sport’s senior players at the age of 49, the Dublin-born potter is realistic about his chances. A new wave of players has come along and left past greats like Doherty, Peter Ebdon and Jimmy White trying to stay afloat in the sea of talent which is the modern tour. For Doherty, simply preserving his tour status is his highest priority, although he still allows himself to dream of a return to snooker’s mecca.
“To get in the top 64 is my top target,” he says. “But I’d love to get back to the World Championship at the Crucible. I’m going to put in as much work as I can now and try and get back there for April.”
That is easier said than done. The road to the Crucible is a gruelling one beset by potential potholes. Three best-of-19 qualifiers must be navigated by those outside the top 16 ranked players in order to secure one of those coveted berths in Sheffield. It’s a challenge made all the harder by Doherty’s inconsistent form of late, which he himself admits is “not great.”
However, if there is cause for a kernel of optimism for Doherty, and the loyal Irish fans still willing him on towards further triumphs, it was his display against Ronnie O’Sullivan at this season’s UK Championship. The veteran established a 4-1 lead in their second round clash, before ultimately succumbing to the eventual champion’s resolve in a 6-5 defeat.
“I played a good match against O’Sullivan and could’ve beaten him,” he says with some regret. “I just let it slip, but he came back really strong. I’m hoping that I can get a few results before the end of the season.”
Doherty, nicknamed the Darlin’ of Dublin, takes great pride in his roots, and still remembers vividly the reception he received back home when he became Ireland’s first world champion from south of the border. In a nation often starved of sporting success, the Irish celebrated Doherty’s 1997 triumph with typical vigour.
“It was amazing,” he says, momentarily lost in the reverie. “I remember being on the open-top bus going through the city centre in Dublin, all the cars stopping and beeping the horn. People were waving flags and running by the bus, coming out of their offices and homes, just waiting to catch a glimpse of me and the trophy. In my home village of Ranelagh we had a big party with all my friends and family. It was just amazing.”
He became a man in demand, parading his trophy around the country at different clubs and sporting institutions, and as a lifelong Manchester United fan, fulfilled a dream of a lap of honour on the Old Trafford turf, trophy in hand.
“That was an incredible experience, to take the trophy out at Old Trafford, as well as Croke Park and Lansdowne Road when Ireland were playing. I was a right tart with the trophy, I took it everywhere!” he jokes.
His celebrations were more than justified. The nature of representing a country for which individual sporting triumphs are few and far between brings its own set of pressures. Doherty, however, saw this as a challenge to relish.
“I knew it was my chance,” he says, offering a flash of the steely determination which has perhaps mellowed slightly with age. “I just thought, I’ve got to grab this with both hands and keep focused. I tried not to worry about what was going on back home, and tried to keep myself away from all the hype. Luckily I did, because I could’ve easily been enveloped by it all. It was an emotional ride, but fantastic in the end.”
Sadly, Ireland has not seen a champion of Doherty’s ilk since his period of success. Fergal O’Brien, another Dublin native, has been a fine player for decades, but there is a notable dearth of young Irish talent breaking through in snooker. The reasons why remain up for debate.
“I wish I could put my finger on it,” Doherty laments. “The property prices got very high in Ireland and for many snooker clubs, to simply stay open was very expensive. Of course, the advent of the internet, video games, and phones have had an effect. Other sports like rugby have become more popular and snooker has sort of fallen down a bit.
“Hopefully that changes. Mark Allen has done very well from Northern Ireland, Fergal O’Brien has done well, but I’d love to see someone else coming through and taking on the mantle.”
One of the big questions facing snooker is what can be done to get young players devoting their time fully to the sport. For Doherty, it requires a marriage of both facilities and familial support.
“They need good competition, good coaches, support from their own families — mams and dads you know? We can’t do any more than we are doing TV-wise because we have so many great matches, and lots of people are watching it. It’s just about getting kids into snooker clubs and getting them started. That’s the first battle.”
The development of a new video game, Snooker 19, for Xbox One and PS4 could be a way of getting the younger, technology-fuelled generation hooked on a sport they may never have given much thought. Doherty is optimistic: “Hopefully the new video game will encourage some kids to give snooker a go, and sort of get them started.”
Doherty’s vested interest in the future of the sport is borne of a love for snooker that transcends mere silverware or legacies of success. He is one of the game’s great champions, both in a literal sense of on-table triumphs, and in his desire to ensure snooker continues to make dreams come true for others as it did for him.
When he does finally hang up his cue, the Ranelagh man will be able to reflect on a career in snooker in which the joyful highs more than outweigh the painful lows.
“I’ll look back with a lot of fondness. I have a lot of great memories, and I’ve made a lot of great friends. I’ve had a great time. Snooker’s taken me all over the world. Being the only man to win the junior, the amateur and the senior World Championships — I’ll be very proud of that,” he said.
For now though, ‘Crafty Ken’ is still determined to make his mark on the modern game. Don’t be surprised if, come April, we see Doherty emerge into the Crucible arena, trotting down those few little steps with that same infectious smile upon his face. It would be another great tribute to the beautiful ideal that class is permanent.