And a great interview with Tony Drago

Tony Drago will play in the UK Championship in Hull come January and here is a great interview where he tells us about his childhood in Malta, his career and his advice to aspiring players

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Follow your heart not your head’ – Tony Drago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets Tony Drago, he speaks about being considered a talent, turning pro, missing Malta, his Snooker and pool career and players for the future

Tony Drago was born in Malta’s capital city on the 27th September, 1965.  

Nicknamed the Tornado, there are few more entertaining sights in snooker than an on-form Tony Drago whose speed around the table can be summed up by the fact that he is the holder of the record for the fast century break in a ranking event tournament, timed at a ridiculous three minutes and 31 seconds back in 1996.  

‘It was a normal upbringing for me in Valletta. We used to play together as kids in the streets especially football which I used to love and still do. It was football and snooker. But from a tender age I think I was born to be a cueist since my orientation drove me always to the green table.’

‘As regards my educational background I attended St Albert College, Valletta and The Lyceum in Hamrun but school was not my forte since I was fully focused on snooker from a very young age.’

How did Tony’s interest in snooker begin? Was it a first love sport? ‘I used to play football because of my friends. But snooker was something different since everyone used to tell me that I will be a great player. My first touch of a cue was at the famous Pawlu Curmi, il-Pampalun who is a Carnival legend. But I also played at Fossa and Mandragg and obviously my childhood club Anglo Maltese in Merchant Street. I was there at the age of eleven but three years later I started competing and the promise was there to see.’

His local competitive career started with success in the Boys Championships. ‘Yes I won against Arthur Cachia way back in 1980. Arthur is still a good friend of mine. When I won the Boys event I was already a promising player. The association decided to put me straight into the Second Division rather than play in the Third since I would have been too superior to my opponents. In the first year I won the Second and thus was promoted to the First Division. When the draws were made I was drawn in the group of Pawlu Mifsud and was so excited about it. Unfortunately Mifsud had an accident which left him away from playing for a number of months. So I won in 1983 against Alfred Micallef and lost the famous final played at De La Salle College against Pawlu Mifsud a year later. In 1985 it was time to turn professional.

‘I was accepted as a pro in 1984 but they wanted me to play in the World Amateur. I didn’t succeed and lost in the quarter-final and then I turned pro the following year.’

Turning from an amateur to a professional meant a cultural shock which needed time to adjust. ‘Yes for the first couple of years I struggled with results. But in the second year I made it to the Quarter Final of the UK Open against Steve Davis losing by a 9-8 score. But there was a mix of results during my career. I did well and have been in the top 10 and been top 16 for five years. But I did reach a couple of massive finals, the Scottish International 1997, losing to Hendry, and I lost in 1991 Mita World Masters which at the time was the biggest tournament ever. I have won small invitations, I beat Steve Davis in a final in China and I did win a ranking event, a Strachan. It was a minor ranking event but there was only 5 or 6 who didn’t enter it and I beat Ken Doherty in the final. But I did underachieve because in the first five or six years as a pro I got homesick after every week. So that affected my game.’

But who is the toughest opponent that Tony has played against? ‘Well the hardest player I have ever played is Steve Davis. But the most talented player I have ever played against is Ronnie O’Sullivan. But the best, the greatest player all round with the pressure, the nitty-gritty and everything is John Higgins.’

Tony also found time to compare his days with today. ‘Today there are better players as a whole crop. But when one looks more into detail you find that when I was number 10, John Higgins was number 1 in the world, Ronnie O’Sullivan was third ranked player and number 5 was Mark Williams. And twenty five years past the line and they are still three of the best players.’

Drago won the Sportsman of the year award twice in 1991 and 1996 but though a much appreciated award he also looks back at his local participation when ranking tournaments were held yearly on the island. ‘For me it was always a nightmare. The pressure of the Maltese was felt not only on the table but even before. People calling me and requesting tickets and all kinds of things which didn’t leave me much time for maximum concentration. Once I made it to the semi-final losing to Jimmy White and I still can’t believe how I made it to the last four. Obviously I wanted to win it in front and for the Maltese public but I wasn’t able to handle the pressure.’

But how did Tony turn his attention to pool and what attracted him to this game? ‘To be honest I always used to watch it on Eurosport and I always used to say I’d try it someday. Then I got a letter from Matchroom and I spoke to Barry Hearn on the phone and asked him about it and he said the invitation is there for you to play in the World Championship in Cardiff. So I started to play and I got to like the game.’

Drago’s first major Pool win was the 2003 World Pool Masters, which came just a few weeks after a run to the semi-finals of that year’s World Pool Championship. ‘I was a member of the winning European team at the 2007 and 2008 Mosconi Cup. In 2007 in Las Vegas, I won all of my single matches which earned me the Most Valuable Player Award. And a year later I also won the Predator International 10-ball Championship, beating Francisco Bustamante 13–10.’

And for Tony what is the difference between snooker and pool. Which is the most difficult to play? In snooker you play a lot of the same types of shots and you have situations occurring frequently such as in and around the black, but in 9 or 10-ball each game is more different. In pool you always play for one ball but in snooker we all play for 2 or 3 reds so if you’re not on this one you’re on this one. In pool you can’t do that, if you’re not on the next ball in pool you’re in trouble.’

And what about billiards? ‘I didn’t play it so much. And to be honest I didn’t play it badly. Once I even made it to the Final losing it to my great friend Guzi Grech who has just passed away in the past days. Some say that it helps to have a good background of Billiards when playing Snooker but let’s face it the top players don’t even know what this game is.’

How does Tony see the future of the game on our island? ‘Alex Borg is still playing and he is now in his fifties. He is not one for the future like me. Duncan Bezzina is now in his forties. There are Aaron Busuttil and Brian Cini. I personally think that Cini is the only present hope for Malta to have a professional player. But if he doesn’t go and live in the UK it’s useless.  He has to train against the best to reach the top. Here it’s difficult since me and Alex don’t play a lot. But the level is good, Brian and Aaron are good. Chris Peplow is also coming up.’

Sport Malta recently invested in a Snooker Academy which is located at the ex-Maria Assunta School, in Hamrun. The Academy boasts 7 professional heated snooker tables as well as 5 small tables for children. ‘Yes surely the Academy is a step in the right direction. It will help in producing more top level players.’

In this last part of this interview with one of the giants both locally and internationally Tony talked about the other side of his life, the personal one. ‘A normal day for me is playing some Pool and Snooker, chatting with my friends and watch sport especially football and tennis. Obviously my love for Valletta which I go and watch them in every game and Juventus is there but I like all kinds of sport.’

His favourite food is by far Chinese but he has also got his chosen chef. ‘My mum Sina is the best. Her food is second to none.’ And what about favourite destination?

‘The United States is the best place to be.  A lot of people say that they are boasters but they have got all the ingredients to boast of. For me they are a complete country. I also love London a lot, it is like my second home.’

When he has time on his hands Tony enjoys a bus ride since he doesn’t drive. He used to go as far as Mellieha and Bugibba but when Covid took over he didn’t feel that safe anymore.

Tornado Drago wanted to send one final message to the sporting public. ‘Always give your hundred per cent. Follow your heart not your head. Train as much as you can and set a goal in order to succeed.’

Good luck in Hull Tony!

 

A great interview with the reigning Seniors World Champion

This great interview originally appeared in United

Snooker star David Lilley on a memorable 2021 and his Toon support

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The last three or four months has been a bit of a golden time for North East snooker, with Gary Wilson and Elliot Slessor making waves at the British Open in recent weeks and DAVID LILLEY seeing off the likes of Ken Doherty and Jimmy White to win the World Seniors Championship at the Crucible in May. And for 45-year-old Lilley, who spends much of his time across the Tyne at Gateshead Snooker Centre, the best could still be to come…

I started playing snooker when I was 13. I’d been playing pool for a little bit, and one day I said to my dad that I wanted to play on one of the big tables. I was hooked straight away. I won my first major – the European Championship – when I was 19. The same year, I lost the Northern Amateur final to the late Paul Hunter. And then I got a job and I had to grow up, basically; there wasn’t a lot of money around, and I couldn’t get a sponsor. I’d have loved to turn pro but I didn’t have the coin to do it.

After the tobacco sponsors were squished, snooker really suffered – to the point where there were only around six tournaments a year. At that point, I’d won the English Amateur title, I was CIU champ three years in a row, I was one of the top amateurs in the world and I had quite a good job as well, so I didn’t feel it was worth giving that up to play in a handful of tournaments a year. I continued working in the insurance industry for a number of years, and then Barry Hearn took over and took snooker back to what it was like in the Eighties, where there were 16 or 17 tournaments a year again. And I thought: ‘You know, I’m coming up to 40 years old – I need to make a decision and just go for it.’ I was actually at work, at a team-building workshop, when I eventually made the call. There was a guest speaker there called Brendan Hall, who’d taken part in the Round the World Yacht Race, and a lot of the things he said just struck a chord with me. That was it. I thought: ‘These are signs that are telling me I’ve got to leave work and go and play snooker full-time.’ I told my gaffer I was going to leave, and I did.

I got on the tour – the World Snooker Tour – two years ago now. The irony is that, after waiting all of my life to turn pro, I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it, because Covid kicked in and just about every tournament got cancelled!

However, winning the World Seniors Championship earlier this year has really changed everything for me. After overcoming a shoulder problem (the result of going from spending eight hours a week at the table as an amateur to something like 48 as a pro!), I could feel myself starting to play well again and it all came good that week in May. The experience was second to none. It was at the Crucible – the home of snooker – and it was just unreal. You see it on the TV where there are two tables side by side, but even just playing the one-table arena, the place felt really small. It was intense, and you feel the pressure straight away. You’re being interviewed every two minutes, and it all just builds. I felt I got better with every game I played, all the way through to the final against Jimmy White. To be playing against Jimmy – my hero – was really quite surreal. He’s such a nice guy, too – he couldn’t have been friendlier throughout the week.

David poses with the World Seniors Championship trophy at the Crucible.

Last month, I played in the British Open in Leicester. It was the first time the tournament had been played since 2004, and it’s a little like snooker’s version of the FA Cup – it’s really good for the neutral because two top players can come up against one another in the first round, as was the case with Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy this year. I won my first game and I played really well. I didn’t give my opponent, Craig Steadman, much of a chance, and I got over the line 3-1. The draw for the next round took place and I ended up playing Jordan Brown, but it was one of those where everything I touched went wrong and whatever he touched went right. After the way I’d been playing, it was disappointing to lose, but you have to take your medicine and come back fighting.

While I was there, though, I learned I was going to be playing in snooker’s Champion of Champions later this year. It was a complete surprise; ten seconds before you saw me do an interview for ITV4 on the Tuesday night, that was when I found out! I was stood with Rob Walker, having a bit of craic about the Olympics, and just as the camera was about to start rolling, he said: ‘So, Dave, how do you feel about being in the Champion of Champions?’ I just couldn’t believe it. People will laugh but, in my opinion, it’s the biggest competition there is – all of the players taking part have had to pot match ball to win a tournament. It’s the one I’ve always dreamed of being in. I’m counting down the days ‘til I go and play in it and I’m very thankful to my sponsor, GoSkippy Insurance, for their continued support.

I love the Toon. The last 18 months, not being able to come to St. James’ Park, has been complete torture. I was planning on coming to the Burnley game and the Southampton game as well, but they’ve just revamped the snooker calendar and I had to play in a qualifier! But I’ll definitely be coming to a few games as the season goes on. I just hope we can finish about where we did last season, and we’ll see what happens with this takeover.

Thank you to Andy Chubb for providing the two pictures of David and the World Seniors Championship trophy.

This article originally appeared in UNITED – the Magpies’ official matchday programme – ahead of the Carabao Cup game against Burnley last week. To order a copy of the programme, as well as upcoming issues and programmes from the 2020/21 season, please visit Curtis Sport’s website here.

 

Enjoy!

Alfie Burden credits WSS Tour for renewed motivation ahead of Q-School

Alfie Burden has entered the 2021 Q-School. He was interviewed by WST:

Burden – I’ve Missed The Buzz

Alife Burden admits he has had some “dark spells” during his time away from the World Snooker Tour and that nothing can replace the thrill of competition and sense of camaraderie on the circuit.

Burden was relegated from the tour at the end of the 2019/20 season and narrowly missed out on an immediate return via Q School, losing to Steven Hallworth in the final round of event three. After nine months away from competition, the 44-year-old Londoner is ready to return and has entered 2021 Q School, which starts next week.

Last year I said I had retired and I had no intention of coming back,” said Burden, whose career highlights include winning the World Amateur title in 2009 and making a 147 at the English Open in 2016. “I could have played in a few ranking events last season as a top-up amateur, but pride in my own performance stopped me, I didn’t want to just turn up having not played for months.

Then Jason Francis, who runs the World Seniors events, talked me into playing in one of their qualifying tournaments, and I really enjoyed it. That led me to decide to give Q School another crack, and I have been practising for the last three weeks. I have no match sharpness of course but mentally I am fresh and I still think I’m good enough to be on the tour. If I get my game together than not many players would want to draw me at Q School. It’s a tough event and I might not get through, I realise that.

The main thing I have missed is the competitive side. The butterflies in the stomach when you go to play in a tournament. I know a lot of footballers who have found it very difficult when they stop playing, having been competitive for most of their lives. The adrenaline rush that you get during a match can’t be replaced with anything else, and that’s something that people outside sport don’t understand. I have had a few dark spells where I have wondered what to do with myself.

I have also missed the friendships with the lads on tour as I tend to get on with most of them. I still speak to them of course and over the past year I have watched more snooker on TV than I had ever done in my life, which has also helped restore my appetite for the game. The pandemic has made everyone realise how lucky we used to be. I used to moan about the trips to China, but now I see those events as great experiences and the chance to travel with my friends on the circuit – I would love to go back there now. At the time I took it for granted.

Burden became a friend of David Beckham when their sons played together at Arsenal

Away from snooker, Burden is dedicated to his son Lene’s fledgling football career, and has spent much of the past year helping the 16-year-old to make key decisions about his future.

Lene was at Arsenal for ten years, then we recently took the decision for him to move on,” Burden explains. “I had several very honest conversations with Per Mertesacker, the academy manager. Arsenal wanted Lene to stay at the club, but it was clear that the competition was very tough and there were other junior players in his position who were ahead of him. We felt that in terms of his career pathway, it would be better for Lene to move to a club where he has a better chance of competing for the first team. It was a brave decision, but the right one.

We looked at eight different clubs. Lene spent a week at Liverpool which was a great experience, and also went to see Spurs, Watford, Bournemouth and a few others. We went to Bristol Rovers and Lene immediately felt they were right for him, in terms of the coaching staff and the football philosophy, so he has decided to sign for them. It’s a great move for him and I believe he will be pushing for the first team before long, he is good enough for the top level.

It has been a difficult time for him, he has experienced rejection from certain clubs, there have been tears. But all of that is character-building. He has had to fight for what he wants, and that will stand him in good stead. I’m planning to move to Bristol to support him there.

Having regained his lust for life in recent months, Burden has helped set up a dairy company which delivers goods to hundreds of homes around North London, and is also considering options for deeper involvement in football as a coach or an agent.

But snooker – for now – is top of his priorities. “I’ve got the hunger back,” added the former world number 38. “While I was a pro I got a bit fed up with practice, but I am enjoying it now. If I get back on the tour that will be great, if not I may finish high enough to get some events as a top-up, or I could play in some seniors events.

I’m glad that I have more options away from snooker now. Even if I get back on the tour, at my age it might only be for a few more years. There will come a time when I stop playing for good.

Q School starts on May 27 in Sheffield – Click here for the draws

It’s great to read how the WSS Tour is actually helping older players and ex-players by offering them opportunities to compete, stay motivated and stay in touch with their “colleagues” and friends. There was a real need and appetite for this and the WSS tour is fulfilling it.

Tony Knowles Q-School Ambitions

Tony Knowles is most famous – at the table – for inflicting the Crucible curse on Steve Davis in 1982. He beat the defending champion by 10-1 on the first day of the World Championship. He won two ranking events – the 1982 International Open and 1983 Professional Players Tournament – and was ranked as high as number 2 in the World.

At 65, he still loves the game and has regularly been competing on the WSS Tour.

Tony has entered the 2021 Q-School and has been speaking to WST about his expectations and ambitions:

Knowles – Tour Place Is My Goal

Veteran Tony Knowles believes he has a “realistic chance” of making it through Q School and achieving his ambition of regaining a place on the World Snooker Tour at the age of 65.

The former world number two has entered Q School for the first time in four years, having rekindled his enthusiasm for practice. When the event at Ponds Forge in Sheffield starts next week, he’ll line up against some 200 other players, all hoping to land one of 14 golden tickets to the pro circuit. Knowles will face Bradley Cowdroy in the opening round of the first of three events.

Click here for the draws and format

“I played ok against Jimmy White in the recent World Seniors Championship and it made me want to test out what I’m doing in other tournaments, to find out whether I’m good enough now to win matches” said Knowles. “The adrenaline was flowing and I was nervous when I played Jimmy at the Crucible, perhaps because I expected too much. I may have lost 3-0 but I felt I hadn’t made many mistakes, Jimmy just punished my bad shots.

“I have been practising more than at any time in the last 20 years and I have really got the love of the game back. I have a table at home and I’m using some of the practice methods I used many years ago, working on my long potting and cue action. And I haven’t lost the thrill that comes with playing in tournaments.”

Knowles was one of snooker’s biggest stars of the 1980s, winning the International Open, Professional Players Tournament and Australian Masters. He was ranked among the top 16 for most of that decade and reached three Crucible semi-finals. Perhaps his greatest moment was beating defending champion Steve Davis 10-1 in the first round in Sheffield in 1982.

He last played on the tour in 2001 and was unable to progress beyond the last 64 at his most recent attempt at Q School in 2017, but Knowles remains optimistic.

“I’ve got a realistic chance this time because of the time I have put into practice,” he said. “I have still got the knowledge of the game. Snooker changed in my era when the balls and cloth changed. But everything comes full circle and you saw at the World Championship this year a very controlled style of play from the likes of Mark Selby and Stuart Bingham. That knowledge remains very important and that’s why you see a lot of the older players on the circuit still doing well.

“What I need is more matches against other players on the Star tables, if I can get that under my belt then my consistency will improve, I’ll cut out the mistakes and the break-building will come back. My goal is to get back on to the tour and show what can be achieved at my age.”

How well Tony will do remains to be seen of course, and, should he succeed, the hectic Main Tour schedule might prove difficult to cope with for a 65 years old.

One thing however is certain: snooker is in his blood. The Seniors Tour has offered him playing opportunities as well as a renewed appetite for competition. He will give it his best shot.

Tony is one of the many WSS players who will compete in Ponds Forge in the coming weeks. He is the oldest in the draw. Amongst them, David Lilley the reigning Seniors World Champion will also be there, trying to regain his tour card. 

Good luck and, above all, enjoy it guys!

Seniors Q-school announced ahead of the coming 2020/21 season

The news was  aired by Jason Francis during the MSI of the Final two days ago.

This is the announcement by WPBSA:

The ROKiT Phones World Seniors Snooker Tour has announced the launch of World Seniors Qualification School from which eight places at major Seniors tournaments in 2021 will be won.

To be held in Jersey from 2-8 November 2020, the event will be open to a maximum of 96 players, including both amateurs aged over 40 and for the first-time current World Snooker Tour professionals ranked 65-128 at the start of the 2020/2021 season.

Places in the following competitions will be contested over the course of the event:

  • 2021 UK Seniors Championship (4 places)
  • 2021 World Seniors Championship – (2 places)
  • 2021 Masters – (1 Place in the 2021 Masters)
  • 2021 Super Seniors over 55s – (1 place in the 2021 Masters)

Each of the eight qualifying players will be guaranteed to win a minimum of £1,000 at the final stages of the event.

All players will undergo a COVID-19 test upon arrival (at no cost to them) and will be responsible for booking and paying for their own travel and accommodation.

Jason Francis, Chairman of World Seniors Snooker said: “We are delighted to be able to launch our new World Seniors Qualification School which I am sure will prove to be a fantastic week of snooker with big prizes on offer.

“Only this week we have seen the likes of Gary Filtness and Wayne Cooper overwhelmed by the chance to play at the iconic Crucible Theatre for the first time and through Qualification School even more opportunities will be created for players of all levels of experience to achieve their dreams.

“We also hope that by holding these qualification tournaments together, rather than over the course of several individual qualifying events, this will help to reduce travel and accommodation costs for our loyal players over the course of the season.”

Further information will be released by World Seniors Snooker in due course.

There are still many uncertainties linked to the covid-19 crisis and the 20/21 season calendar is not yet available at the time of writing.

 

50 years of Pot Black

Two days ago, it was exactly 50 years that BBC first aired the iconic Pot Black.

Here is Ray Reardon recalling that “legendary” program

Reardon recalls ‘Pot Black’ – 50 years on (BBC)

Next January the WSS ROKiT Tour will remember it, and somehow recreate it in Liverpool, at St Georges Hall, the venue where John Pullman became World Champion in 1966.

St George Hall

The picture above dates back from 1952, and features a match between Fred and Joe Davis.

An exclusive interview with Stephen Hendry

Stephen Hendry is fully embracing the World Seniors Tour – he was today confirmed to play in the World Seniors UK Championship next October – and he very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me. Many thanks to Jason Francis who relayed those questions to him and recorded the interview. Here it is:

And here is Stephen doing some filming today for the World Seniors Tour promotion.