Echo Sport Replay: Tenacious O’Brien revisits some of the highlights in 30 years as a pro’
By Stephen Leonard
FERGAL O’Brien has long been regarded as one of Ireland’s top professional snooker players having carved out a long and impressive career that has seen him surmount some of the greats of the sport over the past 30 years.
Turning pro’ back in 1991, the Lucan man has enjoyed tremendous highs, not least capturing the British Open crown in 1999 following a thrilling tournament campaign that culminated in an epic battle with Anthony Hamilton in the decider.
Fergal O’Brien in action in the 1994 UK Championships in Preston Guild Hall. That year would be a telling one for the Lucan man as he qualified for the World Championships and also earned a wildcard for the Irish Masters.
O’Brien has several records to his name and has reached the finals of other major tournaments in the sport such as the Masters and Northern Ireland Trophy, taking some notable scalps along the way.
From becoming the only player to date to register a century in his very first frame in the Crucible, to becoming the second oldest player to hit a 147, he is the only man to have carded five centuries in a best-of-11 match.
The Dubliner spoke to The Echo about starting out in the sport, his emergence on to the professional scene in England back in the early nineties and his steady progression up through the ranks that featured some unforgettable moments.
“I first started playing snooker when, for Christmas, my grandparents got me a very small snooker table. The following year they got me an 8’x4′ table which, at the time, to me was like huge.
“So that got put into the house and I was literally playing on that day and night. I think I was about eight when I started playing and then by about 14 I wanted to be a professional snooker player.
“I had to stay in school till I was 18 because my parents said so. So that took me to 1990 when I left school and then I turned professional in 1991.
“The last tournament that I played as an amateur in Ireland was the Leinster Open. I won that. And the very last frame I played as an amateur in Ireland was to win the League for Q’s in Clondalkin, the Division One [title] which was a big thing at the time.
“The very next morning I flew to England to start my career.
1999 British Open champion Fergal O’Brien also reached the final of the Masters and the Northern Ireland Trophy
“I was excited going over there. I think at the time I was ranked Number Two in Ireland, but I more or less went from Number Two in Ireland to Number 10 in the one club in Ilford in Essex, such was the standard.
“There were tournaments nearly every weekend, so we’d travel off, try and go to a Pro-Am each week.
“They opened the game up, so overnight, regardless of your standard, if you paid £700 you were a professional.
“So overnight you had about 700 professionals. As a result, you had a load of matches to play. If you were looking to get to the TV stages, you’d probably have to win as many as ten or 11 matches.
“That first year I did quite well. I was up to 192 in the rankings which was pretty good considering there was so many.
“At the end of the second year, I was up to about a hundred and I had started qualifying for some events, so I was kind of up and running.
“The second year when I was still in Ilford, when I wasn’t at the qualifiers, at that stage I was living in a house for six months on my own, so that was tough enough as well. I was 19 or 20, living on my own in London.
“But all those kind of things toughen you up, the travel, the loneliness, the hardships, the disappointments. They’re part and parcel of it.
“Playing snooker is actually the easy bit, because you’ve trained for that. There have been plenty of players who’ve had good talent, good games, but literally the time away from the snooker they found too hard. They’d be lonely, homesick. They might be drinking or gambling more than they should, but that’s because they’d so much time on their hands.
“In 1993 I had a little bit of a breakthrough. I beat Steve Davis in Thailand 5-4. It was my third year as a pro.
“That was big adventure going over to Thailand. I won my first match against Doug Mountjoy and that put me in the last 32 against Davis. That was a big buzz, even to get to play him and I managed to beat him 5-4 on the last black.
“At that time, there was a run of four tournaments in a row, including the Irish Masters, and Davis had won three of them, two ranking and the Irish Masters and the only match he had got beaten in between that was when I beat him.
“[Stephen] Hendry, by this stage was the Number One player, but Davis was clearly the Number Two and he was in a rich vein of form just at that time, so to be able to beat Steve Davis was a big thing. That was a great boost and it raised my profile as well.
“In January of ’94 in Blackpool I had won five Best-of-19 matches to qualify [for the World Champion-ships] and it was also the day I was given a wildcard to play the Irish Masters. They were the two biggest tournaments I could play in and I qualified for them on the same day.
“In the Irish Masters, as a wildcard ranked a 100th, I played great. I beat Willie Thorne and then in the next round I beat Stephen Hendry who was then king of the world and I lost in the semis to Alan McManus.
“In the Crucible, whilst I lost my first match against Alan McManus, in the very first frame I played I had a century and, to this day, that still hasn’t been equalled.
“Then in ’96, myself, Ken Doherty and Stephen Murphy, we had a great time in the World Cup. We got all the way to the final and there we lost to Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Alan McManus from Scotland which was obviously a very good team.
“Again I was going up the rankings, on the brink of the top 16 and then in 1999 I won the British Open. I beat Anthony Hamilton 9-7 in the final on the black so that was obviously a massive win, to win a ranking title.
“There’s two main things about that. I got the trophy on April 11, but I really won it, in a sense on February 24.
“And the relevance of that is, they announced the wildcards for the Irish Masters on February 24 and I hadn’t been picked. They picked Michael Judge. They tended to pick one Irish player wildcard.
“Now I’ve nothing against Michael Judge who I always got on very well with and still do, but at the time I was ranked 20th or so in the world and he was ranked 60 and it just rankled with me. I was absolutely raging to be honest.
“And I clearly remember going up to the club where I lived, it was a half an hour walk and, in my mind, I kind of wrote and rewrote a victory speech of what I was going to say when I won the tournament.
“Something on the lines of ‘here I am winning a ranking tournament and deemed not good enough to play in a tournament in my own country’. A bit snotty, but that sparked the flame. If I’d been given the wildcard I probably wouldn’t have even thought about winning the tournament.
“It obviously sparked something and, in the meantime as well, my grandfather who, when I was seven, bought me a little snooker table and then an 8’x4’ the next year, he died just around that time.
“So I don’t know whether it was that I just believed in myself or I was inspired, even in the hard times, to dig deep to maybe prove a point or to win it for my grandad, that made it my week.
“Of the six matches I played [in the British Open], three of them were 5-4, one of them was 6-5 and even the final was 9-7 on the black, so obviously they were very close margins.
“In the quarter final, Peter Ebdon should have beaten me. He was 4-3 up and if he pots the blue he wins and, to this day I don’t know how it didn’t go in the pocket, because it literally just rattled a good few times and stayed out.
“So there was nearly a sense of destiny. They say that my name was on the trophy.
“Thankfully enough when I won it, and I did my speech, I didn’t use those catchy remarks, but it certainly was the drive.
“It was probably such a relief to have won a tournament. That put me Number 11 in the world, so it put me into the top 16 and I was guaranteed to be in all the big tournaments for the next year, the World Championships, the Masters, the Irish Masters.
“In 2001, as a top 16 player I got to the final of the Masters and I lost 10-9 to Paul Hunter. It was a great match.
“Looking back on it, yeah I could have, should have won that. I was 7-3 up and I missed an easy enough red with the rest to go 8-3 and I would probably then have seen it out.
“But I missed that and he ended up winning it to make it 7-4. He went ballistic then. In the next six frames he had four centuries and an 80 break. So from 7-3 up and coasting, within an hour I’m 9-8 down and he’s flying.
“One of the best frames I ever won was the next frame to get it back to nine all and, to be fair, in the last frame I did have chances. I missed a green, I missed a blue, so I more look back on that with disappointment.
“A few years later Paul died at 27, Number Four in the world. He’d just become a dad. He had cancer.
“He won it three times in four years, it’s called the Paul Hunter Trophy, so how could I possibly begrudge him winning when, look, my daughter’s 19. He was 27, I’m 48. I’ve got to see my daughter grow up which he never sadly got the chance to do.
“It was a great classic match, but when you look back on it, it unfortunately proved there’s more important things in life. Looking back, it was the right result, but, at the time for me, it was gutting.
“In 2007, I made another ranking final in the Northern Ireland Trophy. I beat Dave Harold and Barry Hawkins, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan along the way.
“In the semis I beat Mark Allen, but in the final against Stephen Maguire I didn’t play the way I had been all week.
“On the day I was never quite myself, I wasn’t quite as in control of my emotions and I kind of let the day and the occasion get to me. I felt I didn’t do myself justice.
“In 2016 I became the oldest player to make a 147 break which I did in the Championship League against Mark Davis and the next year he beat that himself in the same tournament, so I’m the second oldest now.
“Also in 2016, in the UK Championships I had five centuries in a best-of-11 against Barry Hawkins which is also a record. I was just, as they say, in the zone.”
While his love for the game has not diminished, O’Brien insists the level of competition within the sport has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, making it more and more difficult to string together a good run towards the latter stages of top tournaments.
“The first round or two have never been more difficult. Before, even if you weren’t at your best, you’d probably still be alright for a round or two and then the draw could open up, whereas now that’s no longer the case.
“If you’re in the first round and you’re not on it, you could be beaten four nil in an hour, goodnight.
“The standard of play always improves, but also, there are so many tournaments that players are always sharp and they’re making less mistakes.
“There are more people playing exceptionally well and the difference between the player ranked 30 and 130 is hardly noticeable. The player ranked 60 today and the player ranked 60 ten years ago, there’s no comparison.
“I still love the game, still love playing. I’m more thinking of what I still can do rather that what I could have, would have, should have. So that’s very important to be still optimistic.
“In a sense I’ve had good days, but I haven’t really had that kind of consistent week where I’ve really put them together, but who knows what’s around the corner.”
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