In a fiercely competitive individual sport, you are always going to cut players a degree of slack for not always seeing a bigger picture in moments of high pressure, crisis and defeat. There is a desire to perform, to earn money, to do well for you and your family, win as many titles and as much glory as you can, and you have to be strong to survive.
However there are players who regularly rise above those ever-present thoughts, and always/most of the time have the sport, its wellbeing, best interests and public perception high up in their mind. In an ideal world, the ambassador would have all or most of those intentions even at times of great personal anguish and disappointment.
So risking opening a hornet’s nest, here is a go at a Top Five Snooker Ambassadors. A difficult task, no doubt contentious, and by all means have your say on what is never designed to be a list of greatest or favourite players.
5 Ronnie O’Sullivan
This is a joke, right? Someone who isn’t defending their UK title, and for long periods in his life droned on about how much the sport that brought him fame and money drove him to tears and worse? Some will be furious that O’Sullivan is in at all, but such is his polarising effect, others will be livid that he is as low as No5. But having a go at defending this selection, I would start with this. No one, no other player, and certainly no member of the media or public, knows what it is like to be Ronnie O’Sullivan. He has had a piercing spotlight on him for 23 years. He has done more press and media and answered more questions than any other player (and he has done it, even after losing). He has inspired more column inches, more radio bulletins, more TV features than any other player. And he wants to entertain, not just win. Has he always represented the game well? In truth, no. But he has made more people pick up a cue than anybody else, and more people turn on the TV to watch than anyone since Alex Higgins and Jimmy White in their pomp. He shouldered snooker’s profile almost single-handedly when it was on its knees – and that must all count for something.
4 Kyren Wilson
I wanted to have a current young player in this list, and to be honest this one was easy. For any aspiring young professional, Wilson is a fine example of how to conduct yourself on and off the table, and you could have called that well before his Shanghai Masters breakthrough success. Positive, optimistic (I can already hear some of the gnarled old veterans saying he’ll have that beaten out of him after a few damaging losses), intelligent, and a good talker about the game and himself away from snooker, Wilson did not need much in the way of media training, always making himself available to promote the sport. Well managed in his early years by Paul Mount, Wilson has also got involved early with charity fund-raising at just 18, doing a sky-dive jump from 13,000 feet for a cause close to his heart, Multiple Sclerosis, from which dad and constant supporter Rob suffers.
3 Shaun Murphy
Murphy does occasionally rub the odd playing rival up the wrong way on tour, but basically if it were not for players like him taking responsibility, the sport would wither and die. The 2005 world champion has got through a colossal amount of promotional, PR and ambassadorial work over the years and has laboured tirelessly all over the globe to meet his obligations as a professional away from the actual business of potting balls. From Brazil to Berlin, Murphy gets what is needed and steps up to build interest and take the game to new territories – even in periods in his career, and there have been some before a recent resurgence, when he has been desolate about his own form and results. Throw in charity work for worthy organisations such as the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital who have benefited from his century breaks, the REAL Foundation Trust in the East Midlands, and also campaigning and research to try and help eliminate the menace of kicks in snooker, and Murphy, who always gives the impression he is fortunate and privileged to be playing snooker for a living, deserves his place.
2 Ken Doherty
I was reminded once again at World Championship qualifying earlier this year why Ireland’s Doherty should be on this list, and should be high up on it. As a former world champion and popular BBC pundit Doherty is news, win or lose, and the last thing he wanted to do after losing a final qualifier 10-3 to Mark Davis was come up and answer a load of questions about how disappointed he was, how much it hurt, and how worried he was that he might never be back at the Crucible. But he did it, and even managed a smile and a joke. Doherty has always seen a bigger picture, recognising his part in the wider sport, something altogether more substantial than his own individual fortunes. Plus he always looks like he is enjoying himself, from a perspective of ‘What else would I have rather done with my life?’ Also now involved with the WPBSA, here are a couple of quotes from Doherty’s autobiography. “Snooker is in my blood…and you lose no dignity carrying on playing even though you are no longer contending. I love snooker, and always will. I love doing the media work, it could be a way of remaining connected with the game and keeping its profile high. I want to give something back, and may also look at coaching and management when I stop playing.”
1 Steve Davis
Another easy one, this. I grew up against the Steve Davis backdrop of domination, so knew exactly what he had won, or more specifically the titles he had ‘taken’ from my own childhood favourites Jimmy White and Alex Higgins. Would Davis have got into this list in the 1980s, let alone top it? Probably not. But something happened as his powers faded. Davis adapted better than anyone I have ever seen in any sport to the fact he was no longer dominant, and his sheer love of snooker came to the fore. That has shown in everything he has done since, be it work with the WPBSA, commentary, presenting and studio analysis for the BBC, and most of all for me his work with Cue Zone Into Schools, the project to not only raise awareness of snooker in schools, but to use it as a force for good in boosting numeracy skills. I attended one of these sessions at a Sheffield academy school, and the efforts of Davis, Chris Lovell and Jason Ferguson reaped a huge reward. None of the kids there that day were even alive for the last of Davis’s world titles let alone the first, but his enthusiasm alone bridged the generational chasm with the youngsters. I once needed a big name to come to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin for a photo for a BBC web piece. It was minus 30 degrees that day, with wind-chill on top, and I wasn’t hopeful. Davis donned his beanie and said ‘Let’s go’. He is a worthy No1.
Honourable mentions for their ambassadorial qualities should also go to – Stephen Hendry, Terry Griffiths, Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham, Alan McManus and Neal Foulds.