Snooker’s imminent return is incredible, important and energising, believes Michael Holt
Phil Haigh – Tuesday 19 May 2020
Snooker will make its return in less than two weeks after the coronavirus hiatus, and despite the inevitable dissenting voices, Michael Holt believes it is an important step forward as the sporting world adapts to the global pandemic.
The Championship League will begin on 1 June at the Morningside Arena in Leicester, with 64 players competing behind closed doors for a £20,000 top prize. All of which will be broadcast on ITV.
Strict health and safety rules will be in place, with all players, officials and staff tested for coronavirus, the venue and all equipment sanatised and social distancing measures enforced, even during matches.
With the majority of other sport yet to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis, World Snooker Tour (WST) is attempting to help lead the way.
Chairman Barry Hearn has pushed hard to get the sport up and running again, less than two months after the 71-year-old suffered his second heart attack, and world number 25 Holt believes he should be backed in his fight for the players, fans and, of course, viewing figures.
‘Snooker, like everyone, for the foreseeable we’ve got to change the way we are,’ Holt told Metro.co.uk. ‘Until they get a vaccine or whatever happens on that front.
‘I will be playing in Leicester. It’s nice to have something to practice for and as much as I’m loving life, it’s nice to get out the house. I’ve negotiated with the club, they’ve let me in to practice.
‘It’ll be strange, it’ll be a bit weird, I suppose, with the new things in place, social distancing and whatnot, but we’ve got to accept that going forward things are going to be a bit different.
‘All credit to Barry and his team for getting the event on. It would be easy for him to sit back, use it as an excuse to do nothing and not forget about the snooker players but, you know…he’s had a heart attack!
`‘Him and his team have got the event on knowing that the players have to earn money and it’s incredible he’s even attempting it, really. If it does go ahead, all credit to him, incredible.
‘He’s a promoter and he knows it’ll be good for snooker. The fact we’re being proactive, trying to move forward, if you just stand still, where’s that going to get you? He’s accepted we’ve got to do things differently so let’s have a go.
‘On the criticism, nobody ever made a statue of a critic. People just like to have a moan. If you don’t like it don’t watch it, and if you don’t like it don’t play in it, stay indoors.’
Holt is well aware that competing creates more of a health risk than staying at home, but is putting his faith in WST’s safety measures and feels that small steps back to normality need to be taken.
‘We’re getting tested,’ the Hitman continued. ‘No [I’m not worried], you can look at it how you like.
‘People are dying, it’s a risk leaving the house, I suppose, but I have to look at the stats. I’m not in the high-risk demographic, none of my family are.
‘What can I say? It’s one of those, I’ve got to leave the house at some point. What do you do? You have to do something. You take the precautions you can and carry on.
‘They know what they’re doing, they want to take the best precautions for obvious reasons. Just make the decision and do your best to protect yourself.
’ The rearranged World Snooker Championship is due to begin on 31 July in Sheffield, and the Championship League will be a first step back towards the Crucible.
Holt’s superb Snooker Shoot Out win in February saw him climb to number 25 in the world, meaning he still has to go through qualifying for the Worlds, so is keen to get back into some rhythm ahead of that critical contest.
‘With the World Championship potentially going ahead, it’s a bit of a trial run for that,’ continued the 41-year-old. ‘I’m looking forward to playing and at the end of the day it’s an opportunity to earn money, which is one of the biggest reasons I play.
‘I’ll be playing and trying my best, 100%, give it everything. It’s a nice warm up as well, if you play well, have a run, put you in good stead for the Worlds qualifiers. For every reason it’s important.
‘I’ve been playing a bit, had a few games the last week or so. For me personally, I’m having the best time of my career, really.
‘I’ve been playing well for a while, won the Shoot Out, I know it’s not a normal format, but I’ve had some good performances and I feel great, I’m happy to play as much as I can because everything’s going okay at the minute.
’ The last WST event played was the Gibraltar Open, which came to an end with Judd Trump lifting the trophy on 15 March. With the majority of players having no access to a table at home there is likely to be some rustiness in Leicester, but the Hitman is unconcerned.
‘It might show in this tournament because it’s come quite quick, but players have had 8 or 10 weeks off, we used to have that in the summer all the time,’ Michael said.
‘You don’t forget how to play in 10 weeks. I’m quite lucky, I’ve always been able to pick my cue up and feel okay. I’ve been playing a little bit and I feel alright now. You lose a bit of match sharpness, playing proper frames with people. But in terms of playing shots, it doesn’t take long to get back to normal. Other players will be different though.
‘Some players benefit from having a bit of time off, the season’s basically wall-to-wall so some might be better coming back, a bit more eager.
‘It’ll make you miss it, I’ve missed it, missed playing. I’ve always loved playing anyway, had periods where I’ve not, but at the minute I love it more than ever, for a few years now. Players will come out of it changed.’
While no one has an issue with the Championship League being played behind closed doors, the potential of the upcoming World Championship going ahead with no fans is anathema for some snooker fans.
Undoubtedly an empty Crucible would be a below-par experience but Holt does not want to see the event cancelled and, in a situation where it is impossible to please everyone, has backed WST to make the right choices,
‘It’s not as good obviously,’ said the Hitman, ‘Hopefully I get through and qualify and walking out at the Crucible with no one there is going to be strange to put it mildly.
‘But these are strange times we’re living in, we have to make the best of what we’ve got and move forward. I don’t think it’ll be like this forever, but the other option is no event.
‘Snooker is a sport that is watched by 99.9% of people on the TV. It’s a massive TV sport and it’s growing all the time. It will be watched, and if there’s not many other events on, it might be watched by even more.
‘The criticism, for me, people just like to moan. People love it, they’ll never stop moaning. You just have to do the right thing, carry on and do your best.
All credit to Barry and his team for getting it on, I don’t think there’s many other people that would have achieved it.
‘It’s one of those situations where there’s no perfect answer, it’s damage limitation. There are going to be people on the wrong end of any decisions and there’s not a lot they can do. They’ve got to make a decision that hurts the fewest people.’
While the Shoot Out champ is excited to get back on the baize, lockdown has been timed pretty well for the Holt family as it has given them time together with new arrival Sadie, although her brother was not entirely impressed with her timing.
‘We’ve enjoyed being together 24/7 basically,’ said Michael. ‘We’re still married, which is great news. It’s been a nice time, we’ve made the best of it.
‘She was born on 10 March, which is Jude’s birthday, his second birthday, which ruined it a bit. They’re going to have some good parties in the future. She came along fine, everyone’s fine, Amy did amazing.
‘The doctors have done really well, they were coming out at the start and we’ve done some video consultations. It’s strange times we’re living in, they’ve changed the way they’re doing things as well to cope with it, like everyone.’
Michael Holt’s praise for Barry Hearn’s and his team’s efforts is totally justified and it’s nice to see him eager to play again, even if conditions will be difficult. Make no mistake, they will. Making sure that social distancing is respected, that all equipment and the place are kept sanitized, that any potential infection is spotted immediately … all that will result in a lot of constraints for players and officials. And that’s just at the venue. But players and officials will have to stay somewhere, preferably in just one place that they have for themselves, with the same precautions being applied. And there is also the small matter of traveling, particularly for those who aren’t living in England.
Part of those issues was discussed by Stephen Hendry and Alan McManus in their chat last Monday.
I haven’t listened to the whole chat yet. I must confess that I struggle badly with their heavy accent. Even Reanne Evans, who of course is a native English speaker, reflected that she was close to the point of needing subtitles 😉.
But in the first half of their chat, they discuss the coming Championship League and it doesn’t look like many Scottish top players will be there.
From what I understood … Alan certainly does not intend to enter, and, for what he reports, nor do John Higgins, Stephen Maguire or Graeme Dott. John has a table at home, but the others didn’t have access to a table to practice. And John himself wasn’t apparently too keen on practice during the lockdown. Alan said that it would be a lot of hassle to play under those conditions, that traveling wasn’t straightforward and that going there unprepared was probably pointless.
Of course, younger players, hungrier, at risk to lose their tour card or just plain skint might see it differently. Someone like Scot Donaldson might be one of them: he did well this season and will certainly want to do well at WC qualifiers, should that go ahead. This would be good preparation for it.