Many of the sport hungry viewers joining ITV for eleven days of famine breaking live action from June 1st will assume that the Championship League is a brand new concept. Think again.
By Phil Yates
Since it began on an unseasonably mild and sunny day in late February 2008, this exclusively behind closed doors event, broadcast online around the world, has produced untold drama, still unbroken records, outstanding performances and snooker firsts.
The brainchild of Barry Hearn – pre-dating his reign as WST chairman – was put into operation by two of his invaluable lieutenants at Matchroom Sport, Sharron Tokley and Luke Riches, beginning life in the grandly named baronial hall at Crondon Park Golf Club in rural Essex.
Two tables were installed end to end in a room that normally hosted weddings and, after just a few days of competition, it became apparent that tournament and venue were themselves a marriage made in heaven.
Back then, prior to the utterly transformative, unthinkably successfully Hearn Revolution, professional snooker had soul destroying gaps in its threadbare calendar. Understandably, the players were clamouring for more opportunities to exhibit their skills, and Championship League proved the ultimate nice little Hearner.
Kicking things off behind the microphone were Clive Everton, David Hendon and yours truly. The somewhat cramped location used for commentating on table one was fit for purpose but calling the shots on table two literally required a visit to the loo.
Space was so limited, the only spot on which to perch laptop and/or notes was the actual toilet, with cover down of course. I know what you are thinking, the perfect setting for so much verbal diarrhoea. Guilty as charged.
Battling away in that trailblazing seven-man opening group were two world champions, Mark Williams and Ken Doherty, and five others who now have ranking titles on their c.v. Joe Perry, Ali Carter, Ryan Day, Matthew Stevens and Barry Hawkins.
Day won the group, Perry was the inaugural overall champion, beating Mark Selby 3-1 in the final, but perhaps the chief beneficiary was Carter, the ultimate Championship League stalwart, who after taking part in seven consecutive groups and making 13 centuries, arrived at the Crucible razor sharp and duly reached the World Championship final.
At his press conference, after beating Perry 17-15 in the semi-finals, I asked Ali what role the Championship League had played in his run to snooker’s highest profile match. “It was massive. I can’t tell you just how important. I came here feeling better prepared and more confident than ever before,” he insisted.
As the mass interview broke up, several of the reporters asked me with a bewildered look, ‘What’s this Championship League, then.’ I answered with the relevant information but could just as easily have told them it was one of the most enjoyable events I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved with.
Judd Trump has now captured 27 professional titles. Although he won the 2008 Masters qualifying event, his breakthrough triumph in an event featuring the tour’s cream was the 2009 Championship League.
Shining a bright light on his even brighter potential, Trump rallied from 2-1 down to beat Selby 3-2 in the Winner’s Group final, coming out on top in a vintage tournament which, that year, attracted such cross generation titans as Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Ding Junhui and Neil Robertson.
A confirmed Championship League devotee, Trump returned to Crondon Park and lifted the trophy twice more, in 2014 and 2016, on the latter occasion edging Ronnie O’Sullivan 3-2. O’Sullivan fired in a couple of tons during that pulsating contest but didn’t pot a ball in the decider as Trump, thanks primarily to a run of 73, got the last laugh.
The move to the Ricoh Arena was a boon for John Higgins. His wife, Denise, twice sent him to Coventry and on both occasions John returned north of the border clutching the spoils, becoming the only player to successfully defend the title.
Last year, Martin Gould emulated Trump and Higgins as the event’s third multiple winner while the title holder is Scott Donaldson, who beat fellow Scot Graeme Dott 3-0 in the final at another new venue, Leicester’s Morningside Arena, back in March, shortly before lockdown.
It is fair to say that few champions have been required to defend so swiftly.
The opening afternoon at Milton Keynes will deliver the 2,500th match in Championship League history. Inevitably, such a bulk of snooker has generated some extraordinary feats, topped by Neil Robertson in 2014.
Remarkably, even though he was eliminated in Group Five, the heavy scoring Australian constructed 22 century breaks, a record for most centuries by one player in a single event which, unsurprisingly, remains intact.
That laid the foundation for Robertson’s 103 centuries during the 2013/14 campaign, another unprecedented albeit more vulnerable total given Trump’s blistering pace before the current season was so disappointingly suspended.
There have been nine 147s in Championship League annals, including the 147th maximum compiled in professional competition, by David Gilbert against Stephen Maguire last year.
In January 2017, Mark Davis entered break-building nirvana during a Group Three meeting with Robertson and, seven weeks later, replicated those heroics against John Higgins in the Winner’s Group. By doing so, Davis became the first, and still only player, to make a pair of 147s in the same professional tournament.
Occasionally on tour, small fortunes have been pocketed for particularly well-timed maximums. When Fergal O’Brien compiled his, would you believe against Mark Davis, at Crondon Park in 2016, he received £500, the relatively modest amount awarded to the highest break maker in each group that year.
And yet, I’m convinced no player before or since has ever derived such deep seated, purely Corinthian pleasure from membership of the 147 club. The priceless expression on Fergal’s face when the final black found its target was one of undiluted joy, the look of a perfectionist who had found the Holy Grail.
I was commentating, solo, on that match and the immediate aftermath of the O’Brien max was one of my most enjoyable moments behind the microphone. Other gigs at the Championship League were unforgettable for less positive reasons.
One year at Crondon our commentary boxes were perched inside the rear of a pantechnicon. The show went on when a nasty storm rolled in, wind speeds hit 60 mph and our position was precariously rocked and rolled. That, though, wasn’t the worse of it.
Another season down at Crondon our boxes were outside in mid-winter. It was a tad chilly but an undoubted upgrade on the lorry until a Polar Vortex blizzard of epic proportions that snowed many in for the night, Marco Fu among them, left us commentators dithering. Technically, our pictures didn’t freeze, but we did.
That will not be an issue in the hermitically sealed, air-conditioned splendour of the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes. Thanks to ITV and the undying ingenuity and drive of Mr. Hearn, the good old Championship League is about to be radically transformed.
Now, I’m not just happy to be involved, I’m proud.
Sit back, relax and hopefully take your mind off a troubled world.
There is a blatant omission in this article: the legendary massive leather armchairs! They are so much part of the event identity that, when the CLS was moved to Coventry, everyone was wondering whether they would move with it, and they duly did!
Only second to the armchairs when it comes to fame, was the catering at Crondon Park, the breakfasts in particular. David Hendon never failed to inform us, salivating fans, about the scrumptious dishes that the players and commentators were presented with, the desserts, in particular, had his favour! Many a player looked a bit sleepy and out of sorts after the lunch break.
Phil claims that the event was broadcast around the world, which might be true, but doesn’t say that this event, in the lasts years at least, was only available on bookies websites, meaning that to watch this “legally” you had to register into one of those, putting some money there too as a provision for future bets, provided that the said sites were available at all in your country. Most of them are blocked in mine, and as I never bet, I wouldn’t put any money on them anyway. A serious downside in my eyes. Fortunately, there is none of that this time.
Another downside was the format. With seven players per group, of which the winner went to the “Winners Group”, two were relegated and four got to play in the next group, the temptation was obviously there not to try to win the group but rather elect to move to the next group, for a chance to earn more money. There was always the risk to get relegated eventually and to miss out on the “Winners Group”, but, well … the bookies didn’t always put a price on the groups’ finals, which was quite telling. Again there is no risk of that this time: it’s winning your group or you’re out.
Of course, there were very enjoyable sides to that event as well … provided that you found a way to watch it. Most players were playing with freedom, going for their shots, and showing a side of their game that you wouldn’t usually see in ranking events. That, as well, might be different this time despite the non-ranking status of the event. Also, I can’t help to wonder how some players will cope with the prospect to have to stay at the venue until the next phase, should they win their group, especially those who don’t need the money.
But we shall see. Snooker is back in less than a week. Let’s enjoy it.