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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Interview with Fergal O Brien.

It’s one of the sports most enduring images, Higgins World trophy in hand,tears in eyes taking his baby daughter into his arms as Ted Lowe declares “The World Snooker Champion 1982 is Alex Hurricane Higgins”. Watching on tv in Dublin is a 10 year old Fergal  O Brien,.

“Alex was my hero then though over time the more I found out about him the more that changed ” say’s Fergal today,What didn’t change though was his love of snooker.“My parents had bought an “8x4” snooker table when I was 8 and from then I was hooked”

Fergal finished his schooling but snooker was never far from his mind ”I remember been sent to the career guidance teacher in school and telling him I wanted to be a snooker player he said only one in a million actually make it and I told him that yeah I was that one”

Having competed in junior tournaments through his teens with some success  the break he needed came in 1991 when The WPBSA  opened up the professional ranks to everyone.
“It was like the deregulation of the taxi’s. It went from 128 professionals to a situation where you could pay £800 and call yourself a professional.”

A move to England followed where Fergal was to base himself  in  Illford a place where many young pro’s practiced and fellow Dubliner Ken Doherty  was club professional.

That first year was tough,With so many  new professionals it meant playing 12 qualifying rounds for tournaments. Still a steady first year meant Fergal finished with a respectable ranking of 192,The following season that rose to 100 and in the next season he made the first  move into the minds of the Irish sporting public.

“I remember I had qualified for the World championships at the Crucible and the next day it was announced I was getting the wild card for the B&H Masters at Goffs.”.A first round victory over Willie Thorne set up a mouth watering quarter final clash with the World Champion and snooker kingpin Stephen Hendry,

“I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had couple of centuries in going 4-0 up,He had a 141 in coming back to 4-2 but I closed with a 60 odd to win 5-2..It was great to play so well on such a big occasion especially as I think I knew half the crowd.Someone would shout COME ON FERGAL. And I’d be thinking that’s John from the club“.

The dream run was to finish in the semi final against Alan McManus but Fergal O Brien. was now established in the publics mind., Unfortunately success was not to come easily over the following seasons.

“I changed my cue the following year and my confidence suffered as well as that maybe the greater sense of expectation weighed heavier on me“.During this time his ranking continued to climb but the speed of this ascent had slowed.It wasn’t until the 1998/99 season that long overdue success came in winning “The British Open.”.

“When you start as a pro obviously you want to be World Champion  but winning a ranking event when you consider only maybe 1% of those who have ever played  the game achieved this is still special...The final itself was strange with Anthony (Hamilton) outscoring me by 300 points but I managed to win the close frames.”.

The record books record it as a  9-6 victory but more then that it moved Fergal to number 11 in the rankings thus guaranteeing his place in the following seasons World Championships  and the sports biggest Invitational event The Masters at Wembly.

The Following season Fergal consolidated his position in the top 16 and then in January 2001 came the chance to collect his biggest prize. Leading Paul Hunter 7-3 in the final he missed an easy red to go 8-3 and then had to sit helplessly as Hunter fought back.

“He pulled it back to 7-6.I won the next to make it 8-6 and I had to sit and watch as Paul rolled off the next three to this stage I hadn’t scored in an hour and getting out of the chair was hard..That said I played one of the best frames of my life to level at 9 all“.

Unfortunately it was not to be as Hunter did enough to lift the first of his three Masters titles.”Looking back now I probably took the defeat harder then I needed to I mean how bad is it be to be 9-9 in Masters final! Still though ,now with what happened Paul(Hunter died of cancer in 2006 aged 27) I can’t begrudge him that victory .”

In the years since Fergal has held his own in the game without lifting another major trophy.Now 21 years since he turned professional he is still ranked 34.

The past two years have seen major changes in the game with the “Hearn Revolution”
Thie now packed calendar hasn’t pleased everyone as Hearn looks to take advantage of the sports growing popularity around Europe and Asia with an ever increasing number of tournaments outside the UK ,Fergal however has embraced the changes.

“Looking back a few seasons It had gotten to the stage we were in part time employment because we had so few tournaments. It still needs some tweaking but now we have tournaments every few weeks.You can lose a qualifier this week and be out again in another tournament next week.It means you don’t get time to dwell on defeats.”

Another aspect of the game which  will be increasingly important among players in the future as the circuit grows will be physical fitness,This is something  Fergal has already embraced by joining his local athletic club.” I joined Lucan Harriers a while ago,I have always loved running but now I can really feel the benefits,The thing I’ve noticed most is its not that I’ve been able to practice longer,but my concentration levels have improved.I now get as much out of the last hour of practice as I do from the first.”

 Now aged 40 and about to embark on his 22rd season on the circuit is the end in sight? “No I remember Andre Agassi saying when you start  thinking of the end it is the end so I’m not there yet.My hunger for success is the same as the day I started..

Lets hope the coming season brings Fergal some success and maybe he can inspire the next generation of Irish snooker star the way Alex inspired him all those years ago.

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