The government are very keen that we recycle so I thought I'd post a story I wrote some seven years ago.

It was prompted by the realisation that Matthew Stevens is now 30 (it was his birthday last week).

At the 2000 World Championship, I interviewed his father, Morrell, who was proudly cheering him on as he reached the final.

Matthew was to lose 18-16 to Mark Williams from 13-7 up. Less than a year later, Morrell died.

The Crucible defeat had already knocked Matthew's confidence and his father's death contributed to a period in which he went off the rails a little.

That he hasn't won the World Championship, or more than one ranking title, given his great ability is a great surprise. Certainly when I wrote the following for the Sunday Herald in April 2000 I would have expected greater things from the Welshman...

Matthew Stevens defeated Joe Swail 17-12 in the £1.46 million Embassy World Championship yesterday to become the youngest finalist in the sport's premier event since Stephen Hendry won the title in 1990.

The 22 year-old appeared to be coasting to victory when he led 12- 6, saw this advantage reduced to 13-12 by the determined Northern Irishman, but played some tactically superior snooker in the final session to book his place in today's final.

"It felt more like a 17-16," a relieved Stevens said. "Joe made it very difficult for me when he came back from 12-6. He stuck in there but I managed to win under pressure. It might not have been too pretty to watch because quite a few of the frames were scrappy, but I feel on a high to have got through."

While Stevens held his nerve in the arena, he was watched backstage by anxious relatives and friends who had made the journey to Sheffield from Carmarthen, none more proud than his father Morrell.

Stevens senior, who has accompanied his son for the last decade to endless junior events, pro-ams, qualifying schools and anonymous league games, ignored the hype surrounding his charge who was installed as favourite to reach the final from the top half of the draw following the surprise exits of Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O'Sullivan in the first round.

At a time when even the late night television highlights were a distant memory, dad suddenly realised this week how far his son had come.

"It was 4.30am," he explained. "I suddenly shot up and found myself saying 'Bloody hell: Matthew's in the semi-finals of the world championship.'"

Many within snooker had already decided that Stevens was special long before the 17-day marathon began. With a reputation as one of the most deadly break-builders in the modern game, he has managed to shrug off the uncertainties that have seen so many players, including quarter-final victim Jimmy White, wilt under the pressure of the Crucible spotlight. Much of this inner confidence is due to his dad's guiding hand, although snooker was never a path the family pushed.

"It was a complete accident. I didn't play snooker at all and had little interest in it, but one Christmas my wife Sandra was in town and bought a three foot table as a stocking filler. Matthew hasn't put a cue down since," said Morrell.

"He virtually wore that first table out and began playing on the carpet because he wanted a bigger surface. It was obvious he had some sort of talent for the game so I took him down to one of the clubs in Carmarthen, but they said he was too young.

"When he started knocking in 30 breaks regularly at the age of nine at another club, the one he had been turned away from invited him back."

The improvement was rapid and, at the age of 11, Stevens made his first century break. Naturally, his father remembers the date. "It was Valentine's Day, 1988," he says, as if recounting his own date of birth. "Matthew was put into the local league side and was winning matches against 20 and 30 year-olds.

"They didn't always take it well. I remember he once played at a working men's club against a 6ft, 7in miner who was about 25 stone. Matthew beat him and the miner just sat in the corner for the rest of the evening, not talking to anybody."

The young Stevens also played football for his district side, which led to a difficult choice of sports until, at the age of 14, he made the decision to concentrate on snooker and, two years later, was playing on the professional circuit.

"Matthew used to play in a lot of junior tournaments which meant that he missed quite a bit of school," Morrell said.

"His headmaster called us both into his office one day and told us that, as long as he knew when Matthew would be absent, that it was fine.

"That really helped because it taught Matthew that if you give 100% to something then you can achieve your ambitions.

"We must have spent over seven months in total out of about three years at the pro qualifiers in Blackpool. There were hundreds of players there all looking for a break and it was tough, but there wasn't a single moment when I thought Matthew wouldn't get through it.

"His first ranking was 636. Five years later he's up to nine, but there are so many of the players we used to see in Blackpool who are still where they were."

Snooker observers were quick to spot Stevens' potential. He made a steady climb up the ranking list and was soon yapping at the heels of the game's star names. In 1995, he won the Benson and Hedges Championship, an event for lower ranked professionals, which earned him a wild card invitation to the prestigious Wembley Masters. There, he defeated Terry Griffiths, the 1979 world champion on whose club table he practises, in the first round to offer proof, if it were needed, that the new generation of Welsh player was finally overtaking the old.

The following season, Stevens reached the semi-finals of the Grand Prix. In 1998 he was runner-up in the Liverpool Victoria UK Championship, and he gradually played his way into the elite top 16 in the world rankings.

He was a winner again at Wembley in February when a 10-8 victory over Ken Doherty earned him £165,000 as Benson and Hedges Masters champion. If there had ever been any doubters, they were silenced once and for all.

"I said to Matthew after he won at Wembley that if he never potted another ball, it was all right with me," says Morrell. "And, the lovely thing is success hasn't changed him at all. He still goes out on a Saturday night with his mates, still treats everyone the same and can still be a pain in the backside when he wants to be."

There is a moment of laughter, but in the Crucible there is nowhere to hide, not even for the dads. He knows that this is the biggest weekend of the snooker year and, come Tuesday morning, Morrell Stevens may be waking up as father of the world champion.

That's if he gets any sleep at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Matthew is another player who hasn't fulfilled his potential.
Obviously the death of his father is a major factor in this but there must be others.
Perhaps the question Ronnie posed to him last year is more relevant than we realised.Ronnie asked him at the World Championships if he only practised for this tournament!
Perhaps he has spent too much time with Mark Williams?
He still has time so let's hope he has another major title in him.