I'm in Dublin this week for the vcpoker.ie Irish Professional Championship here at the Red Cow Exhibition Centre.

It's a competitive field featuring all of Ireland's top pros and enlivened by the presence of Alex Higgins, who plays tonight.

The Irish players are all agreed that it's a source of pride that they have a national professional championship while the likes of England, Scotland and Wales do not.

Years ago, these events were subsidised by the WPBSA but, to cut costs, this subsidy was withdrawn in the early 1990s and the English, Scottish and Welsh Championships all came to an end (to be fair the tournament in Wales became the Welsh Open).

I recall Stephen Hendry electing not to play in later Scottish Championships because it was basically too easy for him. How times change. Can you imagine Hendry, John Higgins, Graeme Dott and Stephen Maguire battling it out for their national title?

Or how about Mark Williams, Ryan Day, Matthew Stevens and Dominic Dale fighting it out for the Welsh title?

England have a horde of players who would make their event competitive.

Broadcasters, sponsorship and venues need to be found, not to mention someone to organise them, but the return of the national championships would be a welcome step forward, with players competing not just to be the best at a particular tournament but the best in their own nation.



Johan Oomen has resigned as a WPBSA referee with immediate effect.

He officiated at the Shanghai Masters in August but has now put away his white gloves for good.

This is a shame as Johan had become established as one of the game's leading refs.

Over the last few years, several top referees have left the scene. Colin Brinded sadly passed away in 2005 while Lawrie Annandale, Paul Collier and Stuart Bennett all quit because of the meagre financial rewards for this very important job.

Veteran refs John Williams, Len Ganley and John Street have also disappeared from the circuit over the last decade.

All this leaves Jan Verhaas and Eirian Williams as the top two refs, with Michaela Tabb, Alan Chamberlain, Pete Williamson, Terry Camilleri and Colin Humphries making up the 'A-Team'.

It's a very, very hard job at times and needs superior concentration as well as a steely nerve.

That so many refs have got fed up in recent times suggests they are not being treated as they should.



Following the revelation that Willie Thorne is to trip the light fantastic on Strictly Come Dancing comes the news that Nigel Bond is to appear on Sky One's Premier League All Stars.

The live show, hosted by Helen Chamberlain and Ian Wright, features former Premiership stars and celebrity fans of each club competing indoors in London next week.

Nigel is a long time fan of Manchester City and lines up alongside the likes of Rodney Marsh, Nicky Summerbee and the convicted fraudster Nick Leeson.



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.



Good luck to Michael Holt who is today doing a half marathon in Nottingham for Diabetes UK.

To clarify: this is the race, not the chocolate bar.



Willie Thorne is to appear on the new series of Strictly Come Dancing, which starts on BBC1 next month.

Willie, whose prowess on the dancefloor is unknown, follows in the footsteps of his fellow BBC commentator Dennis Taylor, who appeared two years ago.

"I've not even danced before so this is going to be quite fun," said Willie, the 1985 Mercantile Classic champion, though this triumph is unlikely to help him much when it comes to fox-trotting.

"We're being told they want to see our hips move but I haven't seen my hips for about 10 years let alone moved them. I'm an ugly duckling and I'm hoping they will turn me into a swan."

Willie is up against celebrities including Blue Peter presenter Gethin Jones, former England and Liverpool footballer John Barnes, GMTV's Kate Garraway, BBC Sport's Gabby Logan and Brian Capron, who played a serial killer on Coronation Street.

Whether it'll be murder on the dancefloor for Willie remains to be seen.


Further to yesterday's story about 'unusual betting patterns' during the Masters qualifiers, Tony Brennan is quoted in today's Racing Post as saying he was one of the punters whom Stan James refused to pay out.

Brennan revealed he'd had £1,500 on three matches (Liang Wenbo to beat Joe Delaney, Ricky Walden to beat Alfie Burden and Jamie Burnett to beat Joe Swail).

He said: "I'm disappointed because I have bet with the firm for a long time now – and I'm not in front – and on one of the few occasions when my number comes up Stan James act like bad losers.

“I will carry on betting with them, but I may stop and think before betting big with them."

SJ's Steve Walsh told the newspaper: "It looks as if it was more a case of the punters having more information than us because it looks as though every match was played on its merits."

Walsh added that he was waiting for official confirmation from the WPBSA before paying out punters.

SJ became suspicious because there was more money staked than they would have expected for such a minor snooker event but that's the risk bookies run for having betting on it in the first place (only three firms did).

It seems a bit much to scream up just because a few snooker punters - who follow the game and current form very closely - have correctly predicted results.



The bookmaker Stan James has launched an investigation into what it describes as "unusual betting patterns" at the Saga Insurance Masters qualifying tournament.

Today's Racing Post reports that SJ returned winning stakes to some punters who had placed bets on four matches played last Sunday.

SJ say they have no problem with the performances of the players involved or the results of the matches but that they "are looking into about a dozen bets placed in a couple of regions in the UK."

The matches concerned were 1/2 shot Liang Wenbo's 5-2 victory over Joe Delaney, 1/3 Ricky Walden's 5-0 hammering of Alfie Burden, Jamie Burnett (6/5 from 11/8) upsetting Joe Swail 5-2 and 5/6 chance David Gilbert's 5-3 win over Joe Perry.

These kinds of stories come round periodically and tend to be nothing more than nervous bookies reacting to unexpectedly high wagers.

I can't say I found any of the results listed particularly surprising but snooker's problem is that there is no apparatus in place to properly investigate allegations made - I remember one time where betting was suspended on two matches and the WPBSA sent an 'observer' into the arena to watch them both at once!



Firstly, apologies that this feature did not appear last week, but I was observing the religious festival of…er…OK I forgot.

Not every governing body has its own website. None has a better one than the Republic of Ireland Billiards and Snooker Association.

www.ribsa.net is precisely what a national association’s site should be like. What people logging on to such corners of the web want is information that is constantly updated. In this regard, RIBSA are ahead of everyone else because they update their tournaments, rankings and calendar constantly.

Their news pages are easily to read and the results are split into the various age sections, ensuring it is easy to find what you’re looking for.

There is a comprehensive links section giving details of snooker clubs in each county of Ireland – invaluable for anyone starting out or just looking for somewhere to play.

Also useful is a list of Irish coaches and downloadable technical guides from coach P.J. Nolan.

On the first page there is even a woman imparting (albeit in a disconcerting American accent) the latest Irish snooker news.

There is also ‘RIBSA TV’ which makes various frames from Irish events available to view.

It’s all very neat and is the sort of site governing bodies should aspire to replicate if they expect their various events to gain any publicity.



Jimmy White moved a step closer to clinching a place in the final stages of the Saga Insurance Masters after beating Jamie Burnett 5-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the qualifying event in Sheffield today.

White, the Masters champion in 1984, finished off with a break of 113 in the deciding frame.

The 45 year-old Londoner has been an ever present in the final stages at Wembley since 1982 but, with only the world’s top 16 seeded through, is unlikely to receive a discretionary wildcard this year having slipped to 78th in the provisional rankings.

However, White will still be among the 18-man field in January if he wins the qualifying tournament.

He trailed 2-1 but compiled breaks of 68 and 114 to edge 3-2 ahead before Glaswegian Burnett, who knocked White out of last season’s World Championship qualifiers, drew level with a run of 61.

They shared the next two frames before White’s second century of the match put him three wins away from securing his Wembley place.



Ronnie O'Sullivan's ongoing emotional problems are explored in an interview with Matthnew Syed in today's Times newspaper.

I was particularly interested in the revelation that Ronnie used to keep a diary - that would make fascinating reading!

Interview here: www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/more_sport/article2395208.ece



The Maplin UK Championship has been shortened by four days and will now run from December 8-16 at the Telford International Centre.

The official WPBSA press release states that this “guarantees all of the top 16 players’ participation in the televised stages of one of snooker’s most important tournaments” but this is misleading as there will be four tables, only two of which will be televised.

It also means that, for the first time ever, some matches in the last 16 of the game's second biggest event won't be broadcast at all.

It seems likely the change has primarily been made because Ronnie O’Sullivan, as world no.5, as well as the likes of Stephen Hendry (8) and Ding Junhui (9) would otherwise have to play a match before the TV phase.

The BBC, quite understandably, would rather they competed in front of their cameras.

In previous years, the top four seeds (in this case Peter Ebdon, John Higgins, Graeme Dott and Shaun Murphy) have had their matches held over, but it is by no means certain that any or all of these four players will now play on a TV table.

Indeed, recalling that the WPBSA relegated the Higgins v Mark Selby world final rematch at last month’s Shanghai Masters to a non-TV table, I’d say nothing is guaranteed.



Snooker legend Alex Higgins returns to competitive action later this month for the VC Poker Irish Professional Championship in Dublin.

Higgins, 58, faces former British Open champion Fergal O’Brien in the first round at the Spawell Club,Templelogue.

The twice world champion has not competed since last year’s Irish tournament but has accepted an invitation to play in his home event, which he won five times between 1972 and 1989.

Ken Doherty starts his title defence against Dungannon’s Patrick Wallace on the opening day of the tournament, September 25.

Doherty, the 1997 world champion and current world no.4, beat Michael Judge 9-4 in last year’s final.

Mark Allen, who beat Doherty in the first round of last season’s World Championship, plays Garry Hardiman.

Joe Swail, the 2005 champion, is seeded second and begins his campaign against Colm Gilcreest.

The tournament, which was revived two years ago having not been held since 1993, runs until September 30.

First round draw: Ken Doherty v Patrick Wallace (8pm, Sep 25); David Morris v Vincent Muldoon (5pm, Sep 26); Gerard Greene v Leo Fernandez (5pm, Sep 25); Michael Judge v Dessie Sheehan (2pm, Sep 26); Fergal O’Brien v Alex Higgins (8pm, Sep 26); Mark Allen v Garry Hardiman (2pm Sep25); Joe Delaney v Eamonn Kelly (11am, Sep 25); Joe Swail v Colm Gilcreest (11am, Sep 26)



Unfortunately, Clive Everton's Q&A session at the Landor Theatre tomorrow has had to be cancelled.

All those who bought tickets should have been contacted by the theatre.