Stuart Bingham is truly a man in love with his sport. A couple of days at Crondon Park and then practice ahead of the Dafabet Masters were not enough to keep the recent Champion of Champions finalist away from the Snooker Legends event at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, a short 20-minute drive down the A127 from his Basildon home.
The world No7 took a seat in the front row as a spectator to watch Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White lock horns in front of a packed house of more than 1,000 fans, a contest edged 5-4 by the Whirlwind over the Rocket.
And the 37-year-old Bingham was, almost inevitably, summoned and roped in to compere John Virgo’s pre-match act, being royally stitched up and failing to pull off a trick shot five times before watching the BBC commentator manage it on the first occasion.
Former England football captain John Terry has never come over as the type to scare easily – but the Chelsea defender admitted to being absolutely terrified walking out into the arena at the recent Snooker Legends event in Guildford to partner golfing buddy and seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry against Jimmy White and a member of the audience at G Live.
Terry, 33, a huge snooker fan who used to have a full-size table in a £5million Surrey mansion, was persuaded by Hendry and long-time friend White to turn up and play his part and contributed to a an alternate-shot break of 45 together with the Scot.
He said: “It was a fantastic night going out there with Stephen and Jimmy, but that is as nervous as I have been for a very long time. My palms were all sweaty before we started, I was really scared and wanted to do well but it all went okay and I really enjoyed it.”
Judd Trump took a real chance giving his £170,000 Ferrari a spin on the short trip to Crondon Park for the opening groups of the Championship League. The half-mile drive from the main road is notoriously littered with deep potholes as well as tight hairpin bends, and a test to negotiate at the best of times let alone in severe weather conditions. But the low-slung white F458 Italia made it to the Baronial Hall car park without incident or damage.
Shaun Murphy made the second 147 of his career against Mark Davis at Crondon Park in the Championship League, 13 years after the first in the Benson & Hedges Championship.
But the closest the former world champion came to breaking down in a superb total clearance was when world No1 Neil Robertson almost spilled his coffee walking in to the room with Barry Hawkins to begin their match on the adjacent table. With Murphy mid-break there was a loud cry of “Barry, wait!” from the Australian, blissfully unaware of proceedings inside, as Hawkins let a curtain fell on his hot drink. Luckily both the break and the drink were saved, and an apologetic Robertson was duly chastised albeit in good humour by Murphy afterwards.
John Higgins admits that he can suffer from cabin fever at home in the leafy Glasgow suburb of Bothwell – because all the other Scottish players are constantly beating a path to his door for practice sessions.
The four-time world champion regularly hosts sparring sessions with fellow Scots Stephen Maguire, Alan McManus, Marcus Campbell and Anthony McGill rather than getting out to a club or other players’ houses.
World No12 Higgins has reached a stage in his career when he would be only too happy to help the younger Scottish players reach their potential, and preserve the proud snooker tradition north of the border – so the numbers could yet swell with the likes of Michael Leslie.
But it does all mean that the 38-year-old father-of-three can be a bit housebound.
“I would like to help other players coming through in Scotland if I can,” Higgins told Inside Snooker. “Everybody comes to my house anyway, it seems, so the youngsters may as well come too!
“Their tables are all rubbish so they tell me, so they all want to come in my house to play and it means I am there all the time. Sometimes it would be nice to get out for a wee while and away from the missus!
“Stephen Maguire, Alan McManus, Marcus Campbell, Anthony McGill, they all come round and maybe Michael Leslie will be next.”
The programme for the 2014 Dafabet Masters features an in-depth interview with former England and Tottenham goalkeeper Ian Walker, a huge snooker fan who attended many big tournaments during his time at White Hart Lane and at Leicester City, but now based in Shanghai as a coach.
The 42-year-old Walker, who attended the all-Chinese final of this season’s Shanghai Masters, had coached the goalkeepers at Shanghai Shenhua for two years – but in the first week of January this year, and after programme print deadlines, he made the switch to city rivals Shanghai East Asia.
Many top snooker players will be familiar with Shanghai East Asia, as it is the team and stadium that you can watch play from the luxurious surroundings of the VIP and business lounge on the top floor of the hotel complex normally used for the Shanghai Masters. Leeds fan Peter Lines and Middlesbrough supporter Mike Dunn were among those taking advantage this season, reclining with a beer to watch East Asia losing to Shandong Luneng from the lofty perch.
Many of the tour’s players had already put in some hours on the table since January 1 but the relaxed surroundings of Crondon Park Golf and Country, as ever, provided the first opportunity of 2014 for more serious match practice. The Baronial Hall, with its oak beams and extravagant high-backed leather armchairs, give the playing arena the air of a smoking room in a Mayfair gentlemen’s club. It remains one of the more unusual settings in a busy calendar – but a welcome location for the Essex-based Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham and Judd Trump, all more used to travelling to Asia than half an hour down the road and in action in Group 1 for two days from January 6th. The terrible weather, though, was a deterrent for keen golfer Shaun Murphy from getting out on the course.
The first groups of the Championship League also offer a perfect chance for the leading players qualified for the Masters tournament to road-test any new equipment before the more serious business at Alexandra Palace. Judd Trump, unhappy with his tip after the UK Championship, replaced it with another one over Christmas. But he decided after his opening match at Crondon Park, a 3-1 win over Shaun Murphy, that it was “a shocker”, far too hard and “coming straight off after this”, as it was not allowing him to get the same amount of power in his shots and deep screw on the cue ball. Emergency surgery to install a softer tip from a frequent cue doctor to the stars, John Parris, was required before the north London knees-up.