The truly great sporting careers are forged out of the blood, sweat and tears of hard work, belief, dedication and commitment, but also from dreams.
It is the dreams of glory, of success, of achievement which drive the talented and determined to become exceptional. For successive generations of boys, growing up watching snooker on television, the dream has been to emulate their idols.
Shaun Murphy was such a boy. So was Lee Spick. But as Murphy was celebrating winning the Masters in January of this year, completing his capture of the ‘triple crown’ of big three titles, Spick was in hospital fighting a liver related illness. He died a few days later. He was just 34.
For Murphy and the other players of his age it was a bittersweet reminder of the fragility of life. They had set out together, these boys with their dreams, playing endless junior tournaments two decades ago, learning the craft not just of snooker but also of competition. They were learning about life.
It is tempting to look back on golden, carefree times and think the sun always shone. It didn’t, but these were the salad days of a generation of players drawn to snooker through its TV exposure with their appetites fed by a thriving junior scene.
Its main focus was invariably Willie Thorne’s in Leicester where Willie’s brother, Malcolm, ran countless tournaments. These were weekends of early starts, motorway journeys with dependable mums and dads, everyone converging on the club, the boys in their waistcoats carrying cues which dwarfed them, looking the part, looking for success.
Murphy found it and expected Spick to do the same. He says he was the best junior player of the time. Spick won the English national under 15 title, turned professional and achieved a highest ranking of 65th but the early promise was not fulfilled. There were clearly problems but snooker is not a team sport and players are expected to deal with them on their own. Not everybody can.
“I first started on the junior circuit when I was ten years old and very quickly realised who the other good players were. Lee stood out from the start,” Murphy told Inside Snooker.
“He had flair, he had natural talent. He would go for outrageous shots but the thing was he used to get most of them. He was very, very difficult to play against and if you saw your name near his in the draw you were always hopeful that he was going to get beaten by someone else.
“Everybody in and around junior and amateur snooker in the time I was playing all thought that Lee was going to go on to become a top professional player. If wasn’t an if, but or maybe, he was going places.
“His dad had a club in Mansfield so he had a great opportunity to practise and he was good friends with Gary Wilkinson and Jason Ferguson, with quite a hotbed of players in that area. Amongst us, in my generation, there was no doubt he’d go on to great things.
“He was very good under pressure. He’d play under pressure like it was his first match of the day. Even in the final at night he’d be playing like it was still ten in the morning, going for his shots. He played like he didn’t care if he won or lost. But with the talent he possessed he was a force to be reckoned with.
“A lot of the other players looked at him and thought, that’s how you have to play – be aggressive, attack the balls and go for your shots. We all held him in high regard and wanted to play like him.”
Murphy and Spick were two of the country’s outstanding junior players during this time so there was the dynamic within their relationship of a competitive rivalry, but overriding this was a friendship born out of respect for one another’s talent.
They entered into the pro ranks as teenagers full of hope for success but in this very demanding sport, early setbacks were inevitable. Yet while Murphy rose above them to become world champion at the age of 22, Spick did not accelerate through the ranks with the same speed.
“Things happen off the table,” Murphy said. “In single player sports you can’t rely on the qualities of your team-mates to carry you through bad games. You rely solely on your own ability on and off the table.
“Away from the table, snooker has to be the number one priority. You have to sacrifice all other things. When your friends come knocking, you have to turn them down because you’re going practising. You can’t go up the park to play football because you’re going practising. It’s not easy and when you get older you have more distractions tempting you, nights out and so on. It’s hard to keep your head down and say, no, I’m chasing this dream, even though it might not happen.
“When I was very close to Lee in our mid-teens he was snooker through and through. He was very keen and thought of nothing else other than being a professional player and achieving to great heights. He’d be in the club all the time and pros would come to him to play him.
“You’d get players 20 years his senior coming to play him whereas the likes of myself and Mark Selby would be chasing players around the area, trying to get them to practise with us but he had people ringing him because he was that good.
“But as our lives drifted apart professionally, somewhere along the line snooker was replaced by other things.”
In a sport where single-mindedness is an absolute must, distractions can only lead to problems. Sometimes this just means bad results through not putting in enough work but at other times the problems are more serious and can spiral to become lasting.
And there hasn’t always been a safety net for players who find themselves on a downward curve. Things have changed a little recently but for years being a snooker professional was about turning up with your cue and getting on with it, sink or swim. Emotional support, when it’s inevitably required, has to come from elsewhere.
“I think the WPBSA could do much more to train and educate its young players,” Murphy said.
“Snooker requires so much dedication and often the sacrifice of normal things, like school. But when you get to life’s crossroads you aren’t really equipped to deal with them.
“Some people would say that it’s your responsibility, which may be true, but we’re all part of a big snooker family and maybe it’s time for the WPBSA to look at something like the Young Player of Distinction programme [which Murphy was part of in the year 2000] being reinstated for the younger players to try and point them in the right direction.
“We’re all on this rock together. We’re all trying to make our own path in life and everyone has decisions of their own to make. But if people are struggling for any reason, but still want to be part of something, then it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the governing body to have something in place where they can take these people under their wing a little bit more, and help them out with various things.
“I know when Lee he had his two-year tour card recently he hardly played in any tournaments because he couldn’t afford it. I’ve suggested for a few years that the WPBSA could scrap the entry fees for tournaments upfront but then take them out of the players’ earnings at the back end.
“For the few players who would earn nothing in two years, and there wouldn’t be very many, the WPBSA could afford to take that on the chin. We are a member’s association and it should be equal opportunities for all. Unfortunately, not everybody can afford it at the moment.”
Murphy and another celebrated member of the 1990s young generation, Mark Selby, could not attend Spick’s funeral as they were returning from Berlin the day after their German Masters final. They had tried without success to source earlier flights.
Murphy talked of Spick in the post-final interview, his mind perhaps going back to days before the pressure and scrutiny of life in the pro ranks came to bear, when it was just another weekend, another tournament, another chance to have some fun playing the game they loved.
In the tough, mentally demanding world of professional snooker, not everyone can be world champion, but all those who have made a contribution to the sport deserve to be acknowledged and remembered.
Lee Spick’s early death was a tragedy for his family but they should know that he is not forgotten, especially by those who once shared the same dream.