AT THE 2005 China Open, Paul Hunter had gone missing. Or so we thought.
The route from arena to media room for post-match press conferences was a short one but Hunter was nowhere to be seen after his first round victory over Ali Carter. Fearing he may simply have left, someone was dispatched to find him and find him they did, patiently signing autographs for a large crowd in the arena.
That he indulged fans despite already knowing by this point that he had cancer says a lot about Paul, about why he was so popular and about why he is so missed.
He died the following year after a painful battle against a cruel disease. He was 27. In his name the Paul Hunter Foundation does good work with disadvantaged youngsters and the Paul Hunter Classic, which takes place this week in Furth, ensures his name remains where it should be – centre stage.
Paul Hunter was born in 1978. Growing up in Leeds at a time where snooker occupied a prominent position on television, he had the Northern Snooker Centre close by and displayed a natural aptitude for the game, impressing as a junior and rising quickly.
He turned professional at 16. There were youthful indiscretions – a naked streak in Blackpool, a failed test for cannabis – but nothing thousands of other teenagers weren’t doing on the rollercoaster ride towards adulthood.
Hunter swiftly cut a swathe through the labyrinthine qualifying system at a time where there were hundreds of professionals. In his first season he won nine matches in the UK Championship alone and 11 in the Welsh Open to reach the semi-finals at the age of only 17.
The following season he beat Willie Thorne 9-0 in the UK Championship. He had finished his debut campaign 78th in the rankings and his second 43rd. Very quickly he had become established as not just a dangerman but a top player.
In 1998, at the age of 19, he beat five members of the top 16, including John Higgins in the final, to win the Welsh Open at Newport, his first world ranking title.
For the first time in his life this working class boy had money and though his love of a good time did not completely impede his further progress, he did in time come to realise that some stability was needed.
He found it with Brandon Parker, his manager, who instilled some discipline and Hunter became more consistent.
At the start of the 2001 Masters some broadsheet berk trotting out the usual snooker knocking piece complained that Hunter had been used to do pre-event promotion, ending his article sniffily with the words, “who is Paul Hunter?” Well, had he been watching, he’d have found out because it was the week Paul broke through as a star rather than simply a player.
He trailed Fergal O’Brien 6-2 and 7-3 in the final but won 10-9. In the press conference afterwards he said that between sessions he had gone back to the hotel with his girlfriend. Lindsey, and “put plan B into operation.”
This aside was pure Hunter: a mix of cheek, innocence and said with a smile. He could not have imagined it would have been front page news in tabloids, propelling him to a level above mere snooker player.
He was a natural for this status: blonde, good looking, down to earth and, as a cheerfully uncomplicated character, he was very easy to like and relate to, like Jimmy White before him.
But for all that, it should be noted how well he played to win that final. In the concluding session he made four centuries. This was world class snooker, played out in front of a large, raucous Wembley Conference Centre crowd and the watching TV millions.
And, of course, he would do it again in a tournament with which he became synonymous. In 2002, he came from 5-0 down to beat Mark Williams 10-9 in the final. In 2004, he recovered from 7-2 down to beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9 and complete the Masters hat-trick. Against O’Sullivan, he made five centuries.
These were grim years for snooker off table but Hunter, like O’Sullivan, was one of the stars who kept the interest up. He won more ranking titles – the 2002 Welsh and British Opens – and was clearly a serious contender at the Crucible.
It looked like he would reach the world final in 2003 when he led Ken Doherty 15-9 going into their final session but Doherty roared back to beat him 17-16 in one of the finest contests the venerable theatre has ever staged.
It was a high profile defeat in the biggest tournament in the sport but this did not prevent Hunter from wrapping Doherty in a hug backstage and wishing him all the best for the final. However he was feeling inside, he did not make excuses for the defeat. He did not seem to be someone to dwell on results that he couldn’t change.
It was at the Irish Masters two years later where he first revealed he was feeling unwell, suffering from stomach pains that doctors were yet to explain. As Hunter was so full of life, most people in the sport assumed this was a passing problem but by Beijing he knew he had cancer. He played at the Crucible a few weeks later against his good friend Michael Holt and competed the following season, by which time it was clear to everyone that he was very ill.
Treatment had robbed him of his distinctive blonde hair and he became gaunt and often found playing painful. But he still played, just as he had since boyhood, because he had the same simple love for snooker.
At the 2005 UK Championship he beat Jamie Burnett 9-8 on the black late at night. He sat down at the press conference exhausted, his features appearing frail in the harsh glow of bright television lighting, grateful for a win, for some cheer.
I know hardened journalists who found this very upsetting but we were only observers; Paul was going through a tough ordeal. He had unstinting support from his family and friends but was in increasing pain.
In 2006, players voted to protect his ranking position allowing him time off to recover but, alas, there was no recovery. It was an aggressive form of cancer and extensive treatment could not stop it.
Nobody can said to be a definite world champion until they win it but Hunter was certainly well placed to land the game’s biggest title. He had arguably yet to hit his peak as a player before his death.
When it came, far too soon, it shocked and saddened the snooker world which, for all its rivalries, is a close-knit community. His funeral was packed with friends from the game which he had helped to showcase.
The sport’s golden boy had been denied his golden future but in the time in which he played, he shone brightly. It is entirely right that he continues to be remembered. Fittingly, the Paul Hunter Classic always draws a large, enthusiastic crowd.
Perhaps the saddest part of all this was that Paul had become a father during the time he was ill. Evie Rose will be ten later this year. She should know her dad was more than a snooker player to most of us. Talented, engaging, friendly and full of fun, he was also inspirational. And we miss him.