Ken Doherty, 25 years after world title, opens up on meeting U2 and telling Sir Alex where to go

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A few days after he was crowned world snooker champion in 1997, Ken Doherty received a phone call from a number he did not recognise.

‘The voice at the other end went, ‘Kenny, Alex Ferguson here, I know you are a big Manchester United fan, how about parading that trophy up at Old Trafford?’ and I told him to go f*** himself!’ laughs Doherty.

‘I thought it was my mate joking! He goes, ‘Kenny, I’m not going to ask you twice, it’s Alex Ferguson’ and I said, ‘Sorry Mr Ferguson’.

‘I went up the day they were picking up the Premiership trophy against West Ham. It was incredible. The roar I got walking out at Old Trafford was one of the most memorable days of my life.’

Of course, the most memorable day of them all came earlier that week, when he beat the great Stephen Hendry 18-12 at the Crucible to become the first Irishman and only third overseas player to win the World Championship.

For the weeks that followed, Doherty was treated like a rock star — and enjoyed rock-star company. ‘I was at a U2 concert at Lansdowne Road and I got invited to the after party,’ begins the 52-year-old. 

Ken Doherty (pic) has opened up in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail's David Coverdale

Ken Doherty (pic) has opened up in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail’s David Coverdale

It is nearly 25 years to the day since Doherty won the 1997 World Snooker Championship title

It is nearly 25 years to the day since Doherty won the 1997 World Snooker Championship title

‘I was brought over to meet Bono, who was talking to Michael Stipe (the REM lead singer) and Roger Taylor (the Queen drummer). As I was talking to them, I got a tap on the shoulder and it was The Edge.

‘He said, ‘You wouldn’t come over to say hello to my mother would you?’ I thought, ‘For f**** sake — he’s brought me out of the company of Bono, Taylor and Stipe to come over and say hello to his mother!’ But he was made up and so was she.’

By far the most surreal experience came when Doherty returned home from Sheffield. ‘I was given an open-top bus tour right through Dublin, from the airport to the city centre,’ he recalls.

‘I thought that was reserved for Olympic heroes or the national football team. I remember being on College Green in 1990 when they came back from the World Cup in Italy. For me to be met by thousands at the airport, the streets lined, cars beeping, it was incredible. It shows the impact it had on the whole country.’

There was one impact that still makes Doherty laugh 25 years later. ‘I stopped crime in the city of Dublin for three hours!’ he grins. ‘The chief of police told me that between the hours of 7pm and 10pm, when I was playing on the Monday night, they didn’t have one phone call until I lifted the trophy.

The Irishman, now 52, prevented Stephen Hendry (left) winning six world titles in succession

The Irishman, now 52, prevented Stephen Hendry (left) winning six world titles in succession

Doherty is still the only Irishman to win the sport's most prestigious and wealthiest tournament

Doherty is still the only Irishman to win the sport’s most prestigious and wealthiest tournament

‘The girls on the switchboard thought there was something wrong with their phones. He said to me, ‘You should be on television more often — you’d make my job a hell of a lot easier!’.’

Before he made history at the Crucible, Doherty’s only ranking title win was the 1993 Welsh Open. He had never gone past the quarter-finals of the World Championship. But he had perfect preparation for the 1997 tournament.

‘I used to play with Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Ilford Snooker Centre,’ he explains. ‘For a while we weren’t practising with each other, but before 1997 I made a conscious decision and said, ‘Look Ronnie, let’s put our differences to one side and practise for this World Championship’. 

We played each other in a best of 19 every single day. The two of us were flying. Going there, I thought he was going to win it.’ O’Sullivan showed off his form in the first round when he hit a 147 break in a record time of 5min 20sec against Mick Price but lost his next match against Darren Morgan. 

Doherty, though, saw off Mark Davis, Steve Davis and John Higgins to set up a final with defending champion Hendry, who had already won a record-equalling six titles and five in a row.

He is on the second year of his two-year invitational tour card and hopes to get another card

He is on the second year of his two-year invitational tour card and hopes to get another card

‘He was almost unbeatable,’ says Doherty. ‘He was a fearsome player. He revolutionised the game in the 90s, the way Davis dominated the 80s. He was the benchmark. It was like playing him on his own table at the Crucible. He was scary to play. I went there to enjoy myself and not show intimidation and it worked.

‘He made three centuries in the first session but I was 5-3 up and that set the tone for the match. I went into the final session 15-9. I needed three frames. But that’s when the pressure hit home and he staged a terrific comeback. 

‘He got it back to 15-12 and should have made it 15-13 but missed a ball along the top cushion and I won the frame. I went into the dressing room at the mid-session interval a very relieved man that I’d stopped the rot and I came out and won 18-12. It completely changed my life.’

Back in Ranelagh, Dublin, Doherty’s mother Rose was too nervous to watch. ‘She couldn’t handle the pressure as she suffered from high blood pressure,’ he says. ‘She went out on her bike before the snooker started but she got a puncture and had to walk home.

‘On the way she was stopped by someone in the village, who said, ‘Congratulations, your son has just become world champion’. That’s how she found out.

Doherty said he once told iconic ex-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson where to go

Doherty said he once told iconic ex-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson where to go

‘I gave the trophy to her and she put it on her TV in her front room for the whole year. People would come to get a picture with it. She used to clean it every day.’

Doherty’s mum had a crucial hand to play in her son’s triumph, having paid for the cue he won the World Championship with — albeit 16 years earlier.

‘I was 11 when I found this cue on the pool rack at my local snooker club,’ he recalls. ‘The manager wanted a fiver for it so I begged my mother for the money. I then changed it to five old £1 notes and put three in my left pocket and two in my right.

‘I told the manager I could only afford £2 and he let me have it for that. I am the only player to win the World Juniors, World Amateurs and World Championship and I won them all with that £2 cue! I still play with it today. It was a good investment, I think!’

That 41-year-old cue was back in action at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield last week when Doherty tried to qualify for the World Championship for the first time in eight years. He lost to Jamaica’s Rory McLeod but has not given up hope of a return.

Doherty also recalled his encounter with U2 rockstars Bono (above right) and The Edge (left)

Doherty also recalled his encounter with U2 rockstars Bono (above right) and The Edge (left)

‘It would be great to come out through those curtains one more time,’ he says. ‘I still love competing but it’s not as easy as it used to be. The standard is getting higher and higher. As you get older, it’s very hard to keep up.

‘I am coming to a crossroads. I am on the second year of my two-year invitational tour card. But I am hoping they will offer me another and then that would maybe be enough for me.’

Doherty will be at the Crucible this year as a BBC pundit and is tipping O’Sullivan to win his seventh title and equal Hendry’s record. ‘He is back to world No 1, that will give him a boost,’ he says. ‘I’d love to see him win it. He’s the best ever and deserves to equal Stephen’s record and get seven. This could be the year.’

Doherty will then be back at the iconic Sheffield theatre on July 8 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his most famous triumph.

‘John Virgo, Dennis Taylor and Hendry are going to be there with me,’ he adds. ‘It will be great to recap some memories of 1997 — although Stephen won’t be doing too much talking about it!’

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