Return to Goffs glory days could be break Irish snooker needs

Ken Doherty, Dennis Taylor and Stephen Hendry return to the celebrated Co Kildare venue

An auction house for bloodstock sales in Co Kildare wouldn’t immediately strike you as an obvious place to hold a snooker tournament. But on Saturday, three former world champions will be on the baize at Goffs in front of a sold-out crowd for a World Seniors Snooker 900 event, at the famous venue which for decades was the home of the Irish Masters. Jimmy White, Tony Knowles and Fergal O’Brien will take on Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty and Dennis Taylor in a new short format of the game where frames are limited to 900 seconds or 15 minutes, with the tournament winner picking up €10,000.

The seniors tour has been coming to Kill in some form since 2010, and all the players are excited to be back at the intimate 700-capacity Goffs, which for many of them is only rivalled by the Crucible in Sheffield as a venue for snooker. O’Brien, a former world number nine, says: “I’ve been in Goffs when they’ve just finished the horse sales and there’s manure in the place and you still get goosebumps, it’s just a brilliant venue ... It’s the shape of the venue, the fact it’s only one table so all eyes are on you. With it being round, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The atmosphere was fantastic.”

From 1978 until 2000, Goffs hosted the Irish Masters, an invitational non-ranking event for the top eight players in the world and four wild cards. O’Brien first played there in 1994, having got a wild card at the age of 22. “I was only three years a pro, I was only really on my way up. I managed to beat Willie Thorne and got one of my best wins ever, I beat Stephen Hendry in the quarter-finals. He was world number one and world champion at the time.” It was a massive thing for O’Brien to play in Ireland in front of a partisan crowd. “I think I got tickets for about 150 people myself! Family and friends that were there upstairs were treated like royalty, it was fantastic.”

Two of the most famous matches at Goffs over the years involved Alex Higgins. In 1989, he came from behind to beat a young Hendry in the final to earn the last title of his professional career in front of a raucous crowd. The following year, Higgins was drawn against Taylor in the quarter-final, just weeks after threatening to have him shot when Taylor was next in Belfast, after a falling-out while playing together for Northern Ireland in the World Cup final. Taylor won the grudge match and complained about the threat, which played a role in Higgins being banned for a year.


The tournament, which was sponsored by Benson & Hedges, came under threat in 2000 when the government banned tobacco sponsorship as part of its antismoking drive. In a bizarre turn of events, the Department of Health stepped in to part-fund the event as it did not want to undermine such sporting events. “The tournament is one of the most popular events in the country and should not be lost,” said then minister for health Micheál Martin. The deal saw the tournament move from Goffs to the Citywest Hotel for five years, three as a ranking event, but O’Brien says “that wasn’t the same. You could have been playing anywhere, could have been playing in China.”

The tournament wound down in 2007 and the only major pro competition in the Republic since was a one-off Players Championship event in Killarney in 2011. The Northern Ireland Open joined the World Snooker Tour in 2016 and at this season’s edition, Shaun Murphy, who lives in Dublin, called for a tour event in the Republic. “This island is a bit of a sporting Mecca ... It would be great to see because when we go out for a stroll around Belfast, snooker is alive and well here.”

How “alive and well” snooker is in Ireland is something Jay Chopra spends a lot of time thinking about. The Cork businessman and former UCC lecturer in December became the chairman of Snooker Billiards Ireland (SBI), the governing body of the amateur game in Ireland. He’s noted the closure of many clubs in Irish cities and is focusing on junior game development as the main priority. “We’ve got to have a conveyor belt of talent coming through. If you’ve a lot players at the top of the funnel you’ll have more professionals coming out the bottom. That’s where we’re going to put a lot of our effort in the next three to five years.”

SBI has about 300 registered players at about 30 clubs that compete up to national level and current pro Aaron Hill is “an SBI product”, says Chopra. With, as O’Brien says, “myself and Ken, if not at the end, very close to it”, Hill is the only other player from the Republic on the pro tour.

Ross Bulman from Youghal has been really close, says Chopra, “only missed out by a couple of frames. He’ll probably have another crack at [Q school] this year but ... it’s super competitive”.

Chopra says SBI have been well supported by Sport Ireland, including with a grant for a new “world class” centre of excellence at Graiguecullen in Co Carlow. However, the direct funding remains just under €100,000 a year, more than tug of war, less than surfing. “Between the salary of the national coach and the expenses for the rent, electricity in the HQ ... it sounds like a lot but it doesn’t go that far really,” says Chopra. A spokeswoman for Sport Ireland said the body “has been delighted to provide increased funding year on year ... Sport Ireland has a good working relationship with the NGB for snooker and remains available to discuss any specific needs that it may have.”

Chopra believes “one of the greatest things you could do for game development in Ireland is get a professional tournament back. We would like to get the key stakeholders together and figure out what are the blockers and the enablers in terms of making that happen. That’s definitely on our radar.”

A spokesman for the WST said the tour “is always looking to build the global tour and to bring snooker to as many territories as possible. We have staged ranking events in Ireland before and we know there is passionate support for snooker there. For ranking events such as the Home Nations where there are at least 80 players at the venue, we need locations with enough space for tables in the arena, practice zones and sufficient facilities backstage and for fan areas, as well as spectator seating given our huge increase in ticket sales this season.”

The need for multiple tables rules Goffs out as a venue for a ranking event but O’Brien says “the appetite is there for a big tournament whether that be ranking or an invitation event” as “we’ve been so starved for snooker in this country”. The Dubliner, who’s retiring from the main tour at the end of the season, says he might “pick up the baton and make enquiries because in theory it’d be phenomenal”.

“Ultimately you need three things. You need Goffs, a sponsor and TV, ideally RTÉ, because they used to do it. To attract the best players to come over for a couple of days, the prize fund would have to be big.” But O’Brien says if it was done to the standard it was before “there wouldn’t be an empty seat for any of the sessions”.

As the best players in the world head for the snooker hotbed of Saudi Arabia next week, it feels as if the organisers are missing a trick closer to home.