Cork’s Aaron Hill among the balls with The Crucible in his sights
19-year-old - who has already beaten Ronnie O’Sullivan - is set for qualifying in Sheffield
Aaron Hill will take part in next week’s World Championship qualifiers.
When you are on the outside looking through the window, elite snooker can seem like a closed house. The annual world championships will begin in Sheffield on April 17th. For most of us, it’s a television ritual and there’s something reassuringly unchanging about it: the formal wear, the hushed atmosphere, the rhythm of games and those absorbing late night games when you flick the channel for five minutes and find yourself gripped an hour later.
But to play? It’s a game of sharks. Just the top 16 players qualify automatically. The other 16 places are drawn from 128 players who take part in the qualifying rounds which start on Monday next.
Many of the names are unknown but the first round draw has produced extraordinary stardust too: Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry will play against one another. On Thursday, Cork’s Aaron Hill will play York’s Ashley Hugill.
Last year the Irish teenager produced one of the more fabulous sporting stories of the year, edging out Ronnie O’Sullivan, the game’s residual genius, in the second round of the European Masters tournament. Many seasoned professionals never get to beat O’Sullivan. Hill had never been in the same room as him until that moment. He somehow enjoyed the dream of playing on the same table as O’Sullivan while summoning the ice and talent to go and beat him.
“It was funny, it was the most calm I felt all season because I knew it was a lifetime opportunity playing a childhood hero,” Hill recalled from his home this week. He’s in the holding zone for next week’s journey to Sheffield.
“And he still is today. Just to go out and share a table with him was unbelievable. But don’t get me wrong, I was going out to tear his head off too. It was like a free go. It was my first tournament as a professional and nobody expected anything from me. Why not make the most of it? I believed in myself and I kept my composure and the buzz was… unbelievable.”
Talk to Hill for 10 minutes and you can’t place him anywhere other than Cork - and north Cork city more precisely, a place that bleeds an innate self-assurance when it comes to sport. Hill is 19-years-old. As a kid he was a pure baller. Anything went. Soccer, hurling, Gaelic football and basketball ate up his time but soccer was his fascination. And it was the acute disappointment of not making the Cork schoolboys team five years ago that led to an accidental introduction to snooker.
“I was down to the last few in the trial and I fully expected to make the team. So I was devastated and my dad brought me for a game of snooker to cheer me up. It started from there.”
Q-school is the main way to get on and ask any player, it is the hardest tournament to get through
Stephen Hill brought his son to the Crucible club in Gurranabraher that day (there’s a Crucible in Sheffield, too). He’d never really held a cue before that afternoon. “Apart from a game of pool on holidays, things like that.” And it felt natural. He won’t pretend he was any good in the first few months.
Snooker is an absurdly difficult game. Most amateur snooker players have to work hard just to become bad at the game. Hill kept playing and watching and playing some more - hours and hours of just playing. And after a few months there was a noticeably steep improvement in his game. His friends from field sports became bored by the mornings and afternoons indoors, watching their mate crouched under the sharp light of the baize and drifted off. Aaron Hill stayed.
“So I made friends in the club with lads who are Irish internationals from when they were my age. They are in their late 20s now, most of ‘em. They never turned pro but they are terrific players.
“One lad, Greg Casey did well in qualifying school and missed out by a few spots so he got some spots in pro’ competitions. So playing against quality players like him has helped me. I loved snooker from day one. Just competing and the travelling I have done and the friends I have made. The best days of my life were just playing in the Crucible for hours and whoever loses pays for lights. You have a tenner in your pocket and you don’t want to lose.”
Most of us have no concept of what it takes to turn professional in snooker. It’s an obscure world, seldom glimpsed from the outside. Once Hill felt the game taking a grip on him, he knew he wanted to try this life. But it isn’t that simple.
“It is a cutthroat system. Q-school is the main way to get on and ask any player, it is the hardest tournament to get through. You have hundreds of players and only eight get through at the end of the week. It is so draining. You can play five or six matches in one day. I played in it once and I didn’t do any good.”
But my cue action is natural. I’m not sure you can teach it
That was two years ago, in Wigan. Hill was still 17 and found himself in the big north of England town, alone in a hotel, for three full weeks. The games came either thick or fast or were too far apart. “If I lost on a Monday I’d be waiting until the following Monday to play again.”
The whole ordeal was a feat of endurance, involving hanging around and watching other players and killing time. “You lose your sleeping routine and pattern. It was a disaster for me.”
Instead, he got his two-year professional card by winning the European Under-21 championship in Portugal. It was a huge moment and it occurred just as the world was beginning to absorb the enormity of the sweeping pandemic last March.
He couldn’t have turned professional at a stranger time. Fortunately the family had a table in the house so he could practice in between heading off to tournaments. By then, his skill level was well known in Irish snooker circles. There’s an easy smoothness to the way he plays. Hill reckons he is just lucky in that the way he holds a cue but it has drawn rave notices.
“What I have is just natural in that I had it from day one. PJ Nolan, a world class coach from Carlow, would have given me a few tips on how to walk into a shot technique wise and get in line for a shot. But my cue action is natural. I’m not sure you can teach it.
“You see other lads and their cue action looks atrocious to watch but it works for them. Some lads are one-eye dominant so maybe cue through their left or right side doesn’t look right but it works for them. I am just lucky to have a natural cue action.”
So just over six months after turning professional, Hill found himself in Milton Keynes playing in the European Masters.
“I was drawn against Andy Hicks and saw then that the winner would play Ronnie. So the buzz was unbelievable. I treated the Andy Hicks game like a final. I gave it everything. To play Ronnie on television was such a big moment.”
It was O’Sullivan’s first tournament since his imperious showing in the World Snooker Championship the previous April. Hill went into a 3-1 lead before the interval but then reality asserted itself as O’Sullivan took the next three frames and that appeared to be that. Then Hill closed the match out 5-4, holding his nerve with a routine clearance while his idol sat rooted to his chair.
“He just elbow touched me - the new thing now,” Hill says of what happened in the aftermath.
“And he said: well done and good luck. I was getting ready for the media and he was going home but it was inspiring for him to even do that. He has always spoken highly of me in the past few months.
"Funny, during lockdown my sleep routine was gone and I was watching YouTube at two or three in the morning and I came across an interview with Ronnie. So I gave it a watch. And he was asked about players to watch and he mentioned two names. One was me. I actually jumped out of the bed. To hear that off him! Because you never hear Ronnie do that. And I just felt then that I must be doing something right.”
He continued in Milton Keynes by defeating Matthew Stevens, twice a runner up in the World Snooker Championship, 5-3 to make it through to the last-16. People took note of the name: Hill isn’t cocky but he looked at home in that rarefied world. Turn any street corner in Norrie and you’ll bump into a prodigious hurler or hoopster or footballer. World class snooker players are a rarity though.
It remains a fascinating cult sport but the locals have weighed in behind him. Local businessmen Thomas Singleton and Finbarr Corkery are sponsoring him. And there’s a casual street pride in what he is doing.
“Everybody has been so proud,” he says.
“It is fairly overwhelming going down the street around home. If I am in town there is always somebody who knows you and it is such a good feeling. I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes me. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself.
“It’s a nice opportunity and I have a season under my belt and I can go into next year with an enjoyment mentality and keep working hard rather than expecting things of myself. There have been some tournaments when you are on your own - staying on your own and travelling on your own and it is quite tough. In normal times I’d have someone with me to take my mind off things.
“Too much snooker isn’t good either. You need to have a bit of fun as well.”