The Best of Times: When Ranelagh’s Ken Doherty upset the odds to conquer the world

Ken Doherty with the Embassy World Trophy kisses his mother Rose after arriving home to Dublin Airport. Photo: Matt Browne/Inpho

‘Krafty Ken.’ Any table, any player. Ken Doherty could pick their pocket. He called it matchplay. Every ball was contested, every draw of the cue a sketch in his masterplan. In 1997 the snooker world knew what a gritty tactician the former amateur World Champion could be.

But against Stephen Hendry, a hundred thousand Guinness and shamrock clichés plastered around the hallways at the back of the Crucible Theatre and the luck of the Irish with him, still they didn’t given him a prayer against the Scot.

Hendry on 29 Crucible wins in succession was drawing down to take his 30th, his five-in-a-row world titles to six-in-a-row and seven overall and his iconic status in snooker to an even more firmly fixed monolithic presence. After five years of dominance the Crucible was his playground.

Doherty, seeded seven for the tournament, was fodder. The bookmakers told us that. But tabloids warmed to the easy manner and to them he was Ken – as comfortable in the media room among journalists and the Embassy liveried staff in their red and gold, a free alcohol and cigarettes Mecca.

But Hendry would have known that the 27-year-old from Dublin had won his semi-final match 17-7 against Canadian Alain Robidoux with a session to spare and had the luxury of a night off on the eve of the world final.

Doherty in action during the 1997 World Championships. Photo: Anton Want /Allsport
Doherty in action during the 1997 World Championships. Photo: Anton Want /Allsport

Doherty knew what his chances were of winning. But within that understanding there were other forces at play, the understated steel in his game, his table intelligence and, as the final progressed, an uncanny ability to win sessions from which Hendry had carved so much meat there seemed barely any left.

“I was long odds against going into the final. He was going 30 matches in a row. He was almost on his own table in the Crucible, particularly the one table set up,” says Doherty.

“I wasn’t scared of him. Where he would have beat me up me up quite a bit, a lot of matches we’d had were quite close. I knew he didn’t like playing me. I knew he didn’t like my style of game, a tough match player, a good safety player.

“I knew I couldn’t out score him because nobody could. I knew I couldn’t out pot him because he was such a great long potter. But I knew I could get to him by playing hard match snooker and good safety. I knew I could get to him winning those type of scrappy games.”

Snooker room urchins

Over the years, says Doherty, he and Ronnie O’Sullivan, who have known each other since they were snooker room urchins, have had their differences. But for two solid weeks before the 1997 final himself and O’Sullivan put in long practice shifts. Just the two of them together at an Ilford club in Essex.

They went in at 10 in the morning and played the best of 19 frames. If the games went fast they would rack up another 19 frames. By the time the two reached Sheffield they were “bouncing off each other”, O’Sullivan perhaps too much.

He went out in the second round to Darren Morgan but not before he had torched the auditorium in the first round with a maximum 147 break in the quickest time ever recorded. Barely waiting for the white to come to a halt against Mick Price, O’Sullivan cleared the table in five minutes and 20 seconds.

While Ken was winning the world title, his mother was on her bike gliding down to the church in Donnybrook to light candles. She couldn’t bear to watch

“We had our differences throughout the years,” says Doherty. “We’ve known each other since we were about 12. Going into the same club every day there was a bit of a rivalry there, when he did turn pro.

“But for the two weeks before that World Championship we put our differences aside and said let’s put in a lot of practice for each other and bounce off each other. We practiced together for two weeks before. We were there from 10 in the morning and played the best of 19 or maybe two best of 19 every day for two weeks.

Doherty was treated to an open-top bus parade. Photo: Inpho
Doherty was treated to an open-top bus parade. Photo: Inpho

“We were flying by the time we got to Sheffield. He was going there as well as I’d ever seen him play. Then he made that magical 147 break in 5 minutes 20 second. We’ll never see the likes of it again. No doubt about it.”

Wins over Mark Davis, Steve Davis, John Higgins and Robidoux took Doherty to the brink. He had broken with his usual routines and although nervous made a conscious effort to keep smiling, exude an outward freshness and sense he was having a good time.

When he rang home each day he didn’t want to hear what the television was showing or what the newspapers were saying. When he secured his final place he didn’t want to know about the cameras arriving out to his mother’s house in Dublin’s Ranelagh, a trip for the crew that may have been a wasted.

“I’d be saying to them don’t be telling me what’s going on in Ireland,” he says.

While Ken was winning the world title, his mother was on her bike gliding down to the church in Donnybrook to light candles. She couldn’t bear to watch. On her way home that evening she got a puncture and had to push the bike home. It was only when a local stopped to congratulate her while she was ambling up the main street that she knew her son had won.

After each interval of the final, Doherty that year declined the relative calm of the media and player’s rooms and opted to take the courtesy car back to his hotel, chill with his group of friends and have a dip the hotel pool. He was cocooning when nobody was cocooning.

Only afterwards did he learn of how much the match had consumed attention. RTÉ had acquired pictures from the BBC for the final session. Parts of Ireland in 1997 wouldn’t have had BBC and many wouldn’t have been able to see the match unfold. But with the footage available on terrestrial television fans could view the final three hours on the Bank Holiday Monday.

Psychology

“I could score myself,” he says. “I wasn’t a bad scorer. I was one of the best scorers in that top 16 players. But Stephen was head and shoulders above everybody else.

“So I gave off a demeanour of smiling, happy, laughing. That was my psychology. I didn’t want to show that I was nervous against him. I wanted him to see I was enjoying it even though I wasn’t. I was really nervous. But give off the body language.

Doherty with the trophy outside the Mansion House. Photo: Matt Browne/Inpho
Doherty with the trophy outside the Mansion House. Photo: Matt Browne/Inpho

“Once I’d settled down though I was loving every minute of it. That very first session...I mean he made three centuries in that first eight frames but I was still 5-3 ahead.”

As snooker goes, hopes and championships can evaporate or inflate around one ball or decision over hours and sometimes days of play. In cat and mouse the defence is as much a factor as attack. Potters will always try to pot. Tactics and the ability to be able to curb instincts to forfeit a red and a few colours for a longer game plan was Doherty’s reliable sustenance and a constant frustration.

But Hendry was also a master of comebacks, so a constant threat. In 1992, he trailed Jimmy White 14-8 in the world final. White needed just four frames for the championship. But the Scot won 10 frames in a row to win the match 14-18 in one of sport’s great reversals. Doherty was wise to Hendry’s sting.

“I’d seen him make so many comebacks over the years. I’d got to 15-7 and was three (games) away. I was absolutely hammering him. Then he wins the last two frames of the third session to go 15-9. So I’m 15-9 up going into the last session. So I need three out of a possible 11 frames. I’m looking pretty good but it was the first time ...not that I saw the winning line but I knew I was close. There was only going to be a remarkable comeback from Stephen to beat me.

“He started off like a train in the evening session. It was the first time I had got a little nervous. He won the first three frames and he won the third of those after I had made a 60 break.

“That really put the pressure on me. So it went to 15-12. I was 40 points up in the next frame and it was the frame before the interval. It was a crucial frame. He could bridge the gap back to two or I could get it back to four frames.

“He was clearing up with two reds left and he misses a red behind the black down along the cushion. He would normally have got it. It wobbled in the pocket and stayed out. I only needed red and a colour and then I was 16-12.

“It was such a relief (that he missed) I ran out of that chair like a greyhound at Harolds Cross. Potted the red. Potted the back and the relief. I got back into the dressing room and I felt I had won the session but I had lost it 3-1.

“But he’d won five games in a row and that was to stop the rot basically. I got myself together and became more relaxed, came out and won the next and that was 17. I cleared up the colours in the last to win it. It was a crucial frame. That was the big turning point in the final.”

Life-changing gobshitery

Becoming a world champion changes lives. It alters and expands self-impression and self-worth. Winning in the Crucible and the tens of thousands who lined the streets on a freezing day all the way to Dublin’s Mansion House, the open top bus back to his home in Ranelagh for the “street party”, all of it surely the first step on the road to life-changing gobshitery.

Here I am the 1997 World Champion and I’m walking down the middle of Ranelagh with a big bread board full of apple tarts to be sold in the local shop

“Yeah, ha, ha, ha...I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “And this is true.

“My mother used to make the apple tarts for the local Spar at the corner in Ranelagh. The Shopping Basket it used to be. She used make them on the Saturdays. They’d sell them for two pounds and she might be making a pound. Something very small. But she loved it.

“Normally the manager would come up and he’d take the big bread board with him and he’d fill it up with apple tarts. There might be about 20 on it and he’d walk down to the shop.

“This Saturday morning it was too busy down the Spar and he said he couldn’t come for the apple tarts. I was up in bed and it’s eight or nine in the morning. Me after being out the night before. She’s shouting at me.

“Kenneth...Ken...here she is screaming at me to get up, get up take the apple tarts to the Spar. Here I am the 1997 World Champion and I’m walking down the middle of Ranelagh with a big bread board full of apple tarts to be sold in the local shop. Whether I was a world champion or not if she needed things...”

It’s what people still see in him. A world champion, the charm of a not so ordinary Joe.