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'I'm from a small town and when you’re young, people are saying ‘When will you be playing on the telly?’'

Tipperary native Brendan O’Donoghue on the ups and downs that go hand-in-hand with a career in snooker.

Brendan's local snooker club is New Institute in Nenagh.
Brendan's local snooker club is New Institute in Nenagh.

“I STARTED OUT standing on a box, dragging the box around the table and playing with half a cue.”

Brendan O’Donoghue wasn’t going to allow his considerable height disadvantage stop him taking up snooker at the tender age of five. 

His father, who played to a reasonable standard himself, was caretaker of the local club in Nenagh, New Institute, and soon discovered that his son had a bit of a flair for the game. 

It was just two years later that Brendan competed in his first U12 tournament, where he went all the way to the final before losing out to an older boy. 

Luckily, a group of his school friends were also keen and the summers that followed saw a carload regularly travel from Tipperary to the Long Mile Road in Dublin for tournaments — from U12 to U21 — run by the late Dermot Dalton. 

Describing himself as a modest hurler, O’Donoghue continued to balance both sports for a period but recalls an incident in 1994 which put a stop to that. 

“I played a hurling match on the Saturday and ended up getting hit on the hand,” he explains.

“I had a tournament about three months later and I remember my dad saying to me coming home in the car that I’d have to make a decision because hurling and snooker weren’t going to mix. I gave up the hurling and ended up winning the U14 Irish title so I never played any other sport after that.”

Michael Cleary Former Tipp hurler Michael Cleary gave Brendan his first good cue. Source: Tom Honan/Inpho

Tipperary hurling legend Michael Cleary had a small but significant part to play in those early victories. Brendan had been using cues from the local club until the two-time senior All-Ireland winner agreed to give the youngster one of his as he had two good cues. O’Donoghue would win three underage titles playing with the generous gift. 

The 1980s and ’90s were seen as a golden age for snooker as players like Alex Higgins, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White, John Parrott and Dennis Taylor became household names thanks to unprecedented television coverage.

There was also a young man from Ranelagh in Dublin beginning to make waves and he soon caught the eye of O’Donoghue. 

Ken Doherty young A young Ken Doherty in 1991. Source: INPHO/Allsport

“Any time snooker was being shown on telly, we’d have it on in the house,” he says. “You’d always follow your own. Ken Doherty wouldn’t have been as big and was only coming onto the scene, turning pro in 1990 after winning a World U21 Championship and a World Amateur title.

“It was great to see an Irishman going well. The more I studied the game and the older I got, I grew an appreciation for Steve Davis. He was a winning machine and he had lovely cue action.

“The outside stuff never influenced him and you wouldn’t find him in the paper for throwing a telly out the window or whatever, like Alex Higgins.

“In a similar way to Stephen Hendry after him, Davis just wanted to win. I didn’t necessarily enjoy watching Hendry and would have preferred to see someone like Ronnie O’Sullivan because he’s the Lionel Messi of snooker and the best to watch.”

Doherty made it right to the top — seeing off Hendry in the final of the 1997 World Championship at the Crucible — and three months later brought his trophy to a World U21 event in Carlow. 

“I was 14 and that was my first time playing at a world event,” O’Donoghue says. “It was massive.

Being from Nenagh, I wouldn’t have had any dealings with Ken and only ever saw him on the telly. He came down with the cup and said a few words. It was mad to see an Irishman, a fella with a Dublin accent, coming in with the world championship trophy. 

“It was inspiring and it definitely ensured that I was going to stick to the snooker. I was really into it at that stage and there was nothing else for me. I was coming in from school and playing for two or three hours everyday.”

Ken Doherty trophy Doherty arriving back to Dublin with the world title in 1997.

O’Donoghue would win multiple national titles at underage, from U14 to U21, before entering the senior amateur ranks. As well as claiming three Irish senior championships in 2003, 2015 and 2017, he has travelled the globe — playing tournaments in approximately 24 different countries.

However, it was ahead of the 2009/10 season that he achieved a lifelong goal by earning inclusion on World Snooker’s Main Tour. At the time, the Irish Snooker Association nominated one player to receive a professional spot and it went to O’Donoghue after he topped the national amateur standings.

As fortune would have it, another player from Nenagh, David Hogan, turned pro around the same time. 

“It was handy as I had someone to travel with and to practice with,” he says. “It meant I could lean on him a little bit, and he could lean on me. It was someone to have dinner with, to have a word in your ear and just to be a pal.”

And they would need the support from one another as the tour proved to be a harsh experience. There were only six ranking events a year back then, and all the qualifiers were played at Pontins in the Welsh seaside town of Prestatyn, then considered the “home of snooker”.

“If you were going there in the middle of July it would be full of people but our first event might have been the back-end of October. It was freezing cold, there’s skeleton staff on and you’re staying in a chalet that hasn’t been lived in four or five months. It wasn’t the Ritz or in any way glamorous.”

Brendan O'Donoghue trophy O'Donoghue is a three-time Irish amateur champion. Source: Facebook/Ivy Rooms

Brendan continued to hold down a full-time job in a retail shop back home throughout the season due to the modest prize money on offer to low ranking players. Only for the generosity of the shop’s owner, who was like an uncle to O’Donoghue, it wouldn’t have been doable. 

He was brilliant in terms of giving me time off and there were never any problems. Now, I don’t think it’s possible to go pro and hold down a job. It’s really tough if you’re not winning games. You’re away so often, and you need to put so much into it that you couldn’t have a job as well.

“Nowadays, in your first game at a tournament you might be playing for three or four thousand euro. I was playing for around €400 and I had to pay an entry fee too, but they have been scrapped as World Snooker cover entry fees into the events now. If you win a match in the World Championships now, first prize could be around €9,000 and that’s in a qualifying round. It has drastically changed for the better, but it’s still difficult.”

He applied himself fully, but found it difficult to adjust to the new surroundings. While playing at the mecca of snooker — the Crucible — never materialised, he looks back proudly on his season as a pro.

2019-betfred-snooker-world-championship-day-seventeen-the-crucible Barry Hearn (right) pictured at the Crucible with last year's World Snooker Championship winner Judd Trump (centre) revolutionised snooker. Source: Richard Sellers

Later that year, Barry Hearn took control of World Snooker and revolutionised the sport, so O’Donoghue can perhaps count himself unlucky that he just missed out.

“I turned pro at the wrong time,” he believes. “You didn’t get a glamour match back then. Let’s say you’re ranked 128 now, you could a televised match against the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby or Judd Trump and it’s a bit of exposure. You get a chance to wear a bit of advertising on your waistcoat, pick up a few bob and people start to know you.

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“We were just in a cubicle with a ref and the lad you’re playing, maybe two people watching on a cold, wet November day in Prestatyn… having travelled over on the boat.”

On distractions away from the table, he adds: “We did it right, I don’t regret that at all. I was never one to take my eye off the ball in regards to drinking, partying or doing the wrong things.

“I did a lot of the right things, but I was probably afraid of the move and having to go to England to fulfill my potential.”

Striving to achieve the levels of commitment and single-mindedness needed to succeed, particularly in individual sports, can often have an adverse effect on a sportsperson’s mental health, and O’Donoghue admits going through some tough times.

“There’s a kind of depression with snooker and it gets in on you. You hear Ronnie O’Sullivan talking about it. I’m not comparing myself to Ronnie O’Sullivan in any way as he’s in a totally different stratosphere, so please don’t do that. But he talks about snooker depression.

I know I struggled with being very down if snooker wasn’t going well. There’s nobody to fall back on, with the exception of your family. If you want to be a top snooker player, anyone on the pro tour will tell you they are putting in six or seven hours a day and most of that is on their own. A lot of that could be in a room on their own, just honing their skills.”

Speaking to the 37-year-old for the guts of an hour, he appears to be in a good space now.

“I’m enjoying snooker now. I didn’t at times in the past, when the pressure was on. I’m in a small town and everyone would know me and relate me to snooker. When you’re young, people are saying to you ‘When are you going to be pro and be playing on the telly?’. When that doesn’t happen, you’re thinking ‘Am I a failure?’. Everything comes back to that. It’s hard to deal with that.”

Brendan O'Donoghue family Brendan with his partner Tanya and daughter Lauren. Source: Brendan O'Donoghue

With a five-year-old daughter an a partner of 10 years, Brendan still plays but family life and work with An Post take priority. He is currently ranked number one in the Irish amateur standings having won three of five events this year, but snooker has fallen foul of Covid-19 along with every other sport.

“I don’t mind because they’ll still play the championships whenever it returns,” he says. “I’ll probably end up finishing first, which would give me a spot into cue school and the professional qualifiers. I don’t know if I’d take that up, I’m a little bit past that scene now.

“I’d be like a dog chasing a car, I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one! How can I give up my family and my job to go back on the travelling tour at 37, being very unsure of how much money there is to be made?”

The lockdown has also curtailed improvements being made to the local club, meaning he hasn’t been able to practice. After receiving a government grant to upgrade the building, work started on New Institute at the beginning of February but had to stop before completion.

“The club is nearly done but the tables are still covered so we can’t go down and play. There are a couple of weeks work to finish it but sure nobody knows how long it’s going to be with what’s going on.”

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Ben Blake

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