Stephen Hendry

Young Stephen Hendry

I don’t want to talk about Stephen Hendry like he’s dead, which is what the media seem to mostly be doing. But when somebody brilliant stops doing the thing they’re brilliant at, it’s hard not to get a bit wistful. Last night, after seven world championships, 36 ranking titles and 775 competitive century breaks, Stephen Hendry announced his retirement from snooker following his defeat by Stephen Maguire in the quarter-finals of the world championship in Sheffield. He’d had a brilliant start to the tournament, making a maximum 147 break on the opening day against Stuart Bingham and going on to defeat John Higgins 13-4  in the second round, but it all went a bit to pot (sorry) against Maguire, and Stephen ended up losing 13-2.

It is, of course, Stephen’s right to retire anytime he likes, and I doubt he’ll need to join the dole queue anytime soon. But I am a bit sad that he made the announcement so quickly after losing his last game, because it makes it seem like the two are connected, even though he says not. It also takes something away from Maguire’s victory (“you killed Stephen Hendry, you bastard!”), and casts a shadow over the rest of the tournament, because all of a sudden nobody’s as interested in the players who are still involved.

Every snooker pundit ever likes to remind us that Stephen Hendry is – or now, was – The Best Snooker Player Of All Time™, and although my heart belongs to Ronnie, they are right. (Ronnie, you will recall if you have ever watched any snooker, is The Most Naturally Gifted Player The Game Has Ever Seen™, which is different.) Where Ronnie is fiery and unpredictable, Stephen was always calm and reliable. Ronnie was the best and he knew it: Stephen always came across as humble, even during the nineties when he was comfortably outplaying everyone else in the world.

If Ronnie O’Sullivan had announced his retirement moments after crashing out of a tournament, nobody would be surprised. What am I saying, “if”? He’s done it, plenty of times. I am half-hoping that Stephen doesn’t mean it, the way Ronnie never did, but I know he probably does because you can tell from his snooker as well as from the way he talks that he is a thoughtful and measured person who doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.

So we probably won’t ever see him making another 147 at the Crucible, but I think in years to come we’ll remember not that he retired mid-tournament, but that he retired barely a week after making his third maximum there and giving snooker lovers everywhere yet another moment to remember. Thank you, Stephen, you really were the best.

Snooker loopy

I am following Palace’s progress as keenly as ever – we are doing our usual trick of starting off badly and then suddenly starting to do well when the season is half over, putting paid to any chances of automatic promotion but keeping the agonising possibility of a playoff place open for as long as possible before it all ends in disappointment.

But I haven’t been to a game all season, which makes it hard to write about much which the papers and bloggers haven’t already given a better-informed view on.  As soon as there’s a hint of spring in the air I will do what I can to rectify this omission.

And in the meantime, there’s snooker!  I have been a fan ever since I used the 1997 World Championship as a distraction from revising for my finals and happened to be watching when Ronnie O’Sullivan made the fastest-ever maximum break against Mick Price.  I was hooked instantly, and I’ve watched as much of each subsequent televised tournament as I’ve been able to fit the rest of my life around (snooker is not always on at the most convenient times for those of us with jobs).

But it’s taken me nearly twelve years to actually go and watch a game, and on Sunday I finally managed it at the opening sessions of the Masters at Wembley Arena.  Brilliantly, tickets for the early games only cost £10, and for that we got a full day’s play, Stephen Maguire beating wee Graeme Dott (“the pocket dynamo!”) in the morning session and Ronnie beating Joe Perry in the afternoon.  Both games were good, but the crowd were obviously more excited about the second game, something about the way Ronnie plays inviting a passion and a loyalty that the other players don’t seem to arouse.  True to form, he gave his fans an agonising wait for his eventual victory, conceding a frame when he only needed one snooker and dropping behind more than once.  The final frame, at 5-5, was very tense and great fun to watch.

Football will always be my first love, and I will never be able to feel about a player the way I can about a team, but £10 for seven hours’ play in the warm indoors is bargainously good compared to £25 for ninety minutes in the cold outdoors, not to mention how much closer to the action one can be at the snooker (we were even on TV).

I enjoyed it so much I’m going back for the evening session in Sunday’s final (less bargainously cheap, more exciting).  Look out for me on BBC2.  If I see you I’ll wave.