Snooker: Cue king Gary has world at his feet

It used to be said that the sign of a misspent youth was the failure of today.

It used to be said that the sign of a misspent youth was the failure of today.

Hanging round snooker halls peering through wispy smoke and an alcoholic haze was sure to wreak revenge in later years.

However, that was then, when I was but a callow youth, and this is now.

Gary Wilson has hardly wasted his formative years. He's the World Under-21 snooker champion and destined to become a millionaire if his startling progress continues.

Only 19 this very month, Gary is about to join the main professional tour and share the green baize with such well-heeled superstars as Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan. Misspent youth indeed!

However, Wilson arrives at his local social club in High Howdon with the casual air of a typical teenager carrying a large plastic bag advertising a supermarket chain. From it he pulls the gleaming silver world championship trophy he won recently in southern Ireland, a status symbol that already bears the names of luminaries like O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty and Peter Ebdon. He plonks it on the snooker table nearby and grins.

This fresh-faced young Geordie knows what he's achieved and where he's going but is determined to combine dedication with a realisation that life can still be fun. He plays snooker with a fearlessness that is a heady mix of youth and conviction.

Ever since he was eight years old and could hardly see over the top of the table, Wilson has been destined to stand apart.

Stan Chambers, a class one referee and local coach, turned to the little kid and his dad on that fateful day when they walked into his club and declared in typical Geordie: "If you're not a world champion one day son I'll stand tappin'!"

Chambers, proud of the part he's played in the development of a special talent, knows his prediction has already come true but is now looking for it to become the ultimate world crown.

Wilson was so good Chambers almost immediately put him into the High Howdon team performing in the North Shields League - but some CIU clubs refused to allow him to play because they had a rule barring women and kids from their premises.

That Chambers was chairman of the league at the time - he's president now - carried no favours. His protege was barred.

"The truth was that Gary was too good and their players didn't want to be beaten by a bairn," sniffs Chambers. "It was a way of getting him out of our team."

Gary laughs at the memory: "Aye, I could play all our home games, of course, but I missed quite a few away because I was barred. Some social clubs can be funny like that whereas others allow kids in accompanied by an adult even to only watch snooker - as long as they don't drink pints!!"

The precocious ability hidden inside a tiny frame saw Gary appear three times on Jim Davidson's hugely successful Junior Big Break on national telly, mixing easily with the stars.

He played exhibition matches with John Parrott and Willie Thorne and defeated top performers Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan in level matches, without the advantage of being given a start. "I beat Jimmy at Darlington when I was 12 and Ronnie at the Arena in Newcastle a year later."

Wilson went on to twice become the UK Under-18 champion, and successfully played on the Challenge Tour last season before his world crown and elevation to the world ranking tournament circuit this term.

The spiky-haired Geordie is about to embark on his magical mystery tour on September 8 when the British Grand Prix qualifiers are launched in Prestatyn, North Wales, which he jovially calls "my second home."

Two days later he flies to Hong Kong, all expenses paid for a change, to take part in a six-day tournament offering $3,000 for the winner.

Wilson explained the snakes and ladders board of snooker progress that he's steadfastly climbed throughout his teens.

"I was on the Challenge Tour last season and finished fourth out of 128 players, which is what got me my ticket on to the world ranking tournament circuit," he told me. "To do that at 18 years of age is something I'm proud of and it provisionally gave me a world ranking of 84th.

"The main tour is for the best 96 players world-wide but to make an impact - and to make money - I have to qualify for the television stages of the big tourneys. For the first one, the Grand Prix in the Guild Hall at Preston, I only have to win two qualifying matches whereas usually it's four, so I'll be going all out to make an immediate impact."

People may see Pontins as a holiday camp but for Wilson the one in North Wales is a workplace, a centre where dreams can come true.

"All the qualifying tournaments are held there and I'm also taking part in a festival week of snooker starting on September 17," smiled Gary. "I get invited to the staff parties now!"

Of course, before the dream of fame and fortune became a realistic possibility there had been - and still is to a certain extent - genuine hardship for a lad from a working-class background. Being a full-time professional snooker player is like being a footballer. There are vastly varying degrees of financial success. Chester is very different to Chelsea.

The big money still has to come and that means dedication and sacrifice remain the by-words for a teenager who would normally be travelling through the early part of life that brings recklessness and uninhibited adventure.

"I practise four hours a day for six days a week and then play most nights," explained Gary. "I get the summer off competitively but I still have to keep ticking over.

"Yeah, I've got to give up a lot of things teenagers like to do but my mates understand if I have to refuse a night out because of a big match the next day."

Somehow Wilson has found time to have a girlfriend, Gemma, whom he met in Newcastle five months ago.

"She understands what snooker means and how it dominates my life," he said.

Indeed, she would have to because a desire for success burns deeply in Gary Wilson's soul.

Gary Wilson factfile

QAppeared on Big Break at ages of nine, 11 and 12

QMade first century break as a nine-year-old

QBeat Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan at age 12 and 13

QWon North East Under-16s singles at 12

QWon first pro-am at 12

QHighest competition break 145

QWon NE Ranking event at age 14

QWon English Under-18s National at 16

QPlayed for England Junior team at 15

QWas chosen to captain his country the following year

QSeptember 2002 - was selected to play for England at senior level

QFebruary 2003 - qualified for final of National Under-18s

QWon UK Under-18 National tournament for second year running

QSelected to play for country in Latvia at European Under-19s

QSelected to play for country in World Under-21s in New Zealand

QWon first Golden Waistcoat tournament in Northampton in August 2003

QSelected to play for England senior team at Home Internationals (Prestatyn) in September 2003

QMarch 2004 - secured place on main professional tour, enters world top 96

QApril 2004 - reached quarter-final of European Under-19s

QAugust 2004 - won World Under-21 Championship in Ireland

QAugust 2004 - invited to play in invitation in Hong Kong

QSeptember 2004 - starts on main professional tour

Sponsorship deal is key to success

That Gary Wilson should become a world champion at 18 years of age - three years inside the restrictions of birth - may be a monumental achievement.

However, he could have been crowned World Junior Snooker Champion a full 12 months previously but for a little matter of £3,000.

Because the Geordie cue master was invited to take part in the championships of 2003 but was forced to decline through a lack of ready cash to finance his passage to New Zealand.

"It cost around 10 to 15 grand to allow me to be a full-time pro at the age of 16 or 17," estimated Gary. "When I won the UK Under-18s crown in Plymouth, my expenses exceeded my prize money.

"Of course I would have loved to have gone to New Zealand, for the honour, for the professional opportunity, and for the chance to see a country on the other side of the world.

"The only time I've been abroad was when I went to Latvia for the European Under-19 Championships."

Spurred on by Wilson's failure to make the trip of a lifetime, Gary Astley of Planet Snooker - Gary's other team on Tyneside - began a sponsorship drive that has ended spectacularly in a £10,000 one-year deal with Transmore Van Hire, a company based in Stockton, that, says Astley, means that Wilson and his parents "don't have to pay for a burger, hotel or a drop of petrol."

Gary was crowned king of the snooker kids on an epic night at the Ivy Rooms Snooker Club in Carlow, south of Dublin.

He defeated Thailand's Kobkit Palajin 11-5 in one of the most exciting finals ever staged. "I surged into a 3-1 lead with breaks of 53, 100 and 61 and though Palajin levelled, I took a 6-4 interval advantage after firing a break of 135," Wilson revealed.

At 6-5, Gary turned the screw, winning five frames in a row including a wonderful run of 142 in the 15th frame to equal the championship's highest break and the gleaming trophy was his.

Earlier, Wilson breezed through the round robin stages, winning all seven of his group games dropping only two frames, and, with such a near perfect record, started as the No 1 seed going into the last 32 knockout stage.

He proceeded to waltz past Scotland's 19-year-old Mark Owens 5-0 but then in the last 16 had to face the current IBSF World Under-21 champion from India, Pankaj Advani. With breaks of 54, 73, 79, 47, 52 and 48, Wilson soon demolished the Indian's hopes of retaining the title.

Next was another of India's bright young prospects Adjitya Mehta, who led 3-1 before Gary roared back by winning the fifth frame on an excellent re-spotted black and clinching the match when taking the 10th.

The semis brought yet another opponent from the Far East, China's Liang Wen Bo, with Wilson holding a slender 7-6 lead before splitting the reds to develop a break of 98, only missing the last pink, to end the frame and book his place in the final.

Twenty-one countries were represented but it was an Englishman, one of our own from the banks of the Tyne, who triumphed in spectacular fashion.

My Big Break at the Crucible

When a tiny tot walked into the Crucible, the cathedral of world snooker, seasoned stars eyed him suspiciously.

But after a few minutes on the big imposing tables of the World Championships, Terry Griffiths realised that the nine-year-old boy with a total lack of nerves was a potential star in the making. And, a decade later, Griffiths was the first man on the phone to congratulate Gary Wilson on becoming the World Under-21 Champion.

It had all began casually enough when his coach Stan Chambers received a phone call from the WPBSA, snooker's governing body, asking if he knew of any good young players. They wanted possible contestants for Junior Big Break and were looking for lads around the age of 14, 15 or 16. When Chambers suggested a nine-year-old they considered calling for the men in white coats!

However, urged on by Chambers' claims of total sanity, it was decided that Gary could go to the Crucible for an audition.

"The producer of the show was in and I was put on a practice table," recalled Wilson. "Stan informed me that these tables were faster than I was used to and that I shouldn't bash the balls. My head was just above the level of the table so I fired with my arm straight which amazed Terry Griffiths, who was also watching.

"I wasn't nervous, more excited. It was a terrific experience. All the stars were hanging around the place. I went into the media room and there reading the paper and having a cup of coffee was Stephen Hendry, who was my hero because he was always winning the world championship. He spoke to me. I was dead chuffed.

"I was on the telly show three times and got a lot of exposure."

Mini gift that started it all

Gary wilson was little more than a baby when he was bought a mini snooker table for Christmas and an obsession was born.

He loved it, played relentlessly, and began avidly watching the sport on television.

"By the time I was eight, I told dad I wanted a big table," recalled Gary, "and he took me along to the local social club, which is where I met Stan Chambers."

Perhaps the fixation came from not having a brother or sister of a similar age to distract attention.

"My sister is 11 years older than me, so I had no one to fight," laughed Gary.

Parents George and Margaret have remained steadfastly supportive of their son's desire to reach the top of a demanding sport.

However, Wilson doesn't come from a family steeped in snooker. Dad played pool and enjoyed watching the sport but "he was never totally consumed as I am."

Debt I owe Wood

When on the threshold of lasting glory it is good that a sportsman should remember those who helped significantly in times of hardship.

So it is with Gary Wilson, who is only too willing to lavish gratitude upon the late George Wood.

A distinguished amateur champion, Wood ran his own snooker club in Gateshead and came to the rescue of a kid oozing talent but not money.

"Stan Chambers told George he had a good lad and George said to take me over," Wilson recalled. "He wanted to have a look and it ended with me being given as much free time on the tables as I wanted. I went over to Gateshead from Wallsend literally every day.

"Backing doesn't always come in hard cash. I reckon I received thousands of pounds worth of table time from George Wood and without it I wouldn't be where I am today."

 

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