Snooker: Young star plays for pro future

John Astley takes on all-comers at Dudley Social Club near Cramlington tomorrow.

John Astley takes on all-comers at Dudley Social Club near Cramlington tomorrow. For his opponents it will be a bit of fun or a chance to prove their worth against one of British snooker's rising stars. But for the 18-year-old it is crucial to his attempts to crack the professional game, writes Stuart Rayner.

As the national Under-19 champion, a title clinched with a 5-1 win over London's Michael Georgiou at Sheffield in May, Astley has demonstrated his potential but it will mean nothing without the finances to go with it.

Fortunately for Astley, his father Gary is a snooker promoter out to raise £10,000-£12,000 so his son can turn professional with a series of exhibitions like the one tomorrow.

"If you haven't got the funding or a mad dad you haven't got a chance," Gary says bluntly. "People are judged on their ability to pay instead of play. I've probably raised around £40,000 in the last three years. I did the same with Gary Wilson from Wallsend who won the World Under-21 Championships on the back of money we raised for him. It's only now I've started doing it for my own son.

"I wouldn't like to say, `Sorry son, you can't play'. As a father if you had to rip your arm off for your son, that's what you'd do." Under those circumstances, John could be forgiven for feeling under immense pressure to succeed but insists that is not the case.

"I left school two years ago and decided to take it full-time," he says. "It was quite a big decision. My mam wasn't sure, she thought I should maybe go for a bit more education but my dad always had belief in me to make a career out of it. Practising every day is starting to pay off.

"As well as my dad's support it also costs a lot just to enter competitions and pay for your accommodation. We have such a good relationship. He doesn't put pressure on me, he just tells me to enjoy it."

John's name made the papers earlier this month after an incident in one of Gary's fundraisers. An exhibition at Spennymoor featuring Alex Higgins and Jimmy White was abandoned after the former allegedly punched the referee. Although Astley's name was plastered in the local and national Press, Gary did not regard it as positive.

"I'm trying to promote snooker generally and it was a bit like Eric Cantona jumping into the crowd was for football," he reasons. "Obviously things like that don't help but that's Alex Higgins."

John's Sheffield success has made his fifth year of competitive snooker by far his biggest.

"Because I won the Under-19 Championships I'll be playing for England Under-21s in the Home Nations in September," he explains. "Hopefully I'll represent England in the World Under-21 Championships. If I win that I'll turn professional the following year, so that's one of my aims.

Entry tomorrow is £5 with anyone who plays John given a 20-point start. For tickets or information contact the social club (0191 2500582), the event sponsor, Borderline Taxis (0191 2501476), or Gary Astley (07974905147).

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer