Friday, 14 October 2011

Behind Academy lines

You won't be greeted with a warmer welcome anywhere than the Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield.

Home to several of the games overseas stars, the Academy is a practice venue of the highest standards.

Opening its doors to its resident professionals, amateurs and anyone else who wants to stay sharp on the baize, this place is a credit to the sport.

Together Keith Warren and Gary Baldrey run a slick ship. They've been at their current home at the Sheffield United FC training academy for 12 months but were formerly based at the World Snooker Academy.

The most high profile star who resides here is world number four Ding Junhui but they also play home to professionals James Wattana, Xiao Guodong, Tian Pengfei, Li Yan, Liu Chuang, Passakorn Suwannawat, Dechawat Poomjaeng, Aditya Mehta and Lucky Vatnani.

Then there's the players who come down for regular practice sessions including Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty, Alan McManus and others.

OnCue went along to meet Keith and find out more about the Academy...

Tell me a bit about the history of the Academy...

We've been here a year, but the Academy has been going for more than seven.

We originally started it in Northamptonshire, in Rushden, just outside of Wellingborough. It got to the stage where I was looking after a number of overseas players, predominantly Thai players and part of my service was to sort them out accommodation, take them to the airports, take them to the tournaments and look after their lifestyle in the UK.

We had five or six players and it escalated to about a dozen, and I ended up using two or three clubs, because there might only be a couple of good tables in each. We even paid a couple of clubs to get decent cushions on their main tables. It got to a stage where ideally we wanted our own centre. We looked around at a few places and eventually found a nice building in Northamptonshire where we could put 11 tables in, and set up the Academy.

We were there for about three years and got approached by World Snooker. They had just struck an arrangement in Sheffield to keep the World Championship at the Crucible for another five years. They wanted to have a snooker academy in Sheffield.

At the time, we were the only academy and they asked if we'd be interested in relocating because there was no viability in doing the same thing in two places. We signed a contract with World Snooker to run our Academy in the Institute of Sport and up until last year, we were there.

When Barry Hearn came in, it was best to relocate again as there was going to be more tournaments in the Institute of Sport. This was when we moved in at the Sheffield United FC Academy. We've got 10 tournament tables here now and we keep them up to a very high standard.

You've built up a decent base of resident players here as well...

We've got about seven Chinese players including Ding Junhui. He's basically the top resident professional player at the Academy.

We've got four Thai players as well. There's James Wattana who has been their number one players for a number of years and there's also amateur Thananwat Thirapongbaiboon in that group. He's the World Under-21 champion and will be playing on the main tour next year. He's recently come over to play in a few PTC events to gain a bit of experience.

We've got a couple of Indian players and then a number of short-term visitors who come for a week or month to play.We've recently had a lad from Oman here for five weeks to get some experience and practice. He can't get that kind of play in his own country.

You find that a lot of these overseas players get to a level in their country but can't get any better because they're the best players and they just beat everyone and don't improve. We provide that extra test for them and supply the whole package of picking them up at the airports, housing them, bringing them in for practice, offering coaching and taking them to tournaments.

Does it benefit them that they're part of a bigger group of players based here?

Without a doubt, they all feed off each other. We've had a number of players come here, make a big improvement and go on to establish themselves on the main tour. It started off with the Thais but the Chinese players have really taken over the place.

A lot of that is down to Ding. Snooker has become a very popular game with the Chinese. He's been here nearly nine or 10 years now. He won the Asian Senior Championship at 15 to give him a wildcard to the main tour. He won three gold medals playing for China in the Asian Games in 2002 and has won the Asian Juniors. He was ready to play professional so came over, stayed with me and we looked after him. He has became part of the furniture in the Academy now.

Everyone would love to achieve what he's achieving. He's still got to win the World Championship but I'm almost certain that he will. It's the only tournament that's really missing in his collection at the moment. He's won the UK Championship a couple of times, he's the current Masters champion and he's just won the World Cup. The World Championship is the one that he wants now. He was close last year but Judd Trump was absolutely flying at the time. We thought Ding had done enough to break him down when he went 15-14 up.  Judd had thrown everything at him earlier in the match but, just when we thought he'd done enough to win it, he won the last three frames and there was nothing Ding could do about it.

He was very close to winning it and he's got himself over a little bit of a hoodoo with the Crucible after going out in the first or second match in his first few seasons. Hopefully next year, he can go all the way.

How good is the standard of these players? It feels fantastic watching them all.

All the Chinese and Thai players are absolutely awesome in practice and the sport's massive in that part of the world now.

There's looking to be four or five ranking tournaments there next season, and I'm positive a lot of it is down to Ding. He's a player who has come out and started winning the big tournaments and is now in the top four rankings in the world. They've not had that before and he's probably the third or fourth most famous sports star in China. He's a cult figure. He can't even walk down the streets without being stooped. That's why he's much happier living in the UK because he's got to superstar status over there.They flock round him for autographs.

You give the players a superb practice facility. What else do the resident players get?

We help them as much as we can. One or two of them have had English lessons, we start by taking them shopping to Tesco for their first weekly shop and then they get to a stage where they know how to do it themselves, but it all comes from us showing them the ropes.

We help them with where to eat, how to get around and the whole lessons of life. We help them become self dependent. It's like being a student at university and it's their first time away from home. The younger ones learn off the more experienced players after a while as well.

People talk about China going on to dominate the sport. How likely is that?

I think you have to say they're destined for domination in the sport. That doesn't mean to say it will happen but the amount of people in China far out numbers here, so by the law of averages, possibly in ten years' time half of the top 16 could be Asian.

There's a very good chance of that. There's 10 or 11 of them on the main tour now. Going back 20 years ago, there were no Chinese players. Then in 1992, Goh Hua from Guangzhou became the first Chinese players to go on to the main tour. He was one of the main reasons I got in to snooker actually. I was living in Blackpool at the time when World Snooker decided to open up the game at the Norbreck Castle Hotel. I put up a couple of the Thai players and this lad. That got me into the circle and one or two other Chinese players followed like Jin Long, Pang Wei Guo and Da Hai Lin.

The sport has really blossomed since then in Asia and they even teach snooker in schools. They take it pretty seriously.

Have you always been a snooker man even before that?

I got involved in snooker because of my best friend in school, Steve Meakin. He was a similar age to John Parrott and used to play in the big amateur game at the time. He lived down the same street as me from five-years-old and his Dad and brother were good players too. He became the best player in Blackpool, turned professional and got to the final of the English Amateur Championship but got beat by Parrott and was never quite good enough to make the grade. I used to go with him to tournaments, and that got me in to snooker.

How proud are you of what you've achieved here?

We're really pleased with the new home at Sheffield United FC Academy. When we left the Institute of Sport, we needed to find another credible venue.

We were leaving somewhere with a good feel for sport around the place. We were keen when looking for a home new to find something else with a sense of sporting excellence to keep that feeling about the venue. We looked round a few industrial units but it didn't feel right or special until we came here. It ticked all the boxes. It's got a great buzz about the place. Being here with a world famous football club fits in with stars of the future being based here.

What else do you offer for non-professionals?

We've got two or three coaches including my partner in the Academy, Gary Baldrey, who is a former professional.  He's the resident coach and we've got other qualified coaches who come here too. We do coaching days, gift experience days and junior camps. They're all very popular and we work closely with a lot of schools.

I hear you get a lot of professionals here for a knock as well...

You name the player. They all come here to practice as well. Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry are two. Sheffield is the home of snooker and players always need to be in the area. We offer all the facilities they might need. There's never a dull moment and that's exactly how we like it.

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