Joe Swail: Love of snooker was my cue to return
Joe Swail has been glued to the coverage of the World Snooker Championship, back in love with a game that was his life for so long.
Swail was so nearly one of the select band of players competing at the Crucible, winning five qualifiers before falling at the penultimate hurdle.
But Crucible or no Crucible, Joe Swail is back.
Just 12 months ago it looked all over for one of snooker's most popular players as he slipped off the professional tour and into what was, certainly for a former world number 10, the oblivion of the amateur ranks.
Swail, by his own admission, had long since fallen out of love with what had been his profession for over two decades.
This was a man who had reached the World Championship semi-finals twice as well as appearing in the final of the Welsh Open, amassing prize money of over £1m during a career that marked him down as the natural successor to Ulster legends Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor.
But, at 42 years of age, the snooker door seemed to have closed on the Belfast cueman.
What a difference a year makes.
Swail has been beating the professionals left, right and centre, and was a revelation at the World Championship qualifiers.
And he can't wait for the new season to start at the end of this month, a two-year pro card safely tucked away.
"I have my love for the game back and I am going to give it my best shot," said Swail.
"When I fell off the tour I thought that was me for good.
"My game was in tatters – I had no confidence. I was on the verge of jacking it in.
"It just hadn't been happening for me for two or three years. That was very frustrating as I had been putting the work in. But the mental side of my game just wasn't right.
"So I began playing in some smaller tournaments as an amateur. That showed me I could still cut it, but I didn't get carried away.
"Then I had the run in the World Championship qualifiers which was good for my confidence."
Swail, who grew up in the Markets area of Belfast idolising the legendary Higgins, is congenitally hearing-impaired.
"It lessens the effect of crowd noise but there are downsides to it as well," explained Swail, who is confident his amazing story may still have a few chapters to run.
Snooker boss Barry Hearn's revamp of the game could work to Swail's advantage.
Hearn's new plans will see all players enter most tournaments at the first round stage – something that has angered the elite top 16, particularly Ulster's world number six Mark Allen.
Swail said: "I can see why the likes of Mark would not be happy about that.
"He has worked hard to get into the top 16 and now one of the big advantages of that (a place in the last 32 of tournaments instead of the last 128) is being taken away.
"But it should suit me because I have more experience than most of the players I could face.
"It's great for players like me – it provides an opportunity to fly up the rankings."
Swail puts his new found love for snooker down not just to a very good season as an amateur, but also to his other passion – coaching kids.
"It's great working with kids and seeing them improve," he said.
"Coaching is something I would be keen to do a lot more of in future. It's a way of putting something back."
And something else Swail would like to do in future is return to the Crucible to play in the World Championship.
All eyes have been on Ronnie O'Sullivan during his title defence after a self-imposed exile of a year.
But although O'Sullivan has made it through to the semi-finals, which start today, Swail says lack of match practice may hinder 'The Rocket' as the tournament reaches a climax – something the Belfast man feels worked against him in the qualifiers.
"My lack of match practice eventually caught up with me," he said.
"You need to be competing day in, day out.
"With Ronnie having been out for so long, it could catch up with him. The other players have been involved in hard matches all year.
"But Ronnie is unique so he could go on and win it," he said.
Swail will resume his professional career at the end of the month when he plays in the qualifiers for the Wuxi Classic, a tournament won by fellow Ulsterman Allen in 2009.
"I'm raring to go and just can't wait to get started," said Swail, with even more enthusiasm than the kids he coaches.
The World Championship ends on Monday.
But this is a new beginning for Joe Swail.