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Back on black: We profile snooker player Joe Swail

By Frank Brownlow

He was one of the most popular players in world snooker when he lost his professional card three years ago, aged 43. Now Belfastman Joe 'The Outlaw' Swail is back with a vengeance and his renaissance is the stuff of fairytales.

Joe Swail is one heck of an advert for laser eye surgery, spending as he has the last week putting some of snooker's finest to the sword.

Incredibly, Swail had the procedure carried out just over three weeks ago and then, against all the odds, battled his way through to the last 16 of the £750,000 UK Championship in York.

Throw in the fact that, at 46, Swail was one of the oldest players in the tournament and also that three years ago he had lost his professional card, and it is clear his run to the latter stages was the stuff of fairytales.

Swail was thought to be approaching his peak when in 2000 and then 2001 - yes, the turn of the century - he reached the semi-finals of the World Championship at the Crucible.

In a part of the world where snooker has such rich tradition thanks to Alex Higgins - world champion in 1972 and 1982 - and Dennis Taylor, whose black ball victory over Steve Davis in the 1985 decider has become legendary, Swail appeared the natural successor to the two Ulster greats.

But it never quite happened for the man from the Markets.

Swail never quite managed to make the big breakthrough that his talent would so readily have justified and for the last few years Antrim's Mark Allen has been firmly established as Northern Ireland's number one player.

Swail slipped off the professional tour in 2012 and that seemed to be pretty much that.

The man known as 'The Outlaw' - from the film 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' - became more involved in coaching.

And what a turning point that was to prove.

"I got into the coaching side of things and that gave me a different insight into the game," Swail explained.

"It's great working with kids and seeing them improve.

"Coaching is something I would be keen to do a lot more of in future. It's a way of putting something back.

"Coaching helped give me back my love for snooker.

"I got myself going again and I decided to give it one last go," he added.

"I turned pro again, but it wasn't an easy decision.

"At the start, things didn't go great and I wondered why I had bothered.

"You have to try and make a living and it's not easy.

"I wondered if there was any point in putting myself through it all again.

"But my family backed me all the way.

"Experience helps a lot, but there is no substitute for putting in the hard work.

"I've really stepped it up over the last six or eight months and I am starting to get results."

And Swail is also sure that the fact he is back living in Belfast is also a major factor in his renaissance - with world number 11 Allen just half an hour up the motorway.

"With Mark close by we can get in some quality practice as he, like me, took the decision a few years ago to return from England.

"Mark has been a massive influence on my return to form.

"I've been practising hard with Mark, as well as working hard on my own and just enjoying my game," said Swail.

Swail is confident he still has a few years left at the top.

"I'm delighted with how things are going.

"I have put in a lot of hard work and it's paying off. I am working at my game and getting a bit of confidence. Mentally, I am a lot stronger.

"There are a lot of good players and all the matches are tough. There are certainly no easy games.

"I am enjoying the game and that's the most important thing.

"I fell off the tour a few years ago and I felt there was no way back. But I got into the top 64 and am now provisionally 45 or 46.

"I had the most important win of my life when I came back from 9-5 down to beat Dominic Dale 10-9 in the World Championship qualifiers last year.

"That kept me in the top 64. I wouldn't have kept going if I wasn't in the top 64.

"I should definitely get another few years on the tour.

"I am really looking forward to the rest of the season. I don't care who I play at the moment," said Swail, who beat Joel Walker 6-0, Adam Duffy 6-5 and Michael Holt 6-1 before going down 6-3 to world number 24 Martin Gould in the last 16 of the UK Championship on Thursday night.

"It's disappointing, because it's not nice to lose in any match, but I'm taking a lot of positives out of it," said Swail.

"It has been a big moment for me and it has been a massive stepping stone, considering where I've been in the last few years.

"There's no way I can be too disappointed about this and there are things I really want to work on when I get home.

"I'll have a lot of practice games with Mark and I'm looking forward to the rest of my career, however long that may be.

"I'm giving these young ones a good game and I'm enjoying it."

Swail is now gearing up for the Gibraltar Open next week, where he faces Ben Woollaston in round one.

And he admits that is a bit of a different prospect after the biggest tournament on the snooker calendar outside the World Championship.

"The Gibraltar Open is a wee bit of a change after the UK Championship, but I'll get back to basics and start practising again next week," added Swail.

"I'm going to go and enjoy it - if I have a run there then that's great, but if not, at least I get a holiday out of it!"

Swail will also squeeze in qualifiers for both the German Masters and World Seniors before Christmas.

"I am working hard, my eyes are good and off the table, life is good," he said.

"I had laser treatment on my eyes about three or four weeks ago. I was worried about how it would affect my game, but I needed to get it done. But everything went really well.

"I'm playing with a smile on my face and I don't care whether I win or lose, because when I put pressure on myself it stops me playing my natural game," Swail explained.

"I know at the age of 46 I'm not the youngest around, but age is just a number to me.

"I'm putting in the quality practice and the most important thing for me is I'm enjoying what I am doing and if you can take that into the arena then you'll reap the benefits.

"It's only a few years ago I thought I was done with snooker, but since then things have fallen into place."

Swail, who has captained Northern Ireland in the Nations Cup, is congenitally hearing-impaired, but believes that may give him an advantage in snooker.

"It lessens the effect of crowd noise," he explained.

That came into play at the UK Championship, which has a multi-table set-up.

Even the World Championship operates with two tables in use right up to the semi-final stage.

Swail had a mini revival when potting his way to the decider of the 2009 Welsh Open, his first ranking final after 18 years as a professional.

"I thought I'd missed the boat in the mid-90s after messing with my game, and all the parties.

"People have been going on about how many semi-finals I've lost in for 15 years, which has been annoying," he said.

But despite not quite landing the World Championship, Swail has enjoyed a fine career, amassing prize money of well over £1m.

"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."

Joe Swail has this week proven beyond any doubt that he can still cut it.

The amazing story of the man from the Markets still has a few more chapters to run.

A life so far...

Name: Joe Swail

Age: 46

Lives: Belfast

World ranking: 57

Highest ranking: 10 (in 2001/2002)

Nickname: The Outlaw

Career highlights: World Championship semi-final 2000, 2001; Welsh Open final 2009; Paul Hunter Classic final 2012; Strachan Challenge winner 1992; Irish Professional Championship winner 1992, 2005; Irish Classic winner 2009

Prize money: £1,196,249

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