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Our Sporting Lives and Times with Joe Swail: 'I was inspired by Alex and the talent coming through points to yet another golden era'

Snooker legend Joe Swail on learning the game in Troubles-hit Belfast and what the future holds

Belfast landmark: Joe Swail outside the Titanic Centre ahead of one of his coaching sessions
Belfast landmark: Joe Swail outside the Titanic Centre ahead of one of his coaching sessions

Belfast snooker legend Joe Swail has hit the game's heights and intends to remain at the top table for the next chapter of his career. That will be in coaching after Swail called time on his 30-year professional career at the end of last season, just as he was about to turn 50.

Swail flew the flag as Ulster's top pro following the golden era of world champions Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor and before the emergence of the gifted Mark Allen.

And Swail is convinced the game has a bright future in Northern Ireland given the talent on show on his coaching programme, which he runs in association with Belfast City Council.

"There are kids as young as seven on the programme and some great young prospects," said Swail.

"The kids get a lot out of it. They love playing and they learn the etiquette of the game. The scoring system helps them improve their maths.

"Coaching has always been on the back burner in the past. I have had to put clients on hold and now that I have retired as a professional I can put all my efforts into it."

The man from the Markets reached successive World Championship semi-finals at the Crucible - in 2000 and 2001 - and also has a Welsh Open Final on his CV as well as a spate of Irish titles. He also made it into the world top 10, earning over £1.25m during his career.

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"Higgins and Taylor inspired me. I saw Higgins on TV when I was a kid and that was me hooked," he said.

And Swail is confident snooker is on the up under boss Barry Hearn, who caused controversy this week by introducing a big-money tournament in Saudi Arabia into the schedule. The game has also been hit my match-fixing allegations.

"Snooker is in good hands - Barry Hearn is doing a wonderful job," said Swail.

"In all my years as a pro, I was never approached to fix a match. World Snooker keep on top of everything. There are random drug tests too."

Nicknamed the Outlaw, after the similarly named Clint Eastwood character Josey Wales, Swail turned professional in 1991 after growing up in Belfast during the Troubles.

"I used to carry a cue case around - not the best thing to be carrying during the Troubles!" he smiled.

Joe Swail in action at the Waterfront
Joe Swail in action at the Waterfront

"My first memory is that there were barricades at either end of our street," he recalled.

"There were often soldiers in the middle of the road and barbed wire and dividing walls were all over the place. Even though I had a very happy childhood, because I was brought up really well, I grew up in an area where there was a lot of poverty.

"Bomb scares and hoaxes happened often. There was a lot going on. You would get a knock on the front door from the police and they would be telling you not to leave the house because it wasn't safe. We were used to it. We were used to gunfire and bombs. My brother and I got to the stage where we were fed up being cooped up all day, so we would hoof it over the back wall, go up side alleys and get ourselves into the snooker halls.

"We would go to spots on both sides of the religious divide and we were welcomed on both sides. We played snooker anywhere. It was a bit exciting, but they were hard times."

Swail feels he could have made more of his talent.

"All throughout my life I have been burning the candle at both ends. Whenever I felt I was partying too much during my career, I would get my head down again and the results would start picking up," he said.

"My lifestyle caught up with me. There is no way that you can get away with that. You need to be totally dedicated and sacrifice a lot of things to win titles.

"But I have absolutely no regrets. My father always used to tell me that I had underachieved and I take that as a compliment."

Health issues have also affected his ability to perform at the top level. He was born partially deaf, and more recently has developed tinnitus.

"Towards the end of my career the tinnitus really came to the fore and there were also migraines," he said.

"A viewer wouldn't notice anything but it really does impact on your ability to practise, let alone play matches. My hearing difficulties never stopped me from performing, but the tinnitus changed things.

"The older anyone gets the more things come in and take their toll. It comes to a stage where you can't compete any more and you get caught out. I couldn't explain things publicly because I didn't want to give the upper hand to my opponent. The pressure was beginning to catch up with me as well. Ever since I have packed it in I haven't had one bad dose of stress and the tinnitus is much better. That tells you everything you need to know."

Swail also revealed that he fought a crippling battle with depression - but now life is good again.

"I had been fighting depression. Snooker is very fickle, a game of highs and lows. I had stopped enjoying it - I had fallen out of love with it.

"Snooker triggers certain health issues. You bring snooker home with you.

"I had stopped practicing so I was under-prepared for tournaments. Then you are losing matches and it is a vicious circle mentally."

Swail added: "I had depression for a few years before I even realised I had it and although I wouldn't go as far as to say I was suicidal, it is a slippery slope.

"I sought help for it and luckily it was the right help.

"It is good to talk about your problems. It is so important to get the awareness out there, get it out in the open.

"The first step is going to see your doctor.

"I have at times used alcohol to try to defeat it but I never touched drugs."

Swail feels dropping off the professional tour seven years ago before regaining his place may have sparked his depression.

"There were a lot of things going on in my life but I felt I was too young to retire. It was around that time that I was diagnosed with depression," he said.

"I would describe it like being in a dark hole."

Swail said he has no doubts that retiring from the professional game was the right thing to do.

"I had had enough of the pro circuit, the constant round of flights and hotels. I just want to enjoy my life," he said.

"I am in a good place mentally at the moment."

He added: "Snooker is a pressurised situation. It is nice to have kicked off the shackles."

Belfast Telegraph


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