Alan McManus interview: 'I came close to quitting snooker, the sport I love'
Snooker renaissance man Alan McManus tells Desmond Kane that his unheralded run to the semi-finals of the World Championship is close to the highlight of his career, but would never have happened if he had made good on plans to retire from the sport he loves.
Young at Heart. When Alan McManus last stepped into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to contest the semi-final of a World Championship, in a galaxy far, far away in 1993, a time when Facebook was not even a figment of someone’s imagination, Scottish band The Bluebells were number one in the British singles chart with Young at Heart.
An astonishing 23 years later, the rejuvenated Scottish snooker player, nicknamed 'Angles' for his command of green baize geometry, is today remarkably back at the same juncture of the sport’s grandest tournament. McManus is very much young at heart, body, mind and spirit in this snooker story of the ages. It is fair to say, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
For McManus, life begins at 45. Then his opponent was Stephen Hendry, now it is Ding Junhui – a national sporting icon in China attempting to become his country’s first world champion - over the best-of-33 frames for a place in the final. McManus is the oldest man since Ray Reardon, then 52, in 1985 to contest a semi-final in these parts.
The way he has eclipsed Stephen Maguire, Ali Carter and John Higgins to wash up in the last four has allowed one of the sport’s supreme strategists to revisit some of his peak form from the 1990s, a moment in time when he made off with the Masters by overcoming Hendry at the old Wembley Conference Centre.
Everybody loves an underdog. It is almost as if the 300-1 qualifier has been embalmed in time by the raw linseed oil used to protect snooker cues from natural deterioration. Time will not weary him.
"It is close to the highlight of my career," McManus told Eurosport. "For the second half of my career, this is the highlight. Probably by a huge distance. "
“To reach the one-table stage at the Crucible and to get through against Stephen, John and Ali here is a pretty decent effort.
“I just want to go out and play well. Whatever happens from now is a bonus, but I still want to win.”
Alan McManus returns to the last four.Eurosport
Ding was only six back in the Chinese province of Wuxi and had not picked up a cue when Scots McManus and Hendry were being cheered into the Crucible by a bagpiper. It was a time when cigarette manufacturer Embassy’s name was synonymous with the tournament, and players and patrons were allowed to revel in snouts inside the Crucible.
After his win over Carter in the last 16 on Saturday, McManus was more in need of a shisha pipe than a smoke to ease the tension after being forced to the penultimate frame. He told me afterwards that he might allow himself one beer, but that he was off back to his hotel in Sheffield to watch Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer.
“It’s pretty thrilling, it really is,” said McManus. “I’m grateful, and thankful that I’m still here and still playing.
“It’s going to be good fun over the next few days playing Ding because he is a special little guy coming from Wuxi in China, which is a million miles away from here, to establish himself as one of the game’s best players.
“It will be an absolute pleasure to play him. I admire the top players for who they are and what they do out there. Basically, I’m out there trying to copy them.”
Fools rush in where Angles fears to tread. While two-times finalist Carter and four-times world champion Higgins both blew up in the death throes of their matches, McManus has grown stronger. He was 11-9 behind Higgins, but played immaculate snooker in the final four frames compiling runs of 71, 52, 128 and 60 to overhaul a figure who is one of his best friends in the sport.
“The reason I’m here is because I can play a bit. I potted a few balls when I had to. I’ve hung around most of the matches,” said McManus.
“I thought to myself take it deep, take him into the trenches, and that is sometimes where I can do my best work.
"I feel fresh and I’ll stay out there as long as it takes. You’ll need a scraper to get me off the table - which you could have had because it’s been snowing here."
McManus has not so much turned back the clock as used the Crucible as his own tardis to take us back to the early 90s when he seemed likely to win the world title. One recalls watching a joust between twentysomethings McManus and Ken Doherty at the Crucible when both men were being described as future world champions.
Of course, Doherty reached his destination in 1997 with a rare win over Hendry in the final, but McManus – stuck slap bang in the middle of the Hendry halcyon period – never did. Despite being a constant in the world’s top 16 for most of the 90s, McManus’ best at the Crucible was two semi-finals against Jimmy White in 1992 and then the "Wonder Bairn", a figure he somehow outlasted to win the Masters in 1994.
Yet McManus’ career appeared on a downward spiral when he failed to qualify for the Crucible between 2007 and 2012 as his ranking drifted to as low as 55. With lack of tournaments blighting the sport, six at one point, McManus thought about retiring from the game he continues to adore. He has been witnessed more on TV as a pundit working for Eurosport and ITV in recent times.
“I’ve thought about it down the years, and I’ve thought about it quite recently if I’m being honest,” said McManus. “You think should I keep playing, but the fact is I still enjoy playing so much, I do enjoy it and I enjoy practising.
Alan McManus is back in the World Championship last four - pic Tai Chengzhe (World Snooker).Eurosport
McManus cites the appointment of Barry Hearn as World Snooker chairman in 2010 as one of the reasons why he has found renewed energy, welcoming a calendar bursting to the seams when players can enjoy some sort of competition with over 20 tournaments suddenly dripping off the world tour.
“When Barry Hearn came in, the game was really drifting into obscurity,” said McManus. “But he has breathed new life into it, and I thought this will maybe give me a bit of a kick up the backside and a kickstart for the sport.
John Higgins congratulates friend Alan McManus.Eurosport
“So when the rewards are there and the tournaments are there, and you have the chance to compete, you’ll put the effort in.
"And I have put the effort in over the past few years to keep on the tail of some of the younger lads who are mad keen. I love that. I’m still keen as mustard. And they have kept me going. "
So what does playing on one table for the Crucible's grand finale mean to a snooker player? A lot when you recall last year’s champion Stuart Bingham breaking down in tears after he reached those heady environs when he defeated Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last eight.
“Stuart, the great champion that he is, showed what the one-table set-up meant to him when he was in tears after beating Ronnie,” said McManus.
“It is a special thing. There is not a player who doesn’t want to play on the one table at the Crucible.
“Everybody wants to become world champion, but before that you have to play on the one table. It is very difficult to describe what it is like to play out there.
“A lot of people would pay a lot of money to play a bounce game out there. I get to go and do it for free. I’d play a few hundred quid to go out there."
"Money is a by-product to potting balls. I don’t think about money. That’s why I’m here. I’ll play to win. People will be surprised, but nothing is impossible as we’ve shown. "
“Looking back, when I last reached the semis, I didn’t know at the time it was too early for me because it was only my second or third year as a professional.
“Which is unheard of now. It just doesn’t happen to get to the semis at the Crucible so soon. Look at Ding, this is only his second time in over a decade. It’s been a long wait, but it’s been worth it. I’ll definitely remember this one.”
For McManus, the golden year follows the golden years. These are the days of his life.
From Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre