Blog: Snooker, Saipan and Exams – By Niall Ardill

The view across the green baize could be likened to a freshly cut lawn or a putting green at a local golf course, however the intricacies, focus and vision displayed by those tending the green cloth could never be replicated by mere amateurs.  Billiards, pool, call it what you want – they all have their fans, people who play for fun, to smoke and drink with their friends, to pass time, to win bragging rights, to hustle, bet, win money, however, not one amateurish local poolroom hero can come close to the skill displayed by those at a World Snooker Championship each year. The early 90s, the times of Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White were what first captivated me. I was young and impressionable and taken in by the sheer bloody-mindedness displayed by these great players. The guts of White, and the skill and guile of Hendry. Simply by winning, and winning consistently, Hendry forged the path of the villain, at least in my mind, White on the other hand, forever the entertainer but also forever the loser, took the role of the hero. Hendry would go on to be the Real Madrid, the Chicago Bulls, the Usian Bolt of the snooker world – 7 world championship wins. White, the perennial loser, would be the guy everyone wanted to win but could never quite manage it – 5 world championship final defeats in five years. These battles spiked not only my interest but that of my friends, my parents, their friends, and everyone else we knew – this was at that time a sport for the masses. Therefore, as a young Dubliner rose to prominence in the snooker world at the same time, people stood up, and people noticed, expectations were raised year on year that he might become the first Irish winner of the World Championships since 1984. A quarter final defeat in 1994 raised hopes, but two years of disappointment followed and in 1997, with some form in previous tournaments Irish eyes were still watching but primarily in hope rather than expectation.

At this point in time I was a couple of years into my secondary school education. Failure at school was never an option, not necessarily for me but for my parents and the school itself. Internal school exam failure was met with disdain, the definite possibility of repeating during school holidays and the added dread of repeating a whole year! This meant, facing the prospects of end of year exams the week after the Snooker World Championships finals was a major issue. The final itself always takes place on the same Monday every year, the May bank holiday, with school resuming early Tuesday morning. The proposition of facing back into school after gorging on more snooker in 4 weeks than people from the Balkans would see in a lifetime was not appetising. Questions about study, homework, exams and all related topics from my parents were easily passed off – there was only one thing that really mattered and that was Ken Doherty versus Stephen Hendry in the World Snooker Championships final. To highlight the significance of this match to the Irish people we can look at crime rates, the largest and most central police station in the largest city in Ireland, Dublin, with a population of 1.5 million people received not one report of a crime on the night of this match. People were glued to their TV sets, every ball that was potted was cheered, every miss bemoaned. According to the bookies there could only be one winner, and that of course would be Stephen Hendry, 6 times world champion – seeking his lucky number 7. However, it was a different type of luck that was operating that night, the luck of the Irish and Ken Doherty was crowned world champion. A new hero was born! The next morning as we returned to school and faced our English exams there was nothing else for discussion but what had taken place the night before. As we took our seats in the exam hall there was an air of giddiness from what had just happened but a sense of nervousness knowing that there had been little preparation for the exam that lay in front of us. As I opened the booklet and looked through the paper a smile came over my face, the essay title read, ‘Write about your hero.’

The following year, Ken repeated his jaunt to the world championship final but was defeated and the issue of sport and exam clashes didn’t reoccur until my final year in secondary school. The Irish school system operates a very stringent and strict state examination process at the completion of secondary school. These exams are independently graded and results provided by the Ministry of Education, rather than your school. These results are then calibrated with a points system and you can then apply to universities, colleges and other third level courses depending on your overall score. It is supposed to be clear, objective, eliminates fraud and so on so forth, which, in fairness, it is in most cases but on the other hand it is god damn complicated!

My final year of school studies, the world is at my feet, which courses to apply for, what do I want to do, which university, which town or city, who will I live with, all these things run through my head and more. And then my mother’s worst nightmare happens – Ireland qualify for the football world cup in Japan and South Korea. Study plans go out the window, last minute tutorials that were planned are forgotten about; or at least that is what my mother was expecting. In fairness to me and my group of friends, we had a good study group and every evening after school we would work together and get things done. There was a constant effort to work towards the end goal and keep the wheel turning. Then disaster hit!

Saipan. A small group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody had ever heard of them before, nobody outside of Ireland or an incredibly studious football fan has heard of them since. They should probably have never entered into the consciousness of an 18 year old Irish kid just about to sit his final school exams prior to setting off to college. The happenings on this small tropical island may never be fully understood but the consequences created a civil war-type atmosphere among the Irish public. The Irish football captain, Roy Keane, arguably the greatest player of his generation, the most expensive player in the Premier League when signed by Manchester United, the accolades go on and on, had been sent home from the pre-world cup training camp in Saipan. This reverberated around Ireland like a cannon shot echoing in a darkened forest. The recriminations and accusations were wild, internal breakdown of relations, standards not been met, fighting amongst the players. This was a golden generation of Irish footballers, hopes were high. The core of this team had won the UEFA U-16 and U-18 European Championships and finished 3rd at the U-20 World Cup just a few years previous. As I said hopes were high, but Keane was the heartbeat of the team. He made them tick. He was the defensive tyrant in midfield who ignited attacks while dismantling the opposition. Ten days out from the first game, dreams were in tatters and study plans went out the window. All that mattered now was whether Keane would return, or not, and how the hell would Ireland fill the void left behind.

First up, Ireland v Cameroon – Saturday morning, perfect – no exam clash. . Ireland v Saudi Arabia, late afternoon, not bad – finish the exam and dash to the nearest TV.  And there it was, Ireland v Germany – slap bang in the middle of our English paper. Why always English?! Ireland 1 – 1 Cameroon, Ireland 3 – 0 Saudi Arabia, it had all come down to the last match. The match we wouldn’t see. Ireland needed a minimum of a draw to progress. To concede a goal would mean Ireland would need to score against Germany at the world cup – that could never happen, could it?

As we filed into the exam hall there was a nervous hush, not because of the impending exam and the overbearing proctors that looked down upon us. But because the match that we all wanted to see would soon kick off and there was absolutely zero chance of us seeing any of it. No toilet break for the first 30 minutes, after this point I leave the exam hall to walk the 50 metres to the bathroom hoping to meet someone to notify me of any goals. The news is not good, Germany had scored. Ireland must draw, they now need to score against a team who had scored 10 goals in their previous two games and conceded none. I hastily returned to the exam room, spread the word among my classmates under a scornful eye of a supervisor who offered a stern warning and stated that talking was not allowed. I somehow got back to work and got stuck into the poetry section of the paper. Half time came and went, surely if Ireland scored they would tell. As the 3-hour exam wore on, it became clear to everyone in the room that Ireland were still losing 1-0 and the game must be nearly over. And then it happened, a ROAR so loud that the entire room of 150 students jumped. It could only mean one thing, Ireland had scored. The nearby teachers’ office had sent a loud and clear message, followed moments later by a second roar – more in satisfaction and relief rather than celebration indicating the game was over and Ireland had got the result they needed. And indeed, it was Keane who scored, but not Roy – it was Robbie, a 22-year-old future Irish captain proving his big stage credentials.

Exam times are stressful, but they are also joyful as they are sign we are moving on to the next stage of our lives. We can enjoy them and also learn from them in more ways than answering the questions that are put in front of you. It is a time to learn how to manage time, put plans in order, organize our lives in way that leads to success, or at least what you deem as successful. Every one of us has different expectations when it comes to life, some of us want to be the best, some of us want to be the best we can be which although sounding similar is very different. Reaching ones potential, gaining equal reward for the effort put in to any task is all that we can really expect. Therefore, if you don’t work hard or strive to be the best then you shouldn’t expect to become the best, to use an agricultural analogy – you reap what you sow.

I finished my state exams approximately one week after that infamous match in Ibaraki, South Korea and continued to meet sporting occasions in the middle of exam time throughout my college life. These are types of challenges we meet on a daily basis, setting our priorities and goals, will later enable us to meet expectations that we set for ourselves. we can overcome difficult tasks and develop an ability to make decisions that impact, improve and allow our life run much smoother.

For those that are interested – Ireland lost to Spain on a penalty shoot-out in the next round and Roy Keane eventually returned to play for Ireland in April 2004.