Back in 2005 I was lucky enough to attend my first live snooker tournament at the Crucible Theatre at Sheffield and one memory from those 17 days was the terrific run of Preston’s Ian McCulloch who made it all the way to the semi-finals of the tournament. I am therefore pleased that six years on I have been able to chat to Ian for PSB about a number of topics such as his career to date, his friends on the circuit and life after professional snooker…
PSB: Hi Ian, how are things going at the moment as far as your snooker is concerned, are you happy with the state of your game?
Ian McCulloch: I’m always happy with my game. I very rarely play poor really but the standard of the game is so high that playing well doesn’t always guarantee a win, but I can’t remember the last time that I genuinely played badly.
PSB: You had the great run recently in PTC5 where you reached the last 16 with wins against Marcus Campbell, Nigel Bond and Tom Ford…
IM: Yeah I got a last 16, I mean to be fair I’ve got a pretty good record against both Marcus and against Nige who I think I have lost to about once each but the way the game is now you can beat them 4-1 and they can beat you 4-1 the day after.
I lost to Andy Higginson in the last 16 and 4-0 looks like a bit of a trouncing but I was in nearly every frame and just one or two little things either way could have made a difference but they didn’t and Andy went on to win it. He’s a great player and he played really, really well.
PSB: Obviously now you have slipped out of the top 64 now, how confident are you of staying on the tour now for next season?
IM: To be honest it’s not life or death, my health comes before anything else and you can’t drop from being 17 in the world to outside of the 64 unless there is something wrong. I’ve had a couple or operations that haven’t helped so if I stay on, I stay on and if I don’t, I don’t. Snooker is not life or death to me, I do enough outside of snooker so that it’s not a worry if I do drop off but you know I’ll be trying my best to stay on.
PSB: Was it neck and shoulder problems that you had?
IM: Yeah I’ve had a couple of operations on my shoulder which have been connected to my neck and my back so I have had a few recurring back problems and the reality is that I keep having treatment for it and it’s going away, but as I keep practising it’s coming back. The reality of it is that it’s not going to go away, I’ve just got to try and keep on top of it.
PSB: Looking back over your career it has taken an unusual trajectory with your best snooker coming in your early 30’s with two ranking event finals and strong runs at the Crucible in 2004 and 2005…
IM: Yeah, I don’t think my best snooker came then as I had always played really well in practice before that but I probably wasted the first ten years of my career thinking I was doing everything right when I was really doing everything wrong.
I was working with a good coach who I still do bits with now and I wish I had worked with him a bit sooner, also I have worked with Graham Slater the sports psychologist who was very, very good. I wish I had gone to see both of those lads, Mick Caddy and Graham at the start of my career.
It didn’t surprise me when I got to the final in Telford one bit [2002 British Open], I had been scoring nine or ten tons a day prior to that but I just wasn’t doing it in matches and on TV.
PSB: Why do you think that was?
IM: I don’t know really, if you look at my track record on TV and who I played I always seemed to run into Stephen Hendry, John Higgins or Ronnie O’Sullivan so it’s difficult to get them wins when you are playing on the TV and not getting out there that much. The first guy that I ever beat on TV was John Higgins which tells it’s own story doesn’t it?
Ian in action at the Crucible in 2005 against Graeme Dott
PSB: What were your memories of making the semi-finals at the Crucible back in 2005? For me it was a special tournament as it was my first live event and I remember standing at Stage Door and you asking me what time it was funnily enough, but obviously it was also more memorable for you!
IM: You know to be honest everybody goes “oh you made the world semis, didn’t you play well” and so on but although I played well against Mark Williams in the second round, apart from that I just ground it out.
I beat Graeme Dott and then I played Alan McManus in the quarters who is a quality, quality player and people say that “you should win that” but Alan is as hard as nails and I had a bit of luck, nicked a couple of frames that I had no right to win to put me 11-5 up when it could have quite easily been 9-7 or 8-8. At 11-5 they can’t win, you have got to lose it.
I was obviously very disappointed to lose to Matthew Stevens in the semi-finals because when I got there I fancied winning it you know.
PSB: Would you say that was one of the highlights of your career or would it have been one of the other finals or something else?
IM: No, to be honest I have been so fortunate and have a million and one games that have been highlights you know what I mean. I have always seemed to be involved in stupid games on TV, like the clearance against Graeme Dott from 60 behind in the decider at 9-9 at the Crucible and I beat Peter Ebdon from 5-0 down, 9-8 at the UK Championship one year.
At the time I beat Mark Williams in Sheffield I played fantastic, in the middle session I could have had six tons and I think I made three or four so I have been involved in loads of great games so they have all been highlights.
PSB: Obviously that semi-final was good and bad because although you were able to crack the top 16, Shaun Murphy’s title success meant that you would still have to qualify for venues. How much of an effect do you think that had on your career after that?
IM: I don’t think that it had any effect to be honest, what Shaun Murphy did was nothing to do with me, why should I worry about what somebody else has done? People forget the year before that Graeme Dott got to the final and he was outside of the top 32 and he had to get back into the final to get back into the top 16 so it didn’t affect me one bit. It was that summer when all of the problems started with my shoulder and sadly things just went from bad to worse.
PSB: Then obviously you beat Dott two years at the Crucible and hung on inside the top 32 for a bit before you started to drop down…
IM: I wouldn’t say that I hung on Matt! I was never in the low 30’s and I was close to getting in the top 16 a couple of times but the reality is that you can’t stay up there forever, it’s impossible but I got to number 11 provisionally after the Grand Prix final which is as high as you can go really. You can only go ten more places to get to number one. Inevitably you are going to slip back one day, sooner or later.
PSB: So what do you think to the changes to snooker at the moment, obviously there are so many more events but then you have some complaining that there are too many with all of the expenses and so on…
IM: I think that the reality of snooker is that it has never been a charity, if you are good enough then you will earn money out of it. I can’t have any complaints; financially snooker has been very, very kind to me.
There are some players at the moment who have never been on TV and are saying that they should be earning more money and things like that and I think that there are one or two small changes that could be made to those PTCs, especially the European ones.
Overall though I wish that these events had been around ten years ago when I was playing really well because they are a dream to play. All you want are playing opportunities and to feel like a player and the PTCs do that.
PSB: And you have done quite well in the PTCs haven’t you? Couple of quarter-finals last season, last 16 earlier this month…
IM: Yeah, I mean PTCs are hit and miss, you lose in the first round or you get to the quarter-final. If you look at Barry Pinches last year who did really well but then couldn’t win a game in a ranking event so they are great playing opportunities and you have just got to take them on face value. You can lose to anybody and you can beat anybody.
Follow Ian on Twitter @bigmc147
PSB: Obviously now you have got other interests too, on Twitter the other day you said that you have been doing in-play work for William Hill, how is that going?
IM: I’m really very fortunate with that. I’ve done stuff with William Hill for four or five years now and it has got better and better – it’s good. I’ve always been into betting, I understand the betting game inside out and to work for a firm like William Hill who are one of the biggest in the country is not only a good job but it’s a privilege to work for them and I like to think that it’s my name in the game that has been why they have got me to do that.
PSB: What is it exactly that you are doing, commentary?
IM: Yeah, my main sports are snooker and darts, I absolutely love my darts so whenever the darts is on and the snooker is on I go over and do a bit in the studio, the shot prices are changing all the time and we’ve got about 20,000 listeners generally so we are trying to give the punters value and try to win them a few quid.
PSB: Is there anything else at the moment that you are doing alongside your playing career?
IM: I’ve always done a lot of exhibitions, a lot of dinners and I work with quite a few companies to get lads wearing their company logos. We’ve had a few nice touches like that with kids winning tournaments wearing the company logos.
To be honest Matt I’m in a very happy place, in quite a privileged place really. A lot of players come to the end of their careers and look back with nothing but regrets. I’ve got no regrets at all if I drop off the tour. I’m still earning more out of the game now than most people will ever earn and it has been very kind to me.
During the 2004 Grand Prix final
PSB: If you did drop off which hopefully you won’t, you could still play the PTCs as well of course…
IM: To be honest Matt if I did drop off then I wouldn’t play the PTCs. I couldn’t put the effort in just for 12 PTC events. I’ve been a professional for 20 years, I’ve had a good career and I’m busy enough doing everything else that it’s not imperative to play anymore.
PSB: Would you give the Q School a bash?
IM: No, no point, if I’m not good enough to stay on then I’m not going to try and get back on. I’m not a dreamer. There are players playing for the wrong reasons, because they need the money and stuff like that but I’m quite privileged that I don’t need to put myself in that position.
Even if I stay on, the way my health is I’ve got two young children. I don’t want to have another operation and end up not being able to use my shoulder and spend time with my kids when I get to 50 because I can’t use my arms. I want to enjoy family life, I’ve missed a lot of my children growing up as I have worked hard for the last 15-20 years and I want to enjoy the time with my children.
PSB: Has the injury come from playing or is it just one of those things as far as you can tell?
IM: I’ve done a lot of cycling as well as playing long hours. Anthony Hamilton who is a good pal of mine suffers from a very similar thing.
It has probably just come from hours and hours of practice, but not just that as I would practice during the day, go out and play exhibitions at night, turn up for tournaments and then in my free time I would go out and do 30 miles on my bike hunched over the handlebars.
You don’t know, 99% have never suffered from anything so you just don’t know. But you can’t change anything so there is no point in worrying about it.
PSB: You said recently that instead of playing in PTC6 you were in Switzerland, was that an exhibition?
IM: Yeah, I’ve got some good friends out there and we have gone out there for a long time and played a little tournament and did a bit of coaching. I do quite a bit with a young 15-year-old lad out there who is showing quite a bit of promise, had a 142 and 30 odd tons out there in matches.
Alexander Ursenbacher hits a 108
He’s going to come over here next year and I will be very interested to see how he goes on. His name is Alexander Ursenbacher and you can watch him on YouTube making a hundred break [see above]. He has got a very good attitude. You can work him hard when you coach him and he never moans. If you have got a good attitude then you have got half a chance.
PSB: You are on Twitter now, how are you finding that?
IM: I’ve just been laughing my head off all night, tweeting with a mate of mine Paul McCulloch. It’s not really my sort of thing to be honest but my mate got me into it two or three months ago and to be fair I’ve had a bit of work off it so I can’t complain.
It’s comical, I can see why people get addicted to it as I’m not really into the Facebook thing or anything like that but yeah it’s good fun. To be honest the people that I follow are more my mates than anything, obviously I follow the snooker lads as well but also just my mates out of snooker like Paul who is the funniest lad I’ve ever met, he’s just had me in bits tweeting. I don’t spend all day on it like some people but it’s good fun for 10 minutes in a morning and a bit at night.
PSB: Looking forward to the rest of the season, UK’s coming up of course…
IM: Yeah I’m playing good, I had a 147 in an exhibition last week. Dave Harold has been up today, we’ve had two good sets, playing Dave tomorrow down at his, going to Ireland on Thursday and then obviously we have got a busy run into Christmas so yeah, looking forward to it!
PSB: We were talking about Dave Harold on Twitter the other night, has he been a good friend of yours on the circuit down the years?
IM: Yeah he has been a very, very good friend. Dave probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, he’s a quality player. He’s like 44 years old now and he’s hard as nails. He’s not quite the player that he was but a lot of the younger lads who are on the tour probably won’t remember Dave when he was at his best, he was a phenomenal player.
‘Hard as Nails’ – Dave Harold
PSB: Is he still the lowest ranked player to have won a ranking event? I think he is…
IM: Possibly yeah, I mean he got to number 10 in the world, I think he was a bit of a bogey player for Hendry at one point as they played 15 times and Hendry won 8 which is not a bad record to have is it? If anyone wants to learn how to play percentage snooker, playing the right shot at the right time then you watch Dave Harold, he’s the master at it.
PSB: Who else would you say are your good friends on the circuit?
IM: I see a lot of Ricky Walden, Anthony Hamilton though not as much now as he’s in London. Nick Walker. We don’t see each other aside from tournaments other than a few nights out with Dave. Rod Lawler too, good pals with him. I’m lucky really that I’ve got some good pals who are players.
PSB: So Ireland next?
IM: Yeah I’ve got a very late flight on Thursday and then play Bondy [Nigel] who is another good mate. It’s hard when you are playing your mates but you have just got to get on with things.
PSB: He’s another good player isn’t he?
IM: God he’s just quality through and through. Quality player, quality person you know what I mean?
Next up – Nigel Bond
PSB: Yeah it was a shame for him that he lost at the World Championship qualifiers as he was playing so well but lost a close one there to Andrew Pagett
IM: Yeah the standard is so high now, it has moved on so much from what it used to be. I don’t think that the standard at the top has got that much better over the last three or four years.
It’s still obviously very, very high and the players are top drawer, but the standards further down. It’s like the young kids, they know it all now, they get all the tricks, they are used to playing on the tables and the financial side of the game doesn’t justify how good the depth is because there are a lot of good players who aren’t going to earn a penny out of the game.
It’s not because they aren’t good players, it’s just that they aren’t good enough.
PSB: Do you think it’s because now as players are going up they can see so much of it on the TV compared to previous years?
IM: It’s not just that because when I was a kid I played on the club tables and as soon as I turned pro I bought myself an Aristocrat but look at young Chris Norbury who was 10-years-old and was growing up on an Aristocrat and they knew all the tricks. That’s just how it is though, it evolves, not just snooker but every sport.
PSB: Yeah, as you say the darts as well…
IM: Yeah nobody averaged over a hundred before Taylor came along and now everyone who wins a tournament averages over a hundred.
Thanks to Ian for his time and he is next in action at PTC8 this weekend when he plays Nigel Bond on Friday 21st October 2011 at 11:00am in Killarney.