PSB Interview: The Big Neal Foulds Interview: Part One

Newcomers to snooker could be forgiven for being more familiar with Neal Foulds as one of the game’s leading commentators but next week the former world number three will be in action on the table once again as he takes on Dene O’Kane at the 2011 World Seniors Championship in Peterborough.

Click below to read part one of my recent chat with Neal in which he looks ahead to that event, as well as back at his professional career…

PSB: Hi Neal, so it is eight years since you last hung up your cue but next month you will be back in action again at the 2011 World Seniors Championship. How did that come about?

Neal Foulds: I have played snooker all my life, from a young age. When I grew up I was 12 and Jimmy White was 13 so we go back that far playing over at a club in Neasden. Jimmy lived on the other side of London but he used to come over, not necessarily to play with me but I used to rub shoulders with him.

So when I had decided that I’d had enough of the game then I was more than happy to put the cue away and move on to other things. I was only 39 years of age so I didn’t feel that I was too old to do other things outside of playing because snooker was all that I had ever known. There was not only the commentary but a few other things such as horse racing, another sport which I enjoy.

Obviously it has suited players like Mike Hallett or Tony Knowles to play on the Challenge Tour but it didn’t suit me. I knew that when I put my cue away that would be it and it has been it. Alright I am playing in the seniors, but I’ve got no real interest in the practice side of things.

I was asked though if I would play in it and I got the invite so I thought why not? Whether I will regret it afterwards remains to be seen really, it depends how I play.

PSB: I remember you saying as well that your cue has just sat there with the same tip on it since when you last played?

NF: It has, although I must admit I have played three times since my retirement. I had a game last Wednesday week, I had a game with a pal of mine that I work with and I had a game with a guy that I used to coach and after about seven or eight frames the tip fell to pieces, it had just crumbled away so I had to put a new tip on, so I have got a new tip on now!

Jimmy White: On form ahead of title defence

So yeah I have probably played I should think 25 frames of snooker since I’ve packed up and that has all been in the last couple of weeks so I’m not exactly the most dedicated of all time at the moment! But I am enjoying it, I’ve not had a century break yet, hopefully that will come.

I saw on Twitter that Joe Johnson should have made a 147 the other day and Jimmy White made five centuries in a match so good luck to them, they are ahead of me!

PSB: It’s funny, when I saw Jimmy play against Tony Drago when they opened up the main table at the South West Snooker Academy it was phenomenal the way he played. It just shows you how different it is in competition to an exhibition doesn’t it?

NF: It does actually, he is still very capable is Jimmy there is no doubt about that, he has still got all of the shots but I think that half of snooker is mental and if you lose that sort of confidence, that edge of superiority that you can get, then you haven’t got a lot left.

All that Jimmy lacks at the moment is something that he never used to lack and that’s confidence. He actually lacks that now and it’s just an age thing isn’t it? The older you get, your ego sort of shrivels up a bit and you don’t expect it. I know one thing, Jimmy White at his best can still play snooker not far off what he did years ago but it doesn’t happen very often now. It’s there in there but it’s just a question of it will come out there sometime and it will cause a bit of damage, but it will probably disappear as quickly as it comes.

PSB: Very true. Going back to your practice, how have you found it? Is it like riding a bike or has been hard to get back into?

NF: Not bad. The first time I played I was pretty woeful but I’ve not played too badly since. I don’t think that it would take me too long to get back to the standard that I was playing at the end but the fact is the standard that I was playing at the end was the reason I retired. I can still play to a good level but not high enough to compete.

The fact is if I packed it in eight and a half years ago because I wasn’t able to win, eight and a half years without a game isn’t going to make me a better player. That would make no sense otherwise everyone would be doing it wouldn’t they!

I love the game and I love watching and commentating on the game, but from a playing side of it I have had my share of that and I am happy to sit and watch the others.

But as I say I’ve taken up the challenge. I don’t hold out a lot of hope but we shall see! I’ll try my best, that’s all you can do really.

PSB: What do you think of the event as a whole now? Obviously the age limit has gone up to 45…

NF: You know what I think the age limit should be 50, that’s my belief. It would exclude me and a few others because I don’t think that it should be for main tour players, but if you can still be on the main tour at 50 then you deserve it.

In golf I think the age limit is 50 as I understand it from Phil Yates anyway and in snooker it should be 50 and over. The standard might not be that high but I am a believer that is right and it should be set.

Tony Knowles

You had players in it last year who were old enough and now they are a year older they are too young to be in it which is a bit unfortunate. I know what Barry was trying to do; he was trying to get a few of the old fogies out of their zimmer frames and playing again so I think that 50 would be a good age.

Next year the likes of Jimmy White, Steve Davis would be eligible, Mike would be eligible, Knowlesy, Dennis Taylor…these are the guys that they are trying to encourage.

I think that any of the players like Ken Doherty or Dave Harold have got a busy enough season so they can take a week off while the seniors are on I would have thought.

PSB: So Dene O’Kane first up, what are your memories of playing him back in the day?

NF: We used to practice a lot together. I think that we played in Junior Pot Black many years ago when I was about 17, 18 years of age so 30-odd years ago. I’ve known Dene that long.

He used to come into the club in Ealing which we used to practice at and we would play quite a lot. We used to try hard for a small amount of money, maybe a fiver or a tenner. It wasn’t the money but the handing over of the money that would have hurt! We played the odd match against each other along the way but not that many.

Whoever wins it matters not to me. It’s about resuming old friendships really, that’s the nice part. I was disappointed that Alain Robidoux has had to pull out because he has had some kind of operation but he is someone that I used to be very fond of as well and it will take you back for a while. It’s more the meeting up with old pals and seeing them again, that’s how it should be treated. There will be one or two players with big intentions to win it; I would have thought tour players would be the only ones in contention to win it…

PSB: Ah that was going to be my next question, obviously a lot of people have been tipping up Darren Morgan as a dark horse…

NF: I think Darren can still play a bit but he’s probably a few points behind the others. In short frames Darren will still be a determined so and so, he’s another nice bloke who I have known for years.

Dark Horse? – Darren Morgan

I think Mike Hallett to be honest was a little bit unfortunate to draw him as looking at the scoring for that match it looked fit for a main tour match. I think Hallett made a 60-odd break in the last frame and Morgan cleared up so the standard they played at was in a different league to anyone else in the qualifiers I should think.

The method of selecting players wasn’t really that clear. To be honest with you if I had been excluded or made to qualify or whatever then it wouldn’t have bothered me. Surely this is mostly a bit of fun isn’t it? There is enough serious snooker taking place at the moment. The right time for this to be taking place would probably be at Christmas actually, during that time of year when anything goes.

PSB: Looking at the other players you have got Karl Townsend and Steve Ventham involved…

NF: Yeah Steve Ventham played in Junior Pot Black, I think he beat Stephen Hendry in that as a junior player. I haven’t heard of Steve though in 20 years, he was a very, very good junior player he really was. He wasn’t quite Ronnie O’Sullivan but he was an exceptional junior player. I believe he turned professional but he didn’t do anything as a pro. It’s weird; he has gone from being a good junior to becoming a senior player with nothing in between. It’s bizarre really!

As for Karl Townsend, I have known him since he was a little kid. I’m surprised that he is over 45; he must be on the borderline just about. He’s a good league player from London and I also know his brother Wayne who too was a professional.

Karl is playing exactly the same standard now as he has all his life really so I don’t think that he will have great designs on winning it and yeah the general public will know nothing of him, but I know him really well and I’m pleased for him.

Each match is a different kind of game really and for the two guys who will be, him and Ventham…while I suspect there will be a few wisecracks in the other matches, that one will actually be a very serious match so they can double their money and go from there. That’s an odd match really in the context of the rest of the tournament.

PSB: What’s the prize money structure like there?

NF: I think it doubles up and goes from a thousand to a couple of grand for winning your first match I think so you never know. In best of 3’s anything can happen so someone like that might be looking to pick up a bit of prize money. I do feel that from Barry Hearn’s point of view perhaps he would have liked to have had Mike Hallett in there or even Tony Chappell but you can’t have everything. The only way you could do that would be to seed the qualifiers and maybe he will do that in the future to avoid someone like Hallett missing out which is a little bit unfortunate if I’m honest.

Missing Out – Mike Hallett

But what can you do, Barry is all for sexing the game up, open draws, timed clocks…you have just got to take the rough with the smooth. Sometimes it works out and other times it doesn’t.

PSB: Like you say, Morgan against Hallett was probably the worst draw wasn’t it?

NF: It probably was, they were probably the best two players in qualifying although Gary Wilkinson would have something to say about that.

PSB: Looking back on your career you were one of the lucky or unlucky people to be playing in both of the Davis-Hendry eras really, what was it like to be a top professional during that time?

NF: As you say I was lucky and unlucky, it’s a good way of putting it really as I suppose I was lucky enough to play with the two arguably great players of the game.

I grew up through the Davis era. My best ever period of play really was probably leading up to the final of the UK Championship in 1986 where I had some great results. I’d knocked out Cliff Thorburn easily, I’d beaten Jimmy White, I had beaten John Parrott in the semi-finals comfortably and then in the final I ran into Steve Davis over two days which the UK final was and he strangled the life out of me, beat me 16-7. I had started off by winning the first two or three frames and things were going well but then he just got to grips with me and put me firmly in my place as they say. I was a top player then but he was better.

Stephen Hendry & Steve Davis

So I went through the Davis era and then I went through the early days of Hendry. I played him aged 16 in the Mercantile Classic and beat him 5-4. I didn’t realise how good he was. He had beaten Silvino Francisco in the previous round and I was pleased that he had got through rather than Silvino thinking that I was better off playing Hendry but I soon realised how wrong I was. I managed to beat him 5-4 and had to make one of the best breaks of my life in the deciding frame to do so. Probably the last time I beat him to be honest, he beat me a lot of times after that!

I’m probably as qualified as anyone to decide who the greater player of the two was. I don’t know the answer but I played them both during their peaks. That was the era that I played snooker in.

PSB: John Parrott was another around at that sort of time wasn’t he?

NF: He would have been in exactly the same boat yeah. I’ve known John since we toured Zimbabwe as amateur players aged 17 and we played in the British juniors and all those sorts of things.

The reason John’s game lasted longer than mine did is that his cue action was a bit more solid than mine; it had a bit more longevity. When I had run out of steam after 12-14 years, John was still hitting them through the middle of the ball five or six years on so that would be why John did better than me generally speaking. There was a spell when there wasn’t a great deal between us though.

PSB: Who would you say were the top players that you played during that era, other than obviously Hendry and Davis?

NF: Obviously there are the two that we know about, Hendry and Davis were tough. But there were other players that played it tough, Cliff Thorburn was extremely tough to beat.

The next toughest player though I would say is one who is often forgotten about, he was obviously invited to the seniors and is one of the greatest players of all-time and is Terry Griffiths.

The Griff

He beat me twice at the Crucible and he was extremely tough to beat. He was tight and played things slow, though he could actually play quicker if he wanted to. I think I saw him win the Scottish Langs Supreme or one of those invitationals where he had enough of playing so he was almost running around the table, so he could do it.

Terry was supremely talented and a good friend of mine off the table, but hard as nails on it so if you could name someone that people have forgotten, he was one of the great players, one of the toughest and one of the guys I respect most both as a player and a commentator.

PSB: At the Crucible he kept running into Davis every year didn’t he?

NF: Yeah he had a shocking record against Davis. I played him twice at the Crucible and he beat me both times and that was when I was quite pleased with how I was playing, so the answer to that one is probably the Griff!

PSB: Early 90’s you had your class of ’91 coming through so to speak, such as Peter Ebdon, John Higgins, Ken Doherty, Alan McManus…

NF: Yeah I didn’t have too many battles with Ebdon but McManus was a tough player that I had a very average record against. He beat me a lot and he was one of these guys who you felt that he was going to be the inexperienced player, a bit like Stephen Lee really in that you would play him and expect to out-think him and beat him on tactics and find that the one thing they could do is tie you up in knots.

Angles Alan McManus

The reason that happened is that snooker was so watched on the television that there was an era before that were nobody really watched top class snooker being played and everyone used to go for all of the pots. Then though there was a breed of players that came through who were tactically astute having watched top class snooker for years. They had learned it from watching others so immediately they had an all-round game from the outset.

PSB: How would you say you felt about your achievements as a whole, obviously got to world number three, won a ranking title and a number of invitationals…

NF: I think that my best achievement was coming back really. I had dropped out of the top 16, went down to number 20 and everyone had written me off, said that I must have had off-table issues, and nobody had ever really come back from there at that stage. Players now like Joe Swail had done that but I was on the way out, had gone off the bottom of the page for a year.

But I got myself up to being in the top eight in the world again, top five two years later and sometimes it is forgotten that I did that and that I stayed in the top 16 for a couple of more seasons. It was a bit like Mark Williams but not quite as dramatic in that I didn’t drop down as far as Mark and I didn’t go up as high as Mark but I feel that maybe having got a second go at it having felt like I was going to be stuck in the qualifiers for the rest of your life, I maybe did enjoy it more. I did win in Dubai during that time as well as the Scottish Masters.

I had only won the one ranking tournament but I went on a bit longer than I think people remember me for really which while it doesn’t really matter that people thought that it was the end of me after 1987, I did make a comeback and I was a more rounded character on and off the table after that.

PSB: And obviously at the time you were part of the Matchroom mob, Barry Hearn’s stable at the time, how was that experience?

NF: Yeah it was good. I mean there is no way of dressing this up, I was meant to be with Barry for five years but we ended the contract amicably a year early. I could say it was the best experience of my life but the fact remains is that it didn’t necessarily work out for either of us.

Barry Hearn

However we never, ever had a fall out over it, we were always friends and I think he’s one of the great guys in the game. I enjoy seeing Barry, he always asks me how my mum and dad are and he is almost an old family friend.

But the fact is we had a five year contract which I ended a year early because on both counts it didn’t work out, but it was completely amicable and I have great memories of touring the world with Barry with Matchroom friends and so on, so I have no regrets really. But the fact is it could have gone on longer than it did.


Check back later in the week for Part Two of the interview during which Neal casts his eye over the current state of the game, his commentary career and looks ahead to the fast approaching climax to the Premier League as well as the UK Championship.