'It felt like a needle going into my forehead': Ken Doherty on life in snooker lockdown

Snooker isn't the draw it was during its 1980s heyday but eyes have been drawn towards Milton Keynes this week where the inaugural Championship League is providing a rare supply of live sport after weeks of lockdown and inaction.
'It felt like a needle going into my forehead': Ken Doherty on life in snooker lockdown
Ken Doherty during his match with Ricky Walden during the 2014 Coral UK Championship at the Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 1, 2014. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Ken Doherty during his match with Ricky Walden during the 2014 Coral UK Championship at the Barbican Centre, York. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday December 1, 2014. See PA story SNOOKER York. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Snooker isn't the draw it was during its 1980s heyday but eyes have been drawn towards Milton Keynes this week where the inaugural Championship League is providing a rare supply of live sport after weeks of lockdown and inaction.

Players, officials, and broadcasters are isolating during the event, staying at a Hilton Hotel which is part of a complex comprising the MK Dons' stadium and the Marshall Arena where the snooker is unfolding over an eleven-day period.

No-one will be there longer than Ken Doherty who will take in the entirety of the run as a commentator and as a player. The former world champion checked in last Sunday and he has opened up to the Irish Examiner about life in sporting lockdown.

Had you any reservations about going over and what was the trip like?

“I was a little bit concerned about going over but I thought that I would be coming over and getting tested and I would know either way. If I tested positive I would have to go into quarantine but it was a little chance that I took. It was worth it.

“I got here on Sunday. I came over from Dublin Airport and it was completely empty. Everybody had to wear masks on the flight. It was quite funny. One woman got on in a spacesuit thingy. She had this visor and a mask underneath so that was quite intimidating.

“The plane was only half-full and there was nobody sitting beside me but it was different up the front where there was no social distancing. There was eleven carriages on the train and only four people on it so that was great, I had a full carriage to myself. That doesn't happen normally.”

How did the Covid-19 test go?

“It's not very pleasant. They stick the swab right down the back of your throat and then you're gagging a little bit. Then they're sticking the other end of it right up your nostrils - and I mean right up. There was tears coming out of my eyes, it felt like a needle going into my forehead at one stage. You have to do it to get the clearance.”

How has it been to be isolating like this?

“It's very strange, The way they have it set up is amazing, You come into the hotel and get tested and go to your room. Your breakfast comes in a brown paper bag to your door, your lunch the same, and then a sandwich in the afternoon.

“Your test comes back first thing the next morning, you get a bracelet to say that you're clear, and then you can walk down to the venue which is attached to the hotel and commentate, which I'm doing for most of it. The other players come for one day and leave once they're done playing.

“Players who their group can leave and come back but they have to be retested then.”

It must feel surreal at times?

“There's arrows everywhere to the venue in case you get lost because it's a big hotel. Everything is blocked off with barriers and tape. There are certain areas you can't go. There's a couple of floors completely out of bounds. The hotel and venue are superb, ideal, and I think they're going to hold the Champion of Champions tournament here in October or November. It's a perfect venue for a snooker tournament.”

Life on the road and in hotels is nothing new to you but is this much harder?

“The only difference is you can't get out for a bit of fresh air. There is an outdoor area next to the bar, which is closed, where you can chat to other players. The only exercise I'm getting is walking around the practise table, or from my bedroom to the venue.

“Thank god for Netflix. I'm going through all the docuseries. I just finished 'The Last Dance' with Michael Jordan. Oh, my God. That was absolutely fantastic. You don't have to love sport to watch it. I don't know much about basketball but the story and the behind-the-scenes footage is gold.”

What has the tournament actually been like with no fans there to watch?

“Like any sport, you'd love to have the crowd there for the high breaks and the clapping and the interaction but this is one of those sports with the focus just on the main table for most of it so it still looks good on TV.

“I watched it on TV and it looks good but you do need the crowd. Hopefully things will change between now and the World Championships that, even if there is some social distancing, they will let a certain amount of people into the Crucible. The players need it as much as the crowds.”

Only a handful of players had access to tables at home through the lockdown so what has the quality been like?

“A lot of the players are a bit rusty at the moment but as the tournament goes on the standard will definitely improve because players haven't had a competitive match since Gibraltar back at the end of March and they haven't been able to get into their snooker clubs to get some practise.”

***

Doherty is one of 64 players competing across 16 groups of four. His group takes to the baize on Sunday. First up for the Dubliner is Kurt Maflin before a clash with world No.2 Neil Robertson and he finishes off against Ashley Carty.

Each match consists of four frames. Only the winner of each group progresses.

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