LARRY RYAN: Crumbs from the table

It was a week when ignominy visited great cue men. Steve Davis was ducked in a New South Wales lake then banished from the jungle before a chancer from The Only Way is Essex; a parable of snooker’s current standing in public affections.

To think Steve, like many viewers, missed the UK Championship for this.

On the same evening, some of the Nugget’s old pals from his pool dabblings went into the devil’s parlour at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas and won the Mosconi Cup for Europe with a day to spare.

Such was the mauling, the home commentary box was heavy with introspection. “What has happened to the American game of pool and America?”

Devotees will want it to go ahead anyway, out of interest, but Ryder Cup 2014 is not needed now; the pressure is off Paul McGinley.

There is nothing these people can do at Gleneagles to scrub the shame of an 11-2 spanking at 9-ball.

But you could take little pleasure in it. Because America has long turned its back on its great cue men too. And this felt like a requiem for a way of life.

It certainly felt like goodbye to Earl the Pearl, one of the very last unsanitised sporting heroes.

You’ll know Earl Strickland as a three-time world champion and five-time champion of pool’s old world; America.

The man who climbed onto the table after winning in Cardiff in 2002 screaming. “King of the world now, ain’t I?”

You’ll know him from tirades and smashed cues or from the fans, referees and opponents who have been offered the opportunity to settle things outside on the street.

Or you mightn’t know Earl Strickland at all. And soon you’ll know nobody like him.

Bipolar, belligerent, often unsporting; the Pearl is a throwback to days when snooker also leaned heavily on geniuses whose behaviour wasn’t always that palatable.

But Earl knows himself only as the greatest. “I’m one of the greatest athletes America has ever produced, whether the general public has acknowledged it or not,” he told us, in a documentary broadcast on Sky to coincide with his return to the US team after a three-year absence from the Mosconi Cup.

USA captain Johnny Archer likened Earl to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. But the Pearl wouldn’t like to be dragged down into such mundane company.

To him, only one test worth passing has ever been set. “The only thing I know that’s harder than pool is dying.”

Earl will get some argument on that one, from sceptics who can’t see beyond small tables and big pockets. Some will tell you they can take on two or three pints and still not miss.

But the same characters invariably find they start missing after four.

Those are the fine lines we are dealing with here. If you’ve held a pool cue, you’ve probably enjoyed that fleeting feeling you can play the game. But like all the most democratic sports, it takes true genius to make that feeling last.

We don’t play much 9-ball here since we know the price of everything. And there is no value for money in a game that can finish off a golden break.

But in many ways, it is pool’s purest test. Accumulate all the balls you want; it’s no protection against missing the nine. Maybe that’s where Earl got the death comparison.

He faced it a few times, in the hustling era of ‘strongarm guys’ who held the gun to ensure their ‘road agent’ saw the colour of money.

The best players didn’t play tournaments because your face got known. But then Earl won one and everybody stood and clapped. He’d never heard that before. “People don’t clap for gamblers.”

Then his face got known. And his mouth. Earl had a lot to say at the Mirage too, too much for Sky. “Sorry folks, for obvious reasons we just can’t turn up the microphone on Earl Strickland.”

He sneered at the Europeans’ conservative shots. He wanted the sport reconfigured there and then. “Take the side pockets off the table.” He railed. “If my team played better I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

By standard measurement, he was a disgrace. Afterwards Archer spoke sadly about the need to be more of a team. And you felt we mightn’t be seeing Earl again, unless ratings collapse altogether.

But you allow old heroes lament fading powers. When their old stage is collapsing too; that’s a lot to take.

Earl once won a million bucks for running out 11 racks in a row. But his money is gone and his sport’s is too. He is back hustling in New York for ten bucks a rack.

“I would have been proud of who I am. But that’s gone. I don’t understand how you can let this game die. I don’t understand how my own country can desert it.”

His final lament will be echoed by all the great cue men.

“If pool deserves to die and not be respected. And not make us millionaires too and not give us something to talk about; then all sport deserves to die. You understand that, don’t you?” Even the people who voted the Nugget out of the jungle must understand that.

Taking a cue from Eddie the Eagle

In Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, Britain once had the ski-jumping equivalent of a man taking part in the Mosconi Cup because he could pot a couple of balls after two pints.

At the 1988 Winter Games, a people’s addiction to cringe comedy was given its least appropriate stage yet.

And now Eddie is back; 25 years after he jumped — or dropped — into British hearts and up official noses, the Eagle is to be welcomed in out of the winter sports cold.

After Calgary, the International Olympic Committee rather felt Eddie was taking the piste. They tightened standards to clip the Eagle’s wings. And Eddie never made another Games.

But next month he will return, at 50, for one more jump, 18 years after his last one, when he leads off the Garmisch-Partenkirchen new year ski jump in Germany.

There will be mixed views on his reappearance; there are those who will argue sport in Britain has never recovered from making a virtue out of losing badly. Others will say that nobody has done more to inspire the underdog.

But maybe Eddie serves best as an example of how media-driven sport can sometimes be desperately unfair; how a compelling story will often reward better than talent.

But then, at least Eddie put his sport on centre stage. And Earl Strickland will understand the importance of that.

HEROES & VILLAINS

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

The Mystery Tiger: The dust had barely settled on the miracle Iron Bowl, when Auburn Tigers ground staff found human ashes on the field. Seems one fan felt a loved one might rest easy at the scene of one of the great sporting climaxes.

James Hickey: From now on there can only be one way to describe the famous victories, after the Mount Leinster Rangers man told RTÉ News the landmark win over Oulart-The Ballagh was ‘just europa’.


Thomas Gravesen: From Lee Carsley doppelganger to Vegas playboy. We learned this week that the Dane invested his careers earnings wisely, has made over €100m, and will now retire to Nevada to play cards.

A lesson to Earl the Pearl and many like him. Except, perhaps, for the cards.

HELL IN A HANDCART

The Brazuca: Let’s get this out of the way now; it may ‘maintain true roundness’ in flight, but it will ruin the World Cup, like every other new ball before it.


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