Preston potter’s got no regrets

Career to savour: Ian McCulloch reached the heights of No.11 in the world but has been forced to retire through injury
Career to savour: Ian McCulloch reached the heights of No.11 in the world but has been forced to retire through injury
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Snooker has been good to Ian McCulloch over the years.

At the peak of his career he rose to No.11 in the world, was a regular in the later rounds of most major tournaments, while the sport took him all around the globe.

But in the end it was to prove a pain in the neck for the Preston potter – and a pain in the shoulder – and McCulloch’s time on the professional circuit is now over.

He put the chalk back in his waistcoat pocket for the last time earlier this year and hung up his trusty cue.

Regrets? None whatsoever for the down-to-earth Prestonian who looks back on his 20-year professional career with a huge sense of pride.

When you think of an injury ending a sportsman’s career, you imagine damaged knees and dodgy ankles.

In McCulloch’s case, years spent stretched out over snooker tables took their toll on areas which matter most to a cue ace.

“It was after the World Championship in April that I retired,” said 40-year-old McCulloch.

“There have been a lot of changes in snooker since Barry Hearn took over, with a lot more tournaments introduced.

“If you are a 20-year-old lad with no family ties, it is a cracking time to be playing professional snooker.

“But I’m nearly 41, have a wife and two children, and I’m at a stage where I want to see more of them rather than flying off here, there and everywhere.

“That wasn’t the main reason I retired though – it’s the problems I’ve had with my neck and shoulder which made my mind up.

“I began having problems about five years ago. I’d just beaten Graeme Dott in the World Championship when he was defending champion.

“Basically, I started getting pains in my arms which would go away after a few minutes at the table.

“It was a muscular thing, a repetition injury built up by years of playing snooker every day, and my body was simply paying the price.

“I had an operation on my right shoulder – being a left-handed player, it’s my right arm which is planted down on the snooker table.

“Half the bone in my shoulder was shaved away and the operation in effect meant that the 2008 season went out of the window.

“I got back playing but I made decisions not to play in some of the many tournaments which are on the circuit now.

“That cost me ranking points and I just decided that after 20 years being a professional snooker player, this was the right time to stop.

“People think you go on forever and if I’d just plodded around the lower rankings, it might not have been such an easy thing to finish because I’d be trying for more.

“I was world No.11 at my peak, which was a decent achievement, so I had no regrets deciding to retire.

“The cue hasn’t been put away entirely, I still play exhibitions and managed back-to-back 147s in January.

“You don’t suddenly become a bad player overnight, but by the end of my professional days I wasn’t quite the player I was.”

McCulloch might not have had the profile of some of snooker’s leading lights – and he came along after the sport’s golden era in the 1980s – but he has a career to look back on with much pride.

He was a semi-finalist at the World Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible in 2005, and the previous year had reached the final of the Grand Prix in front of his home crowd at the Preston Guild Hall.

Not bad for a Frenchwood lad who had only been playing snooker for four years before turning professional.

McCulloch said: “Snooker has treated me well. I made a good career out of it.

“I’ve so many highlights from it for a variety of reasons.

“My best moment in the game was probably reaching the semi-final of the World Championship in 2005.

“Maybe I should have won the tournament that year because I was playing well enough to win it.

“In the build-up I was flying and couldn’t have prepared better.

“Physically I felt good, I was out doing miles on the bike every week to keep fit.

“Then I was practising for six or seven hours a day.

“John Higgins came down to practice with me, and we’d put a little wager on the best of 10 games.

“I got 8-1 ahead and he put his tenner down on the table saying I was in the sort of form to go on and win the World Championship.

“At the Crucible I got through to the semi-finals and played Matthew Stevens, where he beat me 17-14.

“He was the best player over the four sessions and his record speaks for itself.

“At Preston in the Grand Prix, in 2004, I got to to the final.

“Before playing that tournament I always used to play in an invitation event in Hartlepool.

“I won the invitation and then went to play the Swiss Open.

“Being totally honest, I didn’t really want to go to Switzerland but I ended up winning it by beating Jimmy White in the final.

“I came back and went straight into the Grand Prix in great form.

“With it being my home town, I was expected to do well and I did play well.

“I beat Stephen Hendry, Stephen Maguire, and ended up against Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final.

“My record against Ronnie was pretty good and his form before the tournament hadn’t been great.

“Unfortunately for me, in the final he played very well and won 9-5. Playing at the Guild Hall was special and suited me.

“I could sleep at home in my own bed, get to Great Harwood every morning to practice, before coming back for a rest in the afternoon.

“Later I’d picked my daughter up from school and the other dads would be there shaking my hand and wishing me luck.

“Then it was off to the Guild Hall at night to play.

“Looking back, I’d say the period between 2000 and 2007 I was at my best.

“I did okay on the television events, reached quarter and semi-finals regularly, and enjoyed every moment – I wouldn’t swap anything for that experience.

“Snooker took me all over the world to places I wouldn’t have dreamt of going otherwise.

“I must have been to China 50 times, Thailand, all over Europe, Israel and India.

“You have to make the most of opportunities like that.

“Snooker is changing now. While once there were seven, eight or nine tournaments, there are something like 25 now.

“When you’ve got a family, it’s hard to commit to that.

“Between April last year and Christmas, I had two full weekends at home and that just wasn’t for me.

“My aim was always to retire at 45 and I managed it at 40 which I’m delighted about!”

McCulloch’s introduction to snooker came aged 16.

“I played a lot of pool as a schoolkid, then I 16 I went to Riley’s in Preston and made a 30-odd break the first time I played on a full-sized table,” he said.

“Things went from there and the more there was riding on a match, the better I seemed to play.

“I turned professional at 20 and was fortunate enough to get to a standard where it was my job and I could support myself.

“A big part of my development as a player was practising with Dennis Taylor every day – what a player he was.

“I started off ranked 700 and within five years I had got into the top 64.

“After the Grand Prix at Preston in 2004 I was No.11.

“In the 2005/06 season, I was ranked No.16, which in any other year would have made me a seed in every ranking tournament.

“But Sean Murphy won the World Championship from outside the top 16 – that meant he was seeded for events and I wasn’t.

“I often joke that I was ranked 16-and-a-half that season!

“Not being seeded meant I had to play extra games and qualifying matches, which wasn’t the best.”

Life for McCulloch after snooker is a busy one, although he can spend more time with his wife Wendy and two children.

He’s a partner in North West Sports Events, a company which runs sportsman’s dinners, golf days and tribute dinners with big-name acts.

McCulloch brokers deals for snooker and darts players, as well as doing broadcast work for bookmakers William Hill.

“I’m busy, but what I do fits in with my family life,” said McCulloch, who lives in Walton-le-Dale.

“I’ve got time to pick the children up from school and spend quality time with them rather than going off for tournaments all the time.

“My family life is a nice, quiet one, just how I want it.”

As we round off the interview, I can’t help but remind McCulloch of the time he faced me on the snooker table.

Amazingly, he remembers our meeting – set up to promote the Grand Prix at Preston – as clear as day.

For the record, McCulloch won the frame comfortably, not withstanding my superb break of eight!

Said McCulloch: “I bet that was seven years ago, 2005 before the Grand Prix.

“I can still remember the tie I wore – I’d been to a wedding a couple of weeks before and put on the suit and tie I got for that.

“The Evening Post reporter versus the pro snooker player - the game of my life!”