Return of The Outlaw

Michael Nicholas talks to snooker player, Joe Swail 

Joe Swail came to the attention of the snooker world when he reached the last 32 of the 1987 World Amateur Championship.

He went on to win the prestigious English Amateur Championship in 1990 and joined the professional ranks for the 1991/92 season, after winning several big prizes in pro-am events on both sides of the Irish Sea.

However, it was in his hometown of Belfast where his love for snooker was fostered courtesy of what Swail describes as ‘the best Christmas present ever.’

‘I was around about 11 or 12 and my mum and dad got myself and my brother a small table for Christmas. It must have been about 3 or 4 foot.

'I became hooked and before I knew it I wanted to play on the big tables, the 12-footers. I wasn’t allowed to be in the social clubs because you had to be 18 but I sneaked in.’

As a young snooker fanatic, Swail idolised fellow Belfast man Alex Higgins and he admits that Higgins was the one player he aspired to be.

‘I just looked at the way he played, he was great for the game, he was very charismatic and different. I always wanted to sit up and watch him play.

'He was definitely my main influence and I always wanted to be like him, Alex was just in a different class.’

The two-times World Championship Semi-Finalist says he has to thank his parents who encouraged him to pursue a career in snooker when it was unfashionable in the Markets area of Belfast.

‘My parents gave me the opportunity to play snooker. You have got to realise that whenever I was 15 or 16 snooker was known as a ‘corner boys game’ - so fair play to my parents. It took a lot of persuading but they gave me the opportunity to go for it and make a life for myself out of the sport.

'It wouldn’t have been an easy thing for anybody to do, because its not easy to make a living from this game.’

Famed for his dramatic fightbacks, Joe certainly didn’t disappoint when he displayed all his fighting qualities to become the first player to return to the top 16 in world rankings after dropping out of the top 32 in 1999.

‘I honestly thought that I had missed the boat and my career was on a downward spiral. My mum helped me to turn things around as she wanted me to do very well in snooker.

'I felt I owed it to her to get my head down and get back to the way I used to play.'

Swail has a hearing impairment, something he regards as an advantage for snooker as he is less likely to be distracted by the crowd and other background noise.

The two-table nature of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, in which cheering from the other table can often affect players on the other side of the screen, may be one reason why his World Championship record is especially strong. He has reached the championship semi-finals in both 2000 and 2001.

Despite this, Joe finds it difficult to fight off the nerves in the run up to tournaments.

‘The anxiety is just a natural thing. Sometimes you can’t sleep for days before a tournament because you are so psyched up and just can’t wait to get out there.

'Sometimes you're too nervous and other days you go out and you don’t feel anything. You have got to get the balance right. I just go out there and put the work in and try my best but I do feel nervous quite a lot.’

Swail is one of the most likeable players on the circuit, known for his unorthodox way of cueing up.

‘Ken Doherty and myself would be good friends and we give each other plenty of stick about our different styles! The way I cue works for me and I just try and practice as much as possible and put the work in.

'The bottom line is that if you put the work in and perform on the day you can’t go wrong. Hopefully you'll get the result that you want.

'You aren’t guaranteed anything but sooner or later you are going to get opportunities and things are going to work out for you.’

Swail, who is fondly known as the ‘Outlaw’ and has won the Irish Professional Championship twice, aims to get back to the dizzy heights of 2001 and 2002 when he reached successive semi-finals of the Embassy World Championship.

‘For the season ahead I’m in a good position and I’ve got a great chance of the top 16. I had such a good year last year but there are no guarantees this year.

'Snooker is very, very tough. I've been trying to get the kind of form back I had in 2000/01. It would be nice to get another crack at it because it is a very special occasion.

'There is very little between the top players and the middle rank players, the gap is closing all the time. It’s very tight at the top at the moment but it would be nice to get back into the top 16.’

Swail hasn't forgotten his roots, moving home three years ago after a spell in Manchester, and couldn’t be happier.

‘I was always going to come back here and I love it, especially with the way the city is now, it's brilliant. It's great to be back living in Belfast.’