EXCLUSIVE: Snooker Star is rising in Sheffield

Cao Yupeng and Ding Junhui at Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield.
Cao Yupeng and Ding Junhui at Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield.
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A Star is rising inside Sheffield United’s academy but it has nothing to do with football.

For tucked away in a corner of Shirecliffe, 15 minutes outside Sheffield city centre, is Star Snooker Academy.

For the last 18 months, they have been based at the Blades’ training complex off Shirecliffe Road – having moved from their previous home at the city’s English Institute of Sport – and have been leading the way in the global expansion of snooker.

Of the 32 players who will compete over the next 17 days at the Betfred.com World Championship in the city, five will hail from China.

Three of those – world No 10 Ding Junhui, 2011 Asian Under-21 champion Cao Yupeng and Liu Chuang – have adopted Sheffield as their home and are based at Star Academy.

With 10 competition-standard tables, the players share meals with the Blades footballers in the canteen and a range of experts are on hand to offer them specialist advice.

Run by Garry Baldrey and Keith Warren, Star’s stock has risen quickly with seasoned professionals like Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, Peter Ebdon, Stephen Hendry and Mark Williams – all world champions – using the venue for practice.

“We have had Academies for about nine years now, in our current location for about 18 months, but before that we were in the English Institute of Sport, running World Snooker’s academy,” said Baldrey, himself a former professional, and brother-in-law to Ebdon.

“My colleague, Keith Warren, was looking after some of the Asian players, mainly from Thailand at the time, and using my office as a base and local snooker clubs down in Northamptonshire for them to practice.

“We brought a young lad over called Ding Junhui, who was just 15, to practice with Peter Ebdon before the World Championships. He pretty much battered Peter for about six weeks so we knew he was a good player.

“He needed someone to look after him because he was going to turn professional the year after when he was 16 and I decided it was something I would be interested in. I have managed Ding ever since.

“Rather than have snooker clubs, we wanted a proper training centre where we could develop youngsters from all over the world into athletes, not just snooker players. That’s what we do. It’s about nutrition, physical exercise, not just snooker.

“We provide overseas players with accommodation, the full package, and lifestyle training. These guys, especially the Asians coming over, can’t speak the language and are not used to the food. Silly things that we take for granted can have a big impact on them.

“If you can integrate them into the local community, make a few friends, that helps them relax when they are over here. They miss home, like anyone would.”

Nine years after that first meeting with Ding, the Chinese potter has won most things in the game, including the UK Championship and Masters, but a World Championship still eludes him.

“Ding has always been a top player, he was a special talent, we knew that and he just needed developing,” said Baldrey. “To come from China wasn’t easy, there is a lot of pressure on. You are very much playing for China rather than yourself. Once he understood that, he could deal with it a lot easier.

“When he was a young kid, he was very immature. He’s still maturing now, people think he’s old hat, but he only just turned 25 last week and apparently you don’t peak as snooker players until 25, so maybe the best is yet to come.”

Ding lost a titanic semi-final scrap with Judd Trump 12 months ago, and Baldrey is convinced if his protege could have reached the final he had the game to beat eventual winner John Higgins.

“Hopefully, he can go a step further this time. I think we are getting closer all the time and Ding is understanding what he needs to win the World Championship.

“Ding has put the sport on the map in China, without a doubt. He’s something like the second biggest sportsman in China, and considering how talented they are at nearly everything, that is some achievement.

“His fan base is enormous and the youngsters aspire to him. The game has really taken off there, which shows when we have something like six ranking tournaments there next year.”

Under World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn’s stewardship, snooker has seen all the old boundaries smashed as the game looks to go global with events all over the world.

With youngsters from Iran, Latvia, India, Australia and Canada passing through Star’s doors, Baldrey is under no illusions at the worldwide appeal of the sport.

“I can see the top part of the game being a lot more cosmopolitan,” he said. “Chinese players will come to the fore, we have five in the World Championships which I think is a record.

“We have Luca (Brecel) come through from Belgium and there’s a lot of other youngsters out there.

“We have got a new lad coming to us next year from Iran, he has his pro ticket, who is supposed to be quite talented. We do junior camps, two of which this summer are full of children from Latvia. It’s incredible, we have players from India, Australia, a lad from Canada coming over.

“The game is definitely going global. Barry Hearn has done a good job there.

“I never know what to expect when I come in, we always have new players from so many different countries.

“The Italians are coming over, pretty much all of Europe, Asia and Malaysia, the Americas.

“It’s great and they all have to learn to get on with each other, no-one is treated any different. Even Ding is just one of the lads,” added Baldrey, whose playing career – he came through the ranks with Ebdon – was “scuppered” in the Nineties after he was involved in a car accident.

“I was a professional in the early Nineties, but had a big car accident which scuppered my ambitions and dreams.

“I moved away from snooker and it wasn’t until I met Ding that I got my juices flowing again I guess and have been involved ever since.

“I like to see youngsters develop talent, there’s lots of talent in the UK that gets wasted.”