World Championship 2019: Meeting the Crucible's behind-the-scenes heroes

Mark Williams.
Mark Williams won the 2018 World Championship but will not lift the trophy again this year after being beaten in round two by David Gilbert

When snooker's new world champion lifts the trophy aloft at a packed Crucible Theatre next Monday, it will be the culmination of their lifetime's work.

The climax to years of practice, innumerable sacrifices and immeasurable support from those closest to them.

But there will be other people to thank too - those who make the World Championship tick, without whom the event would not be the spectacle that it is.

From table-fitters to talking heads, from camera crews to Chinese media, here are the stories of some of the Crucible's unsung heroes.

'It's like walking on broken glass'

Every sport has a fall guy, someone for the loser to pin the blame on. Often it's the referee. But in cue sports, it's more probable the table quality will bear the brunt of a beaten player's ire.

While a football manager's cop-out is to blame an official, a snooker player will often bemoan the table. So it's hard not to feel a tad sorry for snooker's 'groundsman' - the table-fitter.

Eugene James.
Eugene James (left) inspects the state of the table during the mid-session interval of Mark Selby's second-round game with Gary Wilson

Eugene James, from Bristol, has been fitting snooker tables for nearly 40 years but says dealing with potters' protestations comes with the territory.

"We get a lot of complaints," the 56-year-old smiles. "In fact, our biggest downfall is commentators - they complain more than anyone else. They have all that airtime they need to fill.

"With players, it's all down to the pressure, when they lose and start shouting. But it's definitely different here. It's like walking on broken glass with the tension.

"We always take every complaint seriously. But 99 times out of 100, the table's fine. It's usually the playing conditions.

"Every part of the snooker table is natural - wood, steel, wool, so it reacts immediately to atmospheric conditions. The cloths now are so fine that any small fingermark will move the ball."

Having "fell into the job" not long after leaving school, James set up his own company World Snooker Services in 1992 and the firm has been servicing snooker's major tournaments since 2005.

He estimates competitions make up 75% of his business, but they also serve pubs, clubs, private tables in houses and even "very daunting" prisons. But few are harder work than the Crucible.

"We are usually first in, get the lights on, open the tables up, do all our checks, prepare the tables and then once the event begins, we are in the background waiting," James adds.

"Every four frames we have to service the tables, plus the practice tables at the same time, and we are here to the finish until the last ball goes down."

Easter eggs, selling snooker and a Davis faux-pas

Rob Walker.
Rob Walker has been master of ceremonies at the Crucible since 2008

Once the tables are ready, it's time to, as MC Rob Walker has so often famously said, 'get the boys on the baize'.

Walker has become as synonymous with the World Championship as most of the players and yet he is more than just a voice and a face.

While viewers will smile as he cracks quips, coins nicknames and reels off stats, what they might not know is the work the 44-year-old freelance broadcaster and journalist does behind the scenes.

Post-match interviews, guided tours of the Crucible for spectators, presenting highlights shows - Walker manages to fit all that in as well as painstaking hours of research for his player introductions.

But, first and foremost, he sees his role as promoting the players and looking after the audience, including buying Easter eggs for children in the crowd on Easter Sunday.

"It's little touches like that which reassure the audience that you really, really appreciate them coming," he says. "We like to make a fuss of people.

"Kids remember little things like that - 'oh, we went to that place and I got an Easter egg off that guy with the big nose, can we go back there?' Those little things are really important.

"Boiled down, we're all salesmen of snooker. And the primary reason that it's important to do a good job on that is the players.

"They deserve to have the hairs on the back of their neck standing to attention every time they are waiting backstage, every time they get an intro from me."

This is Walker's 12th year as Crucible MC, in which time he's reeled off thousands of introductions but, just like the poor table-fitters, people always remember the ones that go to pot, so to speak.

Rob Walker and Steve Davis.
Six-time world champion Steve Davis sees the funny side after being introduced as Dennis Taylor - the man who beat him in the iconic 1985 final - by MC Rob Walker

"The thing people talk to me about most was when I accidentally introduced Steve Davis as Dennis Taylor in the 2010 quarter-finals," Walker laughs. "I must have rehearsed my lines for the next session 50 times!"

'One of the best venues to work - but the worst too'

When the introductions are over, the battle begins - but it's not just the two players who occupy the arena floor.

Yes, there's the referee, of course - and more on them in a minute - but unless you've been to the Crucible, you've probably never even noticed the cameramen. And that's because you shouldn't.

In an intimate venue where the slightest cough or splutter can disturb a player's shot, the camera crew - including two operators on the table floor - have to make themselves almost invisible.

Duncan Richmond, a 62-year-old with more than 40 years' experience of camera work, including 22 years at the Crucible, says: "It's one of the best and one of the worst venues to work in.

Crucible.
There are two portable cameras on each side of the Crucible curtain to cover every match, plus a central handheld device

"It's tiny, you're restricted, it's horrible - but then when it goes down to one table, you're in one of the finest venues in sport. The atmosphere is sensational.

"We work under some very simple rules, one is we wear black so we don't get noticed. But rule number one is: if a player goes down on a shot, we do not move."

A cameraman will be on duty for an entire session, which can mean being on their feet for four hours or more.

Richmond adds: "You need spatial awareness, you need the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

"Think of it as a drama without a script and we're having to wing the whole thing."

Cameramen have to 'read the game' and know what shot a player is likely to play to get in the correct position - and the same applies to the referee.

Bulgarian official Desislava Bozhilova made her Crucible debut this year, becoming only the fifth female referee in World Championship history.

Desislava Bozhilova.
Desislava Bozhilova, now 26, began refereeing for World Snooker when she was just 20 years old

The 26-year-old, who has a degree in landscape architecture, says the venue is unique, adding: "People are so close that when you are walking around you can hear them breathing.

"It's tighter than other events so we have to think a shot in front and be sure we are in the right spot at the right time."

More female referees are becoming involved with the sport, their inspirations including Michaela Tabb, who was the first woman to officiate a world final in 2009.

Desislava adds: "When people started seeing a woman refereeing on TV, more women started thinking 'I can do this too'."

Feeding the Chinese appetite 24/7

With a marathon 17-day event like the World Championship, the demand for news, interviews, reaction and commentary is never-ending in Britain alone.

So imagine what it's like in China, where the sport has almost become a national obsession.

Plenty of that burden falls on Tai Chengzhe, one of dozens of journalists from all over the globe who see more of the Crucible press room for two-and-a-half weeks than they do the outside world.

The 33-year-old, who doubles as a photographer, runs a company that provides social media service for the sport's governing body World Snooker.

More than 200 million people in China tune into the Crucible action and satisfying their needs can be a gruelling responsibility, admits Tai.

"It can be 24 hours every day because of the time difference," he says.

"Generally, Chinese people don't tend to be sports fans. Snooker's kind of like showbiz.

"When Ding Junhui does something big, it's more than just sports news because he is a celebrity in China - more than 90% of the population knows who he is and what he does."

Tai Chengzhe.
Tai Chengzhe is often in demand to talk about how big snooker has become in China

Tai - who lives in Beijing and was born and raised in a Korean family, learning two languages from a young age - speaks fluent English and majored in pharmaceutical science at university.

So how did he end up building a snooker media empire? "I really don't know," he laughs.

What he does know, though, is that China will, sooner or later, boast a world champion - and that he intends to be there to cover it.

"It would be everywhere on the news, it would become front cover news, that big. There will be one world champion from China eventually," he says.

That winner would be a hero in his native land. But he would be far from the only hero in Sheffield this month.

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