When Ian McCulloch, frontman of Echo and the Bunnymen, wrote ‘Nothing Ever Lasts Forever’ he might have been singing about his namesake’s snooker career.
Ian McCulloch – the green baize version – is a former World Championship semi-finalist who also reached two ranking finals, including one at the Guild Hall in his native Preston. In 2012 he was forced to retire due to neck and shoulder injuries, caused by years of repetition of playing and practising snooker, but seven years later, as he reflects on his career in the sport, he has few regrets.
“It was the best 20 years of my life and it gave me more than I thought it would,” said McCulloch. “My only regret is that I didn’t win a ranking title. I would love to have played in today’s era with so many tournaments, and without being big-headed I’d like to think I’d be good enough to win one or two.
“If I had carried on playing then I might have done damage to my shoulder which would have been irreversible. I was disappointed when I had to retire, though snooker was never the be-all and end-all of life for me.
McCulloch celebrates his famous win against Graeme Dott in 2005
“I finished my career with great memories having played a lot of big games on television. I was involved in some mad matches, like beating Peter Ebdon 9-8 from 5-0 down at the UK Championship, or the one at the Crucible in 2005 when I made a crazy clearance in the last frame to beat Graeme Dott 10-9, then did a jig around the table! What people don’t know is that I had mates who would dare me to dance around at the end of a match or say certain words in interviews.”
It was in that year, 2005, that McCulloch enjoyed his best run at the World Championship. After knocking out Dott, he edged out Mark Williams 13-12 in another classic before beating Alan McManus 13-8 to reach the semi-finals. Then he battled hard against Matthew Stevens before losing 17-14.
His first ranking final came at the 2002 British Open when he beat the likes of Stephen Maguire, John Higgins and Mark Williams to reach the final, before losing to Paul Hunter. Two years later at the Grand Prix in Preston, he fought his way through to the final again, and faced Ronnie O’Sullivan. It couldn’t have been a better occasion for McCulloch, playing in his hometown against arguably snooker’s all-time greatest. But the match itself did not go to plan as he fell 5-1 behind and eventually lost 9-5.
“The venue was packed out with 1,500 fans, it was fantastic,” remembers the 47-year-old. “I was a bag of nerves but I loved every minute. There were times in big matches I was shaking so much at the start I couldn’t put ice into my glass of water. And I played matches where I literally couldn’t talk afterwards. But I seemed to be able to channel that nervous energy and produce good snooker.
“When I played at the Crucible I was always ready for it. In terms of my fitness, practice routine, mental preparation, sleep pattern – it was all in place. I went out there wanting to kill my opponent before he had a chance to kill me. That has to be the mindset. I see players turn up now and I know they can’t win. They say they have been practising but they have been fighting kittens when you need to be fighting lions.
“The buzz of those big matches or walking out at the Crucible – you can’t recreate that any other way, whatever you do in the rest of your life.”
With his playing days over, former world number 16 McCulloch has remained involved with snooker, and now coaches up-and-coming talents. For the past three years he has worked with Londoner Martin O’Donnell, who has benefitted from McCulloch’s wisdom, finding the best form of his career. O’Donnell, age 32, has reached the quarter-finals of three ranking event including the Betway UK Championship this season.
“I first met Martin eight years ago at an exhibition in Switzerland, and always got on with him well,” said McCulloch. “Then years later he rang me up out of the blue and asked if I could help him. I explained to him that I can only help players who want to help themselves, and I went through what he’d have to commit to including working on his diet, fitness, sleep pattern and dedication to practice. I think he was a bit surprised at first at how much was involved, but he has made that pledge and it has worked for him.
“I don’t coach players on the technical side, partly because I wasn’t great at it myself, and partly because I believe players can succeed with all sorts of methods. Look at Dave Harold and Joe Swail, two fantastic players for many years with very unorthodox technique. Every player on the tour can play the game, so the biggest factor is what’s happening between their ears. It’s easy to clear the colours 100 times in practice, but can you do it in a live televised match when it really matters? That’s where hopefully I can help because I have been in that situation myself. I made countless mistakes in my career but I can let others know what I did right and wrong.
“Martin is a very good listener and takes it all on board. Before a match we might sit for two hours with a coffee and talk about all sorts of things. He has a one-year-old kid and he’s away from home a lot, so that kind of thing is not easy to deal with. The key is to build a relationship with a player where you can help them to be mentally prepared for a match. I can tell by the tone of Martin’s voice whether he is ready for a match. Before he played Ding Junhui at the UK Championship, I felt very confident because he knew exactly what he had to do, and sure enough he went out and beat him.
“I have worked with a few players over the years. Some want to work hard and they realise that snooker is a job and you have to work at it every day until you retire. Some are bone idle. Others have a bit of success then get lazy because they think they have made it. I see lads who make the same mistakes over and over again and do nothing about it, which is a shame because there are so many opportunities in snooker now and the chance to make a lot of money for those who get the results. Not everyone can be Ronnie O’Sullivan in terms of talent, but those who make the most of what they have tend to do well in the game.”
While he may not experience the unique thrill of competition on the big stage any more, McCulloch has found contentment. As well as coaching, he is still involved in arranging snooker and darts exhibitions, and the time he missed with his family during his playing days is now spent with wife Wendy, daughter Millie (17) and son Sam (14).
“I have a simple life now and a happy one,” he mused. “I would love one more crack at snooker – but I know that’s never going to happen now.”