Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Donald McRae

‘I thought I’d be a taxi driver for a long time’: Gary Wilson’s dream ride to Crucible

Gary Wilson stands holding his cue in front of a snooker table with green backlighting at his North Shields club.
Gary Wilson at his North Shields club before competing at the world championships at the Crucible. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Gary Wilson was no longer folding crispy pancakes at the frozen food factory but he was a taxi driver when his long struggle to establish himself as one of the world’s best snooker players seemed an impossible dream. “That was the point where I started thinking: ‘It might never actually happen’,” Wilson says 13 years later. “I knew deep down it should and that, given the right circumstances, I would be good enough. But life doesn’t always work out as you want, does it? I was 25 and I thought I might be a taxi driver for a long time.”

There were times when Wilson was reduced to tears and, as he says, “generally, I’m not very emotional but that’s one area in my life where I’m very passionate. It’s my career and it’s been my dream for such a long time.”

We’re sitting in the deserted North Shields Snooker Centre, on the edge of Newcastle, and Wilson has spent an hour telling me his extraordinary back story as he prepares for the world championships which begin in Sheffield on Saturday. Wilson, 38, is the world No 10 and, having won two tournaments this season, he hopes to match or even better his finest performance at the Crucible. In the 2019 world championships he lost to Judd Trump, the eventual winner, in the semi-finals, and Wilson is a far better player now than he was then.

A child prodigy on the snooker table, Wilson was making century breaks at the age of nine and being interviewed by David Vine on television. But the transition to professionalism, at 18, was brutal. Wilson lost his tour card after his second year, in 2006, at a time when there were only six ranking tournaments.

For the next seven years he worked in a frozen food factory and as a taxi driver while dreaming of finding a way back into pro snooker. Wilson returned to an expanded tour in 2013 and now the “Tyneside Terror” is flourishing as one of the world’s best and most engaging players.

He started playing snooker on a miniature table at the age of four and when he was nine he was banned from some senior club matches because men from rival teams were not willing to lose to him. Wilson was already dreaming of becoming world champion. “Absolutely. My first memory of watching proper snooker was the world championship final with Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry in 1994, which went to the wire. I was supporting Jimmy, but I respected Stephen more as a hero, because he’d done it all and dominated. I dreamt of what it would be like to win and be Stephen Hendry.”

Last month Hendry had Wilson on as a guest on his podcast and they shared fascinating insights into the yips which have stalked them at different times. It was a sign of how far Wilson has come since the crushing disappointment of losing his tour place.

“It was the second day of the 2006 world championship qualifying, and I had to win that match to stay on tour. It was 8-8 but I lost 10-8 to James Tatton who fluked the frame ball in both the last two frames.

“I was devastated as you couldn’t get straight back on the tour like now. I was 20 and the dream was over, definitely for the short term. I was still living with Mam and Dad and I needed a job. I wanted to play snooker but it was time for some real life.”

His mother worked at the Findus frozen foods factory in Longbenton, just outside Newcastle, and Wilson followed her. “I did the 6am to 2pm shift and so I was up at 5.20am every morning. I’m terrible getting up but my mam would be up at 5am. She’d get me up as she was leaving and I’d be on the road by twenty to six. The good thing was that I’d finish at 2 o’clock and, albeit a little tired, practise snooker in the afternoon.”

What did he do in the factory? “All sorts but, mainly, it was folding crispy pancakes. There were wraps as well. The machines would put the fillings in and I would be folding them and passing them on. It was monotonous work and, deep down, I was thinking: ‘This isn’t what I want to do.’ I’m grown-up enough to know that I need to earn a living but, at the same time, it was devastating. Other players I grew up with were doing OK on tour and I’m in the Findus factory, wrapping frozen food for two years.”

Wilson laughs when I say I bet he’s never eaten a crispy pancake since then. “No. I never ate them when I was there either but we had some laughs and I liked the staff nights out.”

At 23, Wilson changed jobs. “In June 2009 I began working as a taxi driver for a company called Blue Line. I did night work at the start but then I thought: ‘If I’m going to play snooker as well, I’d rather go out at six in the morning and finish at three in the afternoon so I can still practise.’ I could make £100 to £120 a day and I was doing five or six days a week while playing snooker in my spare time. I found a proper structure.”

Wilson liked being a freelance driver but there were the occasional passengers who dodged paying him or were sick in the back of his cab. “There was a bunch of Scottish lads at the barracks and they were coming into the city centre for a drink and they were absolutely hammered getting in the car. I turned to the one in the back on the left nearside and saw this purple stuff come out of his mouth. It was all over the seat and the inside of my door.

“I was like: ‘Right, I’m not being funny. We’re stopping at the cashpoint.’ It was the cashpoint next to St James’s Park, and I say: ‘You’re getting £100 out.’ It was 10 o’clock at night and I was planning on another four hours of work. So there was loss of earnings and, obviously, the cleaning of the car. I escorted him to the cash machine and thankfully, he put his card in and I took my £100.

“I went straight home and my mam got the cleaning stuff out and I tried to get the worst of it off. First thing in the morning I was straight down to get it valeted. I still lost the whole of that day because, even though it had been valeted, the smell lingered. So a hundred quid was not a lot. But I’ve got some fond memories of my taxi days and I did it for five years.”

Barry Hearn’s return to snooker promotion had transformed the tour and, by then, there were 25 tournaments. Wilson was around £10,000 in debt, having to travel and stay at qualifying tournaments, but the increased opportunities meant he had soon paid off the money he owed. “For the first three quarters of my first season back, I was still taxi driving. But I was getting closer and closer to the top 64 [in the world]. At the end of February 2014 I said to Blue Line: ‘I feel I’m doing well enough to go full time with the snooker. But if things don’t go according to plan would my job still be here?’ They said it would but, thankfully, I’ve not had to go back.”

There were still difficult days and Wilson remembers two specific occasions where he threw his cue in the dustbin and swore that he would never play again. “I was trying to qualify for the worlds at Ponds Forge and after I lost I came straight out and the cue got launched in the bin. I wasn’t putting on a show. I left it and walked up the road. But my dad was following and he picked it out of the bin. It happened another time, around 2016.”

Three years later Wilson made the semi-finals of the worlds after beating Luca Brecel, Mark Selby and Ali Carter before losing to Trump 17-11. “I didn’t play as well as I did earlier in the tournament. The table was heavier, drifting off more, and it got to me. With the fragilities of my cue action at the time, it was great when the tables were playing lovely. But when they weren’t as nice, it affected my game. I’m not blaming the conditions, it was more my fault.”

Last year Wilson lost in the second round to Selby who reached the final. But Brecel became the surprising world champion. The Belgian, who had never won a match at five previous world championships, was a rank outsider and he claimed not to have practised and, instead, said he drank heavily most nights during the tournament.

“I can’t believe it was to the extent he portrayed it,” Wilson says of Brecel. “Maybe he had a couple of drinks out every night. If you start having four, five drinks that’s going to affect you. But I do believe he was hardly practising and that he was going out and enjoying himself. I get that to an extent.”

Brecel has had limited success since becoming world champion and Wilson says: “Naturally he’s enjoyed his lifestyle. But maybe he’ll now think: ‘Let’s knuckle down again.’”

Did Brecel’s victory give Wilson and others on the fringe of the elite the belief that they, too, can become world champions? “He showed it can be done. But you don’t necessarily have to play your best game. You just have to play a good, solid game for a couple of weeks. Anyone near the top 16 knows it can be won.”

It took Wilson 18 years to win his first tournament – the 2022 Scottish Open. But this season he has won both the Scottish Open and the Welsh Open and, as he says with a smile on the eve of the world championships, “I’ve been told I might be a dark horse. I know if I play well I’ve got a chance of beating anyone. But it’s about playing well more times than not and that’s what I’m striving to do in every tournament. I want a bit more consistency.”

That pragmatic approach, forged in a frozen food factory and a taxi, has helped Wilson overcome doubts about his unusual cueing technique. The down-to-earth Tyneside Terror also remains, winningly, rooted in real life. “If I put my cue away now, I’ve got some money in the bank but it’s not going to last long. So you’ve got to remember that you’re doing something for a living that you’ve always loved and it’s a privilege to do so. I’ve always remembered where I’ve come from and what I’ve had and not had. I’m still pushing to have more, because you never know when it’s going to run dry.

“It’s a great season if you win a tournament and you stay in the top 16. I’ve won two this season and if I was to carry on like that every year then that’s a great, great career. You can’t guarantee it but, yeah, that’s the dream.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.