The Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds is 40 this year. Grant Woodward reports.
The stories come thick and fast. “I’ve never seen anyone so excited about winning a cue and case,” says Chris Williamson about the time Vinnie Jones took the honours at a celebrity tournament to mark the club’s 15th birthday. “Talk about competitive, he was desperate to win.”
Then there were the regular visits from the one and only Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.
“He came over from Ireland to play in a competition and had spent the £1,000 prize money down at the bookies before he’d even won it,” Chris chuckles.
“Another time he was playing in an exhibition match and started running round the table to get to the next shot.
“What’s the rush?” I asked him. “I’ve got to get back in time for Prisoner Cell Block H,” he said.
The Northern Snooker Centre has welcomed them all down the years. Ronnie O’Sullivan made his first 147 in an English amateur final here way back in 1991, while former world champion Shaun Murphy has said: “As far as snooker goes and the snooker family, this club does not get beaten anywhere in the world.”
Having played there as a young lad on the circuit, snooker legend Steve Davis recently paid a return visit to the Kirkstall Road club to officially open its newly renamed centre arena.
Now known as The Paul Hunter Arena in memory of the late Leeds snooker hero, the Masters trophy Paul won in 2004 will take pride of place next to the showpiece table, a surprise donation from Paul’s dad Alan.
It’s a gift that shows just how much affection there is for the Northern, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.
And having been involved in the running of the club since the age of 19, Chris can’t imagine himself doing anything else.
“It’s demanding because we’re open 21 hours a day,” he says, “but I still get a buzz from it. I love bumping into people all over Leeds and listening to their memories of the place.”
The club was opened on an industrial plot back in 1974 by his parents Jim and Joy Williamson.
His dad was a decent snooker and billards player who wanted to offer something a bit different to the spit and sawdust snooker halls that were around at the time.
The purpose-built centre helped change the perception of the game, with snooker’s growing popularity peaking with an audience of 18.5m – still a BBC2 record – transfixed by the final frames of the 1985 world championship final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor.
As the sport took off, so did the Northern. From nine snooker tables and one bar when it opened, it now houses three times that number, along with 18 American pool and six English pool tables, as well as a trio of bars.
The venue for a wide variety of local, regional, national and international tournaments, the club was a fixture on TV screens back when it hosted the Pro-Celebrity Snooker show featuring the likes of Les Dawson, Bruce Forsyth and Fred Trueman.
And the club still gets a decent smattering of well-known faces.
“James Milner and Fabian Delph come in when they’re back in Leeds and we get some of the Rhinos,” says Chris. “Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films) and Peanut from the Kaiser Chiefs also pop in.”
All in all, it’s been an eventful first four decades for the Northern, and to this day it remains a family affair.
Chris and wife June are managing director and company secretary respectively, while Chris’s brother Ian, a former top 40-ranked player, coaches players of all ages and abilities.
And with their children now working part-time at the club and in between stints at university, the future continues to look bright for this much-loved Leeds gem.
A POTTED HISTORY
1974 – The Northern Snooker Centre is opened by Jim and Joy Williamson.
1976 – Starts hosting TV’s Pro-Celebrity Snooker.
1989 – Club marks 15th anniversary with a celebrity tournament won by Leeds United star Vinnie Jones.
1991 – Ronnie O’Sullivan makes his first 147 in the English amateur final.
1997 – The upstairs flat where the Williamson family once lived is converted into an American pool centre.
2014 – Steve Davis opens The Paul Hunter Arena as the club marks its 40th year.