Pontin's pointed the way to fame for Paul

By Peter Smith PAUL HUNTER, who died yesterday of cancer aged only 27, was one of West Yorkshire's brightest sporting stars.

Until illness struck in April last year, Hunter – from Moortown – seemed destined to become Leeds' first snooker world champion and was a superstar in the making on and off the table.

The former Cardinal Heenan High School pupil was born on October 14, 1978, and turned professional at the age of 16 in 1995.

Ranked as high as fourth in the world at his peak, he was a Wembley specialist winning the Masters title three times, in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

His first Masters victory cemented his place in snooker folklore as he battled back from a 7-3 deficit to beat Fergal O'Brien 10-9 on the final frame – then revealed girlfriend Lindsey to be the secret of his success.

Speaking after his remarkable triumph, which came after he won eight out of 11 frames in the evening session, Hunter told the media he had been revitalised after inviting Lindsey to his hotel room during the mid-session interval. Hunter dubbed that his "plan B" – a phrase which has now entered snooker terminology.

The Leeds player produced another stunning recovery to retain his title the following year, beating Mark Williams in another last-frame decider after trailing 5-0, and he repeated the trick for a third time two years ago, when he wiped out Ronnie O'Sullivan's 7-2 lead to complete yet another 10-9 triumph.

A schoolboy star, he achieved a series of notable results as an amateur including winning the Pontin's Pot Black Festival Junior Championship, an under-16 tournament, aged just 13 in 1992.

Hunter – who practised at a leisure centre in Yeadon and was mentored by former world champion Joe Johnson – won six matches to take the title, defeating David Gray 3-0 in the final at Prestatyn, in north Wales.

The list of previous winners included former world champions Stephen Hendry and John Parrott, who had both been older than Hunter when they achieved the feat.

He began playing at the age of four, had made his first century break aged just 10 and achieved his first 147 six years later.

Early honours included the 1990 and 1992 Leeds City under-16 and under-18 championships, also claiming the under-16 title in 1991, and he was runner-up to Gray in the 1995 English National amateur championship.

Hunter was afflicted by the exuberance of youth in 1996 when he was fined 2,500 – all but 500 suspended – for streaking on Blackpool's Golden Mile during the qualifying tournament for the Thailand Classic the previous year, and had his prize money forfeited two years later after testing positive for marijuana in Bournemouth.

Hunter's first major title came at the Welsh Open in 1998, at the age of just 19.

He regained the Welsh Open title in 2002 and added the British Open crown the same season.

In 2003 Hunter seemed ready to achieve his World Championship destiny, in front of his own Yorkshire fans.

He reached the semi-finals at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre and was on the verge of his first world final when he led Ken Doherty 15-9, but the tables were turned as Hunter found himself the victim of an unlikely 17-16 defeat.

In December last year he made what proved to be his final appearance in what was regarded as his home tournament, reaching the third round of the UK Championship in York.

He was back in action in the World Championships five months later, but was clearly affected by his illness and lost 10-5 in the first round to Neil Robertson. Hunter won only one match last term and slipped from fifth to 34th in the rankings.

Hunter's plight attracted widespread sympathy and three months ago an extraordinary general meeting of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association took the unprecedented step of freezing his ranking, allowing him to take a year out to concentrate on his fight against cancer.