TWELVE months ago John Astley’s professional bow as a snooker player started with a confidence-boosting victory that teed up a trip to China for the Wuxi Classic.
Tonight the young pro from Gateshead returns to the scene of that impressive triumph over Redcar’s Mike Dunn with an even greater task facing him. The qualifier for this year’s Classic takes place throughout today and the task facing Astley is the biggest challenge he could have got.
When he heads out of the changing room and in to Gloucester’s Capital Venue with his cue, the 25-year-old will come face-to-face with Mark Selby, knowing the world number one stands between him and a trip to the Far East for the second year in a row.
“It’s a nice and easy start for me,” said Astley. “I have got to know Mark quite well and it’s just one of those things. I got a few tough draws last season and you don’t get much tougher than Mark Selby to start the new season. But I’m confident in my ability and I know that I am more than capable of causing an upset.”
Such a statement might seem a little fanciful to most snooker players heading in to their second year on the circuit. A little look at Astley’s record and progress, however, and it suddenly becomes clearer why he is right to hold such optimism.
Earlier this month he was named the sport’s rookie of the year at snooker’s annual awards ceremony in London. While Selby picked up a couple of honours, China’s Ding Junhui was crowned the Writers’ player of the year and Ronnie O’Sullivan received the fans’ top gong. Astley was also called on to the same stage to receive his accolade.
The only problem that comes with being crowned rookie of the year is having to build on that and go on to a whole new level – and doing so knowing more of the world’s best players are more familiar with the dangers of facing one of the game’s up-coming talents.
“It was great to get the award and a brilliant experience for me to be up there,” said Astley, who was presented with the trophy by 1980 world champion Cliff Thorburn.
“But I have to think of this award as being part of last season, not this season. Last season has gone and taking what I learned from last season should help me grow as a player.
“I know it’s going to be hard because it’s professional snooker, but my opponents might stand off a bit now knowing what I’m capable of, so it could be better for me. I know I have the ability and I’m determined to keep getting better.”
After qualifying for the China Open and the Wuxi Classic last year where he reached the last 64, he also impressed when he narrowly lost to John Higgins 6-5. During his time in Beijing he played in front of a live TV audience of circa 450m across 98 countries when he lost to world No 2 Ding Junhui.
“It was also special to have beaten Ken Doherty, an ex-world champion, on the middle table, 6-5, at the UK Championships in York, where I’d been going since the age of 13 to watch top class snooker,” said Astley, who hits the gym regularly and trains four or five hours every day on the green baize.
His love for the game started at the age of 12 when he finally persuaded his elder brother, Barry, to take him along to Gateshead Snooker Club one Friday night. “I remember thinking that the American pool table looked a mile long,” he said.
“Then I stepped up to the snooker table the next time I went and it was even bigger, but I soon realised I had an eye for the pockets. I spent all summer playing snooker and it all grew from there really.”
After turning his back on football, where he was a talented teenage winger for Redheugh Boys Club, Astley soon graduated on to the international stage and played regularly after receiving coaching from Teessider Dunn. His biggest achievement as an amateur was to win the Under-19s national championship in Sheffield.
“After a year and a half of playing I was hitting breaks of 30/40,” he said. “I was entering tournaments at Gateshead Snooker Club and beating fellas who had been playing for 20 years. It was probably then when I realised I might have something.
“When I was leaving school I took the decision with my dad not to go to college and to purely concentrate on snooker, trying to make it. We had an extension built on the house so that I could have a snooker table to practice. I’m so grateful to the support from my family and for my sponsors for helping me up the ladder – and I just want to make sure it continues.”
Climbing in to the world’s coveted top 64 by the end of this season would be the ideal next step - and memorably defeating Selby wouldn't be a bad place to start.