EXCLUSIVE: Ken Doherty on his love for United & The Importance of Psychology in Sport

When Ken Doherty potted that blue in 1997, he eched his name into snooker history among the greats as he realized his life-long ambition of becoming World Snooker Champion. This triumph also made him the first player to have been world amateur, and professional snooker champion. He states that one of his proudest moments of becoming World Champion was the opportunity to parade the trophy at Old Trafford. This week I managed to catch up with ‘Crafty Ken’. We spoke at great length of his passion for Manchester United which stems from imitating his heroes as an 8 year old kicking a football around a car park growing up in Ranelagh. It is clear to me that his love for United burns as brightly as ever as he recalls his conversation with Alex Ferguson with great excitement (in his best impression of a Scottish accent). We also discussed the growing importance of psychology in sport at the highest level, mental techniques and the benefits of employing such techniques in competition. It is becoming more apparent that the mental side is equal, if not superior to the physical aspect of sport as sports-stars chase success. Nowadays, Ken divides his time between playing, punditry and co-hosting a sport radio show which airs every Saturday morning on Sunshine Radio at 9am. Here is our conversation.

Morning Ken. What are your earliest memories of supporting Manchester United?

Morning Jimmy. It was either Manchester United or Liverpool in my class at school, and on the avenue where we lived. I was about eight, and my friends I played football with were Manchester United fans. We were always United players when we were playing, Pearson, Macari, or McIlroy. When United beat Liverpool in the cup final in 1977, that was my earliest memory of watching Man United, as an eight year-old. I’ve been a fan ever since.

So, did you play a bit of football growing up?

Yeah, I played football on our road and we had a little carpark that we used to play in. We made goals against the walls; we painted them against the walls of the gable ends of houses. We had great little games every day after school. 3 or 4 a side. They were some great times.

Who are your favourite players United players? Past and present.

Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, there are so many. Probably around the late 80’s my favourite player would have been Mark Hughes.

What is your favourite United memory?

That’s easy! I managed to get to the Champions League final in 1999 in the Nou Camp. You couldn’t top that one. I have been to quite a few FA Cup finals, but the Champions League final is the best of the best. Thankfully, I stayed until the end and didn’t leave 5 minutes before like some of the United fans did. I was right down in the corner where they took the corner kick for the goals; it was quite amazing. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry at a football game in all my life!

I think my other favourite Manchester United moment was after I won the World Championship in 1997. I got a phone-call and didn’t recognize the number. I picked up the phone and it was Alex Ferguson inviting me to parade the trophy at Old Trafford. I thought it was somebody winding me up on the phone. He took me around the ground and brought me into the canteen to meet the players. I walked in with Ferguson holding the trophy and he said to the players ‘guys, this is Ken Doherty, he has just won the World Championship and he is going to parade the trophy at half time.’ The whole room went silent, nobody budged!

That sounds awkward.

Yeah, nobody budged. There was just silence for about a minute until this big fella stood up off a chair and walked straight over to me. I was looking up at him, he was towering over me and he said ‘congratulations, Mr Doherty & welcome to Old Trafford’. I was so in awe of this guy that the only words I could muster were, ‘thank you Mr Cantona!’. I was like a little boy! Once he came over, the rest followed and came to congratulate me. It was amazing.

What a player.

What a player, yeah. What a player.

Am I correct in saying that you actually scored a goal at Old Trafford?

I did! I scored a goal at a charity game for Irish Autism arranged by Keith Duffy. There were 6 teams: United, Man City, Liverpool, Newcastle, Celtic and a team from Coronation Street made up of soap stars. I played for City though and we needed to beat United by 2 goals or more to get to the final. We beat them 4-0 and I scored one of the goals as we knocked them out. In the final we beat Liverpool on penalties. It was brilliant.

What a memory.

Fantastic. But in the wrong colour!

How have you found the transition from player to pundit?

It’s not that hard. You’re only talking about something that you love and have been playing for 40 years. I love doing the punditry. I get on well with all the guys and it is like a little family. It’s great fun. If I wasn’t doing it, I would just be at home commentating to myself! I really enjoy it; but I much prefer playing!

Who are your favourite players to watch in the commentary box?

Ronnie O’Sullivan, for obvious reasons. He is great to watch. I like watching Judd Trump. The likes of John Higgins and Ding. I thought Mark Williams was great this year. It was a great final and he was great to watch.

I think it’s a great achievement that the likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins & Williams all turned pro 26 years ago, and are still at the top of the game.

Yeah. Still going. It’s incredible.

To what extent, do you think Ken, is the mental side of sport important to be successful at the highest level?

Its huge. You must have the skill and obviously put in the hard work, but you have to be very strong mentally. You need belief, the will to win and the ability to cope with the pressure, which is massive. That separates the good players from the great players. That’s what the winners have: the ability to handle the pressure when the time comes. And to be confident enough in their game to not let their mind be clouded by anything negative.

Did you have any mental techniques to deal with the pressure whilst playing?

I thought about good things that I have done. For example, good performances in matches that I played. That would give me a lot of confidence and keep me calm under pressure. I would think to myself: ‘I have come back from a situation like this before, or I have beaten this guy before’. I try to visualize. I see myself winning or lifting the cup. I think visualization is a very good mental technique. As well as that, I always say that there are five S’s in sport: stamina, skill, strength, speed and spirit. The most important of these is spirit: you can’t win anything if you haven’t got the spirit to do so. That is what separates the best from the rest.

Tiger Woods once said that the most important part of a shot is visualizing where exactly the ball is going to go. Do snooker players employ a similar technique?

Absolutely. It’s the same for us. I completely agree.

In the last number of years, teams at the highest level are recognizing the growing importance of sports psychology. Do you think more athletes/teams will embrace this concept in the coming years?

I think so. Without a shadow of a doubt, I think more and more in the coming years will look into it. I think it is a necessity now, rather than a trial. It gives players the tools to handle the pressure, that extra 10%, through mental techniques. Once you learn those techniques & practice them, you can mentally prepare better for competition and it can make you a better player.

My final question, Ken. What’s your tune on karaoke night?

I like Fields of Athenry, or Dirty Old Town. Good tunes!

I first got in contact with Ken last Tuesday and he immediately replied to my e-mail. He was very generous with his time and it didn’t feel like he was in a rush to get it done. He spoke with great enthusiasm when telling me about playing football as an eight year old lad in Dublin and his favourite players from that 1977 Manchester United team. It was great to pick his brain on the psychology involved in sport and he had some very interesting views. There is no doubt that this trend will see a boom in the coming years as more teams/players appreciate the benefits of mental preparation.

(Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

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