I'm not snookered yet says Barry Hearn
LOVELY, isn't it? For the kids to be doing this at 13,'' sports entrepreneur Barry Hearn, 44, said as he took in the sweep of the Kowloon Cricket Club pitch from the clubhouse viewing box on Thursday.
Down below, his son Eddie, a big 13 and a member of the visiting Essex Under-14 touring cricket team, was standing on the sidelines with his arms folded, sports cap pulled over his hip haircut, attempting to catch his father's eye.
''Dad, I'm captain tomorrow,'' he said.
''Hmm,'' Barry was pleased. ''Good, son,'' he said as he agreed his two kids (he has a daughter) were totally indulged and remembered what he had been doing when he was 13.
''Grafting,'' he said with another one of those big, relaxed smiles before he excused himself and made for the dressing room. ''I'll be with you in a minute. I just have to see the boys.'' (They had won.) A few minutes later he was back and ready to continue limited discussion about the recent storm which has erupted about him in England after an article in a Sunday newspaper raised financial questions about Mr Hearn and his agency Matchroom Ltd.
''My lawyers are handling this matter. I have been instructed to say that the story as published was one-sided. It was based on ill-founded claims and it was factually incorrect.'' The facts in dispute, Mr Hearn and his lawyers argue, are claims by five former members of Matchroom - British snooker stars Jimmy White, Dennis Taylor, Willie Thorne, Neal Foulds and Tony Meo - that their financial affairs were in disarray when they left Matchroom.
Central to their claims is that each of them had large tax bills which they have to pay from dwindling income when, as they claim, they thought Matchroom was taking care of those bills.
The article also claimed that Matchroom had failed to file accounts, ''despite numerous reminders'' at Companies House since those for the year ended 1990.
''Totally untrue,'' Mr Hearn said this week. ''I could have replied to all these allegations but I was not given time. I left London at noon last Friday. A fax arrived at my lawyer's office at 5pm with about 20 questions on it.
''I was prepared to answer them but I needed some time. There were details that had to be sorted out. I said I was quite happy to do this. To give my side of the story but it could not be done straight away.
''They [the newspaper] refused to accept this and said it was too late. They were going ahead and printing it. The whole matter is now in the hands of lawyers. I can't say too much more than that.'' But being Barry Hearn, he did.
''Look, snooker is like any other sport. When you are not winning you are not making money,'' he said.
''I can't control this. I can't make people win. I can't stop them spending as if they are winning when they are not.
''Matchroom employs one of the largest and most reputable accountancy firms in the world. Our accounts are in order.
''That claim that we have not submitted accounts to Companies House is totally untrue. At the time I left London we were bang up to date. The article is very ill-researched and inadequate.
''These people who have been surprised about their tax bill are not kids. Everyone knows that tax is paid in arrears. Some of these people quoted have been around for a long time. I think they are disgruntled not because of me but because they are not winning anymore.
''Snooker is a sport where you have to be in the Top 10. If you are, there are lots of sponsors and you can earn a good living. If you are not, and some of these people are not in the position of someone like Steve Davis, then you are not earning money.'' Mr Hearn's argument is supported by the fact that not all Matchroom former players are dissatisfied. ''I was 11 years with Barry,'' Terry Griffiths is reported as saying in the contested account, ''and I wouldn't criticise anything he has done for me.
''My tax is up-to-date and my financial affairs are in order.
Another player Cliff Thorburn agreed: ''I've no major complaint.'' Only Steve Davis, one of the world's top players and still a member of the Matchroom stable, was said to be unavailable for comment.
''Steve is in training for the world championships. He would not be bothered about things like this now,'' Mr Hearn said this week.
''Everyone who knows me knows this story is factually incorrect. I have been in this business for 20 years. I have a reputation of delivering what I say I will do.'' In his view, he is being exploited for the sake of publicity.
The World Snooker Championships start this Wednesday in Sheffield, England and he believes the timing of the series of claims was a deliberate publicity ploy.
He does concede, however, that British domination of snooker and its stable of established faces has been eroded during the last five years as the sport has become global and attracted greater competition for Top Ten ranking.
European and Australian players and Thai James Wattana have climbed into the upper rankings and taken spots on the world circuit which, not so long ago, were the automatic right of the best British players.
As a result of the globalisation of snooker, sponsors have become international too, and they are not prepared to pay out money for people who cannot win major tournaments.
It appears Mr Hearn recognised this trend earlier than some of his players, and diversified into boxing promotion in 1989.
In the press report it was inferred that this interest had become more important than management of his snooker stable. Mr Hearn denies this but acknowledged this week that there had been a change in the circumstances of a Matchroom Ltd investment in a time-share development on Costa del Sol in Spain.
The article suggested that some of the snooker players expected a particular benefit from the investment. Mr Hearn said this week: ''I made an agreement that we would help promote this development for a five per cent share. The bottom fell out of the time-share market and we got the deal on the apartments. There is nothing to hide about the deal.'' What then does the future hold for Mr Hearn and Matchroom Ltd? For more than six years, he has been a regular visitor to Hongkong, and a principal promoter of the sport among local snooker players. He organises an annual tournament which is a major eventon the Asian circuit.
He believes the current controversy will proceed to a legal resolution and that he will be back in the territory in August for the event.
''I'm looking forward to it, although there will be some people who won't be invited this year,'' he said, with that smile again.