Cooke favourite ahead of final

SIMON COOKE (City of Derry GC) or Maurice Ferguson (Glendermott CC) will become the 32nd name to be engraved on the illustrious roll-of-honour when the dust settles on tonight’s final of the 2011 North-West Senior Snooker Individual Championship, sponsored by PFS Accountants and hosted by Du Pont Snooker Club.

Neither finalist figured among the eight-seeded contenders. But, while the intermediate-graded Ferguson has emerged as the Championship surprise packet, the same cannot be said of Cooke, who has been up there with the best of them for several seasons now.

Although still to decorate his CV with a major title, the Golf Club player looks to hold bright prospects of shedding his well-documented ‘underachiever’ tag tonight. As well as the better form on the book by some way, he has the advantage on experience, a valuable commodity in the heat of the final furnace,

Yet, while no crystal ball is needed to see which player carries the favourite’s tag, we’re still pretty much in the dark with regards to Ferguson’s potential. From 2009 junior semi-finalist to 2011 senior finalist, the progressive Glendermott potter has taken a major step up the snooker ladder and it would be a foolish act to underestimate the chances of a player on such an upward curve.

SIMON COOKE - A prodigy of the now defunct Leisureway SC, he was aged just 13 when making his debut in NW competitive snooker in 1996, as a member of Maxibreak’s League Division Three side.

Three years later, by which time he was regarded as one of the game’s rising stars, he became the youngest ever player to attain Premier League medal accreditation (16), having made cameo appearances for Maxibreak’s 1999 title-winning team.

He opened his NW Championship winning account in 2000 (junior), and came agonisingly close to adding the under-21 title to his CV. He was nudged out 3-2 in the 2004 final by Letterkenny’s Johnny Connors (the then reigning NW senior champion), but not before spurning a gilt-edged opportunity of claiming a prized scalp by missing a simple pot on the final black in the shoot-out frame.

2006 saw the Waterside cueist make his first impact in NW snooker’s two major individual tournaments, reaching the Senior Championship semi-final (lost 3-1 to Johnny Connors), as well as taking the runners-up honours in the Burke Trophy (beaten 3-2 by Shantallow’s Peter Doherty). He was partly rewarded for his prominent showing in the big events with a flawless victory in the Intermediate Championship, emulating Jason Prince (1986) as only the second player to annex the title without losing a single frame throughout the competition.

As indicated by his 2006 exploits, Cooke had progressed into a player of considerable talent, packing an accomplished all-round game with a tidy break-building technique, evidenced by compiling his maiden match century break in a 2006 Northern Ireland tournament at Belfast’s Jackpot Club (101 clearance).

However, between 2007 and 2010, he hit a flat patch and, apart from playing an anchor role in Maxibreak’s Premier Cup-winning team (2008), his talent was inexplicably kept under lock and key.

Come the 2011 Senior Championship renewal, Cooke started a rather weakish 10/1 shot in the ante-post betting, odds that reflected lack of success rather than ability, but the penny finally dropped in this year’s Championship.

Route to Final - Cooke launched his challenge by defeating Letterkenny’s vastly experienced Gerry McKeever 2-0, a solid start followed by a much more revealing effort in the next round.

Paired against Seamus Cusack, back-to-back runner-up (2007-08), the Prehen potter turned in a sound display to win 2-0, a victory which now looks even better in the light of the GPO player’s subsequent Burke Trophy triumph.

The Golf Club player served up a dominant display in a decisive 2-0 quarter-final win over Letterkenny’s Sean McVeigh, an unexpected second-round survivor at the expense of Gerald McCloskey (2008 kingpin and number three seed).

Cooke faced a real acid test in his semi-final encounter with Du Pont’s Pascal McKenna, the 2009 champion and runner-up last year. And the Campsie cueman seemed set to become a three-in-a-row finalist (led 2-0), but Cooke never bated an eyelid and reeled off the remaining three frames for a laudable come-from-behind 3-2 victory.

MAURICE FERGUSON - Compared to Simon Cooke’s substantial portfolio, the CV of the 39-year-old Glendermott CC player was relatively low-key at the dawn of 2011, but he has certainly raised his profile by a coveted place in the senior final. And if that’s not good enough for one year, he has also reached the ultimate stage of the ‘pairs’.

A late comer to NW competitive snooker, Ferguson made his debut when the Cricket Club entered the fray in the 2002/03 season. Since then, the ‘Glens’ have compiled a formidable strike-rate in the handicap team tournaments, highlighted by a three-in-a-row hat-trick-of League Division One titles (2008-09-10), as well as a brace of Pairs Knockout Cup victories (2005-10), and Ferguson played an influential role in all five successes.

While major team medals are not to be sniffed at, it’s in the Senior Championship arena where true NW snooker stardom is found, and a ‘good innings’ tonight may well see the cricketer elevated to NW snooker’s most distinquished roll-call of champions.

Route to Final - Among the ante-post outsiders (20/1), Ferguson laid down an eye-catching marker for the rest of the Championship, having won 2-0 against Shantallow’s Pete Murphy (fifth seed).

He followed up by beating Oak Grove’s Liam Kelly 2-0, before prevailing 2-1 in his quarter-final encounter with Du Pont’s Mickey McGowan, the second-round conqueror of Strabane’s Glenn Roulston (ex-dual champion and fourth seed).

The Glendermott player’s opponent in the semi-final was Paul Donaghy (seeded eight), who had dethroned Letterkenny’s Johnny Connors in the previous round. The Claudy cueist led 1-0 and 2-1, but Ferguson was undeterred and, after twice equalising, edged the shoot-out frame in a photo-finish.

FACTFILE - The Senior Championship was founded in 1933, a time when snooker was very much the poor relation of billiards and, owing to lack of ‘sufficient interest’, the Championship was discontinued after two years.

But snooker gradually gained popularity, competition was revived in 1945, and thereafter the Championship steadily grew in stature to ultimately become the flagship event of the NW green baize.

Roll-of-Honour - Thirty-one players have bagged the game’s ultimate prize, none more so than Eglinton’s Paul King, who wore the crown a remarkable nine times (1986-90-92-94-95-96-98-99-00).

Donal McVeigh (1968-71-72-76-77) and Liam McCann (1970-75-79-85-88) share second place in the title table with five conquests.

Jimmy Herron (1956-62-64-69), Noel McCann (1965-67-74-78), Coleraine’s Seamus McClarey (1981-82-84-87) and Letterkenny’s Johnny Connors (2002-04-06-10) hit the jackpot four time apiece, with Connors securing the distinction as the youngest title custodian (aged 15).

Bobby Campbell chalked up a hat-trick (1949-50-51), the first three-in-a-row champion (since equalled by Paul King).

Jackie Lyttle (1946-54), Hugh McCann (1955-59), Charlie Harkin (1961-63), Joe Stainsby (1980-83), Colm McConomy (1991-93), Seamus Conway (1997-01) and Strabane’s Glenn Roulston (2005-07) doubled-up.

One-off champions are Ben McKenna (1933), Willie Stewart (1934), Teddy Heatley (1945), Terry Mellon (1947), Willie Devlin (1948), Jim Denning (1952), Hugh Brady (1953), Lyndon McCurry (1957), Jim McAllister (1958), Bobby Brady (1960), Paddy Harkin (1966), Noel McGinley (1973), Terry Murphy (1989), Pete Murphy (2003), Gerald McCloskey (2008) and Pascal McKenna (2009).

Record Breakers - The Senior Championship’s maiden century break was made by Jason Prince, who compiled 113 during a semi-final outing at George’s Bar in 1987 (remains the Championship record).

Johnny Connors sank 107 and 102 at Du Pont SC in 2005, the only player to achieve a brace of ‘tons’ in the same Senior Championship campaign.

And finally, Paul King’s 77 at George’s Bar in 1996 sets the standard for the highest sequence in the final.

TONIGHT - The Final - Simon Cooke (City of Derry GC) v Maurice Ferguson (Glendermott CC), at Du Pont SC, 7-30 p.m. Best-of-seven frames (formal dress), the match officials are Seamus Gallagher, Joe Sims and John Clifford.