Rarely do the worlds of sports journalism and politics neatly intertwine with one another, but when you are meticulously following a lunchtime press conference with the prime minister to see if you are going to be allowed to go to work, you know you are in for a somewhat surreal day.
The initial plan was straightforward, albeit slightly bizarre. With Barry Hearn suggesting anyone who had a ticket for this year’s World Snooker Championship had a “golden ticket” in their possession after the tournament was confirmed as a pilot for spectators to return to live events, it felt too tantalising a prospect to ignore. After all, that kind of PR is how Hearn has crafted his fortune in professional sport, and he had just landed himself another customer.
But in the space of only a few hours from Thursday evening, things got peculiar. Parts of the north – including Bradford, where I live – went back into lockdown before Boris Johnson announced that the pilot events, which included the world championships, being held, as usual, at the Crucible in Sheffield, would no longer be open to fans. The snag? When it was announced, the morning session had begun and spectators were inside.
So what happened now? By the time we got in the car to head down the M1 on Friday lunchtime for the afternoon session, there was still no confirmation about whether we’d be allowed in. In fact, it was only when we arrived at the Crucible that we received confirmation we could queue up at a safe distance from one another and head inside to watch Ding Junhui versus Mark King.
By this point Hearn had upgraded his golden ticket claim, saying that we fortunate punters now owned “ultimate golden tickets”. Heartened our journey wasn’t a waste of time, we headed for our socially-distanced spots outside the Crucible to queue up. It was sensible, well-organised: just slightly draining in the blazing Sheffield sunshine.
“It’s a quiz question of the future – where were you on the only day fans were allowed into the Crucible for this year’s world championship?” MC Rob Walker asked those queuing up, trying to keep us entertained as we waited to go inside at painstakingly-slow pace. This was the first grim reality of attending sport for the immediate future I became aware of: everything understandably takes more time.
There was no testing, no temperature checks, but test and trace forms were at least filled out as we waited to enter the arena in dribs and drabs of four or five people at a time. After the inevitable round of sanitisation at the door, it was straight to our seats; no milling around in the corridors, no trip to the kiosk for a snack. Nothing.
It certainly felt somewhat regimented and, dare I say it, even a fairly sterile experience. But it was understandable too; these were unique circumstances for World Snooker to contend with, and the process of queue-to-seat was certainly straightforward enough.
The seating also seemed well-planned too; there were no seats for spectators within five or six of ours, which at least made you feel relaxed despite the chaos in the real world.
Every audible cough – far from a rarity in the Crucible, when you can hear a pin drop even when the arena is full – was met with glares by anyone within the vicinity. The snooker itself was probably the most ordinary part of it all, with Ding’s opening break-off almost feeling as if it had put a pin in the carnage for only a few hours and allowed snooker fans to forget about the world outside.
Looking around the theatre, where every session usually sells out in double-quick time, was just as strange as events prior, too. With 125 people spread across around 900 seats, it felt like what it must have been like attending a darts event in the early-1990s, in between the sport’s boom period of the 1980s and the Sky Sports-influenced explosion thereafter. There was no Lada Riva or oversized cheque for a year’s supply of cigarettes on offer here, though.
“It feels like a local tournament where there’s about £100 on offer for the winner,” said my friend, who came along for the ride. It was definitely unique, and as the always-bullish Hearn admitted himself, something nobody else is likely to experience again this year.
“Would you do it again?” I asked my friend as we headed for home. “Probably,” he replied. “But it will take some getting used to if that’s the new normal.” That, it seems, is a challenge all sports – not only snooker – are going to face in the coming months.