Tyneside terror’s white knuckle ride

November 5, 2019

He’s in the frame for a stellar 2020 following this year’s big break on snooker’s World Championship stage. Simon Rushworth met Gary Wilson ahead of December’s UK Championships in York

As nicknames go it’s difficult to imagine a more inappropriate moniker. Recognised around snooker tables the world over as the Tyneside Terror, Wallsend’s Gary Wilson couldn’t be less horrifying if he tried.

A fan of 80s power ballads, Channel Four’s Gogglebox, family time with fiancé Robyn and his beloved Newcastle United, the former taxi driver is more Eastenders’ Charlie Slater than Robert De Niro’s notorious Travis Bickle. In fact, it’s more terrifying negotiating World Snooker’s seriously taxing schedule than spending an hour in the company of Gary.

“I’m always telling my mates that if I experience another dip in form at some stage in the future, I’m going to become a travel agent,” explains the 34-year-old. “I organise all of my trips and know every airline and booking website inside out. If any of my friends are planning a holiday I tell them to come to me first. I know how to get all the best deals!”

But Gary’s nomadic life on the road – entering tournaments across the UK and abroad – isn’t without incident. Not quite in the Neil Robertson mould (the Australian missed a qualifying tournament last month after driving to the Gloucestershire village of Barnsley rather than the Yorkshire town of the same name), the one-time cabbie proudly recounts the time he triumphed in the face of adversity and landed in Latvia against all the odds.

“There were eight or ten players who missed the Riga Masters this summer and I should have been one of them,” explains Gary. “I should have been on the same plane as the guys who eventually got stranded but I got to Luton and realised I’d forgotten my passport. I tried everything I could to blag my way onto the flight but in the end I had to drive all the way back to Newcastle and book a new ticket – at a cost of around £500 – via Gothenburg.”

It felt like a costly blow but unbeknown to Gary he was already better off than rivals including Robertson, Kyren Wilson and Jamie O’Neill after a private jet burst its tyre on the Luton tarmac. The players’ 6pm flight to Riga was delayed as airport staff cleared debris on the runway and worse was to follow.

“In the end their flight was cancelled altogether,” adds Gary. “It was really, really hot and just as they were about to take off again the whole area was hit with electrical storms. The flight never left Luton and nobody made it to Riga. I got there the following day in time to play my first round match but only because I’d forgotten my passport in the first place. You couldn’t make it up!”

Earlier this year Gary made international headlines when he played a winning part in the longest frame in World Championship snooker history. His record-breaking visit to the table in April – the deciding frame of a mammoth first-round clash with Luca Brecel clocked in at 79 minutes and 31 seconds – captured the imagination of a nation before a brilliant run all the way to Sheffield’s semi-finals.

But plying his trade in front of millions of viewers live on the BBC is the glamourous side of a job, which continues to challenge a Geordie known as one of the most genial characters on an often unforgiving circuit.

“Essentially, I’m running my own business out of a suitcase,” he adds. “I could employ people to help but I actually prefer to do it that way. I prefer to be in control. And although I wouldn’t say I’m tight, I have learnt to look after my money. I know better than most that you can never predict what’s around the corner. I understand the value of earning money from the game I love because there were so many years when I didn’t earn a thing.”

A decade ago Gary wondered whether he would ever play professionally again after seeing his whole world come crashing down following an unfathomable loss of form and focus. The former World Under 21 champion had left school at 16 to pursue his boyhood dream but just six years later a costly defeat in the 2006 World Championship qualifiers rudely interrupted the life he cherished.

“I was one win away from staying on the tour,” he adds, prior to a quick practice session at Gateshead Snooker Centre and another energysapping road trip down south. “Once that started to sink in, I was gutted.

“I’d won all sorts of tournaments as an amateur and the first year I turned professional I didn’t do too badly. I won a few matches here and there and made it to the last 48 of the Irish Masters and the last 64 of the China Open. I did enough to stay on the tour but then I started to struggle.

“Even now I can’t put my finger on what went wrong but the confidence just wasn’t there. There weren’t as many tournaments back then and so there weren’t as many opportunities to pick up ranking points. I lost that World Championship qualifier 10-9 but even then I was confident I could get back on tour within a year or two. It just never happened.”

A year or two became three or four and the reality of his perilous position hit Gary hard.

“The years rolled by and the longer it took me to get back into the professional ranks, the harder I found it on and off the table,” he admits. “I started working at the Village Hotel at Silverlink just to earn some money. I was in my early 20s without any source of income and I needed a job. I wanted to pay my way. But for the first time in my life I started to wonder whether snooker wasn’t part of the plan.”

Gary pauses as he reflects upon the darkest of times: a period punctuated by bouts of depression, serious self-doubt and, for the first time, long spells when snooker was no longer the game he loved but rather a painful reminder of what might have been.

“If I’d never made it in the first place then it might not have mattered so much,” he admits.

“But I’d been mixing it with the pros and living the dream. Then suddenly it was gone. For the first time in my life I was forced to do something I just didn’t want to do. I don’t mind admitting I was depressed for a while. I had no idea what was going on. I thought everything was going so well and then it all ended. In the blink of an eye.

“I was still playing snooker. I’ve been playing snooker since I was two-years-old. But the amateur tournaments were few and far between and even coming into practice felt like a waste of time. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like any sport: you enjoy it the better you play. And I was struggling so badly that it felt like hitting my head against a brick wall. There’s nothing enjoyable about that. Deep down, I knew I still had the ability and I never got to the point where I gave up altogether. But it was a tough, tough period.”

By the time Gary had reinvented himself as a popular cabbie, time had proved to be a great healer. His love for snooker had returned and he began to relish another crack at the big time – without allowing pressure or expectation to blow him off course.

“I’d worked at the Village, behind the bar at my local and at the Findus factory making crispy pancakes,” he recalls. “But I actually found my vocation in life driving a taxi. For the first time I found a job that I didn’t mind doing.

“Don’t get me wrong – I still missed the snooker circuit and I still had one eye on getting back to my best. Until that happened I was never going to be happy deep down. But I was content enough. I liked talking to my customers and I felt relaxed behind the wheel. It cleared my mind and I started entering more tournaments again. I was going into practice knowing another event was just around the corner and I started preparing properly again. One day it all came together and I was lucky enough to get a second chance.”

Now ranked 19 in the world and still basking in the glory of that wonderful run to the World Championships’ final four, Gary goes into December’s UK Championships at York’s Barbican firmly believing he can continue to compete with the game’s biggest names and chase snooker’s most lucrative paydays.

Such is his current form that a strong last 16 showing at the English Open in Crawley felt like a missed opportunity – the Tyneside Terror exiting the tournament just as a clear route to the semifinals had opened up – but maintaining top 20 world status is well within his grasp.

And pivotal to Gary’s positive mindset on and off the table is the unwavering support from fiancé Robyn. Friends since their schooldays, earlier this year the couple were engaged on a boat in Hawaii against the backdrop of a stunning sunset. “It was just perfect,” adds Gary. “I’d sounded out a few of my friends during a previous trip to Portugal and they said I should go for it. I picked up a decent cheque for making the World Championship semis and so I booked a round-the-world trip that included a stop-off in New Zealand, where Robyn has relatives.

“I couldn’t have asked for more. It can be very difficult for the wives and girlfriends of players on snooker’s world tour. I don’t know where I’ll be from one week to the next and even when I get to where I’m supposed to be there’s no telling how long I’ll be there!

“But Robyn is great in that respect. She tries to catch up with me whenever and wherever she can. She loves the annual tournament in Gibraltar and always makes a point of coming over there but even if I’m playing a one-off exhibition match in Liverpool she’ll often jump on a train at the last minute and meet me.”

If Gary’s inspirational journey is gathering pace in 2019 then he’ll never forget where it started. Mum Margaret and dad George would often talk about their infant son’s obsession with snooker on the television and as a toddler he was gifted his very first table. “I think I used to point at the balls on the telly and then one Christmas I was given a four foot by two foot snooker table,” explains Gary. “First it was just something I played with on the floor and there’s an old photo of me with a half-eaten toasted sandwich in the background and a snooker cue in my hands – I must only have been two or three.

“Soon I was starting to make breaks of 20 and 30 and I was beating my dad. By the time I was eight he was taking me to the local snooker club and I was standing on boxes playing against the adults. I was spotted by a chap called Stan Chambers – who was a key player in the North East snooker scene – and he suggested I enter some tournaments. I never looked back.”

Gary admits he was seen as something of an oddity by school friends – even after he showed up three times on the BBC’s Junior Big Break: Stars Of The Future. Choosing snooker over football hardly helped. “I used to get a bit embarrassed as an eight or nine-year-old having to get up in school assembly because I’d won a tournament at Pontin’s in Prestatyn,” he adds. “I don’t think anyone really understood what it was all about. When I started winning money my mates became a bit more interested but spending every waking hour outside of school holed up inside a snooker hall isn’t the kind of thing most kids do! I agree it was a bit of a sad existence at times…but it’s paid off in the end.”

And then some. As a World Championship semi-finalist, one of snooker’s rising stars pocketed a cool £100,000. But it’s April’s missed opportunity, rather than any amount of money, that drives Gary to go one better. “By the time I made it through the quarter-finals I was playing the most consistent snooker of my career,” he adds. “I honestly thought I could go on and win the whole thing and become world champion. I didn’t do myself justice in the semi-finals and perhaps the pressure of the one table format in front of so many fans made a difference – but not a six-frame difference. It was disappointing.”

Maybe so. But Gary is a past master when it comes to dealing with disappointment. And don’t be surprised if the Tyneside Terror spooks his rivals again next spring, such is his frightening ability to bounce back.

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