by Stuart Bathgate
THE change was overdue. While snooker’s players had become younger and more flamboyant, the referees remained middle-aged, dowdy and male. For a sport eager to present a youthful image, something had to be done.
The solution, or at least a part of it, was Michaela Tabb. Already well known on the pool circuit as both player and referee, the Dunfermline woman was as far removed as possible from the snooker stereotype. She was not middle-aged, she was far from dowdy and she was certainly not male.
The decision was made by Jim McKenzie, then the chief executive of World Snooker, now the holder of the equivalent post at Edinburgh Rugby. Dispensing with the customary five- year apprenticeship, McKenzie decreed that Tabb and three others should be fast-tracked on to the professional refereeing circuit.
That was two years ago. Now, the rapid rise is almost complete, and on Saturday Tabb will become the first woman to referee at the world championship in Sheffield, when she takes charge of the first-round match between Mark King and Drew Henry.
"Jim wanted to change the profile of the referees and bring in some younger ones, including women," recalls Tabb, who is now 35. "I was asked if I’d be interested. Obviously I knew the refereeing side of things, and I knew the rules, but I didn’t know the intricacies of snooker.
"To begin with there was a bit of opposition to me, but it was never held against me personally. There were a few who said they didn’t agree with what had happened, but they wouldn’t take it out on me. And they haven’t. They’ve all been very good."
Calm and articulate when in the confines of a Fife snooker club, she is, she says, usually just as much at ease taking charge of a match. She admits, however, that the feeling will be different in three days’ time, as she prepares to enter the Crucible. "When you’re out there you’re fine normally. In the build-up, when the players are tense, you might feel it a bit, but on the whole it’s all right, because no matter where you are it’s the same thing.
"But Sheffield’s different. There’s such a presence at the Crucible, and I think that’s what’s making me nervous now. That and the fact it’s my debut, and it’s such a huge tournament. I’ve followed it since I was about 12 years old, and now I’m going there."
It took some time, however, for Tabb to go from TV spectator to actual player. She was in her early 20s by the time she took up pool, in a local pub.
"It was a hobby at first. I started going with my then boyfriend to a pub with two pool tables, and you could either join in or sit on your own. Then within a year I was playing for Scotland, so it became more serious. Then I met my husband through that, and things just went on from there."
When she and the said spouse, Ross McInnes, moved from British eight-ball pool to the American nine-ball game, they found out there was no-one to referee the tournaments they were trying to organise. As McInnes was the professional player, it made sense for Tabb to turn to refereeing herself.
That was in 1997, and although she became European women’s champion the following year, she knew her playing was unlikely to remain at such a high level. The refereeing made it more difficult to find enough practice time, as did the arrival of a son, Morgan.
"My standard isn’t as high as it was, and I don’t think I’ll ever get that back - unless we move and get a pool room again. We’ve got a little boy, and the problem now is getting the time to practise. When I won the European Championships in 1998, that was probably the highest standard I’ve had."
As a player, that is. As a referee, she may just be starting out, even if she is at present content to have just a part-time contract. "I’m quite happy with what I’m doing, because I’ve got pool as well, that takes up a lot of time too. So between that and Ross being a professional, we just juggle everything really.
"It would be more stressful if I did more days on the snooker circuit, because it’s longer away from home. Last year I was away in Blackpool doing qualifying and that was for four weeks: Ross and Morgan came down twice, but it’s still hard to be away for so long."
It can also be hard to find oneself the centre of antipathetic attention, as Tabb did last month at the Irish Masters in Dublin. When Peter Ebdon, the defending world champion, was called for a push by her, he did not agree; his opponent, Quinten Hann, concurred with Ebdon, and played a safety with his next shot so as to gain no advantage from the ruling.
But Tabb is not easily awed, either by players or TV commentators. She is, she insists, on the spot, the best-placed to see what is going on. Rather than backing down in the face of excitable players, she is, she explains, a touch more likely to take pre-emptive action.
"There’s a few temperamental people out there, and, though it doesn’t make any difference to your preparation, you are on edge a little bit more, ready for something. Like at the Regal Scottish Masters last week, when I refereed Quinten and Ken Doherty: Ken’s great, but Quinten can be a bit temperamental, and there were a few toys that came out.
"I was getting ready to say something to him, but as it happened I didn’t have to. There’s no difference to what you do as a referee, you just have to be aware of the situation."
And Tabb is very aware. Aware that her progress has not exactly been impeded by her glamorous image - yet aware, too, that she is every bit as competent as any of the old boys who used to rule snooker’s refereeing roost.
Friday, March 23, 2007
by Stuart Bathgate