SNOOKER: Meet Del Hill, the relative unknown behind greats like Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry
Snooker fans may not have heard of Del Hill. But Ronnie O'Sullivan, the sport's greatest exponent, acknowledges him a huge debt of gratitude.
Hill, 63, a qualified engineer from North West London, has been the mechanic behind multiple snooker champions, tweaking their techniques at a remote farm in Friskney, Lincolnshire.
Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry and Mark Selby have sought out the expertise of Hill, who compares himself to Jose Mourinho; both world class coaches without experience of playing at the top level.
“I think I’m the best coach there’s been,” the friendly giant says confidently, relaxing his 6ft 9in frame on the sofa in his front room, which overlooks a sunlit fishing lake. “I remember Mourinho once said: ‘As a player I can’t compete with Frank Rijkaard, but as a coach, no problem.”
Five-time world champion O’Sullivan calls him ‘Delvis’ – a nickname that began in a Liverpool nightclub – and wrote in his autobiography: “Del is a top man and a top coach. He knows me better than anyone.”
Sat beside his Rottweiler, Nancy, Hill recalls a colourful career, from meeting a 16-year-old O’Sullivan, to selling tables to John Terry and Jamie Carragher.
“He’s hard work but we had some good times,” he says. “He’s the greatest ever.”
“I remember walking back to the hotel after a match when he was 16,” Del says. “He put his arm round me and said, ‘I couldn’t have done it without you.’ That was nice.”
On discovering O’Sullivan’s enigmatic talent in 1992, Hill’s coaching career rocketed, having only won amateur tournaments himself.
He stumbled upon a teenage Ronnie whilst attending a pro-am in Blackpool with Skegness professional Graham Cripsey – a part-time motorcyclist, who lost his thumb on the wall of death – once ranked 34 in the world.
“You knew Ron was special,” Hill says. “Cripsey dropped off, and Ronnie asked me to go with him.”
“It was when I coached Cripsey that I realised I had a talent. Within five minutes, I can understand someone’s cue action, and help them get through the ball. I started at the top of the game really - White would phone, or Tony Drago.”
“Snooker was in me from the start,” Hill says, having always been around top-class players. He and his father, Jack - a formidable billiards player - played alongside Patsy Fagan and Neal Foulds at Neasden Snooker Club.
Despite mixing with stars, Cricklewood, North London, provided an unglamorous upbringing. His parents divorced and mother Elsie remarried.
“It was poor,” he says in a distinctive cockney accent, which lends itself to anecdotes of smoky snooker halls. “We didn’t have a lot.”
Hill’s stepfather was tragically killed on a building site, crushed by a downpipe. It was time for him to leave home and make something of himself.
“I did an apprenticeship at 15, and became a qualified engineer,” he says. “By 17, I was living alone on the 13th floor of a highrise block of flats at the rough end of Abbey Road, and a mate helped me with rent.”
“In 1978, we moved on from the Beatles hotspot. Me and Maxine bought our first home.”
“We got an ex-council house from a guy called dodgy Bob,” he says, chuckling. “He showed us a picture of two snooker players and said, ‘They’ll be world champions one day.’ It was White and Tony Meo.”
An inoperable back injury forced Hill to retire from his job as a postman in 1986, with a 4-1 chance of being in a wheelchair otherwise. He’d been a keen golfer Pinner Hill, where he won “all the snooker tournaments”, reducing his handicap from 18 to eight one year. Receiving a pension from the post office, he and his wife retreated to a secluded Lincolnshire farm, previously used for growing crops.
“I couldn’t stand Essex boys pretending to be cockney,” he suggests as his reason for leaving London. “I had to put one on for an Irish radio station once. Ronnie wouldn’t do an interview, so I pretended to be him. I’m in the van saying, ‘Yeah, this is Ronnie.’”
“Property here was dirt cheap, so we bought five acres and had three boys, Jack, Sam and Tommy - all Lincolnshire yellow-bellies.”
“This was just a chicken shed,” Hill says, revealing a treasure chest of snooker memorabilia where the previous owners had stored potatoes.
“In 2000, Jimmy was playing Jack, my eldest, in there and he asked Tommy what the highest break was on the table. Tommy says, ‘Ronnie’s made 140’. Jimmy laughs, ‘Ain’t the highest now!’ He’d made a 147.”
“Jimmy’s Jimmy,” Dell digresses. “I’d ask him to look after Ronnie on a night out and he’d say, ‘Don’t put that on me!’”
“I have a great life,” Del refocuses, looking beyond his type-2 diabetes. “I have a lovely wife and three healthy sons.”
The farm has a calming influence on Hill, who has 50 or 60 coaches worldwide. He receives business calls from Russia and India, and has visited Thailand 24 times. Hill was once coaching half of the world’s top 64, but the greatest of them all was one of his first.
“My most vivid memory with Ronnie was playing John Higgins in the 2001 World Championship final,” Hill recalls. “He won the first session 6-2, and then lost four frames in a row to make it 6-6.”
“He comes in at the interval in bits. He’s coming across the ball, you see, but I’d never say anything to him when he was struggling. I’d say, ‘Fancy a cuppa, Ron?’”
“‘I want a dummy,’ Ron’s saying. This is Ronnie asking for a dummy in the world final! He needed to stop dropping the cue low – something we called ‘up the slope.’”
“Anyway, he goes out there and makes 70, 100, 90 and 80. He came back in, and just said, ‘Up the slope.’ He was cured.”
O’Sullivan won 18-14 to secure the first of five world titles, but Hill became increasingly distant from The Rocket after the triumph. Ronnie wanted the gentle giant to himself, reluctant to share his expertise with other top-class professionals, such as Stephen Hendry, to whom O’Sullivan was an emerging rival by 1999.
“Hendry was the best at the time, a six-time world champion,” Hill says. “But he’d just lost 9-0 to Marcus Campbell.”
“Ian Doyle, who was manager of both Hendry and O’Sullivan, phoned me up. He goes, ‘I want you to have a word.’ Five minutes later, it’s Stephen. I said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’”
“He was pecking at the ball, restricting the fluidity of an otherwise exemplary cue action. ‘I’ve noticed it for two years,’ I said to him. Hendry goes, ‘You’re right!’”
“I asked Ron and he said, ‘Go up there, we’ll learn from it.”
Hill travelled to Scotland and joined Hendry on the practice table of his home in Auchterarder, where the world champion’s wife Mandy and son Blaine were waiting.
“We’re on the table at 11am and he’s sorted by 12,” Hill says. “I was looking at his action, physically moving him, repositioning him. He was clearing all these balls up.”
“I told his wife he’d had a broken gun. ‘Now, he’ll have all six bullets!’”
Ten days later, Hill received a call from Doyle telling him that Hendry had just beaten Ken Doherty in the final of the Malta Cup. Hendry’s resurgence then continued, winning the Scottish Open before securing a record seventh world title. Del’s name, however, was not mentioned when Hendry’s team were asked what had triggered the miraculous turnaround.
“They didn’t plug me,” Hill recalls. “‘Someone prominent in the game’ had sorted Stephen out, because I was in Ronnie’s corner.”
“I still have a signed tutorial video from Hendry which says, ‘To Del, thanks for fixing my gun.’ It was a nice touch”
Hill never received any recognition for transforming Mark Selby into a world champion either, having fine-tuned his cue action in 2005.
“He came to me saying, ‘I can’t a pot a ball.’ Then, when Dennis Taylor was interviewing him, and calling him ‘the most improved player in the world’, he wasn’t saying anything. I’d changed him completely, giving him the four, five points he’s got now. I wish him all the best.”
Hill aims to make players self-sufficient; Hendry had required no further attention. “A good coach helps a player coach himself,” he says.
In 2004, he was in Graeme Dott’s corner, reaching a Crucible final against O’Sullivan, now under the wing of six-time world champion Ray Reardon. “When I turned up, Ronnie and Ray walked out of the practice room,” Hill says. “Dotty goes, ‘That went down well!’”
“Dotty went 4-0 up, and my phone goes in the interval. Ronnie’s threatening me. I said, ‘Look Ron, good luck to you.” O’Sullivan won, sealing his second title, but Dott’s road to the final was remarkable, and he lifted the trophy as a 500-1 outsider two years later.
“Some coaches out there say I never coached Hendry or Dotty, that I’ve brainwashed them,” Hill laughs, knowing no other snooker coach has had the same impact. He has sometimes had to switch between dressing rooms, as the coach of multiple players. “I don’t enjoy that,” he admits.
It’s not just elite professionals who have received Hill’s attention; youngsters such as a 13-year-old Mitchell Mann - now on the professional circuit - have visited the farm for coaching. “His dad phoned me up a week later and said he’d made a 147!” Hill recalls.
Then, there was the time Hill brokered a deal for John Terry on the 2008 World Championship table. Hill recalls: “John was like, ‘You will sort me out, won’t you?’ I was wondering why he sounded so worried – he was on thousands! I’d like to get back in touch.
“I’ve sorted out Carragher and Souness too.”
Hill has also accommodated television personalities, including Howard Brown, of the popular Halifax banking adverts. He didn’t realise who it was until he arrived at the farm.
“I took him and Jimmy for a pub steak night,” he says. “Everyone was getting Howard’s autograph, and they weren’t bothered about Jimmy.”
Hill’s proudest moment came at the end of a highly-successful spell as the coach of England’s amateur squad, in which they won the Prince of Wales Shield five years consecutively between 2007 and 2011. He says: “In the bar, with the karaoke on, the whole team were singing ‘you’re simply the best’. I was goose-pimply.”
He is not concerned about the influx of Chinese players and the growing interest in snooker in the Far East. “They’ve saved the game,” he says, recognising the sport’s revival since the emergence of Ding Junhui and other popular Chinese talents over the last decade or so. After all, the 63-year-old has spent his career travelling the world. Hill is relaxed about what the future holds, but his colourful past will take some beating.