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Snookered by ten pin bowling club
Andrew Cairns
Andrew Cairns at the Commonwealth Sporting Club in 1989

While Northern Soul devotees mourn the demolition of the Mecca buildings to make way for Blackpool and the Fylde's £100m new campus, it will tinged with sadness for the local snooker fraternity, too.

As well as the legendary Highland Room, the Mecca also housed the Commonwealth Sporting Club and two decades on from its closure Fylde snooker players still seem stunned by losing the superclub.

As well as the legendary Highland Room, the Mecca also housed the Commonwealth Sporting Club.

Two decades on from its closure Fylde snooker players still seem stunned by losing the superclub.

Opened in 1977 by the late Joe Davis, the Commonwealth was the kick-start for a new breed of snooker clubs.

I could write a book about the goings on in the club - the characters, the players and money matches!
Former snooker pro Andrew Cairns

It was the brainchild of local snooker professional David Greaves who wanted to offer an alternative to the clubs in that era that were typically dark and dingy affairs - manifesting the image of a misspent youth.

The timing couldn't have been better. The game was taking off thanks to the popularity of BBC Two's 'Pot Black' and the north west was the hotbed of snooker; staging major professional events in Warrington, Blackpool and Preston - home to the UK Championship - and it was also a hub for top players such as John Spencer, John Virgo, Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor.

Kudos

It boasted 25 full-size snooker tables including a snooker arena which was the jewel in the Commonwealth's crown. With a capacity for over 200 spectators, Table 1 staged exhibitions, challenge matches and major finals.

It hosted the English Amateur final which, in amateur terms, was second in prestige to only the World Amateur Championships. In the time when the professional circuit was somewhat of a closed shop, the English Amateur winner was automatically granted professional status thus adding to the kudos of the event.

The Mecca
The Mecca Buildings shortly before work started

The Commonwealth quickly became the haunt of the biggest snooker stars of the day. Three-times World Champion John Spencer, who was a family friend of the Greaves, was a familiar face. Canadian Cliff Thorburn, who won the 1980 World Championship, could be seen practising on notorious Table 4 (with tightest pockets in the club) whenever he was in town.

The man of the 80s, Steve Davis, was a regular visitor, too. Davis used to practise with local coach Frank Callan and follow it up with supper at the Cottage Chippy. The association with six times World Champion propelled Callan into a supercoach and people travelled from all over the UK in the hope that he could transform them into top players.

Rising star John Parrott was often in the club for lessons with the 'Guru' as he became known. Parrott really impressed in a £500 challenge match with local pro Steve Meakin on Table 1 shortly before turning professional in 1984 and he looked destined to be the natural successor to Davis when his reign would come to an end. Callan guided Parrott to the 1991 World title although it was Stephen Hendry who would succeed Davis to the throne.

Although the most high profile, Callan wasn't the only coach based at the Commonwealth. The club housed four other coaches; owner David Greaves, Dale Rawcliffe, Sedge McClelland and John Hurst - the last three of which have all sadly passed on.

'Magical'

The club didn't just attract snooker stars. Former British and Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion Brian London used to train in the boxing gym and was a regular in the restaurant. As well as the snooker and boxing facilities - it also had five squash courts, three badminton courts, a second gym, an aerobic studio, a bar, restaurant and a parade of shops - including a hairdressers!

Ramsay McLellan - who bought the club with his business partner in 1984 after Greaves moved to the US - says the club was ahead of its time.

Steve Davis and Lynette Horsburgh
Steve Davis and Lynette Horsburgh on Table 1, 1983

He said: "It was a fantastic club. It was some size - a total of 32,000 square foot.

"There was something magical about it and there were always stars in there...from Steve Davis to Chubby Brown!"

McLellan added: "People are still stopping me in the street all these years on to tell me how much they miss it!"

The Commonwealth was turned into Premier Bowl in 1989 and McLellan from Staining explains the reason for its demise.

McLellan said: "It was a massive loss for snooker in the area when it was replaced by ten pin bowling but the problem was it was no good for parking."

Probably the most affected player, Andrew Cairns, recalls the day the co-owner Ken Lowe - who was also his manager - called him in to the office to break the bad news to him.

"I was absolutely devastated. I didn't speak to him for a week."

The protégé of Dale Rawcliffe, Cairns was a permanent fixture on table 7; he used to spend 12 hours a day there knocking in countless century breaks.

The timing for the closure couldn't have been worse for him. He was 21 years old and had just won his professional ticket in the qualifiers. He made it to a high of 48 on the WPBSA rankings but without the Commonwealth facilities, and the cream of snooker to spar with, he never made it to the top ranks.

Masterstroke

He admitted: "I think I lost my edge when it shut. I spent all day every day there and when it closed I didn't know what to do with myself.

"It wasn't just a blow for me, though, all the players that went in there felt lost when it was gone."

Cairns added: "I could write a book about the goings on in the club - the characters, the players and money matches!"

It was also the base for a young Daryl Peach who started out as a snooker player and went on to be crowned World 9 Ball Champion. Peach moved to Blackpool with his parents from Castleford, Yorkshire when he was 14. Aided by John Hurst, he honed his snooker skills until the club closed its doors three years later.

Peach said: "When I drive past the rubble now it sickens me to look at it but I've got some brilliant memories of the club and the good times we had there."

Peach had followed in Cairns's footsteps onto the WPBSA circuit when the game was opened up in 1992. He struggled in the notorious summer qualifiers at Blackpool's Norbreck Castle, though, and switched allegiances from snooker to 9 Ball.

The move proved to be a masterstroke: he cleared up in his first major event, the European Pool Masters in 1995, and in November 2007 he lifted the World 9 Ball trophy in the Philippines.

Peach credits his old training ground as playing a part in his eventual success; albeit in a different cuesport discipline.

'Our youth'

He smiles when he thinks about how desperate he used to get to the club after school. "I remember how I used to rush to the club for practise after school...and sometimes during school! I used to walk twice as fast as when I was going anywhere else because I couldn't wait to get in there."

Work gets underway
Demolition work gets underway in Blackpool

Like a few regulars, Peach continued to go there when the Commonwealth was transformed into a ten pin bowling alley. He became a handy bowler, too, playing off a scratch handicap.

He admitted: "I still went in Premier Bowl but it was never the same as when it was the Commonwealth."

Former top lady player Maria Tart says she is still "gutted" when she passes the spot where the club used to be. Almost two decades on she still laments the closure of the club.

Ironically, Tart now manages Rileys Pool and Snooker Club on Church Street in Blackpool but she says the Commonwealth was her first love.

She said: "It's so sad. It was our youth and where we grew up. There was something so special about the place."

Her son James is following the Tart tradition. At the tender age of 13, he already boasts a highest break of 113 and is yet another protégé of Callan.

The Commonwealth was also home to another leading lady player. Lynette Horsburgh - who went on to become the world number 1 lady snooker player and is current World Ladies Pool Champion - also played at the club. She could be seen nightly practising with Sedge McClelland on their favoured table 11.

Rubble

Horsburgh said: "I was heartbroken when it closed. It was my idea of heaven. The first time I played on a full size table was there in 1983 when I was nine and I was on the next table to my absolute idol Steve Davis!

"If it wasn't for the Commonwealth I probably would never have taken the game up because most local venues at the time didn't allow ladies to play on the tables."

Horsburgh celebrated her 10th birthday in the club with 30 classmates and John Parrott no less!

She said: "They'll never be a club like it. It had such an amazing bunch of characters in there such as Sedge, Dale, Paul Carpenter, Neil Figgins, the Tarts, the Meakins, Andy Power, Bradley Mancini, Jonathan Hawksworth and Ken Owers.

"Snooker was in its heyday and there was always a buzz in there. You'd never know who would be in there - but you could always guarantee there would be plenty of action."

As just rubble remains where the Mecca Building once stood, it's not just the locals who rue the closure of the Commonwealth: Steve Davis says he still misses the club.

On a recent return to the resort, he reminisced on BBC Radio Lancashire's John Gillmore show about trips to the club in the 80s when he ruled the snooker roost. Davis described it as the "best club in the country of its time".




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