17 December 2001
Anyone tuning into Ceefax the other day seeking news on snooker's UK Championships would have seen a helpful asterisk next to the third-round match between Dave Finbow and the tournament's eventual winner, Ronnie O'Sullivan.
"Finbow,'' read the note, "retired after the first session when O'Sullivan was leading 8-0.''
That sentence could be taken literally. Finbow retired from the match, yes, but he as good as retired as a professional then and there. For almost half his 11-year career he has battled anxiety attacks as baffling as they are paralysing. No doctor has been able to diagnose the problem, nor any specialist provide an answer.
Finbow has come almost to loathe the game he loved. He cannot stand it any longer. So the world No 47 is quitting. He and his wife Tonia are starting a new life in Spain, although they have no idea how he will make a living. Finbow only knows he will not be taking a snooker cue with him.
O'Sullivan was overjoyed after demolishing Ken Doherty 10-1 in the final. But playing for pleasure is not a phrase Finbow understands anymore.
"It's become unbearable,'' he explained at his Worcestershire home. "I've been at my wits' end trying to understand it. If I take no medication, then the day before a tournament I feel as if I have a hangover. I feel hot, I'm sweating, I feel like my eyes are bulging and I'm overwhelmingly lethargic. I have no control over my cue at all. I can't play. I don't mean I'm not playing well. I mean I can't play.
"It's terrible. It doesn't necessarily happen during a match. It can happen afterwards, or during practice. Against Ronnie it was the worst ever. I was dizzy and nauseous. I was struggling to stand up. The table felt weird.
"I couldn't feel my cue in my hand. It was like giving a pint of blood every time I played a shot. Some of my friends told me I looked so terrible that they wondered if I was literally about to die.
"I haven't enjoyed snooker for a long time. There was a time when I loved it. Now I resent it. I want to carry on playing but I can't. I've heard people say I'm making excuses, but all my close friends and family know my situation.
"I've tried everything in the last two years from conventional medicine to acupuncture. I've reached the stage where if someone told me they could help, I don't even think I'd try it. It would be a comfort to know what the problem really is, but I've had enough.''
Meeting Finbow, 33, you vaguely expect to encounter someone with 'bag of nerves' tattooed on his forehead, permanently ill-at-ease and laughing nervously.
Of course it turns out that he is utterly normal, with the social confidence of any regular adult. Yet his professional life has been blighted by crippling anxiety.
"I can't get to the bottom of it,'' he mused in puzzlement. "I don't feel stressed generally. I'm not a worrier. I enjoy life to the full. I don't feel pressured by snooker. When I was a kid I needed to win so that I'd have the money to buy petrol to get home again. Back then I played well.
"I've never thought, 'My God, I've got to win this match'. I've never been in the game for money. I've read every book I can find trying to understand it. I've searched the internet. I've tried so hard, and I give up. To me what I have sounds similar to agoraphobia. There isn't anything to be genuinely worried about in an open space, but something reacts in the body to create anxiety.
"That's what happens with me. I seem to have a fear of snooker.'' Finbow smiled as he said it, perfectly aware how comical it sounds. But it is not remotely funny for him.
"When I look back I've had it on and off for years. I'm not sure when the first attack was. But things happened which I didn't understand.
"In my first full season I qualified for Dubai by beating Ken Doherty and Ronnie O'Sullivan. I played so well but the next game I just couldn't play. I was hot and sweating. I thought it was ordinary stress. I wonder sometimes if it isn't more common than it seems. People just think they've lost their form. I wonder if it was what Ian Baker-Finch had in golf. But it's not like the yips. It's not that my hands shake or that I can't pull the cue back and let go. My action feels normal but the cue doesn't go where it's supposed to.
"A lot of the players have been sympathetic. Mark Williams and Ken Doherty have tried to help, and Ronnie was really gracious, but Steve Davis made some remarks on television which I wasn't too impressed with. My friends have called him some quite nasty names.
"I can only guess at my potential. But I know I'm a top-16 player at least. It's easy for me to say that but I've never been one to kid myself.
"I know my own ability. I've made 60 breaks of 147, and about 8,000 centuries-But if I don't take medication I struggle to make a 50 break in practice.''
At first a doctor offered beta-blockers but Finbow had to refuse because they are banned. Then he tried another drug which helped, but was highly addictive and could only be taken for two weeks in every six. At the end of last season he was prescribed a non-addictive drug which made him feel like a different person. But when the new season arrived, so did the old anxiety. He was devastated.
"I've been close to tears, in total despair,'' he said. "I've put in so much hard work over the years. Six months ago I couldn't have imagined quitting. At the start of the year I promised myself I would exhaust every possibility in search of an answer but I can't find one and I don't want to try any more.
"It's a curse. Now I'm just relieved it's going to be over. I'm past being sad or angry. There's no point looking back. We're going to Spain where my dad lives. I don't know what I'll do for a living.
"Hopefully something will come along. But I'll definitely have nothing to do with snooker. I won't take a cue with me.
"Snooker has been my life since I was 12 but I wouldn't wish the way I feel on anybody. I'll damage my longterm health if I stay in the game any longer. Retiring means I can stop taking drugs. I can be normal again. I can be free.''
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