Westlife star Shane Filan and his friends made the Crucible their home from home during this year's 888.com World Snooker Championship.
The pop pin-up is more accustomed to visiting vast stadiums and singing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, but last weekend he swapped that environment for the more intimate setting of the Crucible in pursuit of his passion for snooker.
"I’ve loved the game since I was a kid," explains the 28-year-old, who grew up in Sligo in the north west of Ireland. "I played pool on a table in the local café then started going to snooker clubs and playing snooker once I could reach over the table. It’s been a hobby ever since. Now I’ve got a full size snooker table in my house and I love it.
"I’d never been to a tournament before. For the last 4 or 5 years I’ve always wanted to go to the Crucible but we’ve always been on tour in April."
Filan, the youngest of seven children, loved sport during his teenage years, though it was rugby rather than snooker which particularly gripped him. Eventually, his twin passions of rugby and music came to a head.
"I played fly-half when I was 15 or 16," he said. "I was captain of Connacht under-18s. I also had trials for Ireland and I got a second call-back. But on the same day I had a concert for my previous band, IOU, so I had a big decision to make. I chose the music over rugby – and hopefully people will agree that I made the right choice!"
IOU also featured Kian Egan and Mark Feehily, and in 1997 the band was spotted by Boyzone manager Louis Walsh. Brian McFadden and Nicky Byrne joined as the phenomenon of Westlife was born.
Since 1999, the band has had 14 No 1 singles in the UK (only Elvis and the Beatles have had more), with hits such as You Raise Me Up, Flying Without Wings and World Of Our Own. Despite the departure of McFadden, who left in 2004, they have now had six No 1 albums and sold a staggering 40 million records worldwide.
They are now in the middle of their Back Home Tour, which started in February and takes in many cities across the UK including Glasgow, London, Aberdeen, Cardiff and Belfast. There were two dates at the Sheffield Arena in March, with another to come in May.
Filan, then, was on familiar territory when he arrived in the Snooker City to watch the best players in the world compete for a top prize of £250,000. He watched his favourites Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry in action, though he was disappointed to miss a close friend and fellow Irishman.
"I first met Ken Doherty when I was playing in a golf pro-am at the K Club," he said. "I still remember when he won the world title in 1997. I was watching at home in Sligo. All the snooker clubs were packed. It was unbelievable, anyone who had any interest in snooker and a lot of others who didn’t were watching it. There was a great atmosphere everywhere. When he came home there was a massive crowd at the airport and it was all over the TV news and the papers. Ireland had never had a snooker world champion before and hasn’t since so it was a great achievement.
"Myself and Nicky, who also loves snooker, have followed Ken’s progress ever since. In fact it was him who asked me to come along to the Crucible this year.
"Ronnie was amazing to watch. The way he switches from right to left handed without even thinking about it is remarkable, it’s some talent he has. The 147 is always something special and he’s made nine of those now."
Snooker is not just a thrilling sport to watch for Filan, but an ideal way to relax away from the pressures of his musical stardom.
"It’s a class game, you can just chill out, have a bit of fun with the lads and enjoy it," he said. "I play when I can but because of the commitments to the band that’s not as often as I’d like.
"The table that I’ve got at home is brilliant, it’s a professional table and was used in the Masters final a couple of years ago between Ronnie and John Higgins. The pockets are very tight, it makes you realise how tough those tables on TV are and how good the players must be. It takes four or five frames to get used to the pockets and you realise that you have to play cleverly with a lot of safety and wait until you get a really good chance, rather than going for a lot of long pots. But every now and then I sink a long one which is a nice feeling.
"Nicky has a table at home as well, he’s better player than me and has made 50 breaks. If we have a match together he’d usually win 5-2 or 5-3. I can make the odd 30 or 40 break but I would love to improve."
At the end of the Back Home Tour, which culminates in the Ten Years of Westlife concert at Croke Park in Dublin in June in front of over 80,000 fans, the band plan to take an extended break. The recording of their tenth album will take priority, but no doubt Filan will also find a bit of time for the green baize. "Whenever I come back from a tour we have a snooker night, there are always a lot of nerves and it’s a great craic."Source: worldofsnooker.com