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Len Ganley (1943 - 2011):
Sports official

Len Ganley was one of the leading referees in the game of snooker including during the 1980s when the game was at a peak of its popularity, watched by tens of millions across the globe on television, making Ganley one of the most recognisable sports officials in the world, including at one of now most legendary snooker matches ever; he was also a well-known figure well outside the sport, a figure familiar to many who knew nothing about the game. 

Leonard Ganley was born in Lurgan, County Armagh. He lived for some time in Burton-on-Trent, England, and had various jobs in his life including chimney sweep, milkman and bus driver. He had also been a keen snooker player from boyhood, playing in local leagues in Ulster, and winning many prizes. He also officiated at snooker matches and came to the attention of Ray Reardon, one of the world’s leading players, at a 1976 tournament where Ganley was a competitor but standing in for a missing referee. At one point he was able to silence a cheering crowd with a single gesture, which surprised Reardon, who was told to look again at the size of the referee (Ganley could weigh over 20 stone). Reardon encouraged him to develop his refereeing talents. 

Ganley did so and eventually became one of only five full-time referees in the game, in 1983. For years he officiated at the leading tournaments including, four times, the World Professional Snooker Championship. One of these finals, that of 1985, was perhaps the most famous ever, which lasted well into the night. It broke a number of records including a record number of 18.5 million viewers were tuned to BBC2, the largest after midnight figure ever recorded and BBC2’s best-ever figure. It was also, at the time, the largest British television viewer total for a sporting event. The match itself was remarkable: for the only time a final was contested until the last ball was left; the favourite and world’s number one player missed what many considered a relatively easy shot (though “relatively” should be noted), and the Ulsterman Dennis Taylor from County Tyrone was able to win his first Championship (he had appeared previously in a final, in 1979). This final became known as the “black ball” final. 

Ganley earned one nickname, “Bonecrusher”, from his appearance in a television commercial, in which he is seen to crush a snooker ball in his hand (this is impossible, this being the joke; moreover Ganley, a diabetic, was an abstainer from alcohol). Other nicknames conferred on him included “godfather of punk” (by a Liverpool pop group), and “Jolly Green Giant” (he was large, as witness the story already quoted, from Ireland, and was personally very popular). He also was the subject of a song, “The Len Ganley Stance”, affectionately pointing up his movements as the referee stands motionless while a competitor is playing but must also walk round the table retrieving the balls from the table pockets. Ganley said that he liked the song, calling it “a beautiful accolade”. 

Ganley retired as a referee in 1999 but kept in close touch with the game. He regarded it a great compliment to a referee if a player after a game asked who the referee had been, as the official should be as unobtrusive as possible. In a sport where the officials are better respected than in other, Ganley was rarely challenged, though on one occasion he had to make a decision on one of snooker’s notorious close calls. Ganley looked closely and made a ruling. The player in question asked for a second opinion (that is, from another official). Ganley looked carefully again and gave the same ruling, his second opinion. Steve Davis, one of the finest of all snooker players (and the losing player in that famous 1985 Final) said of him: “Len did a very good job of being a referee and a personality at the same time. A referee is supposed to be unseen and he liked the limelight, but he still managed to do the job properly.” 

Ganley’s popularity was partly engendered by his encouragement of young players, even on occasion uttering a whispered congratulation on shots well executed (a breach of strict arbitral neutrality perhaps though no-one begrudged him this). He was an active charity fundraiser, for example for wheelchairs for children suffering from muscular dystrophy (one well-meaning accolade doubted whether anyone would have the courage to refuse to the imposingly large Ganley’s request, perhaps couched in his best referee’s polite sternness). In 2000 he was appointed MBE for his charity work, as well as services to snooker. 

He was married with six children, one of whom became tournament director of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.

Born: 1943
Died: 2011
Richard Froggatt
Bibliography: 18.4.2003; The Independent 18.12.1992; obituaries, The Guardian, 30.8.2011, Belfast Telegraph, 30.8.2011