James Cahill made snooker history on Tuesday when he dumped five-time champion Ronnie O’Sullivan out of the World Championship. Before making his Crucible debut, Cahill – along with mum Maria and Preston professional Ian McCulloch – spoke to BBC Sport’s Lynette Horsburgh about his career.
When James Cahill became the first amateur to qualify for the World Championship at the Crucible, he put much of his success down to his mother.
The 23-year-old from Blackpool won three qualifiers to become the first non-professional to appear in Sheffield, setting up a first-round match against five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“I owe my career to my family – particularly my mum,” said Cahill, who also earned a place back on the professional tour with his success in the qualifiers.
“She has taken me everywhere,” he said – from junior tournaments at Pontins holiday camps in his younger days to Q-School, the qualifying event that offers entry to the pro tour.
His mother Maria Cahill (nee Tart) was a top women’s player in the 1980s and 1990s and said the treks to Pontins were like deja vu after spending much of her youth travelling there herself with late father Mick, himself a top amateur in Blackpool.
She always dreamed of playing at the Crucible herself but said her son qualifying to play at snooker’s most iconic venue was “even sweeter”.
Maria found it impossible to make a living playing snooker and by the time she had her daughter – also named Maria, now 27 – and James, she was managing Rileys snooker club in Blackpool.
James could be seen diving on any spare tables at the club as soon as he could reach over them.
Maria later bought her own club in Preston called Stephen Hendry’s Snooker Club – after her ex-brother-in law, the seven-time world champion – with her husband and James’ father Patrick, himself a century-break player.
The Cahills still own the club and it has a Star match table for James to hone his skills on.
James’ parents took him out of school at 15 and paid for a tutor so he could travel to tournaments.
His mother says he was “destined” to play at snooker’s theatre of dreams.
“I’ve always believed in him and that he could do it,” she said. “I have been behind him every step of the way and it has been worth all the sacrifices.
“He isn’t scared of playing Ronnie. He’s relishing it – he is going to enjoy it.”
Maria was not the only one to spot his potential.
She said her father, who had dementia before he died, pulled her to one side after watching James hit some balls.
Maria recalled: “He said: ‘Who is that boy playing snooker? He is brilliant. He is going to be world champion one day’.”
Maria admits her son’s road to the Crucible has been an “emotional rollercoaster”, not to mention the expense of travelling the world to play in qualifying events.
Cahill took nine months off in 2017 after dropping off the pro tour, saying his “head was finished with the game” when he made a first-round exit in the UK Championships at the end of 2016.
Maria said: “It has been a struggle at times but I think it was just because he has played since he was so young.”
James has said the break has helped him focus and he has been “working harder than ever”.
He has also been travelling to Belgium for coaching from Chris Henry, who was taught by Maria’s own mentor, Frank Callan, at Blackpool’s Commonwealth Sporting Club.
Cahill said Henry has “massively improved” his game, particularly the mental side of it, as his results and breaks on way to the Crucible prove – he knocked in six centuries in his three qualifying wins, an epic deciding-frame victory over Andrew Higginson and subsequent triumphs over Michael Holt and Michael Judge.
Cahill, who knocked world number one Mark Selby out of the UK Championship in November, said he is not daunted by drawing ‘The Rocket’.
“It is the toughest draw but if you’re going to win it you’re going to have to beat him at some point,” he said.
“It sounds surreal to say I am playing at the Crucible. Hopefully it’s the start of many years to come playing here.
“I believe I can beat anyone. I wouldn’t come if I didn’t believe I could win. If you don’t believe, then no one else will.”
And the last Lancashire player to play at the Crucible, Preston professional Ian McCulloch, says Cahill is capable of producing a shock against O’Sullivan.
McCulloch, who reached the semi-finals in 2004, said: “I watched James play in the qualifiers and he played really well. It is a different ball game out there at the Crucible but he seems to thrive on the big stage.
“He’s beat some big names already so who knows.”
And Cahill will have a extra player in his corner when he steps through the famous Crucible curtain on Monday.
Maria said: “I’ll be taking every single shot with him.”
This article was first published on Sunday, 21 April.