Stephen Lee: Where does match-fixing ban leave snooker?

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport
Stephen Lee says he is 'totally innocent' after match-fixing ban

Stephen Lee has been given a career-ending ban for match-fixing but had all the skills to become snooker world champion, says a former top player.

His ex-manager insists the 38-year-old, who is to appeal against a 12-year ban imposed on Wednesday, has been made a "scapegoat" in a drive to protect the game's integrity.

But snooker's bosses say that being found guilty of seven match-fixing charges is the "worst case" of corruption in the sport's history and "zero tolerance" is needed to stop players cheating.

Here, we examine the lost potential, the fight against fixing, what the player might do next and reveal the financial mess which left a millionaire with more than £70,000 in unsettled county court judgements against him.

How good a player was Stephen Lee?

"I always thought he was a terrific player. I played him a few times and he always got the better of me," said Neal Foulds,external-link the former world number three who played professionally from 1983 to 2004.

"When he turned professional in 1992, he had just won the English Amateur Championship, and who did he beat? Ronnie O'Sullivan.

"I played Stephen, at a Grand Prix in Reading I think, when he was a first-season pro. I remember thinking I'd love to be able pot the ball as naturally as he did.

"He wasn't the fittest player on tour, but he had a beautiful, smooth cue action and his safety was watertight.

"We knew he was one of the big four coming through, alongside Ronnie, John Higgins and Mark Williams. The other three have won 11 world titles between them.

"I think Stephen was up there as somebody who could, and perhaps should, have won the world championship."

Were there suspicions at the time about matches?

A tribunal ruled Lee deliberately lost matches against Ken Doherty and Marco Fu at the 2008 Malta Cup and agreed to lose the first frame against both Stephen Hendry and Mark King at the 2008 UK Championship.

In addition, he lost matches by a predetermined score to Neil Robertson at the 2008 Malta Cup and to Mark Selby at the 2009 China Open.

The snooker match Lee fixed

It was found that Lee also conspired to lose his 2009 World Championship first-round match to Ryan Day, when he was beaten 10-4.

Foulds commentated on that match for the BBC, alongside John Virgo, and described one frame as "a comedy of errors".

He told the BBC on Wednesday: "It's amazing that you can commentate on a match and remember very little about it, and I've played a few strange shots over the years.

"But one shot I do remember - it seemed he was trying to make a 147 maximum break when he was 8-4 down. I was oblivious to what might be going on, but mentally it seemed as though he had given up."

What was the case against Lee?

Lee, now 38 of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, was originally arrested in 2010 by West Midlands police as part of an investigation into allegations of match-fixing.

It was announced on 5 October 2012, that the Crown Prosecution Service, which is bound by an evidential standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" to bring a successful criminal prosecution, would not be pursuing charges.

He was suspended a week later after suspicious betting patterns were reported around a Premier League match, televised by Sky, which he lost 4-2 to John Higgins.

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) opened an inquiry into that game, which did not lead to any charges, and several other matches examined in the original police investigation.

Snooker's governing body prepared a case which centred on a wealth of evidence around unusual betting patterns, phone calls and texts between Lee and a number of associates, and money paid into his wife's bank account.

It asked the independent Sport Resolutions company to arrange a hearing, and the tribunal chairman Adam Lewis QC heard evidence during a three-day hearing in Bristol.

Lewis ruled: "It is established, on the balance of probabilities, that Mr Lee acted improperly in relation to matches that he believed he would lose, or believed that he would win sufficiently comfortably that he could drop the first frame.

"I concluded that Mr Lee did not strike me as a cynical cheat, but rather as a weak man who under financial pressure, succumbed to the temptation to take improper steps that he may well have justified to himself as not really wrong, because the ultimate result of the match, win or lose, was the same."

Was a lifetime ban possible?

If his offences had taken place more recently, he would have been given a mandatory lifetime ban under a tougher new disciplinary regime aimed at countering corruption, but his case was dealt with under the rules which applied at the time of the matches in question.

The 12-year ban is the longest in the sport's history and applies from when he was initially suspended in October 2012.

Why he is appealing against the ban?

Despite being linked to three separate groups which placed bets on him, yielding a total profit of almost £100,000, Lee has continually protested his innocence.

The father-of-four argues that he would not put his career and livelihood in jeopardy when the illicit rewards are relatively small compared to a career which has yielded more than £2m in prize money from tournaments alone.

Neal Clague, his former manager, was alongside Lee at the tribunal in Bristol.

Mark King 'hasn't got any sympathy' for match-fixer Stephen Lee

"I think they've looked for a scapegoat to clean up the sport. Maybe his face didn't fit," Clague told BBC Sport.

Lee, who had changed his lawyer three times, did not have legal representation at the tribunal but says he intends to appoint a barrister for his appeal.

"He's had 12 months out of the game where he could have earned enough money to defend himself properly," said Isle of Man-based businessman Clague.

"I think also there is a large element of naivety in Stephen being so poorly prepared, but I don't think that warrants a guilty verdict."

Clague was named as the head of one group which bet on the player to lose, but said he was effectively "hedging his bets", knowing that if his client won, he would be guaranteed a win bonus.

In his judgement, Lewis said Lee and Clague were unreliable witnesses.

Asked if Lee was a match-fixer, Clague said: "No, not to my knowledge. Absolutely not."

Why is Lee in financial trouble?

As he revived his career and rose to eighth in the world rankings at the time of his suspension, Lee reaped prize money of more than £200,000 from the last two seasons in which he played.

"If you take off management fees, travelling, maybe playing a little bit of catch-up from a few years before, a tax bill here and there, the odd holiday, it's not an incredible amount of money when you are used to living that lifestyle," said Clague.

"It is to normal people, of course. But not if you are used to living that lifestyle."

The player, who has won five ranking titles, has eight unsatisfied county court judgements against him totalling £73,641.

He has also been ordered to pay £40,000 costs to help cover the legal costs and other expenses of the WPBSA bringing a case in which he denied all allegations.

Where does this leave snooker?

Barry Hearn, who took over as World Snooker chairman two years ago and set up an integrity unit headed by former detective chief superintendent Nigel Mawer, has promised a "zero-tolerance" approach to cheating.

"I am independent and outside the organisation and have a law enforcement background, and all the intelligence on irregular betting comes to me," said Mawer.

"Hand on heart, I believe it is a very, very clean sport. I have only had to investigate four incidents in 7,000 matches and two of those [Lee and Joe Jogia] have led to suspensions, which puts it in context."

Ken Doherty, the 1997 world champion, said the Lee sentence would act as a warning to anyone tempted to cheat.

"The mandate is there," the Irishman said. "It's very clear for all the players to see. There are temptations there with gambling, and players that do fall into financial difficulty, which is what I think happened with Stephen Lee.

"If he had come clean and said, 'Look, I've fallen into financial difficulty and I was under pressure', if he had come clean and said, 'I am guilty of this', then it might have been a more lenient sentence.

"But he denied all the charges and fought everything to the end. He's going to appeal against it but I can't see a way back for him."

What does the future hold for Stephen Lee?

The former world number five's suspension will end on 12 October, 2024, the date of his 50th birthday.

In the meantime, he cannot play in any game sanctioned by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, which includes the seniors tour.

"We were seeking a life ban because it was seven matches that had been fixed, including during the World Championship," added Mawer.

"But in effect it is a life ban because I think it is highly unlikely that Stephen Lee will be able to come back to the sport at this level.

"We don't take great pleasure out of that. This is a case of a fantastic snooker player who has thrown it all away through making the wrong decisions.

"It is only human to have a degree of sympathy for him and it is going to be very difficult for him, but we have to send a very strong message that match-fixing is not going to be tolerated."

Foulds says a great talent has been wasted. He added: "You can't abuse the game. When you come into snooker, you have an obligation to do the right thing."

During his suspension, Lee played exhibition matches and won a pro-am tournament in India. He could continue to play in clubs or try his hand on the pool circuit.

But he said: "My dad could beat me if I'm 50. My career's over."

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