Phil Haigh ✍️
In one of the most unpredictable snooker seasons in memory, it says a lot that Robert Milkins’ Gibraltar Open triumph wasn’t the biggest surprise, but his victory on the rock was the most emotional.
The 46-year-old got his hands on a ranking trophy for the first time in his career which dates all the way back to 1995 and has seen him achieve a lot, but never go home as the winner.
The victory over Kyren Wilson in the final in pure sporting terms was joyous for the Milkman, but really that is just a fraction of why it meant so much for him.
‘Starting out your career all you want to do is win a tournament, that’s the main thing,’ Milkins told Metro.co.uk. ‘I’ve had plenty of quarters and semis, but never a final so I’ve not really been close.
‘When I was potting the last couple of balls it was an unbelievable feeling, I didn’t know where I was, didn’t know what to do. I’m not going to get many opportunities like that now.
‘It was such a good feeling, it’s been so good waking up thinking I actually won a tournament. Getting to the top 16, the Crucible, there’s different things when you first turn pro. I know it’s not the biggest tournament, but it’s a tournament and I’m just so grateful to have won it and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.’
With the trophy came the top prize of £50,000, taking Milkins’ earnings for the season to £63,000, which shows how poor his results have been over the rest of the campaign.
Victory in Gibraltar really did come from nowhere, with the Englishman finding himself in genuine financial trouble for the first time in his career, and he is delighted to have that weight off his shoulders.
‘It’s total relief, I’ve been skint!’ Milkins said. ‘Trying to support three kids, trying to pay the mortgage, money just don’t last.
‘I’ve got myself into debt but it’s such a relief that the money from that has cleared me all off. I couldn’t see no way out at one stage, from everything, it’s been so difficult, one thing after another.
‘I haven’t really had to struggle with it before, but the whole season I’ve been thinking about money when I’m playing. I’ve heard players down the rankings talking about playing to survive and I haven’t really had to before, but I can see it now.
‘It’s so beneficial in a match not playing for money, just playing for the points or whatever. I’ve been worried about nicking a grand here and there. First match at Gibraltar I won two grand and I thought, “Happy days, I can survive another month till the Worlds.”
‘That might have helped because the next matches only went up £1,000 each time, so I was less worried about the money. I started thinking about it in the semi again, there’s a big jump then. I was just so relieved by the end of the day to get the monkey off me back.’
There was more than one monkey on the Milkman’s back, with a career reaching its latter stages and no silverware to show for it.
With eight trips to the Crucible, a high ranking of 12 and two Masters appearances, Milkins has displayed his immense talent over the last 20-plus years, but not got the trophy cabinet to show for it.
He admits that retirement with no trophies on the mantlepiece would have been heart-breaking, so that itch has been scratched.
‘I’d have been gutted [if I hadn’t won anything],’ he said. ‘You look around you and every season there’s one or two that pop up and you know for a fact you’re a better player than them.
‘You just need one or two things to go your way here and there, a bit of luck. I don’t think I’ve ever got the little breaks, but I did in this one. Against Mark Allen in Gibraltar [last 32], I was 3-1 down and a couple of things went my way, a great clearance in the last and after that I started believing I could win the tournament. Luckily enough that’s what happened.
‘At 3-1 down, the other two lads I was staying with, I was thinking, “I hope they’ve waited around for me because I’m not going to be long now.” Then I turned it around and they were waiting for me!’
The question is, why has it taken Rob all these years to be taking home a winner’s cheque? The answers lie in his head, in family tragedy and how he dealt with it.
‘My self belief has always been terrible,’ he said. ‘Probably the biggest downfall of my game and people won’t realise because they don’t know what’s going on inside. I probably seem a bit cocky, but I’ve lacked self belief all my life.
‘I turn up to play snooker on camera and never do myself justice whatsoever. My practice game was so much better than what I was producing at the tournaments. Even when I’ve got to semi-finals I’ve lacked belief to win things, just been happy to be in semi-finals, which is not a great thing. I’ve never really played to what I’m capable of and achieved what I could have, not wanting to sound big-headed.
‘I’ve had a good career out of snooker, but I don’t think I’ve done as well as I should have. A lot of that goes down to what happens in your private life and I don’t think I’ve given myself the best chance.
‘I’ve not lived my life like a professional snooker player, completely different. I’ve gone off the rails so many times and I’m not talking for a month, I’m talking two years at a time.
‘I’ve practiced, but certain things have happened and I’ve been down the pub for two years, non-stop. That’s probably what has held me back. Snooker has a habit of kicking you. If you don’t give it the respect it deserves then you’re not going to get the results and that’s probably what’s happened to me.’
Milkins has had to deal with a lot over his professional career, but nothing more than how it began, and it speaks loudly to his talent that he could overcome the most difficult of starts to life on tour.
‘When I was 19 my mum got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was in her final stages and I was meant to be going to Blackpool for my first professional snooker match, but she wanted me to go so I went up there on the coach,’ Rob explained.
‘I got the phone call the day before my match saying she’d passed away. I won six matches in a row, came back for the funeral, then lost two matches and won my next 18. But after that, maybe a year after, it all got to me, it took a long time to kick in what had happened. I just went boozing for two years and fell off the tour.
‘Luckily I had friends who are like family to me who took me in. They did when my mum passed away, then when my dad passed away, which is when I went through a divorce at the same time.
‘I did the same again – went in the pub for two years. I went from 20 in the world to 75. I got evicted from my flat and Mandy and Dean took me in again. Then I got to the quarters in Bahrain [Championship, 2008] and got back up the rankings again.
‘My sister just passed away in December, so I ain’t quite been normal now. She was the last one of my family, so it sort of affected me, to tell you the truth. But hopefully they were all looking down on me when I picked the trophy up. That’s what I was thinking of.
‘I could have dealt with it in better ways, but it all stems from my mum. She was the biggest influence in my life and when she went the family broke. I believe if she had been around I would never have got into the trouble I did. It’s just one of those things, it’s life, these things happen and sometimes it’s hard to recover.’
Milkins is working hard to recover still and his shock win in Gibraltar has gone a long way to help with that. As has seeking out the help of a professional to talk through the painful things floating around in his head.
‘Winning has took the pressure off me and for my kids and everything else,’ he said. ‘It’s been brilliant, it’s been great, it’s put me in a different frame of mind.
‘At the end of the day it don’t bring back other things though. I’ve been struggling a bit mentally, but I’ve been seeking help now, seeing a lady for two or three sessions and she’s getting to the bottom of it all.
‘Some of the things she comes out with is unbelievable and I’d strongly suggest if anyone is feeling a bit down then go and get counselling because she’s helped me so much. It’s crazy, even after one session I felt so calm, it’s made a big difference. It just makes me feel a lot better.’
Milkins has garnered more headlines in recent weeks than in recent years, not only for his memorable win in Gibraltar, but for an incident in Turkey he would rather forget – and indeed has forgotten a lot of.
What happened, and the widespread coverage it got, hit Milkins hard and he cannot apologise enough for the trouble he caused. Although he is still not entirely sure what that trouble was.
‘I’m absolutely devastated with what happened,’ he said. ‘I still don’t really know what happened, I was completely out of it.
‘Its been a bit tough and the worst of it all was when it got published. I was out of order, I hold my hands up, I’ve apologised to everyone and everyone seemed okay with me, but then it all escalated, it was everywhere.
‘It was obviously bad, but I didn’t think someone 100 in the world on the one-year list getting drunk, falling over and being out of order would make the papers.
‘I was devastated, but I can’t turn the clock back, I’ll just get on with it now and let my snooker do the talking.
‘I woke up the next morning and didn’t have a clue what happened. When I was 20-21, I would go out, wake up the next morning, walk into the local and apologise before I even knew what happened.
‘They’d be like, “What you saying sorry for?” I just get total blackouts like that. They used to wind me up saying I’d done this and that when I hadn’t done anything. I don’t really do things like that anymore, so it’s a bit out of character and it would never have happened, I’d never have offended anyone if I’d known what I was doing.
‘When it made the papers that was a punishment in itself, but I made a mistake, I was a bit gullible and I need to learn from my mistakes. Whatever my punishment is I’ll take it and move on.’
A low in Turkey was followed by the high of Gibraltar and Milkins has been left smiling thanks to the support from people in snooker over both the nadir and zenith of recent weeks.
‘People in the game have been brilliant after Turkey,’ he said. ‘I’ve had messages, people phoning me up, it’s nice to know you’ve got people behind you in life.
‘Some people I wouldn’t expect it from and it makes you feel wanted. I’ve had so many encouraging messages and then loads more after Gibraltar. I’m just happy, really.’
And that, as they say, is the main thing.
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