Innocent snooker players unwittingly dragged into one of sport’s greatest match-fixing scandals reacted with horror on Wednesday.
Rob Milkins was one of the players of last season – winning the Welsh Open and pocketing around £400,000 after claiming a bumper series bonus.
But as 10 Chinese players were banned, including Liang Wenbo and Li Hang for life, it emerged that Milkins’ 5-0 win against Lu Ning in a European Masters qualifier last July had been corrupt.
Lu was banned for five years and four months for fixing four matches in total, as well as failing to cooperate with the investigation, and betting on snooker.
Ireland’s Aaron Hill, 21, was another to find out just this week that his 4-0 victory over Zhao Jianbo in a Northern Ireland Open qualifier last August had been fixed.
Liang and Li were also found to have been involved in encouraging and pressuring Zhao – who was banned for two years and four months - to take part.
World No13 Milkins, 47, said: “It is shocking. Thinking back now, I played really well in that game and he couldn’t do anything right.
“And when you have played well, you often don’t think much of how badly the other player did because you give yourself the credit.
“So I didn’t have a sniff of it – not a clue. I didn’t give him much of a chance for it to even look suspicious, and I certainly didn’t come off thinking ‘He’s chucked that’.
“Maybe if I hadn’t have played so well, I’d have had more of an inkling. And I just didn’t sense anything dodgy was going on.
“It is very sad for the likes of [former UK Championship winner] Zhao Xintong, who has made a terrible decision although he has got the lowest ban at a year and eight months.
“I know the lad, he is basically a good and genuine lad and we and China could do with him on tour for his ability. But it’s s*** what has happened, him being manipulated or whatever.
“I can’t understand why the message didn’t get through with Stephen Lee being banned for 12 years. If people didn’t get the message from that or this, they must be mad.”
Cork star Hill said: “It really shocked me to find this out, because I remember putting myself under pressure and through the wringer to win.
“It was to qualify for Northern Ireland and I wanted to play in Belfast so much so put everything in. And now I realise the kid wasn’t even trying.
“It can be hard to judge, especially down the rankings, whether something is wrong, or if a player is just having an off day. That can happen.
“It is terrible though, when other players are trying so hard. We had Q School this week with players giving their all to get a tour card. I was there last year. It is horrible, mentally.
“Everything is on the line for you and your career. And then you see these players fixing matches.
“It is very sad to see, when others would give an arm and a leg to be a pro. And these banned players are throwing it all away.
“But I would praise the WPBSA and the integrity unit for how they have dealt with it. They have done a strong investigation and got the guilty verdicts we needed.
“The consequences are there and clear if any player is stupid enough to try it again. I don't think we'll ever see any more of it in the sport. You’d have to be a lunatic.
“These players are disgraced for life, themselves and their families, they will always be known for match-fixing.”
Meanwhile, WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson insists that there could yet be further criminal charges levelled at the players banned back home in China – in addition to the snooker penalties.
And he vowed to take steps to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again.
That comes amid criticisms of the level of education and training for players especially during Covid, and questions over the level of care and scrutiny at the academies where the players were based.
Ferguson said: “We liaise with the Chinese association [CBSA] and also the Chinese government. They were tough in the past getting names behind all this, and I expect that again.
“And I would say it is still possible there will be more and further separate action over in China, and that could even include criminal charges.
“Tuesday was one of the worst days, and clearly the worst case of match-fixing our sport has seen.
“Education has to be key here, and there will be changes there. The tour induction that we do for new and existing players – it was face-to-face until lockdown for Covid.
“But it became impossible to get in front of players, especially in China.
“If the players know they will always be caught, and that will change their lives forever. Then there are the sinister others behind the scenes who don’t care. So we have to protect our own better.
“With this case, it doesn’t all stop. It’s not over. There is a need for tightening up and more scrutiny, and we are moving into the licensing of managers and agents.”