Matt Hall has become the first angler to win Fish O’Mania twice. Steve Partner takes a look at why it’s the best match in the calendar…
Whoever said matchfishing doesn’t make good telly has clearly never watched the Fish O’Mania final.
There was enough genuine excitement, drama and (despite the runaway winner) downright entertainment in last Saturday’s event to allow Sky Sports 2 to hold its own in the battle for sport-loving viewers.
And yes, I’m fully aware it had to compete with Ashes cricket, The Open at Turnberry, the Tour de France and horse racing from Newbury. Frankly, for sheer fun and pace, this match was on a par with the lot.
If you’d have asked me 16 years ago if that would have been possible, I’d have laughed in your face. Matchfishing and television? I’d seen the pitiful Jack Charlton-fronted ‘Hooked’ and that had been enough. But then Barry Hearn and Matchroom Sport came along.
Having already been responsible for turning snooker – a game that up until the 1980s had been largely played in the smoke-filled back rooms of pubs and working men’s clubs – into a sport watched by millions on mainstream TV, the Essex-based entrepreneur-cum-sports promoter turned his attention to angling.
His concept was blindingly simple. Create an event where 16 anglers could ultimately qualify for a final, peg them around one lake, put the biggest cash prize in angling up for grabs – and then get the cameras to catch every second of the action.
The first event took place in 1994 and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history. In the interim it has established itself as the most prestigious one-off match in the calendar.
The clamour to fish the qualifiers is now so intense that each of the 16 matches is always over-subscribed and some of the sport’s biggest names – the likes of Steve Ringer, Will Raison, Tommy Pickering, Kieron Rich, Darren Cox and Des Shipp – line up against the other hopefuls in a bid to make the grand final.
It has, in its own way, become as big as the World Championships, and the winner just as famous.
Of course, some will say it’s all down to the money. But there are other, equally lucrative, events that don’t carry half the kudos, so that argument holds no water. Others claim it’s the credibility that comes with victory that makes it so important. But in the higher echelons of matchfishing, it’s the World Champs that carries the greatest weight. No, the real reason why Fish O’Mania is such a stellar event is far simpler. Basically, it’s because it appears on Sky Sports.
Think about it. No other match in the UK goes out on live TV, no other match demands five-and-a-half hours of continuous coverage and no other match employs the use of 14 cameras and in excess of 90 crew members. As such, it stands alone in the schedules and has become an entirely unique event.
Yes, it has had to adapt from a conventional match to make it more of a spectacle. Innovations like the half-hourly weigh-in ensure the audience is left in no doubt how the contest is evolving, and the winner-takes-all format provides extra excitement. But that has added, rather than subtracted, from the occasion.
I know there are still a few people who have some outdated belief that television, beyond the licence fee, should be free and that Sky, driven by Rupert Murdoch, has monopolised much of mainstream sport with its millions. But no-one can seriously argue that terrestrial TV would ever find time in its schedule for nearly six hours of fishing on a Saturday afternoon. If Hugh Miles’ latest extravaganza – Catching the Impossible – can’t find air-time, 16 blokes sat around a lake the shape of a doughnut has no chance.
Sky, whatever direction your moral compass points, has not only provided viewers with choice, it’s also given oxygen to sports that would otherwise be suffocated by the obsession the five mainstream channels have with football. Just look at what it’s done for darts, speedway, pool and even poker. All of these would sit alongside fishing and struggle for any decent coverage if it wasn’t for satellite exposure.
For 15 years the Sky cameras have followed the action, and with each passing occasion the programme has got slicker, sharper and more easy on the eye. Saturday’s event was the culmination of all that pooled experience.
From the 14 cameras situated around Arena Pool to relay the action, to the brilliance of Keith Arthur and Tommy Pickering in the studio, the coverage was remarkably watchable – even to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool matchmen.
I know that to be true because I tuned in and I’m not a huge fan of matchfishing. But then, together with the overwhelming majority of the 18.5 million people who tuned into the climax of the 1985 World Championship Final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, I wasn’t much of a snooker buff either. The point is, good sporting TV is good sporting TV, whatever the discipline. And as long as it contains one key ingredient – competition – it will always draw a particular type of audience.
Five-and-a-half hours of continuous coverage is a lot for any sport, let alone one where the things that make the crucial difference – namely the fish – spend so much of their time out of sight. Imagine watching a game of football where half the pitch is obscured. Wouldn’t be quite so entertaining, would it?
So when you take that into consideration, it makes you realise just how much work goes into creating a spectacle that remains enjoyable for so long.
No, it wasn’t the nail-biting climax that it’s been in recent years, and Matt Hall’s superb performance was somewhat diluted by the draw, but it still provided a brilliant showcase for angling. The sport, I think it’s fair to say, owes a debt of thanks twice over. Once to Sky TV and once, of course, to the genius of Barry Hearn.
The 10 greatest Fish O’ Mania winners
10 Rob Hitchins, 2004
It was third time lucky for local hero Rob Hitchins at his favourite Hayfield Lakes – the final venue.
Floating dog biscuits flavoured with his own paste helped him put aside the disappointments of his two previous final appearances as he put 25k 70g on the scales in front of a 10,000-strong home crowd.
9 Matt Hall, 2009
Matt Hall’s victory this year may have lacked the drama of previous occasions, but that didn’t stop it being historic for another reason.
The Notts-based angler became the first man in history to win the prestigious trophy twice after a professional performance in front of a huge crowd at Cudmore Fisheries.
8 Geoff Ringer, 2000
When the pre-match favourite draws the peg his son has won off previously and you’ve got Phil and Steve Ringer on hand to offer support there is likely to only be one outcome.
And so it proved when Geoff Ringer did the family double in 2000, winning from the peg Steve won from in 1998.
7 Ian Turner, 1994
In 1994 there was only one event to win because no-one had offered such a huge prize before.
The final 10 minutes had the Mallory Park crowd glued to the action, as Ian Turner and Dickie Carr went fish to fish.
Dickie lost a match-winning carp at the death, leaving Ian as the winner.
6 Marc Jones, 2005
Wakefield’s Marc Jones celebrated matchfishing’s biggest ever payout as he walked away from Fish O’Mania with a cool £60,000 in his back pocket.
Taking the winner’s cheque was reward enough, but he took £35,000 from the bookies too!
5 Neil Machin, 2006
Neil Machin kicked off a dream double with an incredible performance.
Runner-up in 2004, this time he smashed the Fish O’Mania record with a winning weight of 98k 690g.
He then went to White Acres and won £25,000 at the Parkdean Masters.
4 Matt Hall, 2003
Matt Hall secured the first of his historic two wins in the most dramatic fashion when he netted a last-gasp carp to deny Darren Cox.
Fishing in front of thousands at Hayfield Lakes, Matt won by less than 1lb to leave Darren heartbroken.
3 Steve Ringer, 1998
With seven appearances in just 13 years, no angler has fished in as many finals as Steve Ringer.Pipped to the post by Dave Pimlott in 1996, Steve made it his goal to win this event and geared his fishing around qualifying for the final every year.
After drawing peg 4 in 1998 he made no mistake.
2 Dave Pimlott, 1996
It may have seen the lowest winning weight of any final, but this event was one of the most tense Fiosh O’Mania showdowns ever, with just four ounces separating winner Dave Pimlott from Steve Ringer.
As the action reached its climax, Dave’s bait was picked up by a 1lb skimmer, which he landed just seconds before the all-out for a 14lb 9oz winning finish.
1 Kevin Rowles, 1997
In theory you shouldn’t be able to win Fish O’ Mania with a net of roach and orfe – but that’s what Kevin Rowles did.
With temperatures well over 30ºC the carp which had shown just days earlier disappeared and, like many of the competitors, Kevin didn’t even get a bite in the first hour.
At the final whistle Rowles had streaked ahead with a 38lb 12oz haul – his 25k win coming on just £3 worth of casters.