Ken Shirley died aged 71 on 14th March 2006, while returning home from a family holiday in Italy.
Ken learned the basics of the game from watching better local players, a path trod by many other famous players of his era. This experience came to fruition after Ken’s National Service when he started taking the game more seriously. He became a regular century break player and eventually reached his peak with breaks of 248 in competition and 513 in practise. Ken’s occupation of policeman gave him little time for practise and possibly precluded him from greater heights and distinction in the game.
Sixteen times National Police Champion; six times National British Legion Champion and six West Midlands Championships were a measure of Ken’s success and his billiards prowess. It is, of course, the ‘English Amateur’ which is the height of any billiard player’s ambition, and Ken was to win the ‘English’ in 1986 after many great efforts which were not without some success. In the final of the 1979 championship Ken met the great Norman Dagley. Ken made a good start; in his own words “for about 30 minutes everything looked good. We had both made two centuries. I sat down after my second, a 169, which had put me about 80 in front. Three visits later I hadn’t scored again and was over 800 behind! Norman had put me firmly in my place”. For his success as runner-up in the 1979 championship, Ken had the honour of representing England in the World Amateur Championship in Sri Lanka in 1980. He finished third in his qualifying group behind Michael Ferreira and Mohammed Lafir, having played 7 and won 5, having scored a break of 195 and thirteen centuries he was far from disgraced.
In 1986 the format of ‘The English’ was changed to best of five 300 up. This suited Ken’ style of play and he achieved his hearts desire with a 3-1 win over Mike Russell. Russell was just a month short of his seventeenth birthday and the youngest ever English Amateur finalist. In Ken’s own words “In 1986 I reached my third final playing Mike Russell who was only seventeen years of age. The match was the best of five 300 up – the only way I was ever going to win it. Mike won the first game and early in the second he was in with a break of 90 when he suddenly stood up and declared a foul that no one else had seen. I am convinced that but for that, Mike would have been the youngest ever English Champion”.
A formidable player with a tremendous physical presence, I’m sure that Ken only had to enter the arena to frightened many of his opponents. An ungainly stance was no detriment to his remarkable cue-power and exquisite touch. A knowledgeable raconteur on all aspects of billiards, Ken’s style, his achievements, and his character will live on in the archives of English Billiards for many years.
Our condolences and sympathy go to his wife Rita and to his children Andrew, Richard, Victoria and Rachel at this very sad time.