This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the birth of the modern era of Snooker, when the World Snooker Championship became a knockout competitive tournament rather than on a challenge basis between professionals, which had dominated the closed-circle history of the game since the late 1940s. As world finals had been competed in a best of 144 frames over several weeks, the BBC baulked at the idea of broadcasting such a marathon, even in reduced form. Yet David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two which had just began broadcasting in colour in 1967, was convinced snooker, were it presented in an accessible form to the public, could be a sporting phenomenon which would expand subscriptions to an extensive colour set among all classes in British society. By broadcasting the working man’s sport, the colour TV would become an aspirational desire rather than an unaffordable luxury item.
Thus on the 23rd July 1969, just three days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity’s first tentative steps on the moon, Pot Black debuted on the green baize. Players would contest matches only one frame in length, for a maximum time of half an hour, every Wednesday evening at 6:50pm, with commentary from the voice of snooker Ted Lowe. But the playing field was still restricted among a pool of well-established English professionals, the outcome of contests too predictable. But 1968 saw another transformation, the first win of a snooker legend whose name was on the lips of every Snooker fan crammed into the Waterfront on November 18. An untried teenage genius Alex Higgins beat Maurice Gill in the final of the Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championship. In 1972 he would explode onto the Snooker scene to become the youngest World Champion at 22 years and 345 days, only surpassed by 21 year-old Stephen Hendry in 1990. Higgins was rewarded £400 in prize money for his world-record, worth just over £5100 in today’s currency. Judd Trump, who lifted the Alex Higgins Trophy after beating an out-of-sorts Ronnie O’Sullivan to win one of the four Home Nations series titles, a warm-up for the first of the Triple Crown events this season, the UK Championship at the Barbican Centre in York in December, pocketed a princely cheque for £70000. Still, as Higgins once told his intense snooker rival Steve Davis; “you may win the big money prizes, but I’ll get the romantic obituaries.”
In that first 1968/9 season, only three professional tournaments were played – a meagre fix of highlights for Michael Collins (no, not that one) waiting for Armstrong and Aldrin to stop arguing over who won their round of crazy golf on the lunar surface (I’ll bet you wished you’d went to see First Man now), and players supplemented their income by contesting exhibition matches in billiard halls from across the UK, from Belfast to Glasgow to Birmingham. It could be argued that this tradition served to build a greater bond between Alex Higgins and his fans in his pre-1982 career, by which 19 events had been added to the calendar, and the exhibition match culture fell away, than the bond between current snooker players and their fans. Ronnie O’Sullivan will sign a cue and programme and sell it through a third party at the venue, but won’t head to your local snooker hall, The Jam Pot, and challenge the resident amateur to a match which several bets, a few pints, and a whitewash later, they’re painfully regretting.
In the current season, 47 professional tournaments are being contested, with only 20 conferring ranking points. Thus when it came to the Northern Ireland Open Final, O’Sullivan became a victim of fatigue after two nail-biting career triumphs. A 10-9 Coventry victory in the Champion of Champions over a disappointed Kyren Wilson, who had fought his way back from 6-3 behind to 9-8 in front, only to squander his imminent victory with an untimely pot of both black and red when opening the reds in his winning break, bringing O’Sullivan within 5 of equalling Stephen Hendry’s record of 38 ranking tournaments. A 6-5 black ball finish in the previous’ days play of Semi-Finals, a devastating counter-clearance against World Number One Mark Selby which commentators Neal Foulds and Jimmy White argued was a turning point in favour of O’Sullivan in their intense on-table rivalry. Judd Trump, on the other hand, was performing under extreme pressure from fans and pundits alike. With a thirteen month hiatus since his last tournament win at the European Masters in Belgium in October 2017, Trump was facing accusations in many blog pieces and commentary SoundBites that given the flamboyant and attacking style of his game, he was seriously underachieving in the current season, and so Trump’s determination to win and silence the conflict was palpable, particularly in the Trump corner during the last session.
The brief history of the tournament also raised expectations for a classic match, which despite the line-up, struggled to make an appearance. First staged in 2016, outsider Mark King edged out favourite Barry Hawkins 9-8 to lift his first ranking title trophy in twenty-five years of play, an emotional victory which stood-out as a heart-warming moment rather than another veteran indulging in a bit of silverware collecting. Last year, China’s Yan Bingtao came tantalisingly close to becoming the youngest ever winner of a ranking event, who was enthusiastically embraced as a new favourite by the Belfast crowd despite the fact that as it was his first season on tour, he spoke not a word of English and required a translator to communicate his thanks for their support. Instead however, it was two-time World Champion Mark Williams, who had risen through the ranks in the “class of 93” (Williams, John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan), and had considered retiring just six months earlier when he’d been beaten in the qualifying rounds of the World Championships, who lifted the Alex Higgins Trophy the second time. From here, Williams re-launched his snooker career; winning two further ranking tournaments before overcoming John Higgins to be crowned World Champion in Sheffield, a feat which he regarded impossible just one year before (and given the fact he’d promised to do the press conference nude if he won, and fulfilled his promise, we cannot underestimate the role of the Northern Ireland Open in restoring Williams confidence in his snooker ability).
To kick-start the afternoon session, Trump and O’Sullivan received standing ovations from the auditorium, but play was slow to progress. O’Sullivan opened with a nervy break of 64, interrupted by a short interval in which he demanded the officials investigate a white noise problem with the overhead monitors in the Waterfront venue. O’Sullivan slated the Waterfront in front of Eurosport TV cameras after exiting at the last-32 stage in 2017, lamenting that the provision of practice tables was not adequate to accommodate 128 players, and that he had preferred the 2016 venue, the Titanic Exhibition Centre on Queens Island. After missing the crucial brown frame ball with the rest, Trump made a quick counter-clearance to indicate that unlike their previous encounters, he was not to be over-awed by the occasion. The Rocket – who held a narrow 12-10 lead over Trump in career head-to-heads – responded in true form, shutting out Trump with two breaks of 69 and 65 to establish a 2-1 lead. Yet from where I was sitting, O’Sullivan was pulling out none of the stops, merely falling over the line to get the job done quickly; whilst in frame four, he was forced to sit and marvel as Trump produced a pristine 105 to restore parity at the interval at 2-2.
The interval itself was a poignant reminder of the pulling power of the classic snooker era for modern audiences. Six-time World runner-up Jimmy White has been given an invitational tour card for the next two seasons, and at 56, still battles on to lift his first World title. But with the deafening reception he received for a spell of commentary and shot analysis during the interval, to rival that of O’Sullivan and Trumps corner’s, it confirmed that the Whirlwind, despite an underachiever, has already made his legacy to the green baize and should bask in the glory of his autumn years rather than chasing unfulfilled and ultimately unattainable dreams. World Number 5 Trump emerged re-invigorated by the mid-session interval, with a rapid run of 117 to earn a 3-2 advantage. The sixth frame, initially boding well for Trump, became a scrappy safety battle, but O’Sullivan dug in and produced a closing 58 to level the final once again. However, at times O’Sullivan was reduced to the mere role of spectator, and might as well have joined us in the stalls, for Trump nudged ahead again by compiling a fluid 108 break, and was set to take the eighth too, but a poor safety scuffle at 46 ahead left O’Sullivan with another opportunity to pinch the frame, on the final black, to bring both players on the level at 4-4.
One noticeable interruption after the interval was O’Sullivans insistence that a photographer be removed from his line of shot, and in recent punditry he has announced a no-toleration policy for cameramen without a tripod to steady their shot in his field of vision. Whether this an instance of patronising the press coverage of the match, or an attempt to over-indulge O’Sullivan to extend his Indian Summer, which could be drawing to a close if he can fulfil his ambitions and forge a career in reality TV, starting with his desire to serve a stint in Jungle, it certainly shows his ever-expanding star ego shining through. Ah well, at least we’ve got Emperor Noel Edmonds to bow before instead. I suppose if the two could exchange places, Edmonds could bring a whole new spiritual side to snooker, taking on pots according to chance based on monetary values in a series of red boxes and a muffled voice at the end of a telephone receiver, whilst O’Sullivan could re-educate a photographer on how best to shoot his iconic moment of savouring Kangaroo intestines. It’s a pity though; I think it’s already been done.
After the usual bout of MC warm-ups and Eurosport soundbites, bare-faced merchandise plugging and a penultimate handshake, an expectant crowd settled in for the concluding evening session. It has often been said that after a scrappy start, the Rocket likes to find an extra gear in the final session and leave his opponent to eat his pre-match words of optimism, and Trump fans fears were appeared to be confirmed when after the usual shunting of the first few balls of frame nine, O’Sullivan opened with a 61 break.
Trump,sensing danger and wary of the thoughts of defeat for his campaign crossing the minds of eager faced viewers both at home and in the auditorium, set his jaw in steely determinism and made two stunning counter clearances at the close of frames nine and ten to rival the iconic and impossible 69 break strung together by Alex Higgins himself in the 1982 World Semi-Final against youngster Jimmy White that would eventually lead to the run that saw him lift his second World Trophy. Reluctant to be rendered second favourite, O’Sullivan responded with a 78 and a sublime 134 in frame 13 which will go down in history as his 978th century in competitive tournament play, brining him within twenty-two of a new world record for the sport at 1000 centuries.
When the balls were being re-racked for frame 14, I could hear whispers among the crowd that O’Sullivan would have the trophy lifted in twenty minutes, and one-old lady beside me asked her husband if he thought O’Sullivan would make time for autograph hunters after the presentation party afforded him his silverware. It’s likely that as the crowd slowly turned toward cheering O’Sullivan as the imminent victor, Trump was driven on to prove them wrong, and he did so spectacularly, reeling off runs of 54 and 79 on his way to claiming a 9-7 win against O’Sullivan.
After crashing out of the Northern Ireland Open in 2017 during round 1, perhaps Trump’s win at the Waterfront Hall will be a launching pad for greater things to come during the season, akin to Mark William’s revival after a win in Belfast last year. Did we just see the 2019 World Champion overcome a tetchy but lovable Ronnie O’Sullivan? One thing is for sure – if players and spectators are given any more tournaments, the standard of play will drop, expectations will decrease, and snooker will reach saturation point. The Alex Higgins Trophy is a valuable addition to the season-but can the number of tournaments be streamlined to give players more time to prepare between tournaments, reducing the number of scrappy and edgy performances? Who knows-but until we find out in May, remember; a photographer is for the season, not just a tournament this Christmas; always take your chances and be determined to win when the crowd and the odds are stacked against you; and the next time you think of Alex Higgins, don’t limit your memories to his boozy retirement from snooker after losing to Steve James in Round 1 of the 1990 World Championships, just because all the romantic obituaries and tribute programmes do, charting the downfall of the People’s Champion. Think of him as a pioneer of his day, the catalyst that moulded the modern match play of snooker.