As snooker debates go, this one is surely top of pile. It’s obviously not that difficult to come up with the appropriate cast list, but as ever, arguments will start when it comes to who should get star billing.
Having been on tour for 25 years i’ve decided to put together my own list of who’s the best from that time. During that quarter of a century there have been so many great players that including them all just isn’t possible. What i’ve done is pick four players from three separate era’s down the years. I consider myself better placed than most to judge, having played all of them numerous times down the years. That’s not to say i’ll be anywhere near right though. Rather like the ‘who’s the best football team’ one that we’ve all been involved in, there’s no definitive answer. It’s just a bit of fun, and being anywhere on the list is an incredible achievement alone.
The three era’s i’ll call ’80s and 90s’, ‘The New Breed’ and ‘The Last Decade’.
Please excuse my not using christian names, but you all know who they are……Davis, Hendry, Parrott, White – Higgins, Hunter, O’Sullivan, Williams – Ding Junhui, Murphy, Robertson and Selby. Now that i’ve written them down, it’s not too shabby a 12 man team is it?
How do i even begin creating a ranking list from that lot i’m now asking myself? Well, with great difficulty I suppose. But here goes…..
Number 12 – John Parrott. Trust me when i say that my big mate JP was one of the toughest, and best players i’ve ever shared a table with. You simply don’t win the World and UK Championship in the same year, as he did in ’91, without being a true class act. He was the consummate pro, a fantastic long potter, and anything JP didn’t know about snooker at the very highest level just ain’t worth knowing. To lead a rampant Jimmy White 7-0 in his world final victory, winning most of those frames in one visit, and conceding only 80 points in the session tells you all you need to know about his quality and character. If snooker had been fought in the trenches, you’d go a long way to find a better ally. Being a big unit, he was an intimidating figure whose game hardly ever dropped below what I’d call a B-plus standard, and very rarely lost to players ranked below him. One of my abiding memories of the big fella come match time, was the intro used by our then MC Alan Hughes, stating “always in at the business end of tournaments” when ushering JP into the arena. He wasn’t wrong!
Number 11 – Paul Hunter. I just had to include the late great Paul Hunter in this list. I’m not certain we’ve ever witnessed a more natural scorer in amongst the balls as Paul was. Winning the Masters three times in four years, all by a 10-9 scoreline, was a remarkable feat given the competition at the time. I always thought that one of his greatest assets was his ability to play a deciding frame as if it was the first in a session, which massively contributed to that trio of Masters titles. Perhaps not as intimidating a figure as some on this list, he more than made up for it in other areas. He looked the part, while seeming to exude a quiet confidence in his ability to handle any artillery any of the big guns could throw at him. Generally he did, and some. For me, there’s little doubt he’d have lifted at least one World Championship long ago, had he not been taken from us at such a young age. We hear all too often that we’ll never see his or her like again. In Paul’s case we might, but there won’t be many of them. The boy was some player.
Number 10 – Jimmy White. It’s not difficult to figure out why James Warren White is probably the most popular player in the history of the game. One of the nicest guy’s you could wish to meet, i feel fortunate to have even played against him somewhere around his prime. As natural ability goes, Ronnie, and only Ronnie, stands above him for me. When you played against Jimmy, you had to get your head around the fact that if he played anything like his best game, you were in a world of trouble. I tried not to watch him too much when he was at the table, which wasn’t easy, the way he hit the ball was different to other players, and it was as if he knew that you knew? It’s kind of difficult to describe, but just the way he went about it could easily make you feel inferior. There’s no question that if it hadn’t been for a certain Scotsman, Jimmy would have been a multiple world champion. A nice story i can tell you from the players lounge one time, was of a group of people talking about who’s the best player ever. Jimmy’s dad Tommy, a wonderful gentleman, was sitting head down, reading his paper. The discussion went on for maybe 15 minutes before Tommy, not one to brag about his son, looked across and said “Mind you, my Jimmy’s not a bad player”. That was the end of that conversation let me tell you.
Number 9 – Ding Junhui. You could argue that Asia’s best ever player’s transition from amateur to bona fide top player happened faster than any other player in the history of the game. Ding progressed from relative obscurity, to title contender in what seemed the blink of an eye. All the more remarkable given that he pretty much achieved this without having regular quality opposition to practise against as a kid. Even when he did make the breakthrough, it can’t have been easy spending so much time far from home, never mind the fact he was still a teenager with the obvious language barrier to overcome. Winning the 2005 China Open alone, having just turned 18, ranks up there with any single tournament win I can think of. Ding is also custodian of one of the very best techniques you’ll ever see. It’s very textbook, but he still manages to flow when in amongst the balls and scoring, which isn’t as easy as he makes it look. His winning of 5 main ranking events in a single season a couple of years ago, a run of success that we witness once in a decade at most, sits comfortably alongside anything witnessed in the modern era. The one blip on his cv, and the reason I don’t have him as highly ranked as the peers of his own era, is his Crucible record. Just one semi-final appearance in a decade as a top 8 player, is perhaps a poor return for a man of his talent. At still just 28 though, there’s more than ample time left to put the record straight. You wouldn’t put it past him to do just that.
Number 8 – Shaun Murphy. Until just a few years ago, I’m not sure I’d have included Shaun in this list. He’d probably admit himself that since his famous Crucible triumph in ’05, he spent too many years failing to produce the results that his talent had promised. The famed silky, but powerful cue action was always there, and was well capable of turning any player over on a given day. The issue, it seemed to me at least, was a combined lack of control and consistency. Once upon a time, even being the top player that he is, Shaun would more often than not, be second favourite when playing against a fellow top 8 player. Those days however, are consigned to the past. Technique is not really something shared on the tour between players, but I’d bet he’s made not only a few technical, but also tactical changes to his game in recent years, which have given him the desired control I mentioned before. Shaun, like the seven guys above him on this list, have all managed to win the career triple crown of World, UK and Masters titles. Yes, i have him propping up the top 8 right now, which I’m sure he won’t mind, but at 34, I have a feeling he’s far from done with lifting a few more of the ‘big 3’. Shaun is a fine ambassador for our sport, very professional on and off the table, and having ‘that’ technique will ensure he’ll be around the higher echelons of the rankings for many a long day to come.
Number 7 – Neil Robertson. If you wanted to put together the idendikit modern snooker player, look no farther than the big Aussie. For a guy so tall and slim, his frame when down on the shot is incredibly compact. The smooth, and piston like cue action means that he very rarely performs below a certain standard. Add to that, as good a potting eye as you’ll ever witness, a bullet proof temperament, and one of the fiercest competitors on the tour, you come up with quite a package. There won’t be many top players who’ve put in the hard yards during the early years as much as Neil. Coming from down under to a tour, which at the time was mainly UK based can’t have been easy, so much so that I’m sure there were times he was on the verge of packing up and returning home. The way he stuck at it and kept the faith speaks volumes for his determination. Century breaks for a pro come easily enough, but to make 103 competitive centuries in a single season (as he did in 13/14) is almost beyond belief. Bear in mind there are lots of very good pro’s who haven’t made even close to a hundred tons in a 20 year career, and you get an idea of the magnitude of that particular achievement. The fact that Neil triumphed in all of his first six ranking finals tells you that he’s a born winner. A ‘triple crown’ champion, there’s little doubt that he’ll add to his collection of titles sooner rather than later.
Number 6 – Mark Selby. If there’s a true ‘Iron Man’ of the modern game, for me, it has to be Mark. I’m not certain any other player in the sport could have reeled in a rampant O’Sullivan from 10-5 behind in that World Final 18 months ago. In the form Ronnie was in at the time, Mark winning 13 of the last 17 frames to prevail 18-14 is up there with any single match performance in snooker history. Similar to Neil before him, he served a tough apprenticeship in his early years as a pro. I always think back to his World Final against John Higgins, when he nearly pulled off another Houdini act from almost nowhere. That match, perhaps above all others, gave him the belief that he could mix it with the very top players on a regular basis, he’s been doing just that ever since. I couldn’t pay Mark a much higher compliment than comparing him in many ways to John, in that he scores incredibly heavy, also possessing the same all round game, the heart of a lion, and a deep mental understanding of what it takes to win at the very top level. If there’s one player I’d choose above all others to win the deciding frame of any match, he’d be my pick any day of the week. In the nicest possible sense, he’s just an absolute animal of a competitor! Like plenty others on this list, Mark is a very likeable guy away from the table, a fine ambassador who enjoys a laugh and a joke, always sharing a friendly word with players and fans alike. We’re very fortunate to have him.
Number 5 – Mark Williams. There’s no doubt in my mind that Mark fully deserves his place in my top 5. On his very best days (and there were lots of them), you’d struggle to find a more streetwise or savvy match player. My mates and I have a saying back home that certain players are a ‘take on’. If there’s one player on my list who fits that bill, it’s the big Welshman. What I mean by that is that it’s not immediately obvious as to where some of his great strengths lie. We all know of his freakish potting ability, and velvet touch in and around the black spot. No, I’m talking about some of the hidden finer points of the game at the very highest level. It’s wasnt until you played against him that you quickly realised how clever he is in all match situations. Of course he can score heavily with the best of them, but it’s to his credit that he didn’t mind grafting out the tight frames when the need arose, and at this, he’s a master. Add in that conveyer belt calm walk around the table, which helps with composure, and you have one heck of a player. Of his many tournament victories, top of the pile has to be during that golden 2002/03 season when he became the third, and last player after Davis and Hendry, to win snooker’s ‘triple crown’ in a single season. Not a bad little club to be part of is it? After a few lean years around the turn of the last decade, due to mainly in my view, a lack of tournaments to keep the sharpness up, it’s been impressive to see Mark back where he belongs and competing for prizes again. One thing you can bank on, if he gets in position to win, he’ll know exactly how to get the job done.
Number 4 – Steve Davis. Ahh The Nugget. Without fear of contradiction, my favourite player of all time. If I’d been told that snooker on the PlayStation was designed around his game, I’d have believed it. His list of achievements is as long as your arm, if your name is Mr Tickle that is. If only the younger players of today got a chance to play him in his prime. Dear oh dear he was scary good, and remember, we are talking 30 years ago. Just how do you win a World Final 18-3, and another 18-6, and have them rendered almost forgotten? I’ll tell you why – it’s because he was so far ahead of the rest that it seemed pre-ordained that he would win, and 9 times out of 10 it seemed, he did. Could any other player in history have lost that black ball World Final, only to treat it as a “friend” as he now calls it? I was fortunate to play Steve in my first ranking final in Thailand, and I couldn’t have played much better. The result? – He thumped me 9-3, and I was lucky to get three. I thought going into the match that I kind of knew a bit about the game, I was wrong! If I’d missed a few school days here and there while growing up, this more than compensated. If anyone has ever looked like he was born to play snooker and be a champion, it’s the big man, as I call him. Words really don’t do him justice, so I’ll end with just one……Legend.
Number 3 – John Higgins. I’ve known Fiz, as I’ve always called him, since he was about 14. A little known fact is that we both attended the same primary school, although he was a few years younger. There’s little point in writing about his lengthy list of titles down the years, as we know all about them. Let me tell you a little about his early years as a player. John’s older brother (Jason) was in fact a better player back then, but when John started coming to play in the same Glasgow club as myself, it was quickly obvious that this was a lad with the snooker world at his feet. It takes most players 3, 5, or even 10 years to get close to a top standard. John’s transformation was complete, in my eyes at least, within a few months. I have a vivid memory of playing him on table 3 in the club when he was a junior. Now remember, just a few months previous to this, he was just a young lad who could play a bit. Anyway, his scoring went something like – 90, 100, 100, 80, 100, 100! I thought “bleedin heck” (or words to that effect). This wasn’t just a decent player having a good day either. The technique etc, was the very same then, as you’ve all seen down the years. I said to myself that very day, “this boy is going to be a multiple world champion”. Put simply, there just didn’t look to be any other outcome. A short time after, at the ’91 Mita World Masters, where a World U-16s was taking place alongside the main event, I was talking to Stephen Hendry who said something like….”That junior tournament between O’Sullivan and Williams will be a good event”. I told him there’s a young lad in the club that I can’t see anyone beating. Naturally, he was surprised. Anyway, John went like a knife through butter to lift the title at a canter. I wasn’t surprised then, and I’m not surprised now, that he’s still lifting titles 25 years on. With that ability, natural snooker brain, and methuselah sized bottle, there was only ever going to be one outcome. I’m so glad that my wee mate proved me right.
Number 2 – Ronnie O’Sullivan. This was a tough one to call, but I have Ronnie just pipped for top spot by the thickness of the baulk line. I’ve said in the past how I rate him as the most naturally gifted sportsman competing today, and time hasn’t served to change my mind. You can keep your Federer, Woods etc, for me, they don’t hold a candle in the talent department. Consider that he more or less decided to be good left handed because, well….because he could, and you get the picture. That left handed fifteenth red to the green pocket against Ding in the Welsh Open final last year on the way to sealing the title with a maximum, is by my reckoning, the best single shot in snooker history. If anyone else had tried it with their wrong hand, they’d most likely still be there trying to pull it off, and it was nearly 2 years ago. Forgetting for a moment, the titles that Ronnie has won, and I’ll give you my sole reason for not having him at number one – In my opinion, there’s one area where his record could, and probably should be better. It’s simply that for me, given his talent, he hasn’t won enough of the wars he’s been involved in. That may sound strange, given he’s won plenty of battles. I’m talking about those long nitty gritty matches that he’s lost down the years at the Crucible after leading in most of them. The one’s that spring to mind are against Hendry, Ebdon, Higgins, Selby and Bingham. But look, it’s only because of his ability that you could find any failing in those defeats. I for one, hope you all get to see plenty more of him in the years to come, there’s no doubting his presence adds a great deal to our sport in general. I’ll finish again with just one word…..Genius.
Number 1 – Stephen Hendry. And so to the great man. Yes, there’s no doubt I’m a wee bit biased in having Stephen as my number one, but all that’s really needed is a look at his numbers to confirm that he’s the top dog. Some of the things he achieved, and the nature of them, are barely believable. In sport, the sands of time sometimes have a way of clouding our judgement when looking back at a career. In this case, I still remember it very clearly. People should understand that Stephen came from a country that until he arrived, had little or no pedigree in the snooker world. He is the one, and sole reason that Higgins, Dott and Maguire etc came through the ranks. Not only that, can anyone else lay claim to having singlehandedly changed the way snooker is played as much as Stephen? Not for me! His accumulation, and hunger for titles simply can’t be matched. Can anyone really imagine that a player will ever again come along, and win The Masters at their first five attempts? Or be 8-2 up in a big tv final (against Ronnie), only to be clawed back to 8-8, and respond by drilling in a long red and rolling in a maximum in the decider? There’s not a chance in hell, is the short answer. Again, I could give you umpteen examples of those kind of things that Stephen made par for his own course, but I’d like to finish by telling you a story that typified his career, and which few people witnessed, I’m fortunate to be one of them. I watched Stephen play an exhibition frame in front of a sizeable crowd, and against a good player and pal of mine. Anyway, Stephen was 34 behind with one red on. He slapped the red down the rail, only for the cue ball to finish tight on the side cushion. My pal got up from his chair in excitement only for Stephen to hear the chair squeak. He got up off the shot and said to my pal “What are you standing up for?). As the guy sheepishly sat down, Stephen smashed the black in off it’s spot, the cue ball bent round top side of the pink spot, came off the cushion just below the middle bag, and came to rest plum on the yellow about a foot away. After the clearance, he gave the guy a knowing look of sympathy as a reward for his cheek. I couldn’t help think at the time “imagine pulling off things like that in a match?”. That’s why when Stephen was doing such things again, and again, and again in the biggest of matches, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Those are just a few of the reasons why I have the great Scot as my all time Champion of Champions.