The walk from Sheffield train station up to the Crucible Theatre is one of my favourites.
Sheffield always feels like a better version of Leeds to me: a little less overwhelming, people in less of a rush, the city just a touch quieter, and I always imagine myself sitting in Sheaf Square, sun on my back, looking out at the Water Sculptures, the latest Harlan Coben masterpiece in hand.
I never stay, though. Instead, I pace forwards with a spring in my step, excitement in my stomach with great anticipation for the day ahead. I’m off to the Crucible, you see, for the snooker.
It’s always better with friends in tow, watering holes either side of the streets leading to the Crucible quickly considered and passed over like cars on a showroom forecourt before the coin falls on any particular one.
When snooker comes to Sheffield, it consumes the landscape and the walk to that most famous of venues is filled with the sport. The sponsors' advertising adorns the streets, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump adding to the excitement that needs no encouragement. You can usually hear the Winter Garden — taken over by snooker for 17 days when the World Championship comes around — before you see it.
The last time I was there it was Ken Doherty on interview, talking all things World Championship, and I loved it. The pubs are just the same, television screens all green with live snooker or the previous day’s action being replayed.
‘This place looks good, let’s get a drink and get our bets sorted.’
I’m not usually first to the bar, as my friends will confirm, but I might make an exception for the snooker. And so, on our smartphones — always the Sporting Life App, of course — we plough through the racing form, the snooker stats, maybe the odd greyhound race. The football accumulator might come later — last chance saloon stuff if things haven’t gone so well.
With our bets on and glasses drained, it’s next stop the Crucible. There really isn’t any place like it and I defy anyone not to feel something within when you walk through those doors and find yourself faced with a hive of activity: a memorabilia stand, another bar selling my nemesis, San Miguel, and of course, a makeshift betting stand.
I’ve always found the Crucible to have a special atmosphere and minutes before the start of a session the place really does buzz.
It’s probably my round by now — you can’t avoid it forever — but there’s always time for another late bet on the snooker. That’s the problem with my lot; it’s rare that someone doesn’t have a strong opinion and it invariably involves the centuries markets.
It’s doesn’t always end in tears, though, and on one occasion back in 2016 we managed to stumble across a foolproof strategy that involved backing 50-99 breaks in every frame of the opening session of the match between Ding Junhui and Martin Gould.
In one of the best sessions of snooker I have ever witnessed, the pair combined to make eight breaks of 50-plus in nine frames with only two of them, thankfully, being converted to three figures.
I must admit, there is something rather strange about cheering a missed blue to the middle pocket as Ding is honing in on a century, while simultaneously, the rest of the crowd is groaning in disappointment. I might have tried to stifle a fist pump — only a tiny one — before receiving glares from every angle. Never mind, I convince myself they were Sheffield United fans.
The arena itself is something else. It shouldn’t really work for sport, but as soon as you make your entrance, you sense that you are in a special place, one that has seen it all over the years. The very best of snooker at its true home.
I like the Barbican, and who doesn’t love York, but the Crucible is something else. You can see and hear everything: every shot, every twitch, every facial expression, and you get pulled into the tension as if you are at the table yourself. It surely is the ultimate test for a snooker player.
I’m not sure you quite get that anywhere else and that’s why having reduced crowds last year — despite the coronavirus pandemic — and Barry Hearn's bold plans to go even further this time, gives the event that gravitas it would have otherwise been missing.
My first visit to the Crucible was in 2006. Rather ironically, my debut was to witness Jimmy White’s apparent farewell and even though he slumped to a disappointing first-round defeat to David Gray, the atmosphere inside the arena was electric and the love and support for the People’s Champion unwavering.
I do hope we get to experience that one final time, though I have finally accepted it won't happen.
With or without Jimmy, I’ll be back again in the years to come and though it might not be the same for some time, it will, one day, be just like old times.
‘Quiet please’ we’re told as the session ends and play continues on the next table, punters rushing for the toilets, the bar, the betting stand — all three if possible.
If you’re lucky, the day will still be young, the night a tantalising prospect if you can make it that far. I usually don’t. As always, the Crucible has had the best of me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year's tournament runs from Saturday April 17 to Monday May 3
Coverage will be live in the UK via BBC and Eurosport