Mark Allen is defending champion in York
Mark Allen is defending champion in York

Neal Foulds column: Mark Allen and Ronnie O'Sullivan among snooker stars chasing UK Championship crown

The snooker season has been up and running for a few months now, but for many traditionalists December is when things really begin. We’ve just had the Champion of Champions, won in brilliant style by Mark Allen, and now look forward to York and the first Triple Crown tournament of the season, the UK Championship.

York has long been a favourite of mine, particularly in December when the city is in full Christmas swing, and the UK Championship remains one of great pillars of our game. The event was held in November last year, you’ll remember, so as to avoid a clash with the World Cup, but it's back in its rightful place on the calendar, and I’m really looking forward to it.

The aforementioned Allen will have similar thoughts, too, returning to Yorkshire to defend the title he won with bags of grit, determination and tenacity last year, and with a big win under his belt following his dominant defeat of Judd Trump in Sunday’s final in Bolton.

Allen peaking in time for York defence

I must confess that I didn’t see that performance coming from the Northern Irishman, not having watched him lose to Andres Petrov at 1.45am in Belfast just a few weeks ago. Allen has been struggling with his game all season, but he found his best in Bolton in an event he’s won before, and he got stronger as the week progressed.

He appeared to find some rhythm in his win over Ali Carter, was better again when pulling away from John Higgins in the last four, and after winning a couple of close frames early in the piece on Sunday, ended up cruising to victory in what was an ultimately one-sided affair. He was the best player all week and deserved to be champion.

There is no doubting that when he’s at his best, Allen is a world-class operator, and someone who doesn’t fear anybody in the sport. He believes he should be contending in the very biggest events, and I think that’s why he gets frustrated and can be hard on himself.

He was searching for something extra last season and even when winning at York in the midst of a lucrative spell, I probably wasn’t alone in fearing he’d gone too defensive in a bid to add another layer to his game. His strength is his heavy scoring, the foundations of which are laid on his immaculate cue-ball control. In and around the pink and black, there are few better than Allen.

Maybe he’d forgotten that for a while, but he looks to have found the perfect balance now. He’s shown himself and everyone else that he can win ugly if he has to, but without sacrificing some of the things that made him such a great player to begin with.

He’ll go to York full of confidence, also knowing that currently isn’t the case for many of snooker’s other big hitters, and will expect to lay down a bold title defence. Winning back-to-back tournaments is never easy, for all Trump might disagree, but Allen looks to be peaking just at the right time and must rate the man to beat again.

Trump bids to overcome heavy workload and bruising loss

I wouldn’t discount Trump, either. He’s endured an incredibly heavy workload of late, contesting five finals already this season and winning three, but he seems to be thriving on his snooker and much will depend on how he can react to such a heavy defeat.

Historically, Trump has been very good at bouncing back from losses and it will be fascinating to see how he gets on in an event he’s not had great success at in the last two years. We shouldn't forget that his runner-up finish in 2020 came behind closed doors in Milton Keynes, and a year earlier, in York, he lost to Nigel Bond.

Some observers will argue Trump has a few questions to answer on his more recent efforts here, but he certainly won’t be alone. The likes of Mark Selby, Kyren Wilson and Neil Robertson – all big-name players – have done very little so far this term and will be desperate for a deep run.

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In the case of Robertson, it’s almost to unthinkable to comprehend that he is danger of slipping out of the top 16 and that he might have to qualify for the Crucible next spring. He’s in a precarious position now, with so many points coming off his ranking, and needs a strong run in York with events likes the World Grand Prix, Players Championship and Tour Championship all needing to be qualified for.

I like the new format which has been introduced for the UK Championship, with the top 16 seeded players entering the tournament on Saturday, but that’s no guarantee for success. What it means is that if you’ve been struggling for results, like Robertson has, like Selby has, you must start off against an in-form player who has been winning matches, earning ranking points and money, and will be razor sharp.

It’s certainly not as straightforward as it seems, though I wonder if getting an early win or two could be just the springboard someone like Robertson needs. He’s a big-match, big-tournament player, we know that much, and it was only a couple of years ago that he was Player of the Season. A three-time UK Championship winner already, he’d dearly love to chalk up number four.

O'Sullivan hard to ignore in beloved York

For Ronnie O’Sullivan, he’ll be chasing number eight. Like most things in snooker, O'Sullivan's seven UK Championship wins is a record, yet another for this great player, and I’m quietly confident he’ll put up another good show.

For starters, he loves York. He’s always seemed right at home playing inside the Barbican Centre, and I think much of that is down to the fact he’s always enjoyed his time up there. He’ll go off running between matches, enjoy the city, and then turn up for the snooker in a really good frame of mind.

He’s made the quarter-finals in each of the last two years, having last gone all the way in 2018, and his form this season has been pretty good when we have seen him. He played really well to win the Shanghai Masters and then reached the last four of the International Championship, so his game is there.

Richard Mann's outright UK Championship preview

Ronnie O'Sullivan will be chasing his eighth win at the Masters

I know he got some stick for missing the Champion of Champions, and I don’t know the details, but his film comes out this week, which is sure to attract plenty of attention, and it just strikes me that the timing is perfect from him to go close at another major tournament. I don’t think he’ll fail for lack of effort, anyway.

In many ways, the season has been a strange one, with Trump dominating and someone like Zhang Anda coming from nowhere to find himself now sitting at number two on the 1 Year Ranking List. Barry Hawkins is another who has played some terrific snooker for a few months now, and he was simply superb when beating Luca Brecel last week.

Brecel can come alive on big stage

Hawkins is one of a just a few who don’t have form concerns ahead of York, but I wouldn’t write off the man he beat so impressively in Bolton last week. Brecel is world champion after all, and I’m hoping the real Luca turns up in York.

I suppose I’m a traditionalist at heart, and world champions have tended to then perform well at York later that year. It’s the first BBC event since the World Championship, so it’s bound to evoke lots of happy memories, and it’s also the first Triple Crown event since the last one, when Brecel won the biggest prize of them all.

Brecel has been a quiet world champion in many ways. That’s hardly a surprise, as his life changed overnight when he fulfilled a lifelong dream back in May. But he still reached the final of the Shanghai Masters when losing a good match to O’Sullivan, and was runner-up in York two years ago. It’s hardly like his form has dropped off a cliff.

Brecel has always been a streaky type of player who is red hot when he gets on a roll and starts to enjoy his snooker, particularly on the biggest stage. The UK Championship is most certainly that, and the world champion is part of a stellar cast set to do battle in a tournament that is always one of the highlights of the snooker season.

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