Mark Allen savours the moment in York
Mark Allen savours the moment in York

Neal Foulds snooker column: ITV and Eurosport pundit on the UK Championship and Scottish Open

Snooker pundit Neal Foulds is back to discuss the big talking points in the sport, and look ahead to this week's Scottish Open.

The Scottish Open returns to Scotland of all places this week, which might just breathe new life into the tournament after the pandemic meant the last couple of editions had to be staged in Milton Keynes and Llandudno.

Given that Scotland has produced so many wonderful players over the years – and two of the very best in Stephen Hendry and John Higgins – it’s only right that it has a tournament worthy of its rich history with snooker.

Edinburgh is a fantastic city that promises to be the perfect new home to the Scottish Open, one which will hopefully allow the event to grow in the same way the Northern Ireland Open has in Belfast.

In recent years, the Scottish Open has probably suffered by running straight after the conclusion of the UK Championship, and Mark Allen famously turned his ‘drinking holiday’ with close pal Stephen Maguire into a title-winning week back in 2018, just seven days after losing to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final in York.

Having a week between those two events this year means everyone can build up to this tournament properly. Fans can look forward to a terrific week of snooker, and the players won’t mind a few days to recharge their batteries and work on their games.

Scottish Open outright preview

Neil Robertson had too many guns for Barry Hawkins at Alexandra Palace

Is Lisowski finally ready to deliver?

I’m expecting a good seven days and really hope Jack Lisowski can build on his excellent run to the semi-finals in York.

He’s such a talent and his quarter-final demolition of Shaun Murphy there was absolutely spellbinding. He’ll need to shake off his painful loss to Mark Allen the following day, when two up with three to play, but he looked very sharp in qualifying for the German Masters just a few days ago.

This is an important time for Lisowski. We all know how good he is when he’s playing well and if he carries on the way he’s been going, you’d have to think he can win something along the way.

Since he started working with Peter Ebdon, it certainly looks like he’s added that something extra to his game and it’s time for him to start fulfilling his immense talent.

Lisowksi isn’t the only one who was unable to resist the Allen comeback in York, with Ding Junhui letting slip a 6-1 lead in the final before eventually losing 10-7 in a match that really did swing one way, then the other.

James Cooper's round one preview

Robert Milkins in action

There’s a new way about Allen nowadays. He wants to be a serial winner and there is strong self-belief there that he can start achieving all the things he wants to achieve in the game. British Open runner-up, Northern Open winner, and now UK Championship champion – that is a remarkable start to the season in anyone’s book.

O’Sullivan made the point on Eurosport after the final that there’s a bit of Mark Selby about Allen’s game at present, and I have to agree. Allen was always a devastating player when producing his A-game, but his B-game is now good enough to win and he has turned himself into the man who can get the job done even when things aren’t going to plan.

He wasn’t at his best in the afternoon session of that final, but he hung in there and never let his head drop. When the tide turned and he found some form, he was irresistible.

He’s a different animal nowadays and every time you popped into the practice room in York, Allen was invariably in there working away. Along with O’Sullivan, Allen is probably the best player in the world right now, and on ranking tournament form, he's clearly top dog.

A word on Ding, too, who was brilliant all week and just collapsed a little in the evening session of the final. I think snooker fans like to see Ding playing well and having success, and it’s to be hoped he can build on that run for the rest of the campaign.

Ding Junhui at the table (Eurosport)
Ding Junhui

Ding is good for the game but losing from that position will have hurt. Had he won, he’d have picked £250,000 and 250,000 ranking points, taking him back into the top 16 and booking his place at the Masters. It would have also meant qualification for the World Championship would have been almost guaranteed.

Ding joins long list of German Masters absentees

Ding is obviously like O’Sullivan is so much that he loves the big stage. He always tends to come alive at York, and at the Masters, and it wasn’t that surprising he lost in qualifying for the German Masters to Matthew Stevens just a few days on from that final in York.

Ding wasn’t the only high-profile name not to secure a place in Germany, with Allen losing 5-0 to amateur Zhao Jianbo and a host of other top players not getting through. In fact, 10 of the top 16 were knocked out, and O’Sullivan opted to skip qualifying altogether.

I know Mark Williams took to Twitter on Sunday to suggest that the tiered system should be brought back in for these events, just as it was for the UK Championship, and I do think there is merit to his argument.

I didn’t like the old tiered system because I felt the top players were protected too much, but it didn’t work like that in York. Yes, the top 16 automatically entered the tournament at the last-32 stage, but they didn’t pick up any money or any ranking points if they lost. They still had to perform and if they didn’t, they went home with nothing.

Those who came through qualifying were battle-hardened and it meant they had the chance to find some form and work themselves into the tournament by starting off against players ranked closer to them in the rankings, not draw a first-round tie against an O’Sullivan or Judd Trump.

I wasn’t sure about it before York, but I’ve changed my opinion. It worked well. We saw lots of great action, we had better conditions for snooker because of the two-table set-up instead of the four-table set-up, and there was a better distribution of prize money.

Fabulous York shows the way

We had plenty of shocks, some great stories from the likes of Jimmy White and Sam Craigie, and the big hitters coming to the fore in the latter stages like fans want and come to expect.

And I think that last point is what Williams is worried about. Sponsors and fans want to see the best players in the best venues – and the Tempodrom in Berlin really is one of the best.

If we don’t have the best players at the latter stages of these events, there is the risk the sponsors will disappear and tournaments like the German Masters die off. That would be a great shame.

It's something that needs to be at least looked at, and the timing of the qualifiers for the German Masters didn’t work at all in my opinion. Having qualifiers in November for a tournament that doesn’t begin properly for another three months, and in a different country, is not ideal.

Perhaps staging the qualifiers a week before the latter stages in another part of Berlin is a bit fanciful, but it would certainly be another effort to try and spread the game and show off more of the players to German fans who really do love their snooker.

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At the very least, the timing needs to be closer to the main event. We have the Championship League scheduled for January when surely these qualifiers would have been a better fit there.

I know some will disagree with the tiered system and the general idea of making it easier for the top 16 to appease sponsors, but I don’t think anyone could argue with improving the timing of the qualifiers to make them more relevant to the tournament itself.

Of course, that would probably mean those top-16 players were more tuned up for qualifying than they were last week. In the case of Allen and Ding, you can’t blame them for coming unstuck on the back of such draining weeks in York.

Allen has been contending at pretty much every tournament in the last few months and to go from a packed house at the Barbican, having just won your maiden UK Championship title, to then having to play a qualifier in a leisure centre in Leicester must have been hard.

I have great sympathy for him, and the German Masters will be poorer for his absence. Ding, too, along with a host of other big names.

That’s not to say the tournament won’t deliver – of course it will – but I thought the UK Championship worked well. The snooker was top-class with an outstanding winner, but the system was fair and gave those lower down the rankings the chance to build some momentum and have big deep run.

It’s a balancing act for World Snooker Tour, but one I’m sure they will be looking at closely.

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