NEW: Eurosport and ITV pundit Neal Foulds will be a feature columnist on Sporting Life throughout the new snooker season - check out his first column here.
Most things in snooker have a habit of coming back to Ronnie O'Sullivan so I'll start off by tipping my hat to him for winning his sixth World Championship title at the Crucible in August. We are running out of superlatives when talking about O'Sullivan and great credit must go to him for coming through that titanic semi-final with Mark Selby before overpowering Kyren Wilson in the final.
O'Sullivan winning was great for the game, it usually is, and there's no doubting that this year's event - played for the most part without spectators - probably suited him and allowed him to focus on business as oppose to being distracted by the clamour that invariably surrounds him at these big tournaments. He's only one shy of Stephen Hendry's seven world titles now and with O'Sullivan, you just never know how far he can go and what more he could achieve.
O'Sullivan winning always gets people talking and after the tournament was handed an early blow with government restrictions meaning spectators were not to be allowed in the Crucible for all bar the opening day and the final, his victory was a boost organisers really needed.
I know Barry Hearn was disappointed to not have fans at the biggest event on the calendar and he's always maintained that all sport has a shelf life and will only survive so long without spectators. I don't know where this all ends, and there are clearly more important things going in the world than snooker, but the World Championship was never going to be the same without fans.
World Snooker did a fantastic job, and continue to do a fantastic job at following guidelines and making us all feel safe, but on the table I know someone like John Higgins really found the experience an odd one. When you've played in so many great matches at the Crucible - matches that are made by spectators - it must be a strange feeling to try to find that old magic in front of empty seats.
I certainly think that was part of the reason why so many qualifiers did as well as they did this year but it's also why I was glad a previous winner won it again. I'm sure Kyren Wilson would have been delighted to win - and he might well do so in the near future - but there might always be an asterisk next to this year and when a player is crowned world champion for the first time, I'd like to see it happen in front of a packed Crucible crowd.
I'll try not to make my first column of the new season all about the one just gone but I can't move on without mentioning that last Friday of the World Championship, one of the most memorable days of snooker at the Crucible I can remember.
Wilson's victory over Anthony McGill was an incredible semi-final but the deciding frame was something else. I've never seen a frame like it and the drama and tension was just incredible. Then, just when we all thought we could breathe again, O'Sullivan pulled off of a quite remarkable comeback against Selby in one of the great matches. Selby looked like he'd done a number on O'Sullivan again but O'Sullivan came good right at the death.
It was one of those days that leaves you feeling good about snooker and while I know the final didn't quite match the two semi-finals, everyone connected with the tournament and World Snooker should be very proud.
Back in the present, and the new season is already well under way with the Championship League ongoing and Selby having confirmed his return to something close to his best with victory over Martin Gould in a really good final of the European Masters.
Selby is playing really well again - which is to his great credit after what must have been a crushing defeat to O'Sullivan in Sheffield - and I'm so pleased that Gould has found his form, too, having been close to dropping off the tour before turning things around in qualifying for the World Championship.
Gould has always been a very fine player and watching him play, it was hard to fathom just why he was struggling so badly for results. He's a quiet lad, not always the easiest to read, but he seems in a good place at present and has picked up enough ranking points of late to ensure he can kick on now without the pressure of playing for his place on the tour.
Next up is the English Open starting on Monday. The first event of the Home Nations Series, this will be the fifth year of the English Open and I think the tournament has grown into a big one for the players to win. We've definitely lost something from not having the Chinese tournaments earlier in the season and as such, it's even more important the organisers can ensure all these events that are to be played in Milton Keynes are made to feel like standalone competitions, and not just a repeat of the previous week.
There's nothing anybody can do about it, given the current situation, but I go back to what Hearn says about shelf life and sport, and I do hope these events can return to their rightful homes in time. As it happens, an event like the Champion Of Champions was due to be played in Milton Keynes this year anyway - and it is a very good venue - but the beauty of the Home Nations Series is that we get to travel around the country and meet up with old faces from Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff, and it will be very sad if we continue to lose that. The Welsh Open is still scheduled to be played in Wales so fingers crossed for that one.
I know that the organisers managed to make the venue at Milton Keynes look a little bit different from the Championship League to the European Masters so hopefully they can mix things up again next week.
As for myself and the rest of the Eurosport team: we will be on-site for the English Open and are very much looking forward to the event. We actually did the European Masters off-site in London but it's always nice to be at the venue, though our excellent production team will be doing their bit remotely.
I have to say, the new way of working on commentary has taken some getting used to but there's always ways around things and again, World Snooker have been excellent, as have our production team. I'm not too sure what to expect next week but in Sheffield, it was so strange commentating on a match with your co-commentator working in a separate booth. I remember thinking there was no way it could work, but we had Zoom set up so we could still see each other when the other went to his microphone.
Like I say, it certainly takes some getting used to but the show really must go on. I think the last few months have demonstrated that we need sport, and along with Jimmy White, Alan McManus, and Andy Goldstein, I'm excited about the prospect of covering the Home Nations curtain raiser.
As ever, lots of attention will be on the likes of O'Sullivan, Judd Trump, and of course, defending champion Selby.
O'Sullivan was an early casualty at the European Masters but Aaron Hill is a massive, young talent who played really well to beat him there. I know people jumped on the fact that O'Sullivan was knocked out by the type of lowly-ranked player he had criticised at the World Championship; his comments there certainly created something of a storm but I can assure you, Hill wasn't one of the players he was criticising having covered the Shoot Out with O'Sullivan for Eurosport last season. O'Sullivan was very impressed with Hill in that tournament and turned to me when watching him practice and said 'this lad can play.' He was right, and he gave him the utmost respect when they met the other week.
Comments from O'Sullivan will always attract attention, but while he was typically blunt with what he said, he probably has a point. You've got to remember that he was only seventeen when he won the UK Championship for the first time and for all we keep seeing talented potters coming through, most of them are into their mid-twenties when we are still talking about them as players for the future.
To a lesser extent, even Trump got bogged down for a few years while he found his way again and perhaps a few of his contemporaries could learn from him. He'll be hoping to get back to winning ways next week having just gone off the boil a little bit since taking first prize in the last event before lockdown, the Gibraltar Open.
Trump was on a real roll at that point - breaking the record for the most ranking title wins in a season - but he played poorly at the Tour Championship when snooker returned and he hasn't looked quite at his best since. He is still the best player in the world, and well on his way to becoming a great player, but he'll want to win another Triple Crown event this term having failed to do so last season. The Champion Of Champions is another big event nowadays, as is the aforementioned Tour Championship, and these titles carry plenty of weight. Trump will be targeting those.
We're at that time of year when people start asking for a name to follow for the new season and aside from the likes of Trump and O'Sullivan, whom I've just discussed, I want to give a mention to Mark Allen who is remarkably consistent but ended last season without a title victory.
When you look back on some of his near-misses last year, it's hard to fathom just how he didn't convert one of his deep runs into a victory and I'm sure it won't be long until he returns to the winners' enclosure. He's too devastating a player to keep missing out and his scoring is at an incredible level nowadays; it's not exaggerating things to say his break building is, at times, on a par with what Hendry and O'Sullivan have produced. It's that good.
Allen made four centuries in a row against Ken Doherty at the European Masters, has plenty of bottle for the big occasion, and if he puts it all together, he'll win a tournament very soon, I'm sure. It might even be next week.
Either way, I'm expecting him to have a strong season while lower down the rankings, Noppon Saengkham is a good player who can make his mark, too. He's a really solid operator who is improving and he was only beaten 12-13 by Selby at the World Championship. A big practiser with a solid all-round game, I'd love to see him win an event at some point.
He and Allen would be my two to watch for the next few months while, as already mentioned, I think Hill is a player of real potential. He's got a long way to go but the talent is clearly there.
Fingers crossed he can show what he's capable of and that sport, and snooker, can keep providing us with that little bit of escapism at a time when so many of life's other pleasures aren't as freely available to us as we would like them to be.
- Neal Foulds is a pundit for Eurosport and ITV and will be writing a regular column for Sporting Life throughout the snooker season.