With Ronnie O'Sullivan bidding for an eighth UK Championship success in York, Richard Mann discusses the key talking points ahead of the first Triple Crown event of the snooker season.
For so long The Masters was seen as Ronnie O’Sullivan’s event, seven victories split between the old Wembley Conference Centre and Alexandra Palace, including three in four years between 2014 and 2017, certainly giving strength to that argument.
However, O’Sullivan only made it as far as the quarter-finals in 2018 before suffering bruising a defeat at the hands of Judd Trump in last year’s final, and he has since gone on record to state his dislike for Alexandra Palace as a venue.
Having last week also described the World Championships in Sheffield as an ‘ordeal’ and let the K2 Leisure Centre in Crawley feel his wrath on a couple of occasions already, the York Barbican, host of the UK Championship once again, can feel pretty pleased that O’Sullivan continues to throw his support behind it.
It should be no surprise that O’Sullivan has such warm affection for the UK Championship. It was in this event that he claimed his maiden ranking title victory in 1993 and when he beat Mark Allen in the final 12 months ago to lift the trophy for a record seventh time, it saw him move onto the 19 Triple Crown wins in total, breaking Stephen Hendry’s record in the process.
O’Sullivan’s performance 12 months ago was nothing short of brilliant, heart and desire helping overcome an inspired Ken Doherty in the second round before those traits made way for ruthless domination of the likes of Jack Lisowski and Tom Ford.
Despite Allen’s best efforts – and the Northern Irishman barely put a foot wrong all day – the final was a one-sided affair with O’Sullivan waltzing to a 10-6 triumph with a performance of rare genius that was as measured as it was destructive.
His reaction at the end of the match was everything we haven’t come to expect from him, the moment clearly catching O’Sullivan off guard as the York faithful celebrated with their golden boy to such an extent that he was clearly touched and affected by the magnitude of the moment.
However, plenty has changed in the interim with O’Sullivan no longer top dog as Trump’s aforementioned Masters success was followed by his first World Championship win and three more titles at the beginning of this season, including victory at O’Sullivan’s expense in Northern Ireland.
On his return to York, O’Sullivan finds himself as second favourite in the betting behind Trump for the first time in quite some time, an eighth Barbican triumph possibly a step too far.
But don’t rule out O’Sullivan, the best player of all time and far from disgraced when losing 9-7 to Trump in Belfast, the latter’s superior long potting and more solid safety play the key differences on the day.
It wouldn’t be unlike O’Sullivan to peak in time for this event and if he can sharpen up his game just a little and be inspired by the return to his beloved York, just as he has so many times before, maybe, just maybe, we can dream of UK Championship win number eight.
Jack Lisowski has already overcome more than most, beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager for one, and he has long appeared certain to claim that breakthrough success on the snooker table that would finally do justice to his huge talents.
In fact, it was only a year ago that Lisowski arrived at York in the midst of an impressive campaign that had already seen him reach the final of the Riga Masters and the semi-finals of the International Championship in China.
Despite failing to halt the O’Sullivan charge when they met in fourth round in York, he would go onto to establish himself in the top 16 later that season with another final appearance, this time at the China Open, further evidence of his growing star.
However, those of us expecting Lisowski to finally break his title duck this term have been left disappointed, a frustrating campaign ensuing with a run to the last eight of the Shanghai Masters the only bright spot.
For someone with a huge amount of ability such natural flair – think Jimmy White but fairer hair and even less respect for safety play – Lisowski’s season to date has been a poor one and the current One Year Ranking list has him down at a lowly 26th.
Lisowski’s talent has never been in doubt, nor his heart, but his ability to grind out results when not able to let his fearless potting and dynamic break building steamroll his opposition continues to hold him back.
His first-opponent in York is David Lilley, a tough nut who won’t let Lisowski progress without a scrap, and it will be fascinating to see if he can come through that tricky opener and remind us of just what a fine player he is with another good run over the next couple of weeks.
The magic of the cup; where footballing giants are slain by clubs from tiers below them in the Football League, causing seismic shocks and reminding us that in sport, anything is possible on any given day.
League Two outfit Bradford City won plenty of admirers with their remarkable run to the final of the Capital One Cup in 2013 and a couple of years later they were at it again, Jonathan Stead rolling back the years to inspire the Bantams to a famous FA Cup victory over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Bradford’s giant killing exploits captured the public's imagination and Mourinho appeared to get caught up in the romance of it all, too, the Chelsea manager entering the opposition dressing room after the game to congratulate the Bradford players.
Snooker might not be quite the same - the UK Championship has a fine roll of honour which features great after great - but last year’s renewal had its fair amount of shocks in the early rounds, with James Cahill's defeat of then world number one Mark Selby 6-3 the most significant.
Cahill has made a habit of causing big shocks on the big stage and he pulled off one of the biggest of them all when defeating O’Sullivan in the first round of the World Championships last spring, the amateur from Blackpool beating the best player of all time in a match that was real Roy of the Rovers stuff.
That he was able to back that up by pushing Stephen Maguire so hard in his next match says a lot about his character and talent but his performances so far this term had been underwhelming, until he found himself back in front of the TV cameras in Northern Ireland and with another big scalp in his sights.
With little in the way of recent form under his belt and reigning world champion Trump racing into a 3-0 lead thanks to three consecutive centuries, Cahill would have been forgiven for slipping to a whitewash defeat in that best-of-seven opener.
Instead, he rose to the challenge again, producing his best snooker of the season as he shut Trump out in a way very few have been able to do of late, winning three frames in a row to force a decider.
But for an unforgiving bottom corner pocket and a rattle of its jaws, Cahill may well have gone on to win that final-frame shootout and the match. As it was, Trump prevailed before blitzing his way to back-to-back Northern Ireland Open titles.
Still, it was a stark reminder of Cahill’s talents and emphasised how the bigger the challenge and bigger the match, the better he is likely to perform.
In beating Selby and O’Sullivan and pushing Trump all the way in the space of 12 months, Cahill has shown just what he is capable of and David Gilbert, his first-round opponent in York, will be desperate not to be next big name to fall under Cahill’s sword.
The one million dollar question on everyone’s lips: can anyone really stop Trump?
Victory in York would mean the reigning World and Masters champion would become the first player since Mark Williams in 2003 to hold all three Triple Crown trophies at the same time, and on the evidence of this season, it is hard to argue with those keen to take the 3/1 available for Trump to achieve that feat.
Trump has started the new campaign with victories at the International Championship, World Open and Northern Ireland open, the last two coming in the space of a remarkable three weeks where he also made the final of the Champion of Champions.
He somehow came out on the wrong side of that match with Neil Robertson, surrendering a 9-8 lead and a healthy advantage in frame 18 before going on to lose 10-9, but the very fact he was able shrug off the disappointment and resume winning ways a week later in Belfast says a lot about his growing maturity and the confidence he currently has in his game.
Nevertheless, Robertson’s victory in Coventry does give plenty of encouragement to the rest of the tour that Trump isn’t quite as invincible as he can sometimes appear.
In fact, John Higgins has twice pushed Trump close this season and will rue a couple of missed opportunities when leading their semi-final in Belfast, while Joe Perry claimed a notable 5-2 victory at the China Championship before losing out to the same opponent in a final-frame shootout at the World Open.
More recently, Allen was desperately unlucky not to get the better of Trump in their Champion of Champions semi-final, a huge kick when in the balls and well-set to lead 5-3 changing the course of that match before Robertson denied Trump title glory 24 hours later.
This is not to take anything away from Trump, who is clearly the standout player in the game right now, and a relentless winning machine to boot, but for all he was utterly dominant in Northern Ireland, he had to survive a real scare from Cahill in round one before eventually prevailing 4-3.
The man to beat in York? Yes. Unbeatable? Not quite.
With Robertson, Allen and O’Sullivan all packing a serious punch at various points this season, and Mark Selby back to winning ways, this UK Championship is much more than a one-horse race.