As we say goodbye to 2006 it’s worth pausing to look back at the snooker year.
When it began, you’d have done well to find anyone tipping Graeme Dott to win the 888.com World Championship. His 18-14 victory over Peter Ebdon at the Crucible was a long, grinding affair that finally finished at 12.52am but was no less of an achievement because of this.
Dott is a remarkable player. He has something many others lack: self belief.
He always believed he had it in him and proved it on the biggest stage of all. Let’s not forget he beat Neil Robertson and Ronnie O’Sullivan just to reach the final.
I salute Dotty and disdain those who wish to detract from his great personal victory in Sheffield.
The match of the year as far as I’m concerned was the Saga Insurance Masters final between John Higgins and O’Sullivan at Wembley.
This was a contest of the very highest quality. In front of more than 2,500 spectators and millions more watching on television, played for one of snooker’s great trophies, these two all time greats put on a memorable show.
O’Sullivan was just a ball from victory: a red which hung in the jaws of a middle pocket but refused to drop. Higgins’s 64 clearance to the black was one of the best pressure clearances ever seen. His 10-9 victory was probably the best win of his career given the circumstances.
Higgins almost won in Malta and China but lost out first to Ken Doherty then to Mark Williams in deciders.
Beijing again provided evidence of where snooker is heading in the next few years. The sheer enthusiasm of fans and media in China is amazing. If it is properly harnessed it will secure the sport’s global future.
Its best player, Ding Jun Hui, became only the third teenager, after Higgins, to win three ranking titles.
Another non-British rising star, Neil Robertson, became the first Australian to win a ranking title at the Royal London Watches Grand Prix.
Stephen Lee, in Wales, and a brilliant Peter Ebdon, at York, were also ranking event winners.
Stephen Hendry returned to no.1 in the world rankings after an eight-year gap while his great rival from the 1990s, Jimmy White, fell to 34th.
And what of O’Sullivan? He began 2006 by holding a press conference – and having a T-shirt manufactured – to stress that he loved snooker. He ended the year by walking out of the UK Championship mid-match after coming under sustained pressure from Hendry.
Bit by bit, O’Sullivan is using up any remaining goodwill that exists within the sport for him.
The WPBSA, who run the professional game, had a largely good year. They secured sponsors for the four BBC televised events and appear to be steadying the ship, with various rumours abounding of new tournaments to come next year.
Their officials at tournaments continue to work hard and diligently and deserve praise, not least because they invariably get it in the neck from all sides about decisions they themselves have had nothing to do with.
However, the WPBSA board’s pursuit of Snooker Scene editor Clive Everton for expressing opinions they don’t like suggests that this isn’t quite the brave new era many of us had hoped for.
For all the various notable performances on table, 2006 has in many ways been a sad year.
In July, John Spencer, the three times former world champion, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 70.
Spencer was the first Crucible world champion. He was part of the group of players who helped make snooker such a popular sport with television audiences that the international circuit we know today was able to grow.
He was chairman of the game’s governing body for six years, an excellent BBC commentator and a popular figure on the circuit, who suffered greatly first from myasthenia gravis and then stomach cancer.
Ian Black, a former Scottish Professional champion, died in October at the age of 51.
Pat Houlihan, a huge influence on White and, like Black, a player to have competed at the Crucible, died at 77 in November.
Peter Dyke, a key figure in snooker’s development through his various roles with Imperial Tobacco, died in September.
Just last week, Alex Lambie, Dott’s long time manager, died of cancer. There was no-one prouder when Dott triumphed in Sheffield last May.
And, of course, saddest of all was the death of Paul Hunter just five days before his 28th birthday. We all still miss him. His funeral is the snooker occasion I will remember most from 2006.
Paul and Lindsey’s daughter, Evie Rose, celebrates her first birthday on Boxing Day. I’m sure everyone in the snooker world sends the family their best wishes at this time.
Merry Christmas and see you in 2007.