It’s hard to think of the Wembley Masters without thinking of Paul Hunter, who did more than most in recent times to make it such a popular fixture on the snooker calendar.
Paul won three Masters titles in four years from 2001 to 2004, all in deciding frame finishes after terrific comebacks.
He was 7-3 down to Fergal O’Brien in the first of these finals and came through to win 10-9, after which he and Fergal went back to the hotel and joined all and sundry in an all-night sing-a-long, the sort of occasion the snooker circuit, for all its rivalries and divisions, can often produce.
At the press conference after this match, Paul was asked about being 6-2 down at the interval. He said he went back to the hotel with his girlfriend, Lyndsey, and ‘put Plan B into operation.’
This became front page news, much to Paul’s surprise. He had only said it as an aside but it came to help define him as a good time boy with a personality and life away from the snooker table.
A year later, he recovered from 5-0 down to beat Mark Williams 10-9. In 2004, he was 7-2 down to Ronnie O’Sullivan – who very rarely loses from a long way ahead – and again won 10-9.
Paul had become a kind of ‘people’s champion’ and I personally believe he would have been world champion had his terrible illness not struck.
His victory over O’Sullivan completed a hat-trick of Wembley titles. In 2005, he played in a bandana as part of a sponsorship deal and was beaten in the opening round. In 2006, suffering from cancer, he lost to Williams.
Paul died later that year. I was one of those who believed very strongly that the Masters trophy should be renamed in his honour, so that he could be remembered each year when it was presented to the new champion.
It didn’t happen and it’s a shame there is no permanent memorial to him but snooker fans – particularly those lucky enough to have been at Wembley for any or all of these finals – will remember Paul for his style, his character and his cheerfulness in victory or defeat.
Such qualities are worth commemorating every bit as much as the actual titles.