It’s a pub argument for any sport elevated to virtual warfare on the internet: who is the greatest of all time?

The answer rests on semantics. What is the definition of greatness?

In sport, the test of greatness should be achievement, chiefly titles of importance.

However, snooker has had many eras. There was the pre-war dominance of Joe Davis, the rebirth of the game at the end of the 1960s and the decade that followed, in which Ray Reardon was the most successful player.

In the 1980s, Steve Davis was undisputedly the best player, just as Stephen Hendry bestrode the 1990s.

Since then there has not been one consistent dominant force but the three players who have won more of what matters than anyone else have been John Higgins, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Others would point to Alex Higgins, whose mercurial genius for the game was significant on and off the table.

Comparing eras is pointless, really. You can’t transplant, say, Mark Williams into the 1930s and ponder how he would have fared against Joe Davis, just as you can’t time travel Davis to the present day.

Players of the various eras all had their own specific challenges, be it the quality of the opposition, the conditions or the number of competitive opportunities.

But in the televised age of tournament snooker, which encompasses the last 35 years, the field narrows.

What Steve Davis did in the 1980s should not be underestimated. This was a time when more people watched snooker on TV in the UK than have done before or since.

To be able to handle that sort of attention and pressure and win as many major titles as he did shows a greatness to match any sportsman from any other sport in any other era.

And that Davis has continued to turn up impressive performances into middle age – witness his defeat of John Higgins at the World Championship only last year – further enhances his status as an all round legend.

He must have felt invincible in the 1980s. And then along came Hendry, who kicked down the door to the throne room with quite astonishing grit and self possession.

Noel Gallagher once said that his frustration with the Beatles was that they had the chance to it all before Oasis.

This was perhaps wilful ignorance on his part. The point is without the Beatles, there may never have been Oasis.

In the same way, the style of snooker Hendry pioneered paved the way for the all out attacking game we see in virtually every leading player today.

Hendry’s talent and dedication should not be clouded by the inconsistency he all too often suffers from today.

When he played his best, he was better than everyone else. Under pressure there has never been anyone as formidable.

In terms of sheer skill, O’Sullivan trumps even Hendry. Right or left handed, the man is a genius, although he dislikes that word, pointing out that he has had to practice like anyone else.

O’Sullivan’s best performances have been examples of sporting artistry that are all too rare, providing moments to cherish and admire.

To win three world titles in the last decade, given how competitive snooker has been in this time, is a fine achievement.

If talent were the only ingredient needed for success O’Sullivan would surely have won more times at the Crucible but he has freely admitted that he is of a different mindset to Davis and Hendry.

Higgins has now won four world titles. Davis described him twice in the aftermath of last season’s World Championship as the greatest player ever.

Does this have validity? Do four world titles since 1998 beat seven from 1990 to 1999?

If not, then why shouldn’t Joe Davis get the nod for winning 15 from 1927 to 1946?

It’s a minefield and, ultimately, comes down purely to a matter of opinion. So I shall give mine.

Let's be honest, many people who take part in this debate start from the point of view of being a fan of a particular player trying to twist the facts to best suit their favourite.

I'm not going to do that. If I did, Jimmy White would probably win.

It is purely based on what I have seen and what I have heard from other people I respect.

So who is the greatest player of all time?

Perhaps the real question should be this: why does there have to be one? Why can’t the different skills and achievements of snooker’s colourful past and ongoing present be appreciated for what they are?

Well they can be, but there's no fun in that.

So here goes...I believe that if Hendry played now like he did 15 years or so ago then he would still be no.1.

He may not win seven world titles in the current era but he would still win more than anyone else.

Why? Because he had the game, he had the belief and he had the nerve.

In some ways the game was harder in the 1990s because there were fewer attacking players and more of the old style hard men who tied matches up.

Hendry rolled them all over and was a revelation: five ranking tournament victories in a row, seven centuries in the 1994 UK Championship final, a record 36 ranking titles - just a few headline achievements in a quite remarkable parade of success.

I realise many people reading this now were not watching snooker at the time and may well doubt my judgement but something pretty special is going to have to happen over the next few years to shift my opinion on the greatest of all time.

Doubtless, though, you will have your views on this issue.


Anonymous said...


lock the subject now!

Monique said...

Great article Dave.
You know that my opinion is different from yours, but that's probably because what I appreciate most in the sport is different from what it is for you.
Ultimately we are spoiled to have been able to watch so many very great players over the last 3 decades and we should be grateful for that and enjoy each of them for what they have to offer.

John H said...

As a consistent follower of the professional game since 1981 I have to be very uninteresting and agree with you Dave! Hendry in the 90's still put in some shocking performances (his worst today is actually normally not as bad as it was then) resulting in some last 64 losses, but the standard he normally produced was superb and a very little higher than Davis in the 80's who was a supreme matchplayer and consistently cleaned up the last couple of reds and colours to pinch frames. Reardon in 82/83 produced a series of superb matchplay performances in the manner of Davis. Thorburn at his best froze players out. Alex Higgins when inspired could produce genius play. But Hendry through most of the 90s still edges it as the greatest ever in spite of superb displays from O'Sullivan, John Higgins and Williams in more recent times. Significantly all the players mentioned had 'the fear factor' with many opponents being beaten before they started as they did not seem to really believe they could win. Hendry at peak was the most fearsome of them all!

Witz78 said...

It annoys me when people argue the 36 to 28 rankers are part of their case, since the fact is a lot of Davis early triumphs were in the days when only the World Championship was classed as a ranker. From memory i think 2 at least, possibly 3 of his UK crowns dont count towards his total, as well as numerous other ones which would later become rankers once Hendry was winning them.

I look at the overall professional titles and i think its something like 73 - 66 in Davis favour so things are not as clear cut in the greatest of all time debate as some would hope.

For me the bulk of Hendrys world titles were won in a weak era, the early to mid 90s.

I see this era as a transitional phase of snooker when the old relics of the game from the 60s,70s and 80s were being phased out as the tour opened up and modern day attacking style player would eventually emerge, of which of course Hendry was the figurehead of. The fact remains in the years 90-94 between Hendry and White they contested the final 4 times out of 5, with White also making the '91 final and in the subsequent year '95, only them being in the same half of the draw stopped the Hendry - White final happening again.

Could you imagine such repetitiveness happening in this far stronger era for example, as good as the Hendry - White rivalry was, it was rather one sided and predictable, which says that even though Hendry benefitted from a weak / transitional era by only really having Jimmy as a serious rival

For me the 80s Davis era was more competitive, despite Steves dominance.

PS- Cant believe youve opened this old can of worms Dave, can already sense where this thread will go. Gonna be fireworks !!

edd147 said...

Great article Dave!
I'm also a big fan of Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry and it's killing me to see them declining and struggling like that. Anyway I'd like to point out that when you switch the priorities from the greatest achiever to the best you've ever seen, then it must be Ronnie O'Sullivan! We all know that Ronnie is the greatest underachiever in the game and when he's in the mood there isn't and wasn't a player to stand a chance against him. I watched the Northern Ireland trophy 2007 match where Ronnie played Ali Carter, and fired 5 centuries including 147 in best of 5 match. I think that was the performance of the greatest player in the best years of his career.

kildare cueman said...

I'd have to agree with you there Dave. The one thing that Hendry had over all others is that he never buckled. He always raised his game when the pressure was on. All other player, even at their peak, have collapsed at some important stage of their careers.

Trying to compare different eras is a pretty futile exercise at the best of times. We must give Davis credit though, in that he was at one time, undisputedly the greatest player ever to pick up a cue.

That accolade must surely elevate the ginger one to the pantheon of all time greats- along with Hendry and possibly Reardon.

The modern greats,- O'Sullivan, Higgins and Williams have all surpassed Hendry ability wise at some stage of their careers, but not often or consistently enough to be named greatest ever.

The title is always going to be a matter of opinion, but maybe champions from different eras, like pieces of fine art, should be appreciated for their individual achievement and quality rather than trying to list them in order of greatness.

John Pulman used to knock back large whisky like there was no tomorrow. Reardon used to sell cues from the boot of his car after exhibitions and matches.

If those old timers had the same upbringing and conditions as todays pros, whos to say they wouldn't have been the greatest ever?

Malikov said...

Hendry absolutely. The others are not worse. He is better)))

Anonymous said...

id say alex was a bigger underacheiver than ron

Anonymous said...

in this order:


steve d

john h
mark j williams
alex h


the rest...

Anonymous said...

I don't think the measure of greatness is achievement, it's impact. In every field it's always been impact. Dickens is often hailed as the greatest writer because of how his books shaped the English language and socialist thinking, even if they weren't the most gripping tales (he's no Stephen King, that's for sure). Einstein more or less invented modern physis, and dined out on that success for 50 years. Undisputably the greatest scientific achievement, but we saw more scientific endeavour from the likes of Newton and Darwin and many others. Picasso, not the most skilled artist but the only one to leave a lasting impression from the last century, so remains unchallenged as the last great artist.

So if you go by how people usually think about greatness, Alex Higgins is the greatest player of all time. You can look at the 70s and 80s and it is obvious he wasn't even the best player of his era, but no-one else came close to having the impact he did on the sport. Who is best is a trickier question, but it's a closed book on who is the greatest.

M said...

The only logical way to determine who is the greatest ever if all the candidates were to be at their best at the same time, and compete accordingly. The closest we can get to such hypothetical scenario is with the great trio: Ronnie, Higgins and Williams, they are arguably “better” than Hendry, as they had it tough competing against each other and against the likes of Maguire, Selby, Hunter etc. The standard of the modern game speaks for itself. However, Ronnie stands out because he has character and charisma which he shares with Alex Higgins and White. But he managed to win more titles. So all things considered Ronnie is the greatest ever!

Ray said...

The late Jack Karnehm used to say "You don't live long enough to master this game"
The nearest anyone has come to achieving this is the truly great Stephen Hendry(IMHO). He had so many fantastic attributes to be a champion, great focus and concentration and an unparallelled work ethic. He would be so disappointed if he did not make a 147 each and every time he visited the table.
One of the hardest things to do in sport is to play the game not the opponent. I don't think Stephen ever gave a second thought to his opponent because he was always trying to master the game itself.
I bet when he missed a ball doing hour after hour of set practice in the club he would have the raging hump.That's part of the reason he was able to perform such unbelievable achievements in the game.
He's the best player of all time for his sheer brilliance frame after frame, match after match, tournament win after tournament win - it just took your breath away.

Mal said...

I think Ronnie is unquestionably extremely talented, but he put in a huge amount of practice and would have sessions practicing with his left hand solely. When I watch some people do anything to avoid using the left hand, it makes me smile!

It's amazing how quickly a bit of practice with your other hand can get you to a competent level - Just a few hours and you'll be stroking the ball nice enough - ok not to the standard of your preferred hand, but it doesn't take long to get to a level of being able to knock in a yellow to black clearance, although clearly this isn't as easy as with your right - but I've done it left handed and I'm just a 50+ break maker right handed.

In terms of greatest, it is Hendry - and in terms of talent, people forget he didn't pick up a cue till a couple of weeks before his 13th birthday by which time Ronnie had been playing for 6 years as he started at 7. How good would Stephen Hendry have been if he had played a few hours a day from 7 - 13?!?

At his best he was immense, and although overall standards are higher now, his standard at the times is still the highest most consistent standard at the top level that has been seen.

Witz78 said...

Hendry might have been burnt out and bored of the game like Ronnie by the time he was on tour and unable to mentally cope if hed been playing the game since he was 7.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how late a lot of good players start. Hendry 12, Davis 14, Ebdon and Parrott 15. It seems the optimum age for snooker development may well be mid to late teens, and it seems to challenge the thinking that you have to start in nappies.

Claus said...

Stephen Hendry is the correct pick. You made the perfect argument (to which you say 'of course I did, I'm freakin' Dave Hendon!').

May he win another title.

Mal said...

I agree re: the comment that if Hendry has started earlier, he may have got bored sooner - But he may also have come on the scene at 16/17 and been at a much higher standard than he actually was then and blown the opposition away for a bit longer. But, yes perhaps his decline would have been sooner. He may well have had an even higher peak, but for less time...Who knows...But interesting to consider.

One thing about Ronnie is that he was at the age of 16, 17 at a higher standard than anyone of the same age (in my opinion) Hendry was definitely a couple of years behind in that regard, but of course had been playing a lot less.

To consider greatness, I think you need to consider a lot of issues - overall standard, dominance against the peers, longevity, talent, play under pressure and in all these Stephen scores very highly.

Comparing eras is difficult - Joe Davis was dominant and really developed the game...how would he have done with all the learning / coaching/ watching others there is today?

In theory, people could say that Dwain Chambers is a better runner than Jesse Owens due to the times they ran the 100m, but of course, if Jesse Owens was given then same training regime etc, then how good would he be today...perhaps challenging Usain Bolt?

Anonymous said...

Its all about super smooth cue actions, Stephen Lee combined with Alain Robidoux does for me.
Also the temperament of Peter Ebdon and the shrewd Alan McManus.

Anonymous said...

hasent seifer got out of bed yet ? :)

Anonymous said...

Alex Higgins is not a contender. Cliff Thorburn, Spencer, Dennis Taylor and Reardon were all better than him.

Alan Craig said...

I have to agree with you Dave, although all the others you have mentioned deserve great appreciation.

I think that is what it is all about. In addition to accepting and appreciating recorded achievements we are all moved in different ways with our art and sport etc. and that is the catalyst for individual opinion as well.

One statement of yours stood out for me, however, and I too think that Hendry’s top game of 15 years ago would stand the test with today’s hotshots.

I have been fortunate to watch him growing up since his early days in our Dunfermline billiard hall, even before he played a Scottish amateur event, and we knew then he was something special.

He was fearless and had an indefatigable will to win. It didn’t matter who he was playing! The table was his opponent.

I remember him being upset after an exhibition frame in Dunfermline against Cliff Thorburn along with the Scottish pros at that time. Stephen was only 13.

I thought a spectator had stolen his extension or something! When asked what was wrong he replied that he made a mistake on the colours and should have won!

Alex gets a lot of credit for reviving the game in his own inimitable style but Hendry shockingly raised the bar when he was so young, showed them all effortlessly how it could and should be done and also how to clinically win without compassion.

He broke the mould and cast a new template for those that followed

He was a class act.

Anonymous said...

You're living in the past. Hendry's game clearly doesn't stand up against Higgins, Williams, and O'Sullivan. No-one goes into decline at 27, it is the optimum age for a player. He stopped winning simply because the level was raised in the late 90s. Frankly, he was fortunate that he was up against an inexperienced Mark Williams in that 1999 final. He was great for his time, but that's the key phrase here.

paddy o hanlon said...

I agree Dave.. Hendry was unstoppable in the 90s.. Every time he came to the table you expected him to clear up... Best player ever... He had that fear factor ... I do think o sullivans world championship win in 2004 was the best a player has played at the crucible ... He missed nothing.. Hendry .... Davis.... Higgins .... 1 ... 2... 3....

tatannes XI said...

We're used to brilliance from DaveH and a GOAT article is really poor stuff.

My GOAT is John Mc Enroe.

He surely can't play snooker but he's the one who made me addicted to sports.

Great character.
sport became an art.
He loves the game.
Listen to him, he knows tennis !

He's brought so many people to sport !
Definitely the GOAT.

Claus said...

So 6:53 you're saying that Hendry's game hasn't declined, he has merely been overtaken by superior players? Are you mental?

You're obviously just fishing for reactions. Congratulations on your marvellous achievement. You caught me.

Dave H said...

Tatannes: you cannot be serious?

SA said...

The stats clearly show ronnie is the GOAT! End of discussion.

Anonymous said...

If you are talking GOAT's then surely David Bryant the great bowls player knocks any snooker player into a cocked hat.

Anonymous said...

What stats? 7-3?

Anonymous said...

what stats ?

Anonymous said...

Pleased to see so many people agree with Hendry. I honestly don't see how there can be any debate. Anyone who diagrees either wasn't watching enough of him during the 90s, has forgotten just how good he was back then, or is just totally blinkered.

Also, to SA at 9.52pm, please tell us which stats "clearly show Ronnie" to be the greatest. Just out of curiosity.

SA said...

The stats show that Ronnie is the best break builder an on average has had the most centuries. Hendry won his titles in a weak era and couldn't lace ronnies boots!

Anonymous said...

ronnie isnt even in the top 3

unless youre a ronnie fan

or unless u became fond of snooker after 2002

Anonymous said...

We are entering a different era in snooker, the standard for the past 5-10 years has seen rapid improvement.When Hendry won his world titles as brilliant as he was, he said himself that he could look at his draw for the crucible and see virtual byes to the quarter finals.By that stage he was in such a groove with his style of play that he was virtually unbeatable.
Today the standard is way higher and he would find it much more difficult to win with his old gung ho style of play. Although Shaun Murphy did win the worlds playing in that manner and Judd Trump almost pulled it off this year.
I Pick Higgins over Hendry.

Anonymous said...

childish remarks like 1157s just show him or her up for having a mental age of 7

Anonymous said...

"and couldn't lace ronnies boots!"


:) Lol

Colin M said...

It's the Nugget all the way for me...for his sustained brilliance as a pro over 5 decades, culminating in the defeat of reigning World Champ and World No. 1 J. Higgins at the 2010 WCs.

Davis was robbed in '85 and should have won 7 worlds. I recall some outrageous double attempts by Taylor that went safe in that final frame :-)

Hendry probably won 1 more than he deserved -- Jimmy should have had him the year he was 14-8 up.

In summary, the Nugget's the GOAT and he deserves a Knighthood!

Anonymous said...

Ronnie isn’t even the best of his era. He has been overshadowed by Higgins?

Who is GOAT? Hendry, Davis or John Higgins.

Timothy said...

Few debates arouse as much passion as that of who is the GOAT in the sport X. Dave Hendon was spot-on: many of us are fans of someone, and that easily obfuscates our estimation.

Take the tennis. I'm a die-hard Federer fan and obviously think that he is the GOAT of his sport, but I know many disagree.

One thing is certain, irrespective of the sport: H2H between players A and B means nothing whatsoever in the discussion of GOAT.

Tennis: Nadal leads Federer. Davydenko leads Nadal. Federer leads Davydenko. Who's the best?

Snooker: Ronnie leads M. Williams, S. Davis, J. Higgins and S. Hendry. M. Fu leads Ronnie.

I think that the difficulty to name the greatest player of a sport is due to how different all the great players are: they cannot be compared. Really, we are lucky to have Hendry, Higgins and O'Sullivan, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Anonymous said...

Are Federer and Nadal going to enter qualifying school next year?

mg147 said...

For me, Hendry and Davis probably if you go by achievement in an era with strong comeptition.

This comment however I can´t quite agree with:".. Alex Higgins, whose mercurial genius for the game was significant on and off the table."

Can anyone please explain wherein lies Alex Higgins´ mercurial genius for the game OFF the table?! :)

Dave H said...

For drawing people to the game.

When Higgins first won the world title it was played in a shabby British legion club.

When he won it for the second it was live on television at the Crucible: a transformation down to him more than any other individual.

Anonymous said...

I think that modern players can never live up to those from a past era. I believe Reardon, Spencer, Higgins, Miles and Mans were the greatest ever.
As Blur once said Modern Day Is Rubbish>

Anonymous said...

I agree with Alex Higgins on a certain level, but my vote goes to Peter Ebdon. His win over Stephen Hendry was jaw-dropping. Marvellous to view

Anonymous said...

The stats don't lie : 36 ranking titles, 7 World titles, over £8 million in prize money and 758 centuries. Hendry is GOAT-no one even comes close.

Anonymous said...

If the stats don't lie then Joe Davis is the greatest ever with 15 world titles you fool.

Spirit of Ted said...

Joe Davis is the GOAT. And his brother Fred was next.

Anonymous said...

154 - that is not what blur said. try again.

451 - think daves article aluded to the last 30/35 years or so. not way back 50 or more years when 4 guys and a dog played.

147 said...

I known its a bit off topic but I wonder what the great Joe Davis would have thought of Ronnie o sullivan and what a world final that would have made. I think they done an Ali vs marciano fight on computer one time. These two players to me encapsulate snooker.

Anonymous said...

4.51 In an era where Joe Davis ~(great as he undeniably was) had no competition, and Hendry had to contend with Davis, Parrott, White and the young Williams, Higgins and O'Sullivan, I think you're a bigger fool.

Witz78 said...


Hendry didnt really have to CONTEND with all those players.

1990-96 when he won 6 of these 7 world titles (and most of his others)

Davis - he had a slump in confidence and was in decline during the early 90s, he was never really a threat/rival to Hendry. Whilst their eras of dominace were back to back, they never overlapped.

Parrot - consistent but a 1 season wonder IMO and was just a solid player in a weak era the rest of the time for me.

White - Hendrys main rival but it pains me to say, he was mentally beat before he even played Hendry at Sheffield so its not even much of a rivalry when it was so one-sided. It just sums up how weak the rest of the tour was then full of flash in the pans like Wilkinson, James etc and relics from the past like Thorne, Virgo etc that Jimmy still easily managed to make the finals.

a YOUNG Williams, Higgins and Ronnie - "Young" being the key word, these guys were nowhere near the finished article or a serious threat to Hendry during his dominance in this 90-96 period. Ebdon and Doherty were closer to being rivals of Hendry than these 3 during this period, but id class the likes of Fould, Wattana and McManus as being among Hendrys main rivals which says it all really.

####### WEAK ERA ALERT #######

Anonymous said...

451 - think daves article aluded to the last 30/35 years or so. not way back 50 or more years when 4 guys and a dog played.

Dave's first sentence: "It’s a pub argument for any sport elevated to virtual warfare on the internet: who is the greatest of all time?"

I can assure Dave Hendon that the big bang didn't occur in the 1966.

Dave H said...

As I rather feared, it has turned into pointless arguments and insults

Discussion closed

jamie brannon said...

For me, Stephen Hendry is the greatest player to have ever graced the green baize.

Under pressure there was no one superior. The ability to produce is the ultimate test of any player at the highest level as they all possess fantastic talent.

His era wasn't as strong as the following decade, but in terms of the top 16, it was only marginally inferior with many of his chief rivals playing A-grade snooker which would have been the equal of today's leading contenders.

As Dave states, O'Sullivan is the best player in terms of taking the game to the highest level it can be played but his tournament record still needs beefing up before he can lay claim to the moniker of 'the greatest'.

However, if Higgins or O'Sullivan were to get to say six world titles, then the debate needs to re-evaluated as the era we are in has more strength in depth, and one thing in Higgins and O'Sullivan's favour is they have produced optimum form far longer than Hendry who has not been playing at the top of his game since 2003, and has not won a 'big 3' event since 1999.

jamie brannon said...

That was meant to say produce under pressure!

Didn't see the above comment until now but had been waiting for the time to put my view across, so hopefully you won't mind me commenting.

This was a topic I'd hoped you would feature, and it would be boring if we didn't make an effort to define greatness.

Anonymous said...

I think John Higgins is the best and the greatest player of all time. Because he won 3(of 4) world championchips titles in a time where it was said nowhone could dominate the game. With so many good players more then before. Ofcourse Davis and Hendry were and are great players. But Higgins b game is so good he can win against trump with his b game.