You write off the truly great players at your peril. Old clichés like ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ may be a tired way of putting it but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

John Higgins looked like he was entering a steep decline towards the end of last season but has won the first title of this campaign. At 37, Ronnie O’Sullivan is at an age where players have traditionally gone backwards but has in fact won the last two stagings of the World Championship.

And what of the other member of that golden triumvirate who each turned professional in 1992 and each conquered the snooker world?

This is a really important season for Mark Williams. He has been treading water for the last year or so and the question remains whether he can find his stroke again or, to overdo the swimming metaphors, drown while thinking of former glories.

Along with Stephen Hendry, these three (Higgins, O’Sullivan and Williams) have been the best players I’ve seen in the time I’ve been covering snooker since the mid 1990s. They are very different men from distinctly different parts of the UK but have each scaled heights most players can only dream of.

The other day I was leafing through Snooker Scene’s report of the 2002 UK Championship, which Williams won with a 10-9 victory over Ken Doherty.

One of his quotes stood out: “People back home thought I was finished but I’ve shown them that I’m not.”

Hang on, I thought, finished? In 2002? How could anybody have thought this?

But Williams had won only three ranking titles since becoming world champion two and half years earlier. It marked a departure from the remarkable consistency he displayed from finishing runner-up in the Irish Open at the end of 1998 to winning the world title in 2000, in which he seemed to figure in virtually every final.

Leading up to that 2002 UK Championship he had seen Higgins and O’Sullivan win sundry titles. Hendry was still a force and Peter Ebdon had become world champion.

Williams, though, won that UK title and it marked the start of a memorable season in which he captured the big three trophies, remaining to this day only the third player after Hendry and Steve Davis to achieve this. He played quite brilliantly throughout this spell, very much an authentic no.1 in an era jammed with contenders to that crown.

The following season he completed the hitherto unmentioned ‘BBC slam’ by capturing the LG Cup. He arrived for his UK title defence in 2003 having won his first match in a remarkable 48 successive ranking tournaments.

But that great record ended with defeat to Fergal O’Brien and from then on things suddenly got worse for this most laidback of players.

We often hear it said that he dropped as low as 47th in the world rankings. It’s important, though, to point out that this was only provisionally. I covered pretty much every event on site back then and Mark was clearly devoid of confidence.

Some said he wasn’t practising properly, that he was playing too much poker, that he had management troubles. Whatever it was, he wasn’t his old self and this was reflected by his performances on the table.

He picked up the 2006 China Open but was relegated from the top 16 in 2008.

Many saw this as a humiliation but Williams’s character was key to him pulling himself out of the mire with the minimum amount of fuss, drama or complaint. When Ken Doherty was forced back in the qualifiers it felt like a death – of his career – but Williams, a man with no airs and graces, took it on the chin and just got on with it.

He returned to the top 16 after one season and eventually got back to world no.1 after winning the inaugural German Masters in 2011.

This was a triumphant return to the top for a player whose achievements were in danger of being forgotten. At his best, Williams had been one of the few players who could beat Higgins and O’Sullivan at their best. His game had always been based around brilliant single ball potting, forcing openings, but he was also adept at scrapping it out if he had to. He would have made far more centuries had he not taken his foot off the gas when frames were mathematically safe.

He’s always been a fierce competitor. His upbringing is surely one reason for this. I asked him once who he had supported in the 1985 world final. Williams said he hadn’t watched the conclusion of the most famous match in snooker history as he was out supporting his father, a miner, who was on strike during a notorious time in modern British history when the country’s industrial landscape shifted, huge numbers of jobs were lost and entire communities changed forever.

It may have been these experiences which forged in Williams a general distrust of and distaste for authority and a desire not to play the PR game. This was evident in his unwise but in many ways innocent dismissal of the Crucible as a venue last year.

The first time I interviewed him he told me to stay where I was when we'd finished. He downed half a can of Coke and then loudly belched the name Jenny Jones, who at the time was a leading US chatshow host. I've liked him ever since.

That may sound unprofessional or even odd behaviour from a leading sportsman but I'd much rather that than 'I hit the ball well and felt good' or a long litany of tedious complaints. Mark's never pretended to be anything other than what he is: a working class boy made good.

People mock Williams for his tracksuits but, unlike some players, he isn’t interested in portraying an image. He is who he is. Who he is was defined by where he comes from.

He respects the other greats but was never in awe of them. He had just turned 22 when he thrashed Hendry 9-2 in the 1997 British Open final. Asked afterwards how he felt he replied: “I’m gutted. I wanted to beat him 9-1."

His consoling words to Davis after the legend lost his top 16 place were, “don’t worry, Steve, I can get you tickets to the Masters.”

That German victory two years ago came after he narrowly lost the UK Championship final to Higgins, having led 9-5. Williams was 8-5 up to Stuart Bingham in the Australian Open final a few months later but lost 9-8. Then he lost 10-9 from 9-7 up to Mark Selby in the final of the Shanghai Masters.

That defeat, like the one to O’Brien eight years earlier, signalled the start of a rocky spell. The Welsh left-hander lost his head over a refereeing decision and, rarely for a genuinely sporting player, took the defeat badly.

Put simply, Williams has looked his old self all too infrequently in comparison to old foes Higgins and O’Sullivan in revent times.

But they may have done him a favour. I’m sure Mark must look at them and feel that if they can still do the business then so can he.

He started the current season 15th in the world rankings. He has been practising hard for the new season. In a long sporting career, motivation is sometimes difficult to summon up, but the prospect of slipping into oblivion tends to focus the mind.

At his best, Williams has been a bully at the table. He has dominated the very best the game has had to offer and the effortless style he has – which of course has come after much effort – is great to watch.

If he can hit his stride again then he has every chance to land more silverware. I have to disagree here with some other pundits: the standard hasn’t risen appreciably since the early part of the millennium when Williams, Higgins and O’Sullivan were sharing the titles around. If he can produce anything close to that level then he can win any tournament he enters.

The test will come not only in the big events but against the top players, most of whom are now younger than him.

Williams was especially poor in the Masters last season, which was painful to watch for those who have followed him for so long. He also lost in the first round at the Crucible, failing to put young Michael White in his place.

Well, new season, new start and all that. He seems determined to not – to borrow a phrase of his – collapse like a cheap tent.

I’m sure there are people back home who once more think he’s finished. They may have to eat their words again.


John McBride said...

You do wonder what happens great players, which is a category that Mark Williams definitely falls into. Is it between the ears? This great saying springs to mind if so....

"I'm about five inches from being an outstanding golfer. That's the distance my left ear is from my right ear". - Ben Crenshaw."

No doubt a couple of wins will see the man back where he belongs, competing at the business end of tournaments. I do genuinely wish him well because he is a great player to watch in full flow.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that line about Williams and the miners' strike before, but hadn't the strike ended a month or two before that final?

Ray said...

Another great piece Dave - thanks.

I totally believe that Mark Williams can get on the winning trail again well into his forties. He fought back before to get to No.1 so he knows how it's done - hard work, more hard work and the commitment to want to do it. Ask Phil Taylor, still doing it at 52.

Mark is one of the greatest sportsmen Wales has ever produced and on the few occasions I have spoken to him he's always very easygoing but don't be fooled because he's got a heart like a lion. In full flow he is a joy to watch so good luck and watch this space and as Mohammed Ali used to say "I will return"

jamie brannon said...

I first heard about Williams not watching the 1985 final on the BBC documentary that aired in 2010.

For me, he is the fourth best player I've ever seen, a master of winning scrappy frames. The most underrated safety player of all time.

I've got to disagree with Dave that his best could beat Higgins and, even more so, O'Sullivan at their best. As Dave said after the Crucible, O'Sullivan's best is the best.

He could have made more century breaks. The same could be said of many if they applied a similar intensity to the non-pressurised segment of a frame though.

I just feel he was a notch down from Higgins and O'Sullivan in dominating an opponent through savage scoring.

The one thing that puzzles me is why does Ken Doherty dislike him? They seem cut from the same cloth, free of any pomposity.

To be honest, from the outside, Williams' manner does slightly irk me, although can't quite put my finger on why.

However, his achievements in winning the 'triple crown' and then the 'BBC Slam', during a period of benchmark snooker at the top end of the game, ranks as one of snooker's finest feats. Something he has over his superiors Higgins and O'Sullivan.

TrevorP said...

imo i think he has lost his nerve since that infamous defeat to Selby he has not looked the same player since.also he has not beaten O'Sullivan since 2002 which is unreal and he always seems to lose to Higgins.i think it is definitely psychological with those two players at this stage.he has definitely lost something.

Anonymous said...

@jamie brannon
I respect your opinions but I don’t think Mark Williams can be considered 4th best ever.....

General consensus is that Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Ronnie O' Sullivan are in the top 3 bracket. That leaves us with Ray Reardon, Alex Higgins, John Higgins and Mark Williams fighting it out over 4th spot. Based on World/UK/Masters won, John Higgins clearly achieved more with 9 compared to Mark Williams’ 6. He also held the majors at the same time in 1998 although not in the same calendar season like Mark. Don’t forget that John Higgins endured a torrid time himself in the mid-2000s and had to stage his own revival to win 3 more world titles when it looked like he would be stuck on 1 for good. Mark meanwhile has only threatened to reach the world final once 2 years ago since his last world title in 2003.

I wasn’t around when Ray Reardon and Alex Higgins were competing but based on what I read, many would easily place them in the top 5. I would probably rank 4th Reardon, 5th J.Higgins and 6th A.Higgins and wouldn’t be able to rank Mark Williams higher than 7th to be honest. I feel though along with many that Mark Williams probably should have won at least 2 more titles and probably underachieved given his considerable talent but that’s another story for another day.

Mike Mouse said...

Love his whole approach to the game and his personality, and when he's floating around the table on top form he's a joy to watch. I hope he finds his form and shows some of the young whippersnappers a thing or two.

Anonymous said...

How on earth can Alex Higgins be even considered as a candidate for 4th or 5th best ever. Even in his own era he was 3rd at best, behind Reardon and Spencer.

He wouldnt have lived with todays players and would be behind the likes of Doherty, Hunter and Ebbo since then.
Regarding Williams, he is close to the pack of hendo, davis, RoS and J. Higgins, and ahead of the rest.
Finished now though. Lost the bottle. Happens with age.

Anonymous said...

In truth I think he would have won the WC in 2006 & 2008 if Ronnie O'Sullivan had never been born. It's very probable he could have won it in 2010 too, and if it weren't for Higgins possibly 2011. Potentially he could have been a 6 times world champion like Reardon and Davis, he just faced very tough competition. When you judge players across eras you have to look at who they lost to as much as what they won. O'Sullivan, Higgins and Williams have had to split the honours when Davis and Hendry didn't have to.

1998–2004 was when snooker was at it's highest standard, and he won 6 majors in that time including two world titles which is more than anyone else, so I think Dave's point that he could beat Higgins and O'Sullivan at their best holds some merit.

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable read Dave.
"the prospect of slipping into oblivion tends to focus the mind" is something for us all to consider, whatever our occupation.

Anonymous said...

Miner's strike ended in March 1985, the Taylor-v-Davis final was on the last weekend of April. But never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn!