In 866, the Vikings invaded York. This week, a horde of snooker players have descended on the city in pursuit of one of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious titles.
There won’t be any literal bloodshed but the williamhill.com UK Championship will still be a fight to the finish, and it’ll take a while to finish with 128 hopefuls starting out.
Some have already departed before the main arena even hosts any play. On the basis that it’s best to comment on something when you’ve seen it, I ventured to York yesterday to take a look at it all…
With the sort of timing only learned through long experience of free-loading, I arrived in the media centre at the precise moment they were serving the complimentary food.
My enjoyment of this was tempered only by then watching Dominic Dale devour a water bug on behalf of World Snooker’s Youtube channel, in support of a jungle-confined Steve Davis.
The association hopes to persuade other players to do similar. “We have loads of bugs and cockroaches,” an official cheerily said, as I eyed the remnants of my lunch with growing unease.
Pre-Christmas snooker is always special. It’s the time of year city centres are lit up with decorations as feelings of goodwill and glad tidings sweep away all negativity. Almost.
“That’s my season ruined,” said Dave Gilbert after losing 6-4 to Li Hang. In fairness, there are no positives to take from a first round exit which leaves the loser going home with not a penny for their efforts.
Money was upmost in Marcus Campbell’s mind after a disappointing recent run was ended by his marathon 6-5 defeat of Lu Haotian.
“I’ve got a young family and I haven’t had a cheque for a few months,” Campbell said. “Your outgoings are so heavy and it’s difficult to find the money. You’re outlaying £10- 15,000 and then waiting for two or three months for it to come back in. That in itself brings pressure.
“The system is very cut-throat. You’re flying to Poland or Germany for a PTC and forking out £600 a time. My last three draws have been Andrew Higginson twice and Joe Perry. So that’s nearly £2,000 in matches where you’re second favourite.”
There was great excitement late in the afternoon as Liang Wenbo closed in on what looked like being the 100th maximum in snooker history.
I looked forward to telling my grandchildren that I was there for this moment of history, and by ‘there’ I mean huddled round Matt from Prosnookerblog’s laptop with a bunch of other journalists having been too lazy to actually go and watch it close up.
“It’s all about this shot,” I said as Liang stood over the 15th black, trotting out a hoary old cliché which, for once, proved correct as he overran position for the yellow and missed an awkward cut-back.
Liang took it well considering the prize at the UK Championship for a 147 is £59,000 (though split if there is more than one).
“I had a good chance but I hit it too hard,” he said. It turned out he was unaware of the big bonus: “I didn’t know. I was just concentrating on playing.”
I had earlier ventured into the arena to watch some of the newer players, such as Chris Wakelin and Elliot Slessor, both of whom impressed me.
Slessor was beaten by Liang but Wakelin beat Ryan Day 6-5 having seen his 4-1 lead wither away.
As impressive a player as Wakelin seems, he is also an assured speaker, which suggests World Snooker’s media training programme is working.
His is a tale of triumph over adversity. A year ago he was being treated for depression and suffered the ‘yips’, unable to properly deliver the cue. As his health improved, so too did his snooker.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve gone through to suddenly not be able to play the game I’ve loved all my life,” Wakelin said.
“Snooker is a lonely sport when you’re not playing well. At its worst, I played a local match with the black over the pocket and the cue ball in the middle table. It was the easiest shot ever but I played it with the rest because I couldn’t deliver the cue.”
Thankfully he recovered and came through Q School earlier this year. Whatever the set-up here, he was determined to enjoy it.
But it has to be said the set-up is not ideal. The Barbican Centre is a great venue but possibly not for this format. The playing arena in the Sports Hall, which houses four tables, is a little cramped to say the least.
Snooker, of course, has often been at its best when played in an intimate environment – as at the Crucible – but this looked and felt a little like a club, certainly a contrast with the excellent Badminton Hall layout in Sheffield, used for the World Championship qualifiers these last few years.
There’s no room for practice facilities so players have to go to a nearby club, although conditions there are said to be good.
It was encouraging, though, that yesterday attracted a large crowd even though the game’s really big hitters are yet to start out. There was so much demand for the evening session that extra seats were installed.
That evening session dragged on and on but included a career best win for Chris Norbury, 6-3 over Martin Gould, who was suffering with throat problems.
I doubt Norbury’s assertion that the format is “better for everyone” will be shared by all his fellow players. Some of the bigger names coming in today may feel it’s a comedown compared to the two-table set up last year, although most of their matches will be played in the superior main arena.
This is, after all, the UK Championship, one of snooker’s crown jewels. But whatever the set-up, whatever the format, snooker still has the capacity to deliver high drama, as proven by Alan McManus’s last ditch win over Joel Walker.
Walker cleared the colours to force a re-spot but went in-off playing a safety, thus handing a 6-5 victory to the Scot.
That one shot he played, and its outcome, sums up the narrow margin by which this game is played. There’s a lot of talent out there. Some days you get the luck you need, others it cruelly conspires against you.
But everyone keeps coming back for more, and there’ll be much more before the champion is crowned on December 8.