Twenty years ago in the summer of 1992 as the eyes of the sporting world were about to turn to the Barcelona Olympics, three teenagers were ensconced at the Norbreck Castle Hotel on Blackpool seafront embarking on careers in professional snooker.
There was Ronnie O’Sullivan, of whom much had already been written. A snooker prodigy backed to the hilt by his father, he had cut a swathe through the junior ranks.
There was John Higgins, a quieter Scot, who began playing because his father took him and his brothers into a snooker club one day to give them something to do.
And there was Mark Williams, a left-hander, the son of a coalminer from the snooker hotbed of Wales.
In the two decades that have followed they have won 66 ranking titles between them, including ten world titles. They have each been world no.1. They have each tasted glory and they have each had their low moments.
They are three bona fide legends of the game: the best three players of the current century and still all ranked in the top 16.
But now they are in their late 30s, what lies in store for this formidable triumvirate?
Before I consider that, a dip back into the archives...
The first qualifier back in 1992 was for the UK Championship. They were each successful in their opening matches, played in the Norbreck's grand ballroom.
Higgins beat Ray van der Nouwlan 5-0. Williams defeated Jason Greaves 5-2. O’Sullivan received a walkover and then beat Jason Scott 5-3.
If you don’t know these names, don’t worry. The game had gone open to anyone with the money to enter the year before. There were around 700 professionals but the vast majority fell by the wayside.
O’Sullivan and Williams both qualified for the final stages, successfully negotiating nine rounds to do so.
Williams recovered from 8-3 down to 8-8 with Stephen Hendry but lost the decider. O’Sullivan beat Alain Robidoux but lost 9-8 to Cliff Wilson to be denied a place on television.
The world didn’t have to wait long. O’Sullivan was the first of this holy snooker trinity to make his mark. Just a year later he won the UK title the week before he turned 18.
But problems were already beginning to bubble up, all stemming from his father’s imprisonment for murder. Cut adrift in the world and suddenly in the public eye, O’Sullivan struggled to cope.
Higgins had a far more stable home life and, dedicated and possessing a good snooker brain, won his first ranking title in his third season at the Grand Prix. He swiftly became the first teenager to win three ranking titles. Steve Davis commended him for playing the game “the right way.”
It was Higgins who beat his two contemporaries to the world title in 1998. It looked like he might dominate in the manner of Davis and Hendry but a mixture of factors stopped this: though determined, Higgins was not quite of this mindset. He became a father and enjoyed family life. Plus, there was O’Sullivan and Williams to contend with.
Williams’s first ranking title came in 1996. From the back end of 1998 to 2003 he enjoyed a terrific run which encompassed all the game’s major titles. He became in 2002/03 the only player other than Davis and Hendry to win the ‘big three’ trophies – UK, Masters and world, in the same season.
Since this early flourishing there have been titles and scandals, bust-ups and comedowns, moments of brilliance and times of despair. They have each ridden the snooker rollercoaster and experienced the full range of emotions it has to offer.
Here in 2012, there is a new era. It would have been perfect for all three as teenagers and they would have made hay. But how much longer will they continue at the top level?
In O’Sullivan’s case, it’s hard to say, purely because he currently isn’t playing at all.
He is the reigning world champion but has opted out because he finds the players’ contract ‘too onerous.’
O’Sullivan’s camp tells me Ronnie sees this as a point of principle. He does not want extra money to play in tournaments but believes his worth to the sport means he is deserving of money for promotional activities. Every player’s contract stipulates they must do these activities if asked, but the point is O’Sullivan will be asked more than any other player, because he is the biggest name in the sport.
When will he return? There’s no guarantee he will. World Snooker is not budging an inch and neither is he. The big day is approaching, on August 6. This is the closing date for entries for the UK Championship. If O’Sullivan is willing to miss this tournament then there’s no reason to believe he will play at the Masters or even the World Championship.
Higgins, it should also be noted, hasn’t played yet this season. He is in a position to pick and choose more than players lower down the rankings but this is a big season for him.
Last season, he was poor. He told me at the World Championship launch that he hadn’t practised properly and that he was having a table installed at his house to try and remedy this.
But is the hunger still there? I don’t mean to win trophies – that will never go away – but to practice and practice to maintain his place in the elite at an age when players are supposed to decline.
Williams is always talking himself down. In many ways, Mark has never changed. He’s always been a bit cheeky and a fan of winding people up but, underneath it all, is thoroughly decent.
The way he responded to dropping out of the top 16 showed how good he can be when he’s fully determined. He got back to no.1 and is still third at the time of writing.
The bottom line, though, for these three men – all fathers – is that they don’t want to be playing snooker every week, not at this stage of their careers.
I’d fancy any of them to come good in a major tournament but the events which take place a little below the radar understandably don’t get the juices flowing in the same way, and it is because of this that they may slip down the rankings.
And it will happen eventually because it happens to every player. The question is how long it will take.
O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams were products of the 1980s snooker boom on British television. They were inspired by the heroes of this golden age.
The boom ended and fewer young players have come through the ranks. Those who have are yet to emulate the achievements of these three remarkable players.
Personally, I hope they all continue at the top level. Between them they have been responsible for some of the most memorable moments of snooker's recent history.
They are three very different men in terms of personality but they are united by their status in the sport.
20 years ago they displayed great promise. They have each delivered in ways which will never be forgotten.