Why Sheffield truly is the ‘home of snooker’ as World Championship gets underway
As the world’s top players returned to Sheffield for the annual end-of-season showpiece – the World Snooker Championship – the city was once again given the tag as the ‘home of snooker’.
The sport’s top 16 ranked players have been joined by 16 qualifiers to compete for the tournament’s biggest-ever prize pot of £2.2 million, with the winner taking home £500,000.
But, as they all gathered for the annual event, they all said it was about so much more than that, with the Crucible Theatre still providing something magical to the tournament.
It is something which players, staff and fans have found hard to describe – what is it that makes Sheffield and the theatre itself so special?
The Crucible, along with colleagues at Sheffield Council, fought off competition from other countries, including China, where the sport’s popularity is growing at an incredible pace in 2016 to keep snooker in the city until 2027.
Despite the almost tangible atmosphere inside the theatre as the build-up intensified, putting what it is about the city’s theatre into words is not easy.
Jason Ferguson, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, said it was something he had ‘thought long and hard about’.
He said: “There has been almost 30 events this season, we have been twice around the world and it all comes down to this – the World Snooker Championship.
“I have thought long and hard about what makes Sheffield and the Crucible special and I think it’s about growing up with it and looking back over the years and you see the pictures on the TV and it just looks amazing.
“Then there is the image of the late Alex Higgings holding his baby in the arena after winning and it’s just so emotional. As snooker players you dream of walking down those steps into the Crucible.”
For seven players in particular, that dream has been turned into a reality as they all make the debuts in the Crucible Theatre.
Blackpool’s James Cahill – relegated from the tour in 2017 – regained professional status after his qualifying exploits. He will be one of seven debutants at this year's tournament.
Michael Georgiou is the first Cypriot to play in Sheffield while Scotland's Scott Donaldson secured his debut with a dramatic 10-9 win over Lu Ning in qualifying at the English Institute of Sport.
Chinese quartet Zhao Xintong, Li Hang, 19-year-old Luo Honghao and Tian Pengfei – who survived a fightback from another twice Crucible runner-up Matthew Stevens – also secured Sheffield debuts.
They will face tough competition with Ronnie O’Sullivan the pre-tournament bookies’ favourite, Australian Neil Robertson and Judd Trump all in fine form.
Defending champion Mark Williams, who famously stuck to his pledge to carry out his post-match press conference naked if he won the tournament last year, will also be looking for a strong performance.
Williams saw off John Higgins 18-16 12 months ago to claim his third title at the Crucible and was the first to admit he might have enjoyed the victory a little too much.
He said: “It’s something I didn’t think would happen so I just enjoyed it, probably for a bit too long but I wouldn’t change any of it. The last 12 months have been the best 12 months of my life and I hope I can do it again for the next 12 months.”
The 44-year-old said his colourful reign as champion had not gone down as well with officials as the gallons of beer he has had during the year-long celebrations following his unlikely triumph.
But he added he had been looking forward to returning to Sheffield and had his family with him at the pre-tournament press conference.
He said: “It’s one of the nicest places to come. There are lots of things to do and some of the best restaurants I’ve eaten in. You need decent places with nice food to relax between games.
“The Crucible is the home of snooker. Once it goes down to just one table it is one of the best arenas out there.”
Williams also said the number of debutants that had qualified for this year’s tournament was refreshing and positive for the future of the sport.
He added: “There are about six or seven players, who I thought would be coming through a bit quicker but it looks like they are getting to the next level and I think it would be great for the sport if one of them won.”
Five-time champion Ronnie O'Sullivan will be aiming for a record 37th ranking title.
He has had a stellar season, returning to number one in the world, winning five events.
The 43-year-old Englishman is tied with Scotsman Stephen Hendry on 36 titles and he said he had a home near Sheffield and he said the tournament was ‘a bit of a holiday’ for him.
He said he would be staying there for the duration of his involvement in the tournament, which he hopes will be until Monday, May 6 when the final session of the World Championship final is played.
He said: “Anyone who has won it will tell you, you have to dig deep. It’s a different tournament to anything else – you have to feel comfortable with your game with the long sessions and if you’re not playing well, it can feel even longer.
“It goes on longer than the Olympics so, in a way, you see how long you can sweat it out for.”
Scot John Higgins, who has reached the final for the last two years at the World Snooker Championship, will be hoping to go one better in 2019.
He also praised the efforts of those who came through gruelling qualifiers at the EIS in Sheffield earlier this month.
The 43-year-old said: “I think every player can sympathise with the debutants because we have all been there.
“For debutants to get through, it’s a massive occasion for them step our here in the Crucible and this will be some of the biggest games of their lives. I don't think you can prepare for that.”
Sheffield city centre has been transformed to welcome the players, officials, world’s media and fans.
World Snooker branding masks the Crucible Theatre from the outside and a huge screen has been set up in Tudor Square, where fans can to soak up the sunshine and watch the action.
The Peace Gardens have also been transformed with pictures of the sports top players – including Ronnie O’Sullivan - donning the Surrey Street entrance.
Inside, the BBC TV studio is set up as part of the Cue Zone.
Fans won’t have to wait another 12 months for their snooker fix though, after the city announced a second annual tournament will be held in August.
The ROKiT World Seniors Snooker Championship will see 20 former greats from 16 countries battle it out over four days and a session will also be dedicated to showcase the talents of the World Women’s Snooker (WWS tour and the Worlds Disability Billiards and Snooker (WDBS) Tour.
The event will take place at The Crucible Theatre, which has been home to the World Championship since 1977, from August 15 to 18.
There will be a total of 12 sessions of snooker during the tournament.
A limited number of tickets remain available for the World Snooker Championship .
Visit www.worldsnooker.com and www.cruciblesnooker.com for more information.
And for tickets for the ROKiT World Seniors Snooker Championship, visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.