Just back from spending a day at the qualifiers for a ranking event for the first time and what an interesting experience it was. Click below to read about my day, though much like my Premier League review last month, I have chosen to focus on things other than the matches themselves…
Having attended the World Championship at the Crucible for the last four years, along with other events such as the UK Championship at York and the Premier League, I have been interested for a while in seeing the other side of snooker, the qualifiers. I expected it to be different, but even so I found it to be a world away from what I was used to, and so a really enlightening and enjoyable experience for me as a snooker fan.
Arriving at the EISS shortly after 10am and the start of the morning session, I collected my ticket and tentatively made my way up the stairs to the viewing gallery for the first time. With it being my first time there and being so used to the strict door policies at the Crucible, I was surprised to find that I could essentially just stroll in and out of the gallery at any time and basically sit wherever I wanted.
After having just sat down in the middle initially while I took in the surroundings, I moved to the far left to view the match I wanted to see between young Welsh left-hander Daniel Wells, and the talented Li Hang from China. After a few minutes of watching, it suddenly dawned on me that five seats to the left of me was Liang Wenbo, obviously there supporting his countryman though he was to leave after the first frame. It was hard to blame him in fairness, it was an incredibly scrappy affair, eventually won by Hang after a period of safety play.
It was a strange old session full stop really, both players looking quite strong when in the balls, though Wells’ safety game left a lot to be desired. The frames seemed to follow a similar pattern as having got in first with a solid 40+ break on several occasions, Wells would break down and let his opponent steal it on the last few balls. The session ended 6-2 to Li but it was a much closer affair than that in reality.
Another match that I caught a glimpse of during the morning session was that between Vincent (or Vinnie as he later told me he prefers to be referred to as), Muldoon and Scott MacKenzie, the latter leading 5-0 at one point as Vinnie struggled to find any sort of form. After a mistake from Scott when he looked to go 6-0 up though, Vinnie pulled himself together and took the final three frames to give himself a shot going into the evening.
As the matches went on, several players joined Liang Wenbo in showing their support for their fellow professionals. Kuldesh Johal, Michael Georgiou, Mark Davis and Judd Trump all watching a bit of the action. This continued in the afternoon with some of the players who had played earlier coming in to watch other matches, for example Muldoon watching Declan Hughes and David Grace watching Peter Lines.
Meeting and Greeting
Between sessions I took the opportunity to have a break from the action, indeed I needed it because it is a very dark room and with the bright lights of the cubicles shining on you, it made me feel a little strange after a while!
Selling tickets and fleeces (well, trying to anyway), was local PIOS player Adam Duffy who explained to me that he had to help out with such duties as part of being awarded the Paul Hunter Scholarship for 2008. We chatted about a few other things and he seemed like a nice enough guy as I left him to it and went downstairs to catch up with a few other players.
Next up was David Grace who was relaxing following his first session with Jimmy White which finished up all-square at 4-4. He came across as a very friendly and very decent guy, happily standing for a photo (as everyone did in fairness) and talking about how his matches was going so far. He seemed incredibly relaxed for someone playing a favourite like Jimmy White and said that once he settled down after a couple of frames, he felt quite comfortable in what was his first appearance at the EISS.
Declan’s day to forget
Also hanging around during his mid-session interval was Northern Ireland’s Declan Hughes who at the time was 3-1 down to an on-fire Rodney Goggins. Having kindly posed for a photo having explained that he was the last player on my blog that I needed a photo of, we got chatting about where I had come over from, my interest in snooker and how much it was costing me to watch when he said that he would get me a tournament pass!
There was no need at all but he very kindly said that it would be fine and he took me to the tournament office, only to be denied by director Mike Ganley. I can see why though, there was no reason for me to get a pass really, though I would certainly not have complained. Even so though it was very nice of Declan to offer to do that, particularly halfway through a session, what an incredibly nice gesture.
Unfortunately for him though, his afternoon ended up being something of a disaster as he just couldn’t pot a ball. He said to me at the interval that he was playing dreadfully and that it was nailed on for 7-1, and he soon turned out to be right. Towards the end of the session he let his frustration get the better of him as he conceded frame 10 with several reds left on the table, immediately apologising to Goggins. He then just released his anger at the start of the next by smashing into the reds from the break-off, simply could not wait to get out of there.
Things went from bad to worse though as he told me that he was off for a pint, before realising that he had lost his wallet somewhere! I’m not sure if it ever turned up but he spent a long time trying to sort it out at the reception and he just looked gutted. Well and truly a day to forget.
While Vinnie Muldoon was having a tough time on the table, he was the next player who I came across in reception and what a great guy he seemed to be. Very much in the Ken Doherty mode, he was very friendly, very chatty and we spent a while talking about all sorts of things as he waited for a taxi to try and get some food. Most interestingly for the purposes of this post he said that he felt the tables were not playing right at all and that the conditions in Prestatyn are better. He thought that the reason was the cold in the arena and I would certainly vouch for that, it was very chilly, particularly in the morning session.
As for his match he seemed quite confident of making a comeback, admitting that he didn’t feel nervous or unsettled, he just didn’t play well early on. I was really hoping that he could do it against MacKenzie in the evening but after taking the first frame to make it 5-4, he lost the next four to crash out 9-4. The key frame was the one before the interval as Vinnie had a great chance to make it 7-5, but a bit of bad luck and a miss on the pink handed it to Scott.
Though he had lost the match, he had definitely gained a fan in me and I really hope that he will be able to keep his place on the tour for another year. He also said that he hopes to have a website up in a couple of months so keep an eye out for that.
As an aside, much like Hughes he wasn’t having a great day off the table either as he dropped his phone getting out of the taxi, breaking it in the process! Still he came back into the arena later to watch all of the evening matches to their conclusion.
At this point I had an hour off before the evening session and I managed to catch several players for photos as they came in and out of the building. Those who were nice enough to stop included James McBain, Andrew Pagett (complete with shocking pink waistcoat), Supoj Saenla, Michael Georgiou, Robert Stephen, Paul Davison and his opponent Wayne Cooper. Will be using their photos on their player profiles when I update them tomorrow so keep an eye out for those.
After all the photo fun it was time for the serious stuff as the first six matches of the first round came to their conclusion in the evening. The size of the crowd was noticeably larger than for the earlier sessions, most naturally turning out to see Jimmy White though the others were hardly empty.
Firstly I got myself onto the front row for the Muldoon/MacKenzie match which unfolded as I said above, before essentially reverting to standing around at the back along with Eirian Williams and several players, watching how the various matches would unfold.
The first match to actually finish was that between Li Hang and Daniel Wells which seems to have carried on in a similar vein to the morning session with Li snatching several tight frames where Wells had his chances. Happy to see Li win was Liang Wenbo who again was watching in the gallery before I caught him on his way out for a quick photo. Much better to get one now than during the inevitable scrum at the Crucible I think!
Best of one
Attention then turned to the match between David Grace and Jimmy White which resumed at 4-4 with all to play for. Being on the next table to the Muldoon match, I was able to catch bits of this and it looked like Jimmy was going to take control, taking the ninth frame before setting off on another break in the next. It all turned around though as Grace recovered to level it again, before taking the next two to move 7-5 up.
White then made it 7-6 with an excellent 75 break but it was the next frame that appeared to be decisive, both having chances before an epic safety duel took place on the colours, brown and pink in particular I think it was. Eventually David managed to snatch it to move just one away at 8-6 and I thought that he would win at that point.
You can never write off Jimmy White though and he upped his game to take the final three frames to finish off a great comeback. David will be disappointed but barring one chance at 8-6, he didn’t actually do a great deal wrong, White just got in and made the most of his chances. Jimmy looked generally in reasonable shape, particularly in and around the black spot where he looked like his old self at times. From what I saw though his long game didn’t seem to be particularly strong and his safety game was certainly inferior, David emerging from most of the scrappy frames with the win.
Another tight match was that between Jamie Jones and Robert Stephen, one that had been a good encounter all day and looked like going to way of Scotsman Stephen as he like Grace moved into an 8-6 lead. Again though, he could not see it through and by the end of the 18th frame when Jones made it 8-8, it was absolutely clear from Stephen’s body language as to who the winner was going to be. While Grace always looked outwardly positive despite his defeat, Stephen was the opposite and as Jamie produced some stunning exhibition shots in completing his win, he could only look on and watch.
Also suffering frustration was Wayne Cooper who seemed to have his whole family in there watching his 9-5 defeat to Paul Davison. He was unlucky in places, escapes from snookers leaving everything open for Paul and so on, but Davison was the better player and used his experience to book a second round spot.
The forgotten match of the evening was the one right at the end between Matthew Couch and Stefan Mazrocis, particularly as Couch raced into an 8-4 lead to make the result seemingly a formality. Stefan hung in there though and took a close couple of frames to apply some pressure, but it was not to be enough as Couch wrapped up a 9-7 win.
Overall my second visit to the EISS after the Premier League last month proved to be an incredibly interesting trip, meeting several new players and really getting a feel for how the qualifiers work. Aside from the most obvious differences like the size of the playing area, the crowd and the calibre of player in front of me, it was the little things that really stood out too.
For example the referees have a lot more work to do with their being no marker present. As well as their normal duties they have to operate the scoreboard with their little remote control handsets, whilst marking down the scores and the frame times in their little black books. Also interesting was the etiquette of the players, virtually all of them taking the balls out of the pockets for the referee and assisting in a way not seen so much in the major TV events.
One thing I struggled with at times was having to resist the urge to applaud good shots and frame wins as is the norm at most other events. The deathly silence from the crowd was a strange but understandable quirk that I will have to get used to there.
I can really see why some of the top professionals like Ken Doherty and Mark Williams are struggling at the moment because if it is strange for me as a fan then I can only imagine what it is like to veterans like them. Presumably conditions are even more back to basics at Prestatyn where most of the qualifiers are held and they will really be a true culture shock for them.
Hopefully this has given you an insight into the qualifiers and proved an informative read. There is a possibility that I will drive over again later in the week to watch a few more matches so watch this space. If not, I will update as best I can from home…