Stephen Maguire – Running out of time?

Scotland’s Stephen Maguire has long since been established as one of the  top eight players in the game and having already won several ranking event titles during his career, on paper at least should be regarded as one of the favourites for each major title that comes up. For whatever reason though, it is probably fair to say that he isn’t and without a ranking event title since spring 2008, is time running out for him to win the big one?

Back in the spring of 2005 I hopped on the train, destination Sheffield as I headed to the Crucible for the first time, indeed the opening round tie between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Maguire was to be my first experience of live snooker altogether.  Although a fan of the game for many years previously and well aware of Maguire’s quality, the Scot having won the UK Championship earlier that season, I entered the (far smaller than I had imagined), arena expecting to see another dominant performance from O’Sullivan who was defending his second world crown.

What actually was to follow during an exhilarating first session however was an excellent performance from Maguire who impressed me not only with his play on the table, but his presence and personality around the table. Like O’Sullivan has done to so many players, he dominated the table and despite a few customary slaps against the table, looked fully in control as he earned a 5-4 lead in no time at all. I seem to remember that when the curtain was raised following the session, David Gray and Anthony Hamilton on table two had not even reached their mid-session interval!

Although Maguire was to ultimately lose that match, having led 9-7 and had a golden chance in the next frame (unfortunately I was watching McManus v Drew Henry over on table two that night), he had done enough to suggest that with a kinder draw and a little more experience, he could one day go all the way to the world title.

What followed though was to be a dip in form from Maguire during 2005/6 during which by his own admission he was perhaps not as dedicated off the table as he needed to be in order to challenge for top honours.

This blip was to prove temporary however as in 2007 he advanced to the semi-finals at the Crucible, leading John Higgins 14-10 at one stage before the eventual winner pegged him back. Still, he was not deterred, two further ranking event titles following before he began the 2008 World Championship in blistering form, at one point actually becoming the favourite for the title with the bookmakers as he steamrollered Neil Robertson in the second round.

Unfortunately for Maguire this was to prove somewhat premature and by his own admission he took his eye off the ball against Joe Perry in the quarter-finals, saying that he only felt as if he might lose the match when he began the deciding frame at 12-12.

Since then although Stephen has flown under the radar somewhat, not performing poorly but for whatever reason he has struggled to make a real impact on tournaments, often reaching the quarter-finals or so, without ever threatening to go further. Why is this?

One problem has been that he has failed to record victories against the other top players in the game. When was the last time that he had a convincing win over a Higgins, O’Sullivan or Selby for example? With the standard as high as it is these days, major titles are not going to be won without having to beat at least one player of this calibre.

Stephen’s other Achilles heel is for me his temperament, and perhaps even a lack of belief which seems to be evident in his post-match press conferences having exited a ranking event tournament. Technically Maguire is as good a player as there is out there and has a fine all-round game, but mentally something just seems to have been missing for a while now and from the outside it would appear as though he is all too aware of this.

So has he got a world title in him? Past history would suggest that he is certainly running out of time as there have been few players in the game who have won their first Crucible crown aged 30 or above. With the traditional big four of Hendry, O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams now also ageing however, perhaps there is an opportunity for someone like Maguire to step up and take advantage, as Neil Robertson did this year.

If I had to bet my life on it at the moment, my answer would have to be no but I have always had something of a soft spot for Stephen who is by all accounts a top guy off the table and I would not be disappointed to be proved wrong…