Walker The Talker: Why This Snooker Season Is One I’ll Never Forget

Rob Walker reflects on a hectic 32 days in Sheffield and why he's never felt prouder to be part of snooker than he has over the last 12 month
09:54, 10 May 2021

After 32 Days of world class snooker in Sheffield, Sunday night saw our proud, humble sport enjoy a fitting finale to a season in which it has shone like never before, when David Lilley beat Jimmy White to be crowned Rokit World Seniors Champion at the Crucible Theatre just after 10pm. It brought down the curtain on a campaign which started behind closed doors in a bubble at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes last September and finished with the promise of a new dawn at the sport’s spiritual home.  

I arrived on Monday 5th April, ready for one of the most eagerly-anticipated World Championship first round qualifiers we’ve ever had at the English Institute of Sport. After returning from retirement, almost unbelievably, Stephen Hendry was drawn to face old rival and long term friend Jimmy White.

In terms of publicity it was the perfect start to the 10-day qualifying event. There were hardly any of us allowed in the press room and the sense of anticipation was unmatched for a last 144 encounter. 

The reality was that both were nervous and though the story of the match over-delivered in drama, it underwhelmed in quality. Hendry won the match but succumbed in the next round, admitting he wasn’t yet ready to battle to the four wins needed to make it back to the main stage. But from that moment on, the touch-paper had been lit on what turned out to be a superb edition of the Betfred World Snooker Championships. 

Stephen Hendry and jimmy white
Stephen Hendry and jimmy white

I went home for a couple of days to see my son on the 6th but returned on Friday 9th April ready for a month-long stint and got back to the arena just in time to witness Alan McManus retiring following his defeat to Bai Langning. He was so gracious afterwards and the snooker tour’s loss will be the broadcasting industry’s gain. He’s one of the best pundits on the circuit and it’s always a joy to sit next to him in the commentary box – which I was to do at the Crucible a week or so later. 

At the 'Quallies' as we call them in the press room, all the drama leads to what we’ve grown to know as Judgement Day. It’s the final match the remaining 32 players need to win in order to join the top 16 seeds in the main draw for the big one. Even for the players who have appeared at the Crucible many times before, the prize to get there again is huge. The tension around the arena is immense and it provides two days of non-stop drama across the 16 matches spread over the Tuesday and Wednesday.

For the last few years the World Snooker Tour have put together a clever production system through which we can switch live coverage to any of the eight tables in action, meaning in theory we can see all key moments on every table.

It certainly makes for fast-paced snooker coverage and this year I was lucky enough to be sitting alongside 1997 World Champion Ken Doherty for the mini broadcasting marathon. We certainly used up a lot of energy during the two days as the footage jumps from one table to another so quickly that you don’t have time to eat or go off mic whilst on air. And you can be sitting there for five hours at a time. 

Great fun though and we both really enjoyed it. 

After Judgement Day, the line up of qualifiers was so strong that we were left wondering if we might see the highest number of first round top 16 casualties in Crucible history. That was one of the talking points on air at the live draw in Salford the following morning. 

For those of us who have been covering the World Champs for a decade or more, there is a lot of routine to being at the event (and these familiar markers help you get your head around what a long tournament it is) and the morning of the draw always sees Head of Media Ivan Hirschowitz and I drive over “Snake Pass,” to get to Betfred’s Salford Studios for the draw. It’s a crack of dawn start after a late finish but waiting to meet us there as always was John Parrott. 

We all enjoy the drama of the live draw, but also breathe a collective sigh of relief when it’s over. Believe it or not the draw itself is a legal process and there would be consequences if the wrong name was read out in relation to the wrong numbered ball. We always practise it at least once before we go live and there is sometimes a slight pause when the 6 or 9 is read out to make sure the ball is the right way up.    

As it was to turn out, only two qualifiers made it through the opening round at the Crucible and one of those was former champion Stuart Bingham. Early on, the seeds held firm.

Stuart Bingham
Stuart Bingham

One of the sub-plots to the champs this year was the reintroduction of the crowds. Everyone behind the scenes at the World Snooker Tour worked incredibly hard on the health and safety paperwork because the government had decided our bubbles throughout the season at Milton Keynes had been run so professionally, it made us trustworthy enough for inclusion in their indoor event experiment. 

One of my roles on the BBC coverage has been tournament emcee, and since 2008 I’ve been used to working with close to capacity crowds almost every time. Last summer, of course, was about introducing the players purely for the TV audience with an empty arena. But in a funny way that’s easier than playing to sparse crowds because a fifth or an eighth full is neither one nor the other. 

The Covid restrictions meant no hotels being available and no-one under the age of 18 was allowed either, so the practicalities of being there weren’t easy. However, slowly and surely the crowds began to return. 

As the 17 days unfolded, all the players were unanimous in their delight at having any crowd at all, even if it was the 100 or so who made it for most of the first round matches. After being greeted by fake applause for the entire season, the noise of real people was music to their ears. As the permitted capacity percentage rose through each round, so too did the volume and the atmosphere as we gradually edged back towards normal pre-covid levels. 

Apart from the MC role, I was also commentating and doing my usual post match interviews and like everyone else, I could hardly believe my eyes at Anthony McGill’s composure in the second round decider against defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Ronnie O'Sullivan And Anthony McGill
Ronnie O'Sullivan And Anthony McGill

Having stormed to a 10-5 lead, the Rocket pegged the Scot back to lead 12-11. At that point almost everyone thought McGill would wilt. Where so many others would have done in the past, his nerve held good, coming through a huge 25th frame to leave Ronnie on six world titles, one shy of Stephen Hendry’s magnificent seven.

When I interviewed McGill live afterwards he simply said he had tricked himself into believing that it was just “another frame of snooker.” Not many players would be able to do that and actually believe it against O’Sullivan in that context. It was one my favourite moments of mental strength of the Champs.  

The quarter-finals saw a record six former champions in the last eight. Extraordinary strength and depth and proof once again that the class always rises to the top.  

Murphy had been potting balls off the lampshades in his second round match against Yan Bingtao and did the same against Judd Trump in their last eight encounter. While the quarter-final I commentated on was the two Marks: Selby and Williams. Six world titles between them and two great mates. 

On a personal and professional level they are two of my favourite players and I was really looking forward to it. But I’m not sure any of us could believe the dominance Mark Selby displayed in that match. For the first time in four years, a quarter-final finished with a session to spare and Selby looked like he was a character in a computer game, such was his metronomic pot percentage. 

Williams said that he couldn’t see anyone else winning the title if the Jester from Leicester continued playing like that. It takes a champion to know a champion. 

The final between Selby and Murphy was an occasion befitting the moment which was to come on the last day. Numbers grew steadily from the start of the semi-finals onwards and by the third session of the final on the Bank Holiday Monday afternoon we had at last reached capacity.

 In doing so, snooker had the honour of claiming the first sell-out crowd at a British sporting event for more than a year and it was my job to introduce the action. After so much hard work behind the scenes I knew it was a moment which transcended the boundaries of our sport and said so live on BBC Two.  

If you are experienced in TV you don’t usually get nervous, it’s more a case of being focused and making sure you are concentrating, but I was desperate to do everyone backstage justice by delivering the right lines in the right tone and I was feeling the pressure. It turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of my 21-year broadcasting career because of the crowd reaction when they started to cheer. 

I finished my intro by saying “We’re about to hear the Crucible roar like never before,”  but the noise, collective excitement and energy of the crowd blew me away. You could sense how people were feeling to be there together again, shoulder to shoulder sharing the experience of a live major sporting event. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was a privilege to be there. 

As for the match itself, Murphy more than played his part and almost pulled off a great comeback, but Selby deserved his title and joined John Higgins as a four-time winner at the Crucible.

Mark Selby
Mark Selby

After a day off to sleep and a short run, it was time for the last lap. The Rokit World Seniors Champs. This is great fun to work on and a much smaller scale champs than the main event which had just finished, but after a month away from home all of us were feeling the pace. 

The idea behind the seniors is to give those who have served our sport so well the chance to play on the big stage again and perhaps in the case of eventual winner David Lilley, also offer an opportunity to those less well known players who still feel they have something to offer and prove. 

The event happens over four days with last 16 action on the Thursday and Friday, quarters on the Saturday and semis and the final on the Sunday. 

Just when I thought the immense shift in Sheffield couldn’t throw up any more surprises, there came an emotional farewell for Dennis Taylor. Of course the champion from ‘85 hung up his cue professionally a long time ago, but he has been a stalwart of the seniors circuit for many years. 

After losing to Barry Pinches on Friday afternoon, he announced live that he had played the last competitive match of his life. He was almost in tears as we played him the moment of celebration from 1985 and I must admit I almost was as well. Such was the magnitude of that famous night 36 years ago.      

Taylor will remain a familiar voice and face of BBC coverage and as a player he leaves the sport in good hands. 

Despite all the difficulties of the last year, our sport found a way to carry on. Entertaining many at home and giving those of us who cover the tour the chance to carry on working and feel normal again. That is why I’ve never been prouder to be part of snooker than I have over the last 12 months.

Five weeks is a long time away from home and away from young children, but it’s been worth every minute. For so many reasons, this is the season I’ll never forget.   

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