By Fin Ruane
With the snooker road show descending on Antwerp this weekend for the third instalment of the European Players Tour Championship, one recalls last season’s event in Belgium and to the final which many commentators claimed to be the finest they had witnessed in many a year.
It pitted new sensation Judd Trump against the people’s favourite and box-office star Ronnie O’Sullivan. Although only a quick-fire best-of-seven match it featured several sixty plus breaks and two centuries in an exhibition of snooker that was indeed the finest witnessed in years. Trump eventually edged the match 4-3 but it was one of those situations where neither player deserved to lose – but was it the finest snooker match played as many in the game had claimed?
For me watching the game at home it brought back memories of what I think is the finest snooker match ever played. It’s a match between two greats of the game with one holding a huge lead only to be pegged back and lose in the final frame. There was no collapse on one player’s part to lose such a lead nor was it to let such a lead be taken in the match it was just two legends going toe-to-toe with some of the most exhilarating snooker I’ve had the good fortune of witnessing.
The match was the final of the 1997 Liverpool Victoria Charity Challenge played at the Assembly Rooms in Derby. This was a non-ranking event which ran for seven seasons where the invited players were playing to earn much needed money for a chosen charity. I travelled over with Ken Doherty for the event as it was always a few days of meeting up with some friends again without the obvious pressures a ranking event would bring. Even though ranking points were not at stake, money for a charity was and with the tournament televised live on ITV every player was trying his best.
After three days of play it was down to the final and it brought Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan together to battle it out over 17 frames for the £100,000 first prize to their charity plus an extra £30,000 for themselves.
What we witnessed that afternoon and evening was nothing short of sensational. After the customary handshake and photo we were off, and following a short bout of safety in the opening frame Hendry stepped in and went one up with a 110 break. It was to be the first of seven centuries the final was to witness that day. The next frame featured a five minute spell of excellent safety which Hendry duly gained from and went two frames up. The third saw Hendry pot his by now trademark long red off the opponent’s break and went on to clear up with a 129 break to surge three ahead. The frame before the interval again featured safety which had the watching commentator, former billiards champion and ex-professional Rex Williams, describing it as exquisite. Again Hendry capitalised to win the frame and go four frames up. Here was O’Sullivan four down without really putting a foot wrong; indeed so few were his chances someone quipped he was lucky to be at nil frames!!
After the interval the crowd, who by now feared for O’Sullivan, finally had something to cheer about as an almost perfect century by the Rocket brought the score to 4-1. Hendry, who was at the time the current world champion, quickly responded with two sixty plus breaks in the next to go 5-1 up and followed that with a magnificent 136 to stretch his lead to 6-1. O’Sullivan won a very important eight frame to trail 6-2 at the interval.
I remember having a bite to eat with Ken and a few of the boys during the interval and although players don’t tend to talk much about snooker away from the table, all anyone could talk about was the eight frames we just witnessed.
Little did we know what was to happen in the evening session!
The final session kicked off at 8pm and we settled back in the players lounge to watch the drama unfold on the several monitors that were positioned around the area. Hendry didn’t waste any time continuing his run and two fine eighty plus breaks saw him stretch his lead to 8-2 and within one of victory. Again O’Sullivan didn’t really do a lot wrong; it was just Hendry at his imperious best. Whatever O’Sullivan said to himself whilst sitting in his chair as the balls were racked is anyone’s guess but it motivated him to assault Hendry’s lead with a display of majestic and, at times, just plain beautiful snooker. Two fifty plus breaks saw it go 8-3, and then it was exhibition time from the Rocket. This time Hendry had to sit in his chair and watch as O’Sullivan produced back-to-back tons to make it 8-5. All of a sudden the final was alive again.
It was snooker from the Gods from O’Sullivan as a 90, an 80 and a quality 72 when going for a maximum brought the scores level. Hendry had led 8-2 but just over an hour later the Rocket had won six in a row to send the audience into frenzy. The atmosphere in the Assembly Rooms was electric, even the players lounge, where often at events you would see the guests with their backs to the monitors enjoying the hospitality, was heaving. Everyone was trying to fathom the quality of snooker not just by Ronnie that evening but also by Hendry. I remember talking to esteemed snooker reporter and stato Phil Yates and even he was struggling to take it all in.
So to the last and final frame and everyone watching, I included, waited to see what could possibly happen next.
Hendry broke off and O’Sullivan replied with a faultless safety. Hendry duly responded with a quality safety of his own, but a thin safety by O’Sullivan left Hendry with another tough reply. With one red just off the side cushion and the cue ball near the baulk cushion Hendry took on a shot that maybe one would play earlier in a match but with this being the final frame and the Scot still reeling from the six frames assault by Ronnie he did what champions do best.
Knowing if he missed he would surely let O’Sullivan in, Hendry composed himself and knocked in the red as clean as he could have wished and landed perfectly on the black. This was Hendry’s first real chance in six frames and boy did he take it, red black was followed by red black, surely I thought to myself he can’t? Can he?
15 reds and 15 blacks later it was down to the colours and one by one he sunk them. The final black, if memory serves me right, was a tough enough pot as he hadn’t landed perfect but in it went, Hendry won the final frame and the match not just with another ton but with a maximum. The manner in which Hendry opened his arms as he walked towards Ronnie to shake hands wasn’t a signal to Ronnie of disrespect but to every single snooker player out there it was a statement of ”I am the greatest, you can throw everything at me but I’m still the best.” He could have been Ali in the ring the way in which he celebrated not only the max but winning the match.
As Rex Williams in the commentary box exclaimed as the frame and match ended, “Well I thought miracles stopped happening 2,000 years ago but this is just unbelievable stuff.”
Co commentator Jim Meadowcroft retorted “that is the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in me life.”
Even Willie Thorne, who at times can be a fierce critic of players whilst commentating, said to us in the players lounge “I’ve been a professional for 20 plus years and this is the greatest final I’ve ever seen.”
And I couldn’t have agreed more, it was quite simply phenomenal. A standard of snooker produced by both players at the top of their game literally trading pot for pot, safety for safety and century for century.
Fifteen years later and for me it’s still the best I’ve seen. Yes, some matches have come close but it’s out there on its own pedestal as the greatest snooker match I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.
What do you think is the best match ever? Comment below and get a debate going.