The highly anticipated 2015 Betway UK Championship gets under way next Tuesday in York.
128 cueists are set to do battle in the sport’s second biggest ranking event, with a whopping top prize of £150,000 on offer for the champion.
Realistically, only a small fraction of those who have entered will be in with a chance of claiming the spoils come Sunday, 6th December at the Barbican Centre.
But that wont prevent a stellar line-up giving it their all in their quest to land one of the majors.
Much has already been made of the fact that defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan will not be competing, instead taking up a punditry role for Eurosport alongside Jimmy White and presenter Colin Murray.
It’s obviously a shame that the ‘Rocket’ is trading his new-found love of media for his old flame snooker, especially as he is the reigning champion, but the tournament, and indeed the sport, goes on without him.
The soon-to-be 40 year-old’s absence will have many feeling that the draw is significantly weaker but of course the field remains rich with pedigree.
There are 11 former winners attempting to etch their name on the famous trophy once again, while several others will be desperate to join that elite group.
The UK Championship has traditionally been one of the toughest events to emerge victorious from, with there probably being less shock victors than what there have been at the Crucible in Sheffield for the Worlds.
Since 2000, the roll of honour is truly impressive, with John Higgins, Mark Williams, Matthew Stevens, Stephen Maguire, Ding Junhui, Peter Ebdon, Shaun Murphy, Judd Trump, Mark Selby and Neil Robertson all manufacturing success alongside O’Sullivan.
Prior to that you have the likes of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Alex Higgins, Terry Griffiths, John Parrott, John Virgo, Doug Mountjoy and Jimmy White donning the champion’s belt – the latter of which still flying the flag for the golden oldies.
While the UK Championship in its entirety may not provide many surprise champions, the nature of a tournament which now utilises a flat draw system will inevitably throw up the odd upset, at least in the early rounds.
A quick scan of the last 128 draw doesn’t necessarily underline many obvious opportunities for scalps to be taken but the inevitability is that one or two of the bigger names inside the top 16 will come a cropper.
Predicting where those unexpected results might come from has become exceedingly difficult as the majority of the competitors are capable on any given day.
Perhaps one tie that the masses will be keeping an eye on is the clash between 1992 champion Jimmy White and Maguire, who burst onto the snooker scene 11 years ago with a dominant destruction of his competition to truly announce himself as a budding star.
At that time, many predicted that the Scot would be making many triumphant speeches in the big outings but that UK title remains his sole success in a major.
Maguire’s career has been a tale of many peaks and troughs, with his current spell of form certainly being among the latter as he finds himself enduring one of his countless bouts of inconsistency.
The ‘Whirlwind’ has by no means been playing well himself, and has in fact only one win to his credit all season, but if there’s a time to have one last hurrah, and a player to do it against, it’s now and it’s Maguire.
When Patsy Fagan won the first UK Championship back in 1977 one would have struggled to believe that there’d never again be a champion from the Republic – but that’s exactly how it has materialised.
Dublin’s Ken Doherty has finished runner-up on three occasions but was never able to get his hands on the trophy, coming closest in 2002 when he lost in a decider to Mark Williams.
The 1997 world champion is back for another bite at the cherry 23 years after his debut effort, but is unlikely to feature at the business end of proceedings.
Doherty is, though, drawn in an intriguing match-up with Malta’s Tony Drago that will have both reminiscing about their better years.
Fergal O’Brien, David Morris and amateur Leo Fernandez are the other three competitors representing the tricolour flag of green, white and orange.
Fernandez has arguably the hardest first round obstacle in the form of three-time champion John Higgins.
North of the border, Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen will be among the overall favourites and is certainly in fine fettle at the moment following his Bulgarian Open triumph and subsequent run to the Champion of Champions final.
Interestingly, the 29 year-old’s initial challenge is China’s Zhao Xintong, a young talent who is currently in the semi-finals of the IBSF World Championship – a global event formerly won by Allen of course.
If Allen can safely negotiate that tricky first round encounter then he could well play himself into contention.
The Antrim potter is a streaky player who has an ability to ride any wave of confidence that comes his way – and he surely is aboard one right now.
Players like Ben Woollaston, Gary Wilson, Martin Gould and David Gilbert have proven in the recent past that those further down the rankings are not to be taken lightly.
Others like Michael White and Kyren Wilson have further highlighted that very fact by capturing their maiden ranking titles this year.
However, as said the UK rarely conjures up surprises of that scale and is unlikely to in this edition either.
Allen is probably the biggest threat of a new name being added to the illustrious list on the trophy, especially given world champion Stuart Bingham’s sketchy form of late.
The safest assumption is that the winner is going to come from the prime suspects who know how to get it done under the most pressurised of conditions.
So then – Selby, Robertson, Ding, Murphy, Trump, Higgins, or maybe even Williams?
Take your pick.
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