The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
When looking at the roll of honour for the 1996/97 snooker season, it’s a proper who’s who reflecting the handful of competitors who were dominating the business end of tournaments at that time.
Nowadays, it’s somewhat more common for a player lower down the rankings to get in on the glory action, especially when events like the Shoot Out are taken into consideration.
But in the mid-1990s it seemed like all the pieces of silverware were ending up in the hands of the same six or seven contenders.
Indeed, a new “Big Four” was forming with Stephen Hendry’s former rivals Steve Davis, Jimmy White, and John Parrott in the process of being replaced by the younger triumvirate of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, and Mark Williams.
Between them, the quartet triumphed in eight out of the first nine ranking events during the 1996/97 snooker season.
Hendry, as usual, asserted his status as the world number one with three victories, O’Sullivan and Williams bagged a brace of titles, while Higgins mustered just one – the Scot’s worst return since his breakthrough 1994/95 season.
O’Sullivan, who had failed to win an event of such status in each of the last two terms, emerged with the trophy in the campaign opener in Thailand.
The “Rocket” added his second just before Christmas courtesy of a 9-7 defeat of Alain Robidoux, who he had an altercation with just months before in Sheffield.
Despite reaching the last four for the first time in April, O’Sullivan had looked overweight at the Crucible and there were concerns that his off-the-table antics were getting in the way of his performances on the baize.
Slimmed down and with the confidence of renewed success boosting his displays, O’Sullivan returned to the Crucible a different looking animal in 1997.
The world crown that he so desperately craved would have to wait a while longer, but the then 21 year-old did manage to produce a moment of magic that has lived on as one of snooker’s greatest ever feats.
Almost like an ice-skater gliding across the ice, O’Sullivan manoeuvred his way seamlessly around the table, potting each ball with nonchalant ease, to conjure up the fastest 147 break in the game’s history at a mere five minutes and eight seconds.
O’Sullivan pocketed £147,000 for the maximum and £18,000 for the highest break, but he duly exited in the second round with an unexpected deciding frame loss to Darren Morgan.
A couple of months earlier, O’Sullivan was a surprise loser again when he missed out on a second Masters title at the Wembley Conference Centre.
His opponent? A resurgent Steve Davis, who funnily enough never fully got to grips with the prestigious invitational in his home city but fought back from 8-4 down to claim the last six frames for the crowd-pleasing triumph.
It’s remarkable to think that the “Nugget” was considered a complete outsider because of his apparently tender age of 39, particularly when that seems to be around the time when a lot of players are at their peak in the current climate of the sport.
Just before the Masters, Hendry had won the UK Championship for what proved to be the last time in his career.
A 10-9 victory over countryman Higgins in the final earned him a fifth crown in Preston.
In terms of Triple Crown events, which didn’t really become a thing until more recently but can still act as a good gauge to how strong a competitor was, Hendry at that point had won the last five.
In fact, since his maiden Triple Crown victory in 1989, he had won 17 out of a possible 24, which is worth repeating – 17 out of a possible 24.
Hendry, of course, went to the Crucible bidding to break the modern day record for most world titles.
He was on six alongside Davis and Ray Reardon, and by the time he had reached the final in 1997 he had won 29 matches in a row in Sheffield.
Irishman Ken Doherty was the challenger on the opposite side of the table, the pair having previously crossed paths earlier in the 1996/97 snooker season at the resurrected World Cup in Bangkok.
Thailand had become so popular a destination that there were three events on the calendar, with Peter Ebdon winning the Thailand Open as well.
That said, the return of the once annual World Cup lasted just a single edition, with the so-called “Dream Team” of Hendry, Higgins, and Alan McManus overcoming Ireland’s Doherty, Fergal O’Brien, and Stephen Murphy.
In Sheffield, the roles were reversed as Doherty – building a reputation as a masterful tactician – sealed a famous 18-12 win.
Hendry compiled five centuries breaks but was overwhelmed in every other department as the “Darling of Dublin” became just the second player from outside the United Kingdom to be crowned world champion at the Crucible.
Doherty also became the first player to secure the IBSF World Amateur Championship, World Under-21 Championship, and World Snooker Championship career treble.
Around the time he turned professional in 1990, Doherty moved to London where he regularly traded blows with the likes of Ebdon and O’Sullivan.
Interestingly, Doherty recently said that he and O’Sullivan didn’t always see eye to eye in the early days and had built up a rivalry, but in the weeks before that year’s World Championship they decided to set their differences aside, knuckle down, and practice hard together.
It certainly paid off for both and Doherty instantly became an Irish sporting hero, with the legend going that the streets of Dublin were so quiet during the 1997 world final that not a single call was made to the police in the city.
Hendry’s reign as the “King of the Crucible” was finally ended, but his decade of unrelenting power wasn’t quite over just yet.