The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
Whether by coincidence or not, the impact of the tobacco sponsorship ban in sport was immediately more recognisable during the 2005/06 snooker season.
The UK government had made the decision several years earlier to legally prevent the tobacco industry from promoting sports, and the 2005 World Championship was the last to feature the once synonymous Embassy name.
Benson & Hedges and Regal were others that often attributed their brands to major snooker tournaments, but that was now very much a thing of the past.
Snooker’s image was once intertwined with the picture of smoke-filled clubs, but times were changing and the 21st century quickly brought an end to smoking in public places.
Amid the collapse, prize money took an enormous nosedive and the number of events on the calendar dramatically decreased.
The Irish Masters and the British Open, which had both been mainstays on the schedule for more than two decades, folded.
Meanwhile, the monetary rewards offered in the events that managed to survive were noticeably cut.
Reduced Prize Money
The UK Championship, which had provided a winner’s share of £100,000 in 2001 and 2002, boasted a top prize of only £70,000 a few years after, while in the same 2005/06 snooker season the Grand Prix was also down about £20,000 from its previous highest figure.
It was worse still for the Welsh Open, an event that carried a champion’s cheque worth £82,500 when Regal last sponsored the competition in 2003.
For the rest of the decade, there was no title sponsor, and the winner collected a paltry sum of £35,000 by comparison.
Even the World Championship wasn’t immune from the setback – total prize money in 2005 when Embassy bowed out was in excess of £1 million, but a year later that was slashed by more than £200k.
That 2006 edition did see the World Championship get sponsored by 888.com, however, beginning a lasting relationship with the gambling industry that would eventually act as a successful replacement for the missing tobacco income.
Indeed, snooker in recent years has been one of the most popular sports for
betting with more and more online operators entering the market and offering snooker as a betting option.
These days, the majority of the big tournaments are sponsored by big betting firms, but at the midway point of this century’s first decade the sport was very much in peril as it looked for viable backers.
A Struggle for Consistency
On the table, there were only six ranking events, the Masters, and a few invitation tournaments on the 2005/06 snooker season calendar.
Perhaps predictably, nobody managed to win more than one of the rankers, as a part-timers feel descended on the tour and it became more difficult to build up any degree of momentum.
John Higgins was sort of the exception to this and won the season-opening Grand Prix with a 9-2 triumph over Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final.
The pair clashed again a few months later with the prestigious Masters trophy on the line, in what transpired to be a classic encounter.
With the scores locked at 9-9 following a high-scoring battle, O’Sullivan appeared to have beaten the Scot for the second successive year in London when he began the deciding frame with a break of 60.
But a trademark and nerveless clearance of 64 from Higgins denied the “Rocket” in what was a fitting finale for the last chapter of the Masters at the famous Wembley Conference Centre.
Following a few rather barren terms, Higgins was getting back near his best and indeed was the most consistent player of that period overall.
The “Wizard of Wishaw” also reached the finals in the Malta Cup and China Open, where he lost on both occasions courtesy of 9-8 reverses to Ken Doherty and Mark Williams respectively.
Stephen Lee triumphed in Wales, while Matthew Stevens managed to get his name onto a trophy for a change too – twice in fact – with victories in both the Northern Ireland Open and the resurrected, albeit briefly, version of Pot Black.
Neither was a ranking event, of course, making his UK Championship from a couple of years earlier still the only one of such status on his CV.
As for the 2005 UK Championship at the Barbican Centre in York, it was memorable for a couple of special reasons.
Ding Junhui, who made his breakthrough in spectacular fashion not long before by capturing the China Open on home turf, emerged as a worthy champion.
At just 18, he wasn’t quite the youngest ever winner but the impact he was making acted as a shining light in what was otherwise a rather miserable era.
Ding was utterly dominant that week – arguably even more so than Stephen Maguire had been twelve months earlier – but the event is probably remembered more for the efforts of his final opponent.
Steve Davis, the “Nugget” who was once relentless in his pursuit of success but was now more content with merely scrapping for his right to compete among the top 16 in the world rankings, was back in a UK Championship title decider for a tenth time.
Impressive wins against a young Mark Allen, reigning champion Maguire, Doherty, and old rival Stephen Hendry set up the encounter with Ding – but the young Chinese had too much in the tank and ran out a comfortable enough 10-6 victor.
It meant that Ding had beaten two of the sport’s biggest legends in his first two finals – Hendry in Beijing followed by Davis in York.
Ding’s next two important matches with silverware on the line would be against another legend in Ronnie O’Sullivan, but more on that next time.
Another Shock World Champion
Meanwhile, such was the protective ranking system incorporated at the time that Ding was still not officially ranked inside the top 16 and wouldn’t be until the rankings were revised at the end of the 2005/06 snooker season.
It prevented the teenager from qualifying automatically for the World Snooker Championship, and his failure to get beyond the preliminaries in 2006 robbed the public – especially in China where popularity was beginning to grow – of an opportunity to support the game’s newest marquee name.
Instead, the usual crop of contenders was expected to challenge for glory, particularly after what happened twelve months earlier when Shaun Murphy caused a sensation by triumphing as a qualifier.
In his season as world champion, the “Magician” was solid if unspectacular with a best-placed finish of a runners-up spot in the Welsh Open against Lee.
In Sheffield, Murphy succumbed to the inevitable “Curse of the Crucible” with defeat to Peter Ebdon in the quarter-finals.
The likes of Higgins and Hendry were shock losers in the first round, while Jimmy White and Paul Hunter made what would materialise to be their last Crucible appearances for two vastly different reasons.
White’s form was badly deteriorating, and even though he began the campaign with a ranking of number eight, his highest in a decade, the “Whirlwind” plummeted down the pecking order and has never recovered – being unable to emerge from the World Championship qualifiers every subsequent year since 2007.
Hunter’s 10-5 loss to the up-and-coming Australian Neil Robertson was of course even more tragic.
The three-time Masters winner was in the midst of a losing battle with cancer, and even though he competed throughout the 2005/06 snooker season the affable Leeds potter managed just one match victory.
In the World Championship, once O’Sullivan had overcome Mark Williams in the quarter-finals it looked as though a third title was in the waiting.
But the tenacious Graeme Dott stunned the world number one in the last four by winning eight frames on the bounce in the third session, eventually capping a 17-11 win to enact revenge for his defeat in the final to the “Rocket” two years previously.
An absolutely dire world final ensued between Dott and Ebdon, a turgid affair that perhaps mirrored the sport’s sluggish aura overall.
Finishing at 12:53am, the scrappy tie concluded with Dott securing an 18-13 win over the Englishman to join the elite list of world snooker champions.
Dott rarely gets the recognition for his achievement that he deserves, but for those 17 days he outlasted the rest on the biggest stage of them all – and for that he has a right to receive a lot of credit.