In this guest post, The Natural author Luke G. Williams compares World Snooker Championship finalist Luca Brecel with another special talent of the game.
By Luke G. Williams
My recently published book about cult snooker hero Patsy Houlihan brought me to Sheffield on Saturday.
As I sat in the famous arena for the afternoon session, I couldn’t help feel that in Luca Brecel I was watching a player whose fluency and spirit of attacking derring-do Houlihan himself would have approved of.
Patsy, kept out of the pros during his pomp in the 1950s and 60s, only reached the Crucible once – exactly 45 years ago – when he was repelled 13-8 by Canadian legend Cliff Thorburn in the last 16.
I bumped into Cliff today and the Rhett Butler of the green baize looked as dapper as ever, as he reflected on his memories of Houlihan.
“I’ve never seen another player like Patsy,” he told me with an admiring shake of his head before posing in an approximation of Houlihan’s “so compact, so smooth” cue action.
- CLICK HERE: Mark Selby vs Luca Brecel final preview
Richard Holt – longtime writer and editor of The Billiard Player – the pre-Snooker Scene cue sports journal of record – once described the young Houlihan as ‘a real artist and natural genius of snooker.’
Such an epithet could equally well be applied to Brecel, the 28-year-old Belgian who over the past 24 hours conjured one of the great snooker comebacks to topple Chinese prodigy Si Jiahui 17-15 in their World Championship semi-final clash having – at one point – trailed 14-5.
In reaching his first world final, Brecel has edged a step closer to fulfilling the prophecies of those who have long raved about his precocious talents.
Talents that saw him notch his first century at the age of 12, win the European Under-19 title aged just 14, and become the youngest ever Crucible competitor as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 2012.
On that occasion, Brecel succumbed 10-5 to Stephen Maguire, with one writer describing his play as being characterised by “audacity bordering on folly” – a description that, once again, carried a Houlihan-esque echo, reminding me of the aforementioned Holt’s declaration that Patsy was often undone by an “excess of daring”.
To be brutally honest, since his 2012 Crucible debut, Brecel – considering his rich gifts – has flattered to deceive.
Before this year’s World Championship, he had failed to win a single match at The Crucible in five attempts and his return of three ranking titles (the 2017 China Championship, the 2021 Scottish Open and a 2022 Championship League) represented scant bounty for a player of such abundant gifts.
This year, however, Brecel’s talents have finally flowered on the biggest snooker stage of them all.
He has also displayed a hitherto unseen capacity for mounting unlikely and sensational comebacks, having not only beaten Si Jiahui from far behind but also Ronnie O’Sullivan 13-10 having trailed 10-6.
At times, as Brecel has glided around the baize this week, he has made snooker look absurdly easy, barely feathering the cue ball before caressing red and colours into the pockets with dizzying precision and grace.
Sadly, no extended video footage has survived of Houlihan, but – judging by the the testimonies of sage judges such as Jimmy White, Steve Davis and Thorburn – he possessed a rare talent, just like Brecel.
Patsy was also a legendary drinker who – according to one of his mates – “drank a create of light ale a day” but “never got drunk”.
- CLICK HERE: Seven memorable matches involving Patsy Houlihan
With that in mind, something tells me that not only would Houlihan approve of Brecel’s attractive, open game, but that he would have had a wry chuckle at the Belgian’s admitted pre and post-match preparation during this tournament, which seems to have consisted of a good few beers and not much practice.
Indeed, as the modern-day natural from Belgium sat in The Crucible media zone tonight he admitted he would have “a couple of pints probably” tonight too.
I hope he enjoyed them, and I’d love to see his natural talent crowned with the sobriquet of world champion come Monday night.
Something tells me Patsy Houlihan would have loved it too, if he was still with us.
The Natural: The Story of Patsy Houlihan, the Greatest Snooker Player You Never Saw is published by Pitch Publishing and available now. For details on how to order a copy of the book, click here.
Featured photo credit: WST