As Preston Guild Hall prepares to host next week’s Wyldecrest Players Championship, we look at five of the best finals staged at the famous Lancashire venue…
1983 – HURRICANE'S COMEBACK DENIES DAVIS
By 1983, Steve Davis had become not just the game’s top player but the most dominant force snooker had seen since its first flowerings as a professional sport when Joe Davis (no relation) was unbeatable.
This new Davis went to the 1983 UK Championship looking to win the title for the third time and was barely threatened en route to the final, sweeping aside several key rivals including Willie Thorne, Tony Meo and Jimmy White.
Standing between him and the trophy was his polar opposite. If Davis was coolly methodical and unflappable then Alex Higgins was unpredictable, temperamental and inspirational. Above all, though, he was a fighter.
And he had to be. The UK final in those times was played over two days but it looked as if it was over in its first session as Davis forged 7-0 ahead, making breaks of 78, 84, 82, 54, 64 and 67 during a display which underlined his apparently imperious reign at the top of the snooker world.
Higgins, though, had not given up and dug his heels into the second session, winning seven of the eight frames to trail only 8-7. Going into the final night they were level at 11-11.
This was now a battle for the line and the audience had to choose between the clean-cut and the flawed. Most, though by no means all, chose Higgins, who led 14-12, trailed 15-14 but dominated the last two frames.
As Clive Everton wrote in Snooker Scene at the time, “perhaps he was like a man drawing comfort from the fact that the firing squad could only kill him once. At that stage, pride of performance could only be all that realistically remained but, as he at first contained Davis and then accrued one frame after another, hope dawned like a new day. The death or glory finish for which he hungers stimulated one last surge which left him the only man standing when the shooting was done.”
1988 – MOUNTJOY’S FAIRYTALE TRIUMPH
Few gave Doug Mountjoy much chance of repeating his UK Championship triumph of 1978 a decade later when, at the age of 46, he seemed to be in decline.
So badly had the previous season gone that Mountjoy sought out Frank Callan, a former fishmonger who had gained a reputation as a leading coach.
Something clicked. In Preston, Mountjoy beat Neal Foulds 9-5 and former world champion Joe Johnson 9-5 before edging John Virgo 9-8, having led him 8-3. He was so relaxed against Terry Griffiths in the semi-finals that he went to sleep in his dressing room in the interval.
The final against Stephen Hendry was very much the old versus the new and snooker’s latest superstar, then only 19, was widely expected to beat the veteran, despite Mountjoy’s sudden resurgence.
In fact, from 7-7 overnight Mountjoy won all seven frames of the third session, at one stage compiling three successive centuries. At 15-7 he had it won. At 15-12 it was getting sticky but Mountjoy duly completed an emotional 16-12 victory and dedicated it to Callan.
The Welshman underlined his remarkable path back to the winners’ enclosure by then capturing the next ranking event, the Mercantile Classic.
1990 – THE BOY PRINCE DETHRONES THE KING
If ever a match summed up the passing from one golden era to another it was the 1990 UK final, featuring Steve Davis – the king of the 1980s – and Stephen Hendry – who would dominate the new decade.
Hendry had earlier in the year become the game’s youngest ever world champion, employing a new brand of snooker both fearless and deadly. It looked like grandmaster Davis may have finally met his match.
The two players entered the Guild Hall arena to the strains of Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ and proceeded to serve up what remains one of the sport’s greatest battles.
It was an engrossing match, perhaps the best ever UK final, and Davis got his nose in front at 15-14 before Hendry demonstrated why he became what he became. Clearing up with 57, Hendry potted a great all-or-nothing blue with the rest under pressure and went on to take the decider with a break of 98.
It was not only the fact that he potted the blue, it was his self-belief, his unshrinking desire to take it on, regardless of the consequences of missing.
The old order had been defeated. A new snooker king had assumed the throne.
1993 – O’SULLIVAN GETS HIS TEENAGE KICKS
Ronnie O’Sullivan was a snooker phenomenon even before he turned professional. His name was known all around the UK due to his performances as a junior and amateur, and in his debut season as a pro he did not disappoint, winning all but two qualifying matches and reaching the Crucible.
He was a week from turning 18 when he squared up to Stephen Hendry in the 1993 UK final, having dispatched the likes of Ken Doherty, Steve Davis and Darren Morgan along the way.
There were no thoughts of just enjoying the experience. O’Sullivan had the belief to win and, more importantly, he had the game. Few players could outscore or out-pot Hendry at his best. O’Sullivan, though, was such a man.
He led 6-2 after the first session having compiled two centuries and there were no signs of winning line nerves as he kept the lead to win 10-6. He is still the youngest player ever to win a ranking event.
It remains a remarkable achievement by this prodigious talent. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is that more than 20 years on O’Sullivan is still the best player in the game.
2005 – RAMPANT HIGGINS OUTGUNS THE ROCKET
Very few players have outplayed Ronnie O’Sullivan in a showpiece final but John Higgins, a contemporary and fellow great, was someone not to be intimidated by snooker’s greatest talent.
These two members of the class of 1992 met in the Grand Prix final at Preston in 2005. A close contest was predicted but it turned into a Higgins masterclass.
It hardly helped O’Sullivan’s mood that he was booed by a small section of the Guild Hall crowd after his post semi-final remarks that he would rather be gardening than playing. Meanwhile, Higgins’s focus never wavered.
The Scot got himself 4-2 in front before unleashing breaks of 103, 104, 138 and 128 to get to the brink of victory. His 494 points without reply remains a record in a ranking tournament.
For once it was O’Sullivan left punch-drunk by a remarkable display of scoring. He had nothing left to offer as Higgins crossed the line a 9-2 winner.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.