JOHN Higgins watched the Dafabet World Championship draw with Alan McManus – and there was a sharp intake of breath when they were paired together, with practice sessions immediately cancelled.
Four-time world champion Higgins is the seed and higher-ranked player for the match that starts on Monday afternoon and will be played over two days at the Crucible.
But the difficulties of taking on a close friend about whose game so much is known can sometimes render such trifles as the world rankings irrelevant.
The 43-year-old McManus has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past 18 months, now ranked 35 in the world, with most of his best days having come in the 1990s.
Those included two Crucible semi-finals as well as a Masters title and two ranking-event wins, and for one of those Sheffield showdowns in the one-table set-up he emerged to the sounds of a piper in another all-Tartan affair against Stephen Hendry.
McManus, who can take inspiration from Ken Doherty’s exploits this week, said: “It was quite funny really because we were both in the club together and were sat next to each other when the draw was made.
“There was a bit of banter amongst the boys after we got drawn together, but it was all a bit of good fun.
“We were actually due to practice together last week, but that went out of the window! At the end of the day me and John are good friends, but we’re experienced enough to focus on the match.”
Higgins’ form was dreadful for most of the first six months of the campaign, a period marked by tampering with and switching cues.
But since January, when he lost a match he should have won at the Masters against Mark Selby, there have been glimpses of the old Higgins.
As a result and even though he makes Ronnie O’Sullivan a worthy favourite Higgins is looking forward to the tournament far more.
And he also revealed his mildly militant part in forcing the authorities to tell the 16 seeds when they would be playing in advance to aid preparation, rather than wait for the draw on Thursday 17th April.
Higgins said: “My form has been coming back the past few weeks, and even when I have lost I have played better.
“Certainly from the Welsh Open in February I felt it start to return and I have been winning matches I definitely would have lost in October.
“I also played okay at the World Open and only lost to Mark Allen in a very good match.
“The worst thing for me in snooker is when your confidence is so low that you know even if the other guy does leave you chances – and he may not anyway – you will not take them.
“Put it this way, I don’t mind heading to Sheffield feeling my best bit of the season might be in front of me rather than behind me.
“Your preparations have to be right for Sheffield, and at one point they were not going to tell the top 16 players when they were playing until the draw was made.
“That was just no good, you could have been playing Saturday morning or not until Wednesday night, that totally affects what you would do.
“I wasn’t having that and spoke to Barry Hearn and Jason Ferguson and they changed it and announced when we would be playing much earlier.
“You couldn’t have had George Groves and Carl Froch not knowing when they would be fighting until two days before, this is the World Championship.
“And I suspect that will carry on to future tournaments. It was a big worry and at least common sense prevailed and the powers that be listened.
“Two months ago I wouldn’t have been looking forward to it anywhere near as much. I am not getting carried away, I haven’t been winning titles or reaching finals, but it is coming along.
“And you play quicker and move faster around the table when your confidence is high, and tend to get bogged down when it is low. I have been faster, no question.
“I know that I am one of the players Ronnie does respect, he has said that a few times and it shows when we play.
“But it is all very well him saying that, you have to play to a decent level to try and take him on. He is the red-hot favourite going in.
“Ding and Robertson will be fancied because of what they have done this season, but he is a justified favourite because of the standard he has been playing to the past two years in Sheffield.
“We have seen at the Masters with Mark Selby and the Welsh with Ding, two guys who are supposed to be his rivals and he has brushed them aside.
“Maybe the only chance is that he might be over-confident and could come a cropper.
“The difference with him now is that you have to play your absolute best to beat him. Before, he had off days and could blow hot and cold and lose his mind a little, that isn’t happening now. But now he has the full package and there is no hiding place.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos