Like the black pudding industry, snooker relies on a steady stream of fresh blood. The game cannot depend forever on its current crop of star names. Like any sport, it needs younger faces to come through.
In snooker, they are coming through at a slower rate at the top level than in years gone by. In the UK, the sport’s traditional home, this is because of the decline of the amateur game, which itself is because of the decline of snooker clubs.
This is one of the reasons – though it was never stated – why the Q School was reduced from three events to two this year. It was noticeable that all the qualifiers were former professionals.
But there are a number of players under 25 who certainly have the potential to climb the rankings and challenge for titles. And it will happen because it always has happened. With so many tournaments now the chances of a young player winning a title – any title – is high.
Players develop at different rates. Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Ding Junhui won ranking titles as teenagers, as did the late Paul Hunter.
Others take a little longer and players often don’t hit their peaks until their late 20s/early 30s. This is why, though Judd Trump had a largely disappointing 2013/14 season, there is no reason for him to panic. At 24, he has time on his side.
At the Crucible this year Alan McManus made some typically perceptive comments about the distractions the modern world offers young people, with snooker players no exception. He spoke about how he had seen young players who were supposed to be practising constantly checking their phones for Facebook/Twitter updates and texts.
But any snooker player who actually wants to make it to the top must put away childish things and dedicate themselves, matching their work rate with their talent.
It isn’t easy. Snooker isn’t easy. It’s a game of many variables, including luck. And in the professional ranks it’s never been as competitive. Players down the rankings are much better than they used to be.
The ‘flat’ draws are supposed to help new faces emerge but has already several times meant the opposite: if you draw Neil Robertson in round one it’s much tougher than having to win three matches against lower ranked opposition.
There is also a danger with young players, particularly those who were successful amateurs, to imagine that the established players can’t really be that good – the confidence of youth. But it doesn’t take long for that confidence to be knocked with a few frustrating defeats.
Sport always renews itself, though. New faces will come through and here we look at a selection of players who may do just that. It isn’t an exhaustive list so it’s not a snub to those not on it but is designed to provide a flavour of potential break-out players. The qualification is to be under 25 and currently outside the world’s top 32.
JOEL WALKER (20)
Walker (pictured above) was earmarked as a star of the future by Ronnie O’Sullivan in a competition run by Rileys a few years ago and began to realise that potential with a run to the quarter-finals of the Welsh Open last year, where he put up a terrific fight against Ding Junhui before losing in a decider.
Against Judd Trump in the Wuxi Classic qualifiers a few weeks ago it was clear what the problem is for Walker and the other members of the young brigade: he played really well, made a century and was beaten because Trump produced an even higher quality display. It’s an old cliché that there are ‘no easy matches’ but it’s certainly true that the vast majority of them are tough and even top level performances don’t guarantee victory.
Walker, though, is now nicely settled on tour and, as he starts his third season as a professional, has much to look forward to. Luck of the draw plays its part here. If he can avoid the real big hitters early on and play his way into tournaments he can start to get a run going and thus climb the rankings.
LUCA BRECEL (19)
Brecel is something of an enigma. Clearly talented, he qualified for the Crucible two years ago and seemed to have broken through at the 2012 UK Championship when he reached the quarter-finals – the youngest player ever to do so in a ranking tournament. Since then? Nothing dramatic outside of one European Tour quarter-final.
Brecel’s problem may well be a common theme for young players who have a bit of success. It’s about dealing with raised expectations, not just from other people but also themselves. It’s tempting to think that if you can do well in one tournament, you can do well in any tournament, that you’ve arrived. But one knock-back and it’s like starting again: a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders.
This is why Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry were so successful: if they won a tournament they were back in the club the next day practising for – and trying to win – the next one.
So far this season Brecel has qualified for the final stages of the Australian Goldfields Open. Making a good start to a new campaign gives a player momentum and early confidence so it will be interesting to see if he can really push on during 2014/15.
It would be good for the game if he could. Brecel has the potential to be the first real snooker star from continental Europe, a part of the world which has embraced the sport over the last decade but which still lacks leading players.
JACK LISOWSKI (22)
Lisowski seems to have been knocking on the door of the top 32 for the last three years but remains inconsistent.
The reason for this is partly just because there is huge talent on the tour, including a number of experienced players who know how to tie up the young gunslingers.
Perhaps in Jack’s case it is also because of the open way he plays. If he’s not on the top of his game – and no one can be all the time – then he is going to leave chances.
Lisowski has the potential to be a star. He’s a good looking, articulate young man who plays the game in an attractive way. He has already enjoyed success with a couple of PTC finals and a run to the quarter-finals of the 2013 China Open, as well as a Crucible berth the same year.
He is exactly the sort of player snooker needs to be doing well – and he is doing pretty well – but will want to make that next step up very soon.
What he needs is to start beating players above him in the rankings more regularly. If he does then he will soon become a top player himself.
KYREN WILSON (22)
I’m personally very impressed with Wilson both as a player and as a person. Refreshingly, he can talk about more than just snooker, with plenty of life experience underpinning his career.
He qualified for the Crucible last season and caused Ricky Walden enough problems to suggest he can do similar to other top players in the future. A run to the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals was further evidence of this.
What Wilson has – and this is an advantage of being British – is a long history of junior and amateur snooker. This is where players learn about competitive snooker, about matches, opponents and the disparity of emotion felt between winning and losing.
He, like the other young players on the tour, needs to take this experience and use it to his advantage. Wilson has suffered a couple of early defeats on the first two ranking events but there’s a long campaign ahead and, hopefully, a long career too.
ALEXANDER URSENBACHER (18)
Ursenbacher – part Swiss, part Portugese – is starting his second season as a professional and he earned his place, winning through the Q School.
Switzerland is not one of snooker’s strongholds but Ursenbacher has received coaching and advice from Ian McCulloch, a twice ranking tournament finalist, World Championship semi-finalist and former member of the top 16. Aside from McCulloch’s obvious snooker knowledge he also has the personality to motivate and keep his young charge positive.
Ursenbacher’s debut season was, like many before him, a learning experience, being thrown into a den of snooker playing lions. He did beat Ken Doherty in a European Tour event and won a match in the World Championship but it was really about getting used to the professional ranks.
Already this season he has qualified for Wuxi and the test will be whether he can keep his pro status and then push on in future years.
MICHAEL WASLEY (24)
Wasley caused a sensation at the Crucible by beating Ding Junhui – the player of the season – 10-9 in the first round.
It’s an unpalatable truth that whenever a top player loses they are said not to have played at their best, but that this is never said of the players they beat, when they beat them. In that case it’s usually put down to the top player playing well.
The point being, though Ding wasn’t at his best, Wasley deserves great credit for his performance. This was the Crucible, and his first appearance there. To stand up to that pressure bodes well for the future.
He fell flat against Dominic Dale in the next round but this was not that much of a surprise with all the hoopla surrounding the Ding win still going on.
What Wasley now needs to do is use the confidence and experience from the Ding victory but otherwise move on from it. He seems a wise young man, someone who thinks deeply about the game. This isn’t always a help – some players can think too much about it – but certainly can be if you think about it the right way.
Wasley has a good base, good people around him and a good attitude: all pointers to making further strides in seasons to come.
ZHOU YUELONG (16)
Incredibly, Zhou won the IBSF world amateur title last season at the age of just 15. This is a huge international event and thus a huge achievement. It has propelled him on to the professional tour at a very young age but no younger than Ding Junhui was when he first joined the circuit.
Ding is chiefly responsible for the wave of young Chinese players who have taken up the game but their sheer numbers does not guarantee success in the professional ranks, not least because there is still a British bias to the way the circuit is structured (Ding, who hails from Wuxi City, had to come to Gloucester to qualify for Wuxi and promptly lost).
The advantage Chinese players do have though is a thriving junior scene and proper backing from their governing body.
Zhou will spend much time in the UK this year, a long way from home but at least with other Chinese players for company, and Ding to look up to.
He’s already qualified for the Wuxi Classic and could prove a handful as he learns the ropes this season – with many more seasons to come.
ANTHONY McGILL (23)
McGill has already been in a European Tour final and last season reached the Indian Open quarter-finals. Like a number of players in this list he is just outside the top 32 and therefore well placed to climb the rankings if he continues to get good results.
Part of any sport, and particularly an individual sport like snooker, is dealing with the fluctuations of form and also results: you can play badly and win and play well and lose. Most players have to deal with the emotional side of the game themselves, just get on with it in effect, but it’s difficult, especially for younger players.
McGill is an example of a player with great potential looking to harness it more consistently. It was noticeable, though, that immediately after his quarter-final appearance in India he went to an Asian Tour event in China and reached the semi-finals, taking the form and confidence with him.
One of the advantages McGill has is the access to a high standard of practise opposition with a vastly experienced group of Scottish professionals living nearby.
He’s also a pretty interesting character, into his music including, refreshingly, music made long before he was born.
He comes from a good snooker grounding and is well respected by a number of Scotland’s successful players but, as with every player, his progress is ultimately down to him.
SCOTT DONALDSON (20)
Donaldson is a former European amateur champion who last season kept his main tour place and started to make a few strides with a run to the last 16 of the Welsh Open, a semi-final on the Asian Tour and a quarter-final in a European Tour event. Donaldson has already qualified for the final stages of the season’s first two tournaments, in Wuxi and Bendigo.
Like McGill, he has a good grounding in snooker coming from Scotland and is at exactly the right age for the current packed calendar: a young man focused fully on his career.
His European triumph is significant. He has already proved to himself that he is a winner. Mark Allen made swift progress up the rankings as a professional off the back of winning the world, European and European junior amateur titles.
This is the big league now though and presents many challenges, not least just staying on tour. Donaldson’s challenge is two-fold: first, beat the players ranked around him; second, start getting results against big names. There’s no magic formula for this other than self-belief and determination, both qualities the Scottish players traditionally possess.
ELLIOT SLESSOR (19)
Slessor came through Q School last year and spent last season finding his feet as a professional. He seemed to get better as it went on. This season is all about keeping his place and, to do that, he must get results.
He grew up in the North East of England, a strong area for cue sports with a good junior set-up. This structure is vital for improvement in young players. Apart from anything else, regular competitions make kids less likely to drift off and do something else.
Like all the players on this list – and those that aren’t – what Slessor needs to find is confidence. It must help that there are so many tournaments. There is time now to get some momentum, which was virtually impossible when we were down to six ranking events.
Staying positive when things aren’t going well is one of the toughest things to manage: not dwelling on a missed pot or a chance gone begging. New pros have to learn quickly but it’s better now that they get a guaranteed two-year card, so more time to find their feet.
OLIVER LINES (18)
I suspect every mention of Lines, at least early on, will reference the fact he is the son of Peter Lines, a professional of long standing, but Oliver of course wants to make a name in his own right.
It’s significant, though, that he has such a solid background and is in the unique position of his father being able to give him advice based on personal experience of playing on the tour.
Lines junior is a considerable talent, having won the European under 21 title. He practises at one of the UK’s best clubs, the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds.
He is just beginning his first season on the circuit and is on the plane to Wuxi – as is Peter – next week.
It’s tempting for new professionals, in their excitement, to think they are going to cut a swathe through the tour but, again, Oliver is likely to be grounded by Peter’s experience of playing the hardened match-players, often rather dismissively labelled ‘journeymen’, who are actually very tough to beat.
He will have to cope with them, plus the other hungry young players, plus the vagaries of form and all the other pressures which come to bear at the top level.
To him, the other young players on this list and those who are not, we say good luck, try and enjoy it and let’s hope some of them can make a few strides this season.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.