Phil Haigh ✍️
Mark Allen lifted the UK Championship trophy for the first time on Sunday night, bringing to an end a memorable event which began in front of a handful of hardcore fans in Sheffield and ended with a packed crowd in York.
After a widely-perceived decline in prominence, the UK Championship was revamped this year, with a return to the tiered qualifying system, which saw the top 16 head straight to York.
As a result, we got the low-key drama of the qualifiers at Ponds Forge, before the glamour of the two-table set-up at the Barbican from the last 32 onwards.
We saw shocks, superb quality and standout scenes across both venues, and as with any good show, it left the audience wondering what is to come next…
Did the changes work?
Yes. In a word. The move to the World Championship-style qualifying system gave us a string of stories and moments of drama that we almost get two tournaments for the price of one.
Jimmy White’s amazing run through four games to reach York was incredible at 60 years old, while the likes of Andres Petrov took his chance to grab some headlines and there were superb matches – Liam Highfield’s comeback win over Ali Carter standing out in the memory.
The return of qualifying meant more glitz, glamour, prestige and gravitas for the main stages, with two tables rather than four in the main arena and death to the place kindly referred to as ‘room two’ but less generously labelled the toilets, the car park or the shed.
The walk-ons were special – notably the Whirlwind’s – the venue looked at its best throughout and the atmosphere was great. Not every session was sold out, but tickets had obviously gone well and the Barbican cemented its place as the ideal home for the tournament.
There are dissenting voices over the qualifying structure. Shaun Murphy has been vocal against the tiered system, while Dave Gilbert spoke at length about his dislike for only having it in two events over the season, thereby skewing the rankings.
However, in terms of returning the UK Championship to one of the very best spectacles on the calendar, the changes did everything asked of them.
As did the improvements to the Cue Zone at the Barbican, with fans treated to demonstrations and Q&As from players before and in between sessions, encouraging the crowd to get there earlier and to hang around after, with a far more appealing atmosphere at the venue than many events.
Has Mark Allen joined the elite?
Mark Allen has now pocketed two thirds of the Triple Crown, with the World Championship the missing piece of the jigsaw – although admittedly by far the biggest and most difficult part of that puzzle.
With the Northern Ireland Open already retained this season he has now won eight ranking titles, which puts him one behind John Parrott, Peter Ebdon and Shaun Murphy on that particular list.
The Pistol has long been a contender for everything he enters, but rarely been an obvious pick to get his hands on a trophy. Never a surprise to see him in a final, but also no great shock to see him depart early.
With his weight loss, work on the mental side of the game, improving situation off the table and obvious good form, can he now break into that small, elite bracket who are at the business end of events on a regular basis?
His attitude after winning the title in York suggests so. He was quickly talking about getting back on the practice table, moving onto the next one and picking up more silverware.
He is up to number five in the world and will certainly be among the favourites for the upcoming Scottish and English Opens. Add another title or two this season and it will be hard to deny his place among the elite right now, but ultimately it will be the Crucible that defines his place in the sport.
One semi-final so far in Sheffield is a bafflingly bad record for a player of his quality. If the new Mark Allen can fix that and triumph in Sheffield in the coming years, he could step up from great player to all-time great.
Is Ding Junhui back?
He’s certainly on his way back, but we don’t know how far up that road he is just yet.
Ding made it to the final of a ranking tournament for the first time since he last won the UK Championship in 2019. His quiet three years had seen him slide down to number 38 in the world and he had to come through qualifying to make it to York.
He did so pretty comfortably, then downed Barry Hawkins and Jamie Clarke before whitewashing Ronnie O’Sullivan 6-0 in the quarters. The Rocket was poor, but still, it was remarkable.
He ousted Tom Ford in the semis before taking a 6-1 lead in the final as it looked like he really was back. Then Allen won nine of the next 10 frames to beat Ding 10-7 and he did not look quite so back as he had done a few hours earlier.
Even without the title this was a fine couple of weeks for Ding, seeing him rise to number 19 in the world, which is much closer to where he belongs.
Whether this is a regular thing is yet to be seen, as that 2019 triumph came out of the blue as well and he hasn’t really shown great consistency since as far back as the 2017/18 season.
We cannot yet declare the return of the Dragon, but it does appear that his slow return to one of the world’s best players is coming.
After qualifying he said: ‘I don’t think it’s one match and the confidence comes back. Recent matches I’ve won, made centuries, but then lost in the next round or two. It’s coming slowly, it will be better.’
It was better. We will see if next time is better still.
Did Sam Craigie enter the conversation?
When Sam Craigie came through qualifying, he was asked if a deep run in York would put him on the map and he said: ‘I’m already on the map.’
It’s fair. He first turned pro in 2011, he’s been to a ranking quarter-final before and has played at the Crucible, but if he was on the map before, he’s certainly a more prominent feature on it now.
A couple of solid qualifying wins got Craigie to York, where he comfortably beat defending champion Zhao Xintong then downed the in-form Ryan Day to make it to the last eight of a Triple Crown event for the first time.
There he pushed Allen, falling to a 6-4 defeat, but it was still a breakout week for the 28-year-old. He rises to number 37 in the world, the highest ranking of his career, and it feels like his ceiling is still much higher than that.
He had not had a great season before the UK Championship, but hopefully that will be a confidence boost, he can put his beef with pundits behind him after questions over his dedication and continue to climb the rankings as one of the brightest UK talents under the age of 30.
Was Mark Williams right?
Before the UK Championship, Mark Williams said: ‘One of the top four was still in the top four 20 years ago. Three of the top six, are the same as 20 years ago. Work that out.
’20 years ago it was me, Hendry, Higgins and O’Sullivan. Is the top four today better than that? I don’t think so.’
In York, Williams and Higgins fell at their first hurdle, as did Neil Robertson and Mark Selby.
Both Williams and Robertson were unwell, so there is certainly a caveat to this, but the players at the very top of the rankings did not exactly sparkle when challenged by confident players coming through qualifying.
Ronnie O’Sullivan did shine in his first two games, but then collapsed against Ding and suffered as comprehensive a defeat as he ever has in a major event.
Few would argue that the standard in snooker has not improved, some would dispute Williams’ claims that the top of the sport has not improved with it. The Welshman’s argument was boosted at the UK Championship.
It is difficult to pinpoint the question about Jack Lisowski, with the Englishman continuing to be one of the more thought-provoking players on the professional tour.
His work with Peter Ebdon appears to be paying off. At times in York he played as well as he ever has, notably destroying Shaun Murphy 6-1 in the semi-finals, making four centuries on the spin.
There were other spells of great quality, but ultimately he showed some fragility again as he spurned a 5-3 lead in the semi-final against Allen to lose 6-5, with his shot selection in the decider questioned once again.
Jackpot’s work with Ebdon is there to improve his discipline and tactical play, which is happening, but Lisowski admits he is a slow learner and there remains progress to be made.
Last year he told Metro.co.uk: ‘I’m playing the best snooker of my career so far. I still think I’m five years off, in five years I’ll be a way, way better player, but definitely playing as good as I have done as a pro.’
He appears to be playing even better now, and he remains four years off his predicted peak, so maybe we just have to be more patient with the Jackpot, but for now being a Lisowski fan will still provide frustration.
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