But when I visited last Tuesday, it wasn't for the darts (but that day will come) but for the snooker.
Having been a snooker fan since I can remember (the 1991 World Championship final between John Parrott and Jimmy White is my earliest recollection), it has been a sporting dream of mine to watch it live. But never did I realise I would witness a little bit of snooker history before my very eyes at my very first attempt.
But before the history, the context...
The Crucible in Sheffield is the Holy Grail but before Xmas, I finally made the effort to buy tickets for arguably the most prestigious snooker tournament after the World Championship - the Masters.
So it was with no little amount of excitement that I made the hike up the hill from the train station towards the Palace in eagerness for a day of snooker action.
If any player could challenge the records set by 7 time World Champion Stephen Hendry, then it's Ronnie O'Sullivan and when I bought my tickets last month, I did so knowing that this tormented genius and reigning Masters champion would be playing his first round match on the day in question.
|An Eagled Eye snap of Ronnie O' Sullivan preparing |
for his introduction to the arena.
From my vantage point in the very back row of the audience, I had a great view of the action and the 1,800 seat arena which was packed out for the afternoon session. But because I was in the back row, it meant I could also lean over from a great height and see the mercurial 'Rocket' prepare to being introduced to the arena by the MC Rob Walker. A unique sight.
I lapped up the sights and sounds and in particular, the soft voices of 6 time World Champion Steve Davies and John Virgo commentate through the ear-piece that was purchased out in the foyer. Dead, reverent calm and quiet whilst the two gladiators went into action with only the sounds of Davis and Virgo cutting through the tension.
Ronnie O'Sullivan Vs Ricky Walden
From the outset, the match was tense with a scrappy opening session being won by Ronnie 3-1 against Ricky Walden. After the mid-session interval, Ronnie was on target for a century. I went into the day presuming that he had 770 career tons to his name, a full 5 behind the all-time mark left by Hendry. Even Ronnie couldn't possibly score 5 centuries in a first to 6 encounter I thought so had no consideration of watching a piece of snooker history that day. For once, my sporting stats were out-of-date and as he moved towards the century mark, the commentary made it clear that this would be his 774th. Suddenly, I realised that I may be in the box seat to watch snooker history in person. But the commentators curse struck as John Virgo noted how incredible it would be for Ronnie to equal, if not beat the mark on Stephen Hendry's birthday. For with his next shot, Ronnie missed and the break ended on 91. But any disappointment at this near miss was relieved when Ronnie scored a 100 break in the very next frame, putting him 5-1 ahead and within 1 century of equalling the record.
But this put me in a quandary. I wanted to see a Rocket win but to equal the record, he had to score a century in his final winning frame so every time a frame broke down, I wanted to see Ricky clinch it to give Ronnie another chance for that century. Ricky started well by scoring a 100 break of his own to reduce the arrears to 5-2. He then won two more including one after Ronnie broke down on a break of 66 which left Ricky needing two snookers. It looked as if the game was all over but Ricky kept on fighting, laid a snooker which Ronnie missed and then left a free ball. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ricky was right back in it and I was quietly pleased. Not only did it mean even better value for money for me and my £10 ticket but it also meant that Ronnie wasn't going to fall over the line, one short of the record.
But at 5-4 it was now getting very close! Ricky had a chance after a Ronnie foul to pot a tricky red into the middle pocket. But he missed and let the Rocket in. Ronnie made light work of what was on the table and moved towards a frame and match winning position. It was now simply a matter of whether he could cap a workmanlike win with that record-equalling century. It looked odds-against as the yellow and brown were both tight up on the baulk cushion.
Century Number 775
Ronnie cleared the reds and on a break of 82, had the final black from which to manoeuvre himself into those troublesome yellow and brown balls. He failed.
Whispering into our ears came the voice of John Virgo who said what we all knew...
"Somehow...he's got to the fluke the yellow..."As the Youtube clip here can testify, there was a ripple of laughter around the auditorium as we all forlornly acknowledged to ourselves that this historic finale was probably beyond even the Rocket's abilities.
Then...he swung his cue, hit the yellow and as it rebounded off 3 cushions, we could see it careering towards the centre pocket. It didn't even rattle in the jaws - it went straight in!
Pandemonium!! Suddenly, this quiet and respectable snooker audience were now more akin to the one that had been witnessing the darts two weeks earlier! We were all going barmy and I was leading the encore! What was more remarkable was that having fluked the yellow, he was easily on the green and the brown had rebounded out towards a similarly comfortable position. The century making, history levelling blue...was merely on its spot! He went on to clear the pink and black for a 116 clearance!
This must've been akin to watching a 147 maximum break or a 9-darter. Absolute sporting hysteria!! Wonderful scenes!
We now had a 2 hour plus break before the evening session and to be honest, we needed it to calm down after that incredible excitement! Some food and some drinks later and we returned to our seats to watch Ali Carter Vs Barry Hawkins.
|A wonderful vantage point to see the action.|
At 10pm, the lights were being turned out and we made our way back to Alexandra Train Station and it gave me time to look back over a remarkable debut in the world of live snooker.
In snooker, the fabled 'Triple Crown' consists of the Masters as well as the World and UK Championships. Perhaps as a fan, I need to attempt to complete my own Triple Crown by visiting the latter two in the future.
But if I do, I doubt I'll be able to top that day in 'Ally Pally' when, with a slice of luck but with a great amount of skill, we watched Ronnie O'Sullivan equal Stephen Hendry's record of 775 century breaks...and on Hendry's birthday!
Seriously...as live snooker goes, I'll never top that!