Reflecting on the decade: the year 2015

Thinking ahead of this article, I realised that 2015 turned out to be a rather stranger year in snooker. Neither Mark Selby, nor Ronnie had a great year. Those two had basically dominated the three previous years.

Mark Selby still won two ranking events: the 2015 German Masters and the 2015 China Open. He then went to the Crucible as defending champion, and lost in the last 16, by 13-9 to Anthony McGill. In the first round he only narrowly beat Kurt Maflin by 10-9. Mark hinted that going all the way in the China Open had taken a lot out of him. However, the rest of the year wasn’t great either: he played in 10 more events, and on 6 occasions lost in the last 16 or earlier.

Ronnie didn’t win anything that year, in fact he didn’t play much. He entered 8 events, withdrawing from two of them (the Championship League Snooker and the China Open). he reached the semi final at the Masters 2015, the final at the World Grand Prix 2015, the quarter finals at the German Masters 2015 and at the World Championship 2015, where he lost to Stuart Bingham. I remember vividly how tense and irritable he was during the spring of 2015, kicking photographs out of the arena and being upset at about everything. He didn’t play at all that year after the World Championship, except in the Pink Ribbon, the charity event organised by Paul Mount at the SWSA. He won that one and you can see all the pictures and read the story here.  But he didn’t enter anything else, didn’t defend either his Champion of Champions crown, or his UK Championship crown.

John Higgins won three ranking events that year: the Welsh Open 2015, the Australian Open 2015 and the International Championship 2015 but otherwise didn’t really perform to his best. Despite winning  those three ranking events, where obviously he was undefeated, he only won 66% of his matches over the year.

Stuart Bingham was the surpise winner of the 2015 World Championship.

He wasn’t even on the poster! Back then Stuart was seen by most as a very capable journeyman, not champion’s material. However that year he had started working with Steve Feeney, Mister Sightright. It made a massive difference.

Worldsnooker has very recently published an article about the Sightright method

Working with all-time greats, rejuvenating careers and sparking ascensions to the summit of the sport: Steve Feeney has made an undeniable impact as coach for some of the World Snooker Tour’s top players

The pioneering coach has convinced high profile figures in golf and darts, as well as snooker, to adopt his SightRight method. The key objective is to eliminate parallax error, an optical illusion caused by looking across the line of aim. Feeney aims to overcome this by finding a player’s perfect point of alignment, from which their technique can be built or moulded.

Feeney explains: “I have people coming to me who are playing with their right leg on line, the way they have always been coached, when they are left eye dominant. It doesn’t take much to figure out that is a mismatch. Once these corrections are made and a player arrives at the stage of perfect sighting and alignment it is like adding a sighting scope to a gun. The player now has the sight to aim through. Everybody can sight a straight line of aim perfectly when they are shown how.”

The governing body’s WPBSA World Snooker Coaching Scheme neither endorses or disagrees with SightRight’s ideas on alignment methods. Therefore, SightRight is not yet seen officially as a definitive technique. Six-time World Champion Steve Davis, one of the advisors to the WPBSA World Snooker coaching set-up, believes there may be more to Feeney’s coaching than just the mechanics.

Davis said: “Working with top class sports people is partly about whether or not you can get them to be inspired. You are dealing with people who are so talented that something which can inspire them, whether it be a new putter or a new cue, can bring out enthusiasm that wasn’t there. It isn’t always technical, it can just be a change of outlook on a daily basis. I would say, for me, the jury is out on whether SightRight is brilliant or fundamentally flawed. The WPBSA hasn’t come across anyone qualified to give a definitive answer on the theory surrounding this subject. However, in essence it doesn’t really matter, because it is whether the player believes in it.”

Feeney was coaching Stuart Bingham when he won the world title in 2015 and currently works with three-time Crucible king Mark Williams. The Welshman apportioned a huge amount of credit to Feeney for his 2018 Crucible win, which was his first World Championship victory since 2003.

Subsequently, Feeney has enhanced his already illustrious resumé by becoming coach of snooker’s biggest name, 36-time ranking event winner Ronnie O’Sullivan. For many, the idea of coaching a player widely regarded as the greatest to ever lift a cue would be a daunting one. However, Feeney doesn’t appear to have been afflicted by any form of apprehension in working with the Rocket.

He said: “I have always maintained that in the world of golf I could stand in front of Tiger Woods and coach him as if I was coaching an amateur. Once you get an opportunity with someone, no matter who they are, when you get up in front of them and prove that they are sighting off line, then you already have the upper hand.

“When I started working with Ronnie it was the greatest of privileges and the greatest of honours. However, I knew he wasn’t bang on line. Working with him didn’t faze me at all. You have to try and remember that from Mark Williams to David Gilbert to Ronnie O’Sullivan, your job with all of these people is to help them play the greatest game they can play. I was more aware of this responsibility with Ronnie though. If suddenly something went wrong, then I could be the person that ruined his game. Ronnie is a perfectionist, he knew he could improve parts of his game.

“When Ronnie first approached me, Mark Williams really encouraged me to do it. I have the greatest respect and allegiance for Mark. For him to say that was amazing. I had a discussion with him when I was first approached, and he was fully behind it.”

Feeney believes that his work with snooker’s finest proves that even the tour’s top players can be susceptible to sighting errors. When observing on the circuit, he doesn’t limit his analysis to just the players currently in his team.

“I study all of the players. That is my job,” said Feeney. “I know in my mind who is bang on, close or totally off line. I can pick players like Mark Selby, Neil Robertson or Judd Trump and I know whether they have alignment errors. It doesn’t stop them winning either way of course.”

One of the most dramatic success stories of Feeney’s time working on the circuit is world number 11 David Gilbert. The pair started working together at the beginning of last season and since then Gilbert has reached four ranking event finals, graced the one-table set up at the Crucible by making the World Championship semi-finals and broken into the world’s top 16 for the first time.

Just a few years earlier, Gilbert was sleeping on a friend’s sofa, having dropped off the circuit. The Tamworth cueman fared more successfully after returning to the tour, but still felt that he wasn’t reaching his potential and opted to take a leap of faith with SightRight.

Gilbert said: “When I signed up I didn’t know what I was agreeing to. I was going in blind so to speak. Steve promised that he could help me. It was worth a try, because it was obvious to me things weren’t going well. I was hitting shots that I thought were good and they were terrible. It can do your head in eventually. I was in the top 32 of the world and making a living, but I thought I would be happier doing something else to be honest. I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it. Things had really got me down so I had to try something.

“I kind of knew I had a technical fault, I just didn’t know what it was. Within five or ten minutes he had shown me what my big faults were. It showed me that maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was and that I had a fundamental problem. That instantly gave me something to work on and I’m still working on it now. I don’t quite see the ball the way Steve wants me to 100% of the time. Sometimes I can ‘lose the line’ as he puts it. However, it is great having him at the tournaments and usually he can fix things pretty quickly. Steve has helped me tremendously. I used to just hit balls when I was practising. Now I have something to work at and try to improve. Practice isn’t a chore any more. I enjoy it.”

Stuart played extremely well all championship, Having beaten Graeme Doot in the last 16, Ronnie in the QF, he got the better of Judd Trump in a deciding frame in the SF, and finally beat Shaun Murphy by 18-15 in the final, having trailed 0-3 and 4-8. It was a very high quality match and very entertaining as well.

For me that championship was also a special moment as my friend, and fellow Belgian, Olivier Marteel reffed the Final.