All-time top 10: Who does Barry Hearn rate as the greatest players in snooker history?
World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn, Britain’s legendary sports promoter, talks Desmond Kane through his all-time top 10 list of green baize greats. Hearn, who has managed a myriad of snooker icons including Steve Davis and Ronnie O’Sullivan, has never missed a World Championship since the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield first hosted the blue-chip event in 1977.
You’ve got to be careful you don’t miss someone out as people can get mortally offended. I don’t really value the older players as I don’t think they were particularly good in comparison to what we witness in the modern game. Guys like Cliff Thorburn and Dennis Taylor had some wind behind them on their day, but technically we live in a different world.
When you watch the old snooker today, it looks terrible in comparison. They miss balls, the cue action looks different and they move on the shot. This is the best era of all time in terms of ability and in my 45 years of watching world-class snooker. Forgive me if I’m going to be brutal with the older players, I just don’t think they would have survived in today’s game.
When you talk about the greatest, you also have to consider their legendary status, the iconic moments you want to watch over and over again. That’s what we are trying to do by releasing a lot of those clips with the launch of Matchroom Live from all the sports I’ve been involved in. It will allow the fans to enjoy some wonderful moments for free.
In these days of inactivity and boredom, we thought it would be a good chance to catch up on all those memories that we’ve helped to create over the past 40 years.
I wouldn’t be here without snooker, I have to be honest about it. It is a great sport and I got lucky because nobody else recognised its potential at the time. Thank God it was put on mainstream television.
Apologies to anyone I’ve left out of my top 10. It is only a personal opinion. This is how I see it since I started snooker promotion in 1975. I’ve worked with most of the greatest players. They’ve shared my house, my heart and some of them have shared my wallet.
I’m 45 years in and this is an honest appraisal.
1. Ronnie O’Sullivan (England)
- World champion 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013
- Masters champion 1995, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2017
- UK champion 1993, 1997, 2001, 2007, 2014, 2017, 2018
Number one is Ronnie O’Sullivan. He is a genius, an unbelievable talent. He has been winning matches and events since he was 12 years old. And he’s still winning now at the age of 44.
I’ve worked with most of the greats of the game, but I don’t think I’ve seen a greater natural talent. His achievements speak for themselves really including that unbelievable 147 in the 1997 World Championship that will probably never be bettered.
2. Stephen Hendry (Scotland)
- World champion 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999
- Masters champion 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996
- UK champion 1989, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996
Hendry was the greatest winning machine of all time. Unmissable, unbelievable in his prime. He looked like would never miss when he was among the balls. He had a mental strength, desire and an ability to win like no other player.
3. Steve Davis (England)
- World champion 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989
- Masters champion 1982, 1988, 1997
- UK champion 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987
Steve Davis had the greatest concentration and temperament in the game during his domination of the 1980s. Like Hendry, a winning machine that just wanted to get inside your brain. He’d leave his opponent’s brain in a jam jar. A ruthless operator.
You could bet your last fiver on him, and 99 times out of 100 you were going to get paid. That’s why he was called ‘The Nugget’.
I met him in 1975 and we started our adventure in 1976. There was a lot of gambling back then before snooker really exploded on television. I’d promise him a £25 appearance fee every night, and would cut him a share of the winnings if he won which he nearly always did.
4. John Higgins (Scotland)
- World champion 1998, 2007, 2009, 2011
- Masters champion 1999, 2006
- UK champion 1998, 2000, 2009
Higgins is such a great all-round match player. Probably the greatest match player the game has produced. An outstanding temperament. Capable of escaping almost any situation. Like the others I’ve mentioned, Higgins also has the unique killer instinct of a champion.
5. Ray Reardon (Wales)
- World champion 1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978
- Masters champion 1976
Reardon would come in at number five. Ray was ahead of his time. He was an unbelievable competitor. He is probably the greatest player to come out of the post-Joe Davis era.
6. Judd Trump (England)
- World champion 2019
- Masters champion 2019
- UK champion 2011
I’m going to go for Trump at six. He is on his way to becoming a true great of the sport. He may well shoot up the top ten in the next few years.
This kid has the potential to be perhaps the best of all time. There is a long way to go, but he’s got everything from the winning ability to the flair. He’s a wonderful mixture of a player.
7. Mark Selby (England)
- World champion 2014, 2016, 2017
- Masters champion 2008, 2010, 2013
- UK champion 2012, 2016
You look at somebody like Selby and you see a cast-iron winning machine. The key to his success is a formidable mental approach to the game. He absolutely never gives up.
He perhaps does not have the excitement or flair of others on the list, but is absolutely ruthless. Ruthlessness is a key component of all these guys, but especially so when you don’t have the natural ability of say a Ronnie or a Judd.
8. Paul Hunter (England)
- Masters champion 2001, 2002, 2004
I’m going to put Hunter in at eight. I’m including him in my all-time list because he was an unbelievable talent. He was getting better and better and could really have gone on to become one of the leading all-time greats.
Unfortunately, we tragically lost him to cancer at only 27, but that doesn’t stop us recognising the talent that he possessed. He is well worth his place in the top 10.
9. Alex Higgins (Northern Ireland)
- World champion 1972, 1982
- Masters champion 1978, 1981
- UK champion 1983
Simply because of his charisma and his effect on the game, I’ll go with Alex Higgins at number nine. I don’t think he would have won much today because he went for so many risky, outlandish shots and missed. The professionals in this era don’t miss.
You can’t give them chances, but a top 10 of all time without Alex Higgins in there wouldn’t make sense.
10. Jimmy White (England)
- Masters champion 1984
- UK champion 1992
There are so many contenders for the final place when you think of fabulous competitors like Mark Williams, Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy and Peter Ebdon. The list goes on. All great players, but I’m going to go for my old mate Jimmy White.
When I watch the old school snooker, how this bloke didn’t win a world title is beyond me. I keep watching it still expecting him to win. He’s in positions where you wonder: ‘how can you fail Jim?’
He’s got solid technique and a sound temperament, but when he saw the land of milk and honey and Moses was leading you across the river bed in the greatest scene in the movie, he stayed a bit too long there and the water crashed down on you. I think I’m being kind, but the game owes him because he was such an amazing, exciting player.
He’s a great bloke and a true ambassador for snooker.
As always when reading those top 10 things, this one will leave most of us wondering why this or that player isn’t in it … and why some are in it.
You can look at it from several angles, of course, the two main factors for me being:
- How much a player has achieved
- How much they have impacted the sport, be it in the way it’s played, in the way it’s perceived or by broadening the audience it reaches.
With that in mind, in my opinion, there are blatant omissions in this list and guys who should not be there too.
The missing ones…
World Champion: 2000, 2003, 2018
UK Champion: 1999, 2002
Masters Champion: 1998, 2003
22 ranking titles
How Mark Williams has been left out of this list is beyond me, not just because of his record, but because he’s one player many fans are able to relate to, much more so than John Higgins for instance. He’s a “people’s champion”, a family guy, the no-nonsense type. He definitely should be on this list.
Ding Junhui (14 ranking titles, 3X UK Champion, 1 Masters) and Neil Robertson (18 ranking titles, triple crown winner – 1 World, 2 UK, 1 Masters)
Those two have achieved a lot, but that’s not all. Both of them have been trailblazers.
Without Ding, snooker would never have exploded in China, the way it has and China would not have invested in the sport the huge amount of money they are injecting in it for years now. He’s inspired a whole generation in his country.
Neil Robertson has shown the world that you can come from a place where snooker is not rated, where opportunities aren’t great. He still became a prolific winner, and surely has more titles to come. Neil also has been a fantastic ambassador for snooker. He’s a positive person, a hard worker. He’s extremely open and honest. He’s not afraid to speak out but always in a measured way, without aggression. He’s an excellent role model.
The ones I would remove from the lists …
Paul Hunter died far too young and he was a charismatic player. But he hasn’t achieved that much. Of course, he won the Masters three times, but his record in long format competitions – UK Championship and World Championship – wasn’t great, and, to me, there is absolutely no certainty that he would have been World Champion. Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams, John Higgins and Ronnie all had won all three majors by the time they were 25. Paul was nowhere in that league. I can’t help to think that, had he not tragically passed away so young, he would never be in this conversation.
“He is on his way to becoming a true great of the sport. He may well shoot up the top ten in the next few years”, says Barry Hearn.
Simply, it’s too early to put Judd in this list. He has the potential, and probably a better opportunity than most who are on this list to finish his career with a fantastic record. He has more tournaments to play in than ever before, and, let’s be honest, for now, nobody in his age group standing out as a possible challenger.
If we have this conversation again in, 5 to 10 years, I fully expect to have Judd in there and very high on the list. But not just yet.
Sorry, Jim. I love you, I love the way you play, but you have under-achieved. Just one UK and one Masters. Six World Finals and no titles. Not enough given your talent.
Jimmy White has been a great ambassador for the game, still IS a great ambassador for the game. He loves it more than anyone else. He was extremely gifted. His longevity as a player is extraordinary. But his record sadly speaks for itself. He didn’t have the dedication to “curb” his lifestyle. He was unable or unwilling to compromise on his attacking approach. He will forever be in the top three of the fans who lived – and suffered – through his career, but nowhere that high in the records book.