2021 Northern Ireland Open – Before it starts …

So, in a way, the season really starts tonight… hopefully.

Hereafter, I’m sharing a recently published piece. It is very revealing about the mood and mindset of the players after a very strange, disjointed and grim start of the season.

But first some news about the event itself.

Jamie O’Neill has withdrawn for personal reasons. His opponent, Lu Ning gets a bye to the last 32.

Mark Williams should lready be in Belfast, but is suffering from a bad bout of gout. Over recent days, he was in huge pain and unable to walk. The situation yesterday, as shared on twitter, was that he still wants to play, if he is able to walk, but wrote that it looks unlikely.

Andy Goldstein has announced that he is leaving Eurosport to pursue other endeavours. I know that some hated him, but I never quite understood why. He was energetic, dynamic and something different. He’s also a useful amateur snooker player, meaning that he actually knows what he’s talking about. Some found the fact that he was very close to Ronnie irritating; maybe they are not aware that those two went to school together as kids. I will miss him.

Now, here are the piece I mentioned above:

Judd Trump was talking to Eurosport’ s Desmond Kane:

‘Everything feels so desperate’ – Judd Trump on misery of being starved of snooker for 50 days

Judd Trump bids to become the first man since Stephen Hendry to win a ranking event for four straight years at the Northern Ireland Open. Hendry lifted five world titles between 1992 and 1996 with Trump keen to emulate that rousing success in Belfast. Trump will reclaim the world number one spot win or lose at the Waterfront Hall, but tells Desmond Kane his preparations have been far from ideal.
For Judd Trump, the long hot summer has turned into an autumn of discontent.

As a glorious cue sport explorer exquisitely dubbed ‘The Ace in the Pack’, Trump is no stranger to making the best of a bad hand on the green baize. Providing of course he is allowed access to the main table.

A disjointed and staggered start to the campaign has not been helped by the global Covid-19 pandemic starving snooker of its traditional run of tournaments in China and the postponement of the inaugural Turkish Masters.

The new season officially began in Leicester with the Championship League on 18 July, carried off by David Gilbert with a 3-1 win over Mark Allen on 13 August.

The British Open – the second ranking event of the season – was staged between 16-22 August and saw Mark Williams usurp Gary Wilson 6-4 in the final. That was seven weeks ago.

‘Waste of time’

I don’t really feel that anything has happened this season. It’s been a waste of time so far,” Trump tells Eurosport. “I think they would have been better off waiting until late September and starting the season then.

Trump has been keeping himself busy having last played a competitive match when he lost 3-2 to Elliot Slessor in the last 32 of the British Open on Friday 20 August, on the day of his 32nd birthday.

All the qualifiers for the Northern Ireland Open, the English Open and Scottish Open were shoehorned in between 23 August and 29 September in Leicester then Barnsley.

But matches involving the world’s top 16 have been held over until the respective venues at the Home Nations Series prompting a severe lack of match action for Trump and the rest of the elite.

For Trump, the season truly begins in Northern Ireland on Sunday night as he returns to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, a venue he feels is among the best in the world.

Normally, there are events leading up to Northern Ireland to get you match sharp, but I’ve haven’t played in an event for a month and a half now,” he said.

By the time I get to Northern Ireland, I’ve usually been to China a couple of times and have played in two or three other events. You are feeling sharp.

The people who have been playing the qualifiers and are through to Belfast will probably be feeling better than the top 16 who haven’t played for a month and a half.

It is completely different to normal.

Nobody is going to be sharp because the season hasn’t really started yet. It all kicks off now, but Northern Ireland with the crowd and the amount of people that normally go, it should have been treated as one of the biggest events.

Compared to the other Home Nations events, this is the biggest by a mile. The amount of fans there and the passion of the fans in Northern Ireland makes it a really special event.

When the bounding Bristolian returns to a match environment against world number 99 Welshman Andrew Pagett in the first round on Sunday evening, it will be 50 days since he last played in a snooker tournament.

Even if he wanted to play a match, there was nothing to see here as he headed off to Atlantic City to compete in the US Open nine-ball pool tournament last month.

‘Junior tournament’

Unsurprisingly, he is slightly perplexed about being forced to begin his quest for a record fourth straight title in Belfast having played only two short format ranking events in August that provided as much certainty as Power Snooker.

It would have been wiser giving everyone four or five months off and starting the season rather than starting the season in August then stopping it again,” he insists.

We’re in October now and I don’t feel like I’ve played since the World Championship. It’s been stop-start and nothing has happened. There’s been a couple of minor tournaments really.

The best of five ones feel like I’m playing in a junior tournament again really. We’re heading for mid-October so it has not been a great start to this season.”

Trump’s defeat to Slessor saw him temporarily surrender his number one ranking in the game to world champion Mark Selby that he will recapture when the Northern Ireland Open is completed a week on Sunday.

Ronnie O’Sullivan – who Trump has edged out 9-7 in the past three riveting Northern Ireland Open finals – will play his first tournament of the season at the Waterfront Hall, but Trump believes the top 16 are vulnerable because they have been starved of competitive matches.

Former Masters finalist Joe ‘The Gentleman’ Perry has also suggested an ungentlemanly nature to the goings on in being forced to confront so many different events at the same time.

A concern players had a long time ago was you could get beat in a tournament that won’t happen for another two or three months,” said Perry in the Metro.
By the time it comes round you could be in a completely different place with your game or in your own head, but you’re already out.

“They were aware of that and changed it to how it should be, with qualifiers just before events or everyone in at round one. My next qualifying is this month for the German Masters and that’s not played till the following year.”

Trump shares Perry’s concerns about the direction of travel. An air of uncertainty comes after the ebullient and innovative World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn stepped back from his role after a decade at the helm of the sport after the World Championship.

Outwith the top 16, there has been a lot of qualifiers all coming in one spell which can either be a good or a bad thing,” said Trump.

If you are playing well, full of confidence and you get through them all, it works for you, but if you are struggling, you are stuck in Barnsley trying to qualify for tournaments that won’t be played for a couple of months in advance.

I think everyone was happy to go straight to the venue and it was opened up to everyone. Even the qualifiers seem to go on forever.

I think they only had two tables going on in Barnsley. The amount of people that turn on to watch it is not worth the time or hassle. You are better off putting 10 tables in and getting it all over and done with in a day or two.
Then you can put qualifying within a week of the tournament so you get the proper in-form players appearing at the event.

At the moment, you get players who are playing well, but in a month or two could be playing terrible.

But lasting all these qualifiers out for so long. It is ridiculous. The qualifiers last longer than the main tournament.
You’ve got all these Home Nations events. The qualifiers are taking the same amount of time as the World Championship.”

‘Learn your trade’

Trump is similarly bemused by the thought process that sees the world’s top 16 start off at the venue against players from the lower reaches of the rankings while the rest of the field have played their preliminary matches in Leicester or Barnsley.

It is so strange. I don’t understand it. They’ve gone backwards,” he opines. “They opened up the draw so everyone could be at the final venue.

I think everyone was happy with that, but then you get the players who are lower ranked keeping getting the top players. Everyone voted for this five or six years ago to go to this format and now we’ve gone back.

I don’t think anyone knows what they are doing. I think you have to go with one thing and stick to it.
You can’t keep going backwards and forwards. The best players will always rise to the top, but personally I preferred the way I got through in the tiered system.

You kind of learn your trade and play people the same ranking as you. You get your confidence and then you play the top players. I think that is the best way to do it in any sport.

To be thrown in at the deep end having to play the top players all the time in the first round, I don’t think any other sport does it like that.

There are a few things up in the air at the moment and they haven’t quite got it right.

‘Always going to be shocks’

Despite winning the British Open, Mark Williams admits he hankers after the sustained quality of longer format matches to get a justifiable outcome rather than the trend towards quickfire results amid the salivating social need for instant results.

Trump agrees with such sentiments. He feels the experiment of the best-of-five frame matches at the British Open until the last eight devalued the standing of a tournament that carried a £100,000 winner’s cheque.

They wanted to throw some shocks in. It’s not really been thought out,” he said.

The tournament has been thrown in there. You want top class events if you are playing for that kind of prize money.

That sort of tournament lends itself to the Gibraltar prize money when you are giving £30,000 to the winner and players can decide if they want to play it in.

You can’t give £30,000 for winning Gibraltar and £100,000 for that one with basically the same set-up. It doesn’t make any sense.

“There was always going to be shocks in that. The format was too short. They tried to fit an event in, but everything seems so rushed and desperate at the moment.

When you get the top players playing each other over such a short format, the matches can last about an hour and a half.

There is no reason to have it any shorter than the best of seven. It just all felt like a bit of a rushed tournament.”

‘Different class’

Fans will be able to attend the Northern Ireland Open at the bustling Waterfront after the event was staged behind closed doors in Milton Keynes last season due to the pandemic. Trump values the atmosphere in Belfast as highly as the Masters in London or the German Masters in Berlin.

Which is high praise coming for a figure who has carried off 22 ranking titles in all sorts of frazzled arenas having celebrating his maiden victory with a 10-8 win over Mark Selby at the China Open a decade ago.

I always get good support there so hopefully I can win it again,” said Trump, who has moved out of Essex and back to Bristol to redouble his efforts boosted by the sense of home comforts.

For me, I’ve won it the past three times, but I think most people would agree, playing in Belfast to the other Home Nations events is in a different class. It feels a lot more special playing there.

You get it at the Masters and the German Masters. There is a lot of passion and noise in Belfast. The energy from the crowd is something I feed off and enjoy.

That is the kind of tournament where I play my best. It’s been a brilliant standard every time against Ronnie in the finals. I’ve won all of them 9-7, but I’ve had to play my best and the standard has been really high.

They’ve all been pretty similar, but every time I’ve played there I’ve played well.

The amount of players that can win an event, defend and beat Ronnie three times in a row is just unheard of really.”

While venerable pundit John ‘JV’ Virgo bizarrely claimed Trump was disappointing last season on the basis of failing to win the World Championship, UK Championship or Masters – an event he was forced to missed after a positive Covid-19 test – there has been no doubt about his sustained level of attacking, consistency, shot-making and all-round tactical brilliance.

Trump has remarkably lifted 14 ranking titles and the Masters since he first defeated O’Sullivan to lift the Alex Higgins Trophy in the 2018 Northern Ireland Open final.

If he can make it four on the bounce, he will be the first player to achieve the feat since Stephen Hendry dominated the World Championship between 1992 and 1996. The significance of such achievement is not lost on him.

My record has been unbelievable over the past three years,” said Trump. “It will be very, very tough to do it again, but hopefully we can get a good crowd in, bring back the memories of two years ago and get off to a good start.

I think I can remember doing an exhibition with Ronnie there five years ago, the first time I’d been there and it was a special arena.

Especially when you get down to the one table and the crowd is big. They seem to love their snooker in Northern Ireland.

By any standard, apart from perhaps old JV’s, Trump’s ongoing commitment to his cause cannot be disputed.

He is a snooker giant whose love affair with the green baize of Belfast is as richly formed as the Giant’s Causeway.

Desmond Kane

The “bold-underline” higlighting was added by me.

It’s not often that I agree with Judd but I certainly do about most of what he says here. 

It’s quite interesting that he openly says that the tiered system actually helped him to get where he is.

Maybe there are some sour grapes about the British Open, but fundamentally he’s right as well. They wanted shocks, and that’s why they had both the short format and the randon draw although I’m still wondering about a couple of outcomes from first round “random” draw.

I don’t however believe that the tournament was just “thrown there”. I’m afraid that it was quite deliberate actually: it must have suited the bookies to the core.

As for the two table setup and dragging the qualifiers for so long… it may be a case of trying to fufill contractual obligations. I write may because it’s nothing more than a hypothesis and a thought that occured to me. It may be that they are contractully bound to provide a certain number of “television/streaming hours” over the season and that with a rather “thin” calendar this season, dragging the qualifiers is the only way WST found to fufill those obligations.