Snooker Season Preview 2018/19: Fans attempt to predict the unpredictable

Journalist Nick Metcalfe, superfan Mike Gallagher and Twitter expert FAM147 took on the arduous task of trying to predict one of the most unpredictable sports on the planet. And there was certainly a variety of opinions...

Who will be the players to watch this season?

Nick believes "the usual suspects will be there or thereabouts. I expect the old guard of Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams to still be strong for a few seasons yet. But it really is high time some of those aged under 40 stood up to the plate. Judd Trump should be right up there challenging for top honours, and I'll be surprised if Neil Robertson doesn't pick up silverware.

Mark Allen is so clearly hungry for more success in the biggest events after his Masters win, and he could well be a real force again. But despite all those heavyweights, I believe Kyren Wilson has the capabilities to be one of the players of the season, and maybe even the best of the lot. He showed with his run to the Masters final and Crucible semi-finals last season that he fears nobody, and I think he's only going to get stronger now."

Mike has more faith in the tried and tested stalwarts of the circuit. He suggested, "Higgins, O'Sullivan, Trump, William and Mark Selby" will be challenging for the major honours this season.

However, FAM147 is expecting big things from some of the younger players. "I would keep an eye on two the Chinese youngsters. Zhao Xintong is back on tour after winning the Q-school but needs to step up to reach last stages of the tournaments. I think the main guy will be Yan Bingtao. He will be able to compete with the top players and can end the season in the top 16 without any problems."

She added, "keep an eye on Hossein Vafaei too. He had a lot of issues with his visa last year but if he is able to play in all of the UK tournaments he could reach the top 32. From the UK, we have Sam Craigie. I really like how he approaches the game and he will be a great player. Also watch out for David Gilbert, Michael White, Noppon Saengkham and Akani Songsermsawad."

Who could be the surprise package during this campaign?

Nick stated, "I don’t think anyone from the top 16 or even 20 players in the rankings having a successful campaign would be a surprise, such is the depth of quality now - look at what Ryan Day did last season. So I’m going to name a player from much lower down the rankings – Elliott Slessor. The Gateshead man showed with two wins over Ronnie O’Sullivan last season – thumping victories they were too, 4-1 at the Northern Ireland Open and 6-2 at the China Open – that he’s capable of upstaging the top stars. Now it’s about doing it more often over a nine or ten month period. From what I’ve seen, he has the makings of a player that could well step up a level."

However, Mike took a different stance on the question. He explained "Mark Williams could be rejuvenated" after winning the World Championship last year and he could surprise a few by winning a large number of tournaments again this season despite the pressure that comes with being world champion.

FAM147 expects some of the players from abroad to impress. "I really rate the Thai and Chinese youngsters. These guys are practising hard each day but need experience. However, with a large number of tournaments, they can easily improve."

Will numerous tournaments be as unpredictable as recent years?

Nick feels that more exciting stories will be born again this year. "I think we have to presume they will be. It's not human nature to be at your peak, both in terms of the quality of your game and mentality, all year long. The top players will still aim to be at their best for the biggest tournaments, and with so many events played throughout the year now, the door is open to many others, including those from outside the top 16. I think we should count our lucky stars – look how many wonderful stories, like Mark King in Northern Ireland and Anthony Hamilton in Berlin, we’d have missed out on were it not for the recent boom."

Mike agrees and suggested that "the standard is so high it only takes one bad session to put you under pressure." With prize money critical to funding the careers of lower-ranked players, there will be a large chasing pack hungry to pounce on any mistakes made by their opponents.

However, FAM147 can't see past familiar faces picking up the silverware. "I think we will have some surprises. Players that will be in the semi-finals that were not expected to be there. But the top guys will be the ones to take the trophies home."

Will more prize money enhance the sport?

Nick explains, "I'll be honest, prize money isn't something I personally take a lot of notice of, but I know plenty of people do, not least the players. It probably does send a message out to those not closely involved with the sport that after years in the doldrums, snooker is really going places again. And we all know a booming sport benefits us all - players, fans, journalists, sponsors."

Mike believes it will also add more competition to the sport. He explained, "more money will bring more professionals from Asia and Europe as we have already started to see during previous seasons."

However, FAM147 believes there should be a fairer system in place. "Barry Hearn is doing a good job of adding more money to help professional players but I don't think it is well divided. A lot of this money goes to the finalists and winners. But the guys that are close to the top 64 or outside those positions are not winning much more."

Can Mark Williams be as successful as last season?

Both Nick and Mike predict another successful but challenging season for Williams. Nick stated, "he’s got too much quality to rule that out, but it will be a tough ask. If you ask any world champion of the past, they will tell you there’s a target on their back the following season - opponents will step up their game to claim the prized scalp of the Crucible king. Either way, Williams clearly still has all the qualities needed to add another title or two to his special collection."

Mike added, "yes, I hope Mark can repeat his success but he won't win six events like O'Sullivan did last year."

FAM147 was also full of praise for the Welshman but expects a tough campaign. "Nobody expected that MJW version two or three years ago. He admitted he was close to retirement. However, Stephen Feeney and Lee Walker have both helped him a lot. He practises with youngsters like Duane Jones and Jackson Page so he is back to what he was like 15 years ago, a true champion.

I don’t know if he will be able to win the World Championship this year but I think he will achieve some trophies this season."

What form awaits Mark Selby this year?

Nick expects Selby's form to improve. "Better would be my educated guess, although it should be pointed out some players would kill to win two ranking events in a season, as Selby just did in a campaign most branded a disappointment. I actually think that first-day defeat to Joe Perry at the Crucible might help Selby long-term. The Leicester man was starting to have an invincible feel about him at the sport's premier event, and that early exit helps to wipe the slate clean. The shackles might well be off again for the brilliant Selby now - if that is the case, the rest of the snooker world should beware."

However, Mike feels that his attitude could cost him again this season. "Selby, to me, is like a low-key Stephen Hendry. He's a very negative player, may win tournaments, but his negativity will prevent him from winning more. It has already cost him during his career."

Yet FAM147 expects him to bounce back. "Selby is the number one but he had a bad season last year. I think he is the most difficult player to face by far. He is good at scoring, defending and tactically astute. I don’t really like this style of play but it’s efficient. He will be number one again this year because he is so consistent."

Who will be world champion in May?

Nick: "How good is it for the sport that I find this question so hard to answer? Any one of fifteen to twenty players have a realistic chance to claim Sheffield glory. Certain other sports would love that kind of unpredictability. I'm going to play it relatively safe and go with Selby to win title number four. I suspect he'll be much more like his old granite self by next spring."

Mike: "I would love to see Ronnie get a sixth and equal Steve Davis."

FAM147: "I think this will be the last real chance for Ronnie. But I hope Ding Junhui or Trump can achieve their first one."