Alexandra Palace is the home of the so-called ‘pub sports’ and just two weeks after the thrilling conclusion to the PDC World Championship, it was snooker’s turn as the Masters took centre stage at Ally Pally.
The cathedral-like venue sits in north London — atop a hill, having to make a sporting pilgrimage of sorts to get there — and you’re treated to a stunning view of nearly every inch of the rest of the city from its commanding viewpoint.
Once you finally reach the top, the building itself is very impressive. The perfect place to host the top 16 snooker players in the world.
As you enter, the fantastic skylight instantly catches your attention and the grand hall is a hive of activity as a sellout crowd buy drinks and food, preparing for the afternoon’s action to begin. The first of which was defending champion Mark ‘The Pistol’ Allen against Luka Brecel.
John Virgo — ex-player and longtime BBC commentator — described the Ally Pally as a “fantastic arena for snooker” and it’s difficult to disagree.
The arena itself is like a cauldron, all focused on the table at the very centre. With a capacity of 1,900, Ally Pally has hosted the Masters for seven years now and is the ideal venue for this tournament. It creates an atmosphere like no other and over 30,000 people attended the Masters this year.
The players themselves throughout the week acknowledged both the venue and the crowd, though some felt they had under-performed for such an audience.
Stuart Bingham — after his defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan — acknowledged that fact, but also admitted that losing in front of such a crowd is a bit embarrassing.
“I played here two or three years ago in the semifinals,” Bingham explained. Loads of friends and family were ringing up for tickets and they sold out in about an hour and a half. It’s just a bit embarrassing when you play like that in front of a packed crowd.”
The venue has a way of making players feel connected to it, which is what Jack Lisowski noted when he made his Masters debut.
He said: “I have never played in front of a crowd that involved. It’s just such a buzz. It was my first time here so it was just nice to take it all in.
“I was actually enjoying it out there at one point, even though I was getting beat. I was thinking this is why I started playing and these are the events and the atmosphere you want to play in.”
Spending the week at the snooker revealed some of the many brilliant things that make the sport so unique.
The snooker crowd, for example, are one of a kind in the noise they make when a player enters the arena. But as the referee quietens them down, a fully packed crowd suddenly goes deathly silent. You could hear a pin drop.
After that full respect is given to the players and, perhaps more importantly, the sport. The only interruptions being the rightful appreciation of a good shot, a century or a match-winning break.
When a frame ends there is a ruffle of activity, but as soon as the referee signals to start the next, the arena once again falls totally silent.
Only in snooker could someone walk out to GALA’s ‘Freed From Desire’ to rapturous applause then a minute later the noise ceases. The only comparison, arguably, is Anfield’s rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before every home game, silenced once the game kicks off until a goal is scored.
Back to the snooker. The crowd really were excellent throughout the week and one moment particularly stood out. When Ding Junhui was on his way to making a maximum 147 break, the crowd went crazy with each ball potted as he edged closer. But when he missed the green, the crowd were almost as gutted as Ding was. Case in point, the Ally Pally has a way of bringing the crowd close to the player.
Another of snooker’s standout aspects is the players’ accessibility when it comes to the fans, more than in most other sports. For example, despite crashing out in the first round, Mark Allen spent ten minutes in the arena spending time with fans.
He said: “People pay good money to come and watch so why not give them a few photos and autographs, it’s all part of the experience for them.”
After a thrilling week of top quality snooker, the final ultimately came down to Judd ‘The Ace in the Pack’ Trump and the face of snooker itself, Ronnie O’Sullivan. Trump was looking to win his first Masters, while O’Sullivan was aiming for his eighth. In the end, Trump emerged victorious.Embed from Getty Images
Trump started like a train as he blew the greatest snooker player of all time away in the first session, taking a 4-0 lead. The end of the first session saw Trump lead 7-1 and the match was finished off rather swiftly as he pressed home his advantage to take the Paul Hunter trophy and a cheque for £200,000 with a 10-4 victory.
O’Sullivan was barely given a sniff as Trump piled the pressure on and was ruthless when he got amongst the balls. This was only Trump’s second title in one of the major tournaments and it was thoroughly deserved.
In a reflective mood — insisting he did not know what the future held for him — O’Sullivan said: “I haven’t got my crystal ball again. If I did I would have a little look into it and let you know. I am not one to focus on tournaments or records, I just play when I feel like it.
“I have got two weeks off now so I’m going do some go-karting, and have a nice spa day tomorrow, I’m just going to chill out.”
Trump, though, was full of optimism after his first Masters victory: “Hopefully it’s a major turning point in my career and I can really kick on. This is easily the biggest event I have won.
“This is the first time since I broke through where you saw me relaxed in a final. It was a great feeling to pot that winning ball.
“The atmosphere here is unlike any other place. It’s probably the most pressurised situation you can play snooker in, but you’ve just got to go out and enjoy it. When you’ve got 1,900 fans screaming, it really pushes me.”
“A lot of drink” was his choice of celebration.Embed from Getty Images
There was, however, one final moment of intrigue as we all gathered at the after party.
In walked Stephan El Shaarawy, the Roma winger. As it goes, he’s a massive snooker fan and flew over especially for the final. Out of all the people you expect to see, El Shaarawy was pretty low down on the list.
He did manage to grab a photo with the legendary presenter Rob Walker, though, who had no idea who he was. A wonderful end to a great week.
Featured photograph/Jack Cunningham