May 22, 2017

Q-School Graduates 2017

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 12:13 pm

It’s been another two grueling weeks of snooker at the Preston Guild Hall which has once again seen 12 potters emerge battered and bruised from the carnage clutching a golden ticket, a ticket which ensures they will be participating in the professional snooker tour for the next two seasons at least, this time with no entry fees to be paid.

Every year the debate rages on about fairness, should there even be 12 spots available in such a cut-throat format? Should 4 players that didn’t win through automatically even get a tour card? Why isn’t the draw seeded to avoid first round matches of death? The arguments continue, but the facts are that these 12 boys have earned the right as the rules stand to compete and I for one have massive respect for all of them. It’s a brutal format and you need some major league conkerage to be able to get out of it alive (metophorically speaking of course, it’s not that brutal).

It’s a 75/25 split this season between the ‘bouncebacks’; those who fell off the tour officially just a couple of weeks before Q-School and the ‘newbies’; those to whom this is a new chapter in their lives and snooker careers. In all there are 7 English qualifiers, 1 from Wales, Germany and Northern Ireland and 2 Chinese.

So what do we know about them? In terms of the new qualifiers we’re realistically looking at ‘known unknowns’ as well as ‘unknown unknowns’, there aren’t many ‘unknown knowns’ about any of them but it’s fair to say that we know a lot more about some than others so here’s a run down of the ‘known knowns’. Get that? Of course you did.

QS1: Allan Taylor (England)

Readers of this tripe will be more than familiar with Allan, he often reminds me that the first time he was mentioned on here I described him as ‘a bit of a nuisance’ as he kept beating players in a PTC that I’d backed against him when he was a mere unknown unknown. It transpired that he and I are from the same part of the world and we have since become good buddies. He marched through Q-School One with a ‘refuse to lose’ mentality and put the disappointment of dropping out of the ranks last season right behind him to start with a clean slate. I know he’s very popular on the tour and a lot of the players will be pleased to see him back, but I want to see him do ‘mean’ a bit more on the table now. No more Mr Nice Guy, this is a job, get down to business and rip them to shreds, then come over here and give us a cuddle and squeeze of your little cheeks. Watch Allan’s reaction to coming through here

QS1: Ashley Hugill (England)

Ashley caused a stir in the 2016 German Masters when he beat Neil Robertson 5-1 to qualify, this was as a result of being a previous Q-School Top Up and he has been a regular in the early rounds of professional events ever since though only now can he attach the tag ‘main tour professional’ to his profile. He’s a Yorkshire lad but don’t hold that against him and came through Q-School 1 beating former professionals Steven Hallworth and Simon Bedford. Since the Robbo game he’s run the likes of Marco Fu and Ricky Walden close in professional events. He has two seasons to find his footing, but he already has a couple of seasons of a few matches in professional conditions behind him so he’s done a bit of prep. Watch Ashley’s reaction to getting on the tour for the first time here.

QS1: Billy Joe Castle (England)

One of the lesser known qualifiers who actually came through Q-School 1 beating two players who were later to become fellow graduates, Zhang Yong and Paul Davison. He either is or isn’t a cousin of the talented but absent Shane Castle and I’m told that Billy practices at Jason Francis’ Crucible Club in Newbury. He’s got a very ‘in and out’ kind of back catalogue which would tie in to the Shane connection in that he seems to be playing one minute and then goes missing for a bit. He played well enough in Q-School a couple of years ago but nothing that suggested that he might be a big player this time around. My guess is that if this kid sticks at it, he might be one to keep an eye on, but that if might be a big one. Watch this space.

QS1: Lukas Kleckers (Germany)       

It goes without saying that this is a huge boost for snooker in Germany. OK it doesn’t need it in terms of the watching audience which is already massive, but wouldn’t it be nice to see this enthusiasm (which it has to be said is largely from those of a ‘past their best’ age) rewarded with a few decent players on the tour to really cheer on? Lukas might not have been high up on a lot of people’s lists of potential qualifiers given his previous results, but as you’d expect, the German snooker community seem far from surprised at their man’s recent elevation. He was one of those players that Jason Ferguson gave a World Championship wildcard to a couple of years back to try and get the European nations actually playing instead of watching and you have to say now that this has proved a gamble worth taking. He’ll have the hopes, facial hair and sausages of a nation on his back and I hope he inspires a lot more of his countryfolk to come over here and throw their beach towels on the seat they want in Q School. Watch Germany’s new poster boy’s reaction here.

QS2: Duane Jones (Wales)

Another bounceback onto the tour for Welshman Jones who having lost 4-0 in Q School 1 to Jamie Clarke somehow managed to get himself together to come through the second event, by all accounts including a clearance in his penultimate match which would grace any professional hall of fame under severe pressure, all the more as he knew he had zero chance of getting through the Order of Merit. Duane’s best performance last season was a Last 32 finish in the Indian Open and it was a struggle for him towards the end of the season with no wins at all in the calendar year, giving his qualification from the second school even more weight in terms of turning things around. Like Taylor, it’s wipe the slate clean time and start again, fixing what might need fixing and grafting on, he clearly has the talent and bottle to do better this time around, maybe the scare will do him good. Watch Duane’s reaction to getting through here.

QS2: Sanderson Lam (England)  

The Panda is Back! Sandi, a part of the Northern Snooker Centre posse is another who like Jones lost heavily in the first Q-School to bounce back in this one and regain his tour place. I have to say I was surprised when I heard he’d been relegated in the first place but the damage was possibly done in his first season rather than his second. A recent last 16 showing in the Gibraltar Open and Last 32 in the China Open would usually be enough to be sure you’d still get in somehow but it obviously took Slam a while to adapt to life as a professional. But now he has another crack at it I’d expect him to improve a lot on last time. Interestingly, the man who he beat to qualify Joe Swail was the same man that put the final nail in his previous professional career coffin with a 10-8 victory in the World Championship qualifiers in April. Who’d have thought that one month later they’d be in that position? Swail of course also bounced back via the Order of Merit. Funny old world isn’t it JV? Watch Sandi’s reaction to getting back on tour here.

QS2: Paul Davison (England)

Yo-yo professional Paul ‘Snowy’ Davison could possibly (I can’t be bothered to check) hold the accolade of being the only player in Q School history to be active in every round of both events. He lost to Castle in the final of QS1 and then did it all again to beat former professional James Cahill to qualify from QS2. It is testament to his professionalism that despite knowing he was safe at the top of the Order of Merit anyway, he still wanted to win through as one of the 8 automatic qualifiers, Martin O’Donnell definitely owes him a snowball or two. Paul’s record down the years is there for  all to see and you know exactly what you are getting with him, he’s not an easy man to beat at any level and you’ll always know you’ve had a match when you’ve managed to fend him off. He’ll relish the two more years and who knows how much this scare might spur him on this time? Experience after all, counts for a lot these days, especially in the qualifiers.

QS2: Chen Zifan (China)

Our only Chinese automatic qualifier is one who has come through the ‘wildcard’ system in China, one which is much maligned by myself and thankfully this season has at last been done away with. Chen has joined the stable at Victoria’s in Sheffield and expands the wealth of talent maturing just a few hundred yards from The Crucible in Sheffield City Centre. We don’t know a lot about him and his only win as a wildcard in China over the past two seasons came against Tian Pengfei and regulars will know that I take these all-Chinese wildcards match ups with a large handful of salt. He’s beaten some decent players to get through Q-School 2 and he only lost narrowly to Jamie Cope in the first one so I’m sure there is some promise there that can only be improved upon once he’s settled in Sheffield.

1st Order of Merit: Zhang Yong (China)

Largely anonymous in his previous two seasons on the tour, Zhang Yong was consistent enough through the two events to climb back on the tour via the order of merit list. He is another however like Sandi who showed signs of improvement in the dying embers of his final few weeks with wins over Mike Dunn and Dark Mavis taking him to the Last 32 in Germany and then a late season win over Andrew Higginson in Gibraltar when all was lost. In his first year, too often his bags were packed after round one and he can only hope that the shock of falling off gives him the new lift he clearly needs. It’s tough out there and often even tougher for these new Chinese professionals, perhaps again being based in the UK with an increasing number of his friends and countrymen around him will help him start carving out a few results, but he’s not one of the Chinese players that I think is going to trouble the business end of events as things stand.

2nd Order of Merit: Sean O’Sullivan (England)

Sean ‘The Storm’ O’Sullivan returns to the tour after a poor end to his professional season saw him winning just one match in 2017 prior to Q School. Storm fell victim to Allan Taylor in the final of Q-School 1 and then Paul Davison in the second event so he’s only been beaten there by fellow graduates so won’t mind slipping in through the back door of the merit list. At 23 years young Storm has gained some valuable amateur and professional experience and has more under his belt at that age than most could dream of. He’s a very talented and level headed lad is Sean and a heavy scorer when he’s in the mood as his chart topping Q-School breaks show, I’d predict a brighter couple of years for him as his game matures and he’s one I think could kick on after this minor setback, a mere graze on the knee of the leg of life.

3rd Order of Merit: Joe Swail (Northern Ireland)

Never heard of him.

I remember once the great David Vine described the then Crucible semi-finalist as ‘everyone’s second favourite player’ and somehow I think that’s a pretty good description of The Outlaw. There’s not many if any in the game who won’t be delighted to see this fabled old scrapper with the bendy back arm who was surely born with a cue in his hand back where he belongs. The snooker tour for me is a better place with him around. I could bang on about all the great matches he’s been involved in and the drama he has created for us anoraks over the years, but I won’t, because this is about what happens from now and like Davison, Joe has the experience to make a living these days from snooker and who knows, we might not yet have seen the last of his on-screen heroics. I’d not put it past him having an Indian summer in his career, he has two years and possibly a bit on top to do it.

4th Order of Merit: Martin O’Donnell (England) 

Once The MO’D’s knees have recovered from praying all day last Saturday he can slap himself round the cheeks and get his stick out again to resume his professional career after this highly inconvenient break in proceedings. Martin like Sandi and Zhang actually saw an upturn in results as things went on last season but again it was a case of too little too late to stay on the tour, finishing 74th in the rankings at the end of last season, second only to Swail (71st) of the bounceback graduates. His results over his second season were not actually all that bad and had he had the foundation from his first season to build on he might not have found himself in this pickle. But he’s back on now and it’s just for me with Martin a case of building on his recent performances which are clearly on the up.


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