Less than three miles from the Crucible where Ronnie O’Sullivan delivered his latest damning verdict on the state of snooker’s next generation, 16-year-old Jamie Wilson was in the process of realising his lifelong dream.
With O’Sullivan doubtless tucked up in bed after dispatching Ding Junhui to reach the World Championship quarter-finals on Sunday night, Wilson was battling into the early hours and through three consecutive final frame deciders to win a two-year place on the professional tour via the sport’s qualification format, Q School.
With 14-year-old Ukrainian Iulian Boiko already confirmed to compete on the tour next season, Wilson is far from the youngest member of a group indirectly dismissed by O’Sullivan, who described the general standard of young players as “so bad”, adding: “You look at them and think, ‘I would have to lose an arm and a leg to fall out of the top 50’.”
Those involved in the sport’s youth programmes see it differently. Wilson’s coach Tim Dunkley, who works with him at the Waterlooville Sports Bar, says the standard among players in junior competitions has never been higher.
“I have never seen a higher standard of young players in my area,” Dunkley told the PA news agency. “Every generation we get through the club, we think it’s the ‘golden generation’, then another comes through that is even better.
“Young kids are knocking in century breaks. Jamie got his first century when he was 14, and we’ve got an eight-year-old whose highest break is 36. If this is also happening in other areas of the country, then the sport is alive and well.”
Wilson had travelled to Q School more out of hope than any realistic expectation of earning a coveted tour card. He saved the mandatory £1,000 entry fee through his prize money from local competitions, and saw it as a means to measure his game.
His stunning series of wins means he is now guaranteed a two-year shot at qualifying for all the major tournaments, but must sufficiently improve his ranking in the process to avoid having to return to Q School and potentially face relegation back to the amateur circuit in 2022.
Nigel Bond, a former world finalist who now is a respected coach at the new Ding Junhui Academy in Sheffield, believes many young players have suffered through a structure which leaves them ill-equipped to capitalise on the rare opportunities that come their way.
The likes of Bond, who played in this year’s qualifiers at the age of 54, and O’Sullivan and Mark Williams, who were due to begin their last-eight clash on Monday in their mid-forties, honed their skills on the tough Pro-Am circuit in snooker halls the length and breadth of the country.
Bond, who lost to Stephen Hendry in the 1995 final, told the PA news agency: “I understand what Ronnie is saying but I think there are some good players out there.
“For the likes of myself and Ronnie back in the day, we learnt our trade playing in the Pro-Ams. That was in the 1980s when snooker was booming, and that scene has now gone.
“Amateur players these days only learn once they get on the tour, and if they keep getting bad draws against top-16 players they are going to get some serious beatings.
“The Pro-Ams toughened you up. You might start at 10 o’clock in the morning and have to win six or seven matches into the early hours. I would play in Ilford one night then drive up to Boston the next. If you won anything in those tournaments you knew you’d earned it.”
Also at Q School on Monday, 49-year-old Rory McLeod won the matches required to seal his return to the professional tour after a one-year absence.
With the old guard still in the ascendancy, Wilson faces a major task to prove O’Sullivan’s comments are ill-founded.