How Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins, Mark Williams achieved snooker immortality - 30 years of Class of '92
On the 30th anniversary of the famous Class of '92 arriving on the scene, Eurosport's esteemed snooker writer Dave Hendon looks back on the day that saw a legendary trio begin the professional journeys that would change the sport forever. How did these three players achieve snooker immortality over the same period of time, and will this kind of era ever be seen again?
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June 20th, 1992. John Major sits in Downing Street after a surprise election win. George Bush – the first one – is in the last months of his US presidency. Basic Instinct is No. 1 in the UK box office. The first-ever FA Premier League season is a few weeks from lift-off.
And in a hotel on Blackpool’s seafront, the new snooker season is getting underway. Hundreds of hopefuls are lining up, many now long forgotten. But among the new intake, three will go on to achieve snooker immortality. The star pupils of the Class of ’92 – Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams – are taking their first steps in the professional ranks.
Fast forward 30 years, and they have won a combined total of 94 ranking titles. Between them have made 2,623 centuries in competition, 29 of which have been maximums. They have amassed around £30m in prize money and been recurring characters in the ongoing narrative of professional snooker, hitting heights, experiencing lows, but always recovering, and at times, amazing fans with their performances.
But the most remarkable thing to note on this 30th anniversary is that they are all still at the top. When the new season begins at the Championship League next week, all three will be ranked inside the world’s top eight. O’Sullivan is world No. 1 and the reigning world champion. Higgins is starting a record 28th successive season in the top 16. Williams will be the defending champion at the British Open in September.
How did all of this happen?
They were born at the right time, just before the UK snooker boom and so were young boys at its height. In the mid-1980s, with snooker attracting huge audiences on all four TV channels, there was nothing unusual about a 10-year-old being interested in the game. Live football on television was scarce. There was no home internet, no social media and no streaming platforms.
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Sport just about retained an innocence a few years before tides of cash started washing over it. These boys weren’t playing for money. They were playing because they found something they were good at, something they had fallen in love with.
They all owed their development to their fathers. Ronnie senior spotted his son’s potential early on and was soon arranging for leading amateurs and professionals to come and play him on the full-sized table he had installed in their home. Higgins was taken with his brother to a club at the age of nine by their dad, who could have a pint and chat to his friends while the boys were occupied on the table. Williams’ father was a miner and it was at a Christmas tournament between pitmen where young Mark first saw the game close up.
They benefited from a plethora of playing opportunities in their respective corners of the UK: O’Sullivan in south-east England, Higgins in Scotland and Williams in south Wales.
They each enjoyed success on their respective home soils before eventually colliding head-on at the junior event staged as part of the World Masters in Birmingham in January 1991. O’Sullivan was the favourite but Higgins beat him in the quarter-finals and Williams in the final. 17 months later, they all turned professional.
The big beasts of the snooker world back in 1992 did not need to worry about events in Blackpool. The likes of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Jimmy White would be enjoying the beach or the golf course, safely seeded through to the final stages of all the major events which were still several months away.
Snooker had long been a closed shop but was opened up the previous year to anyone with a cue who could afford the entry fees. Old stagers on the way down mixed with new hopefuls. In 1992, Joe Perry and Dominic Dale were among those starting out.
At the Norbreck Castle Hotel, it was a production line, with hundreds of matches played to determine the qualifiers for the ranking events. One day it would be the UK Championship, the next the Dubai Classic. It barely mattered, the environment was the same – two rows of more than 20 tables housed in the grand ballroom while holidaymakers enjoyed the attractions outside.
Ronnie O'Sullivan, 1992
Image credit: Getty Images
This was like going to snooker university for a group of young players away from home for up to two months. Some treated it as a holiday or a prolonged stag-do. For the soon-to-be holy trinity, the fun came from winning.
Journalist and broadcaster Phil Yates covered the qualifying school back in 1992. He remembers a buzz about all three players, with O’Sullivan standing out.
“They were all good lads,” he said. “John is probably the least changed of the three. He was always very approachable, down to earth. Mark was a little shy, he’s become much more of an extrovert.
“When I watched John, I couldn’t believe how savvy he was at such a young age. He played all the right shots and Mark clearly had great potential too. We knew John and Mark could be champions, but Ronnie was guaranteed.
“He stayed in the same hotel room for two months. He’d be playing pretty much every day and people piled in to watch him, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was a revelation how good he was. In terms of reputation, when they turned pro he was head and shoulders above the others but that gap quickly closed.”
O’Sullivan, just 16, was successful in 74 of his 76 qualifying matches. Among them was a meeting with 77-year-old Fred Davis, who had won eight world titles in the post-war era. The teenager beat him 5-1.
O’Sullivan had boundless energy, some of which he would burn off by going for long runs on Blackpool beach. One morning he got up so early to play golf that it was still getting light as he stood on the first tee.
He was clearly the best player there, ferociously talented if not yet the finished article. In his debut season, he made 29 centuries from 112 matches played. Last season he made 62 centuries from 61 matches. The furthest O’Sullivan went in a ranking event in 1992/93 was the quarter-finals of the European Open.
SNOOKER 2005-2006 Masters John Higgins Ronnie O'Sullivan
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Higgins reached this stage of the British Open. He had grown up as a fan of Davis and quickly adopted the same percentage game to deadly effect. He ended up becoming world champion first, in 1998, with Williams following in 2000 and O’Sullivan in 2001.
Williams had turned professional because, at 17, he was too old for the Welsh under-16s and too young for the over-18s. He shared a bed in Blackpool with another Welsh player, Ian Sargeant, to save money. His best run that first year was to the last 16 of the European Open.
One of snooker’s great contrarians, Williams will probably feel he doesn’t belong in this article. He has said several times that he does not compare himself to his two great contemporaries, but he has done things the other two have not.
In the 2002/03 season, he emulated Davis and Hendry by winning the UK, Masters and world titles during a single campaign, a feat which would now be regarded as remarkable since the ‘triple crown’ has gained currency in recent years.
During this period of incredible consistency, Williams set a record of 48 successive first-round wins in ranking events. When his form finally dipped, O’Sullivan stepped up again, and when he fell away for a spell, Higgins enjoyed success. All three have spurred each other on. Every last hurrah they apparently enjoy is swiftly followed by another one.
One by one, O’Sullivan has come for Hendry’s records. He is top of the all-time centuries list, has won most ranking events, holds the record for most UK and Masters trophies and has equalled Hendry’s haul of seven world titles.
Last year, Higgins won the Players Championship for the loss of only four frames while Williams captured two ranking titles.
They have achieved all this while having to contend with each other, as well as champions of the previous era and newer challengers like Neil Robertson, Mark Selby and Judd Trump. For a while, they did so amid troubling times for snooker’s administration – now thankfully long in the past – which saw the circuit at one point dwindle to only six ranking events.
In current times, the three-way rivalry has resembled a kind of mutually-assured destruction. It seems O’Sullivan always beats Williams but Williams has had the upper hand over Higgins, whereas Higgins enjoyed a good recent record against O’Sullivan.
Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Williams during a match.
Image credit: Eurosport
This ended when O’Sullivan beat Higgins in the semi-finals of the World Championship earlier this year. Williams, who arguably played the best snooker for much of the tournament, just missed out on playing O’Sullivan in the final, losing 17-16 in the other semi to Trump, who had joked that he had landed in the semi-finals of the World Seniors Championship. Players of his generation must wonder when the Class of ’92 are going to finally go away and leave the field to the rest.
There’s no sign of it. All three have retained good eyesight. They don’t practise all day long anymore but put in quality time. They possess knowledge and table-craft from lengthy careers which mean they can win any type of frame, whether through heavy scoring or tactical play.
They are three remarkable characters, all very different but with individual qualities that, if combined, would produce the ultimate snooker player.
They all get on without being close friends. Away from snooker, they have their own lives and their own families, but there is a healthy respect between all three and recognition that, collectively, they are part of something special.
They could surely never have believed, back on this day 30 years ago, tasting the salty sea air in Blackpool as they arrived as teenagers, cues in hand, excited and ready for an adventure, that three decades on they would have done all that they have.
And the frightening thing is that there is very likely much more to come. It could be a long time before this class is dismissed.