The quality of the snooker World Championship is illustrated by the icons who have never lifted the trophy. We take an in-depth look at the greatest Crucible nearly men – and why the tournament transcends the sport.
"We have to remember that there is only one World Championship a year. It is not like winning Majors in golf. Majors are always around the corner in tennis and golf, but in snooker you have to wait another year, and another year. I know from personal experience, it is difficult when you go a few years without one."
Steve Davis, world snooker champion 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989
Why the World Championship is snooker's only major
Snooker greats at Crucible in 2005.
Image credit: Eurosport
It is important to recognise the cultural and historical significance of the World Championship, held in its modern televised form at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield since 1977.
The Triple Crown of World Championship, Masters and UK Championship is a relatively new phenomenon in snooker. It certainly did not exist in the mainstream lexicon of the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s when the glorious Ted Lowe's hushed tones in the commentary box helped to enhance the sport beyond a sense of kitchen-sink drama, shining a light on what working-class men did in time away from the wife.
It was only encouraged as part of a 'major' set by the BBC in the past decade when they stopped showing the old Grand Prix, an event which could in theory have provided us with four snooker 'majors' on terrestrial television. It is a sharp marketing idea, but you cannot suddenly change history or meaning in sport.
It should also be noted that winning the Triple Crown is only truly soothing on the senses if you already have the World Championship stored in your locker. Which men like perennial runner-up Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White do not.
"I'd give everything I've won this season to win that trophy," said world champion Judd Trump prior to last year's final. "In the past I'd probably say differently, but now I'm of the age where to win that trophy for me and my family would mean everything."
The Masters and the UK have historical significance beyond the Crucible, but they are great tournaments in their own right rather than a true rival to the colour-draining demands of Sheffield in springtime.
‘Judd Trump has surely never played better, sustained snooker than this!’
To suggest the World Championship is on the same level as the Masters or the UK is a bit like arguing K2 presents the same challenge as Ben Nevis. Look at the blokes who never made it to the top. The Hillary Step at the Crucible can be mentally excoriating beyond anything else that snooker throws up.
“This is what we all play for, we grew up watching this tournament above the rest. It’s the pinnacle," the 1997 world champion Ken Doherty told me.
“In golf, you get four goes at it in the Majors, but that’s what makes this harder to win because it only passes this way once a year. For these guys, it would be a cherry on the cake.”
When you reach the semi-finals of the World Championship, a top-16 seed would have won 36 frames. He needs another 35 over five more days to win the tournament. If you are a qualifier these days, you are looking at winning 66 frames to reach the last four. It goes on and on, session after session, day after day. Not so much a celebration of snooker, more a demand to stay upright.
Little wonder it has been described as a bow-tied torture chamber. It might not be to everybody's liking, but that is part of the challenge. For the viewer, it is wonderfully engrossing as players are sometimes forced to confront their own soul between shots, sitting contemplating who knows what, stuck alone with their thoughts and a pint of water.
As a way to earn money, snooker is a darkening experience. White seen less light than Blade as he came up agonisingly short. There is more than one route out of potting perdition. It is made for grinders and speed merchants. It is the ultimate test of technique and concentration.
It is survival of the fittest, mentally and emotionally the most demanding event of them all, but the riches on offer are forever. Nobody forgets who won the World Championship. So who are the greatest players to never rule the world?
1. Ding Junhui (China)
World Championship runner-up 2016
Masters winner 2011
UK Championship winner 2005, 2009, 2019
Ding celebrates with his third UK title.
Image credit: Eurosport
Amid rising standards, Ding has set a new standard as the greatest player to roam the earth without carrying off the Crucible.
Without conquering the Crucible, the PHD in potting cannot be granted. Harsh, but true. Certainly when you have the ability of Ding. It is difficult to know if Ding will ever win a World Championship. He certainly has the ability and the aptitude, but he remains a complicated character to work out.
‘Listen to the crowd!’ – The moment Ding won UK Championship
His career appears to have been a mixture of glory and grumpiness, playing either on autopilot or apathy. When he is in the mood, he looks as calm as a Caribbean sunset, but can also resemble a hologram, a ghostly figure who is not really in the moment.
He lifted the UK Championship for a third time in December, and won the Masters in 2011, but has yet to plant a Chinese flag on Sheffield's Norfolk Street. Much to the chagrin of millions and millions of snooker loopy supporters back home.
At the age of 33, there remains a real possibility that China’s greatest player may not be the man to deliver the country’s first world title. It looked an inevitability when he defeated Steve Davis 10-6 as a teenager to lift the UK Championship for the first time in 2005, but the years have rolled by as relentlessly as Ding pots balls.
Ding lost 18-14 to Mark Selby in the 2016 final, was edged out 17-15 by Selby in the 2017 semi-finals and 17-15 to Judd Trump in the last four in 2011, the same year that he won the Masters.
It is probably not technical flaws that are Ding’s problems, but the mental duress required to stay the distance. That, and perhaps the fortitude and luck you require to see out tight matches in your favour because the nature of the competition dictates a tightness of race.
Again, like the 'Whirlwind' of old London town, it is difficult to portray Ding’s career as anything but a rousing success story when you consider he is inside the top of 10 scorers of all time with 529 centuries.
Yet judging him by the same standards as White, he is well out on his own in first place. Which is quite an ironic slot for the greatest Crucible nearly men.
2. Jimmy White (England)
World Championship runner-up 1984, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994
Masters winner 1984
UK Championship 1992
Jimmy White in 1980.
Image credit: Eurosport
Always the bridesmaid, never the made man. “Got there in the end,” tweeted Jimmy White after winning the World Seniors Championship with a 5-3 victory over Darren Morgan at the Crucible Theatre in 2019. The only problem being, he didn’t.
The end for the ‘Whirlwind’ came when he butchered a black off the spot when poised to complete an 18-17 win in 1994 over Stephen Hendry at the Crucible. Hendry mopped up as White moped off wondering how he had managed to blow it.
It was his sixth appearance in a world final and his final attempt to join the pantheon of his sport’s world champions. He fell just short sort under a level of pressure better reserved for a safe cracker during a bank job.
White lost the 1984 final to Steve Davis, the 1991 final to John Parrott and four other finals to Hendry in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994. Winning a senior events is no compensation for such agonising misses.
"When he saw the land of milk and honey and Moses was leading you across the river bed in the greatest scene in the movie, he stayed a bit too long there and the water crashed down on you," said World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn.
White’s malady at the very highest level of the sport makes you wonder whether or not he truly failed, but what cannot be doubted is legacy as snooker’s nearly man, the player who fell just short most often on the biggest occasion. He is not the only sport professional to occupy such a role when you consider Colin Montgomerie’s travails in failing to lift a golf major.
White enjoyed a fabulous career, and was a better player than some of the figures who have become world champions, but his frazzled brow was destined never to greet the old pot.
‘One that got away’ - Jimmy White on his rivalry with Steve Davis
The only people he disappointed were the millions of fans who worshipped him during his halcyon days.
Youth is wasted on the young. It is ironic that the modern day White, more measured and appreciative, would perhaps be better equipped to handle the demands. Back in the day, he infamously did not enjoy morning sessions because of his dalliance with a refreshment or two.
White was Masters winner in 1984 and UK champion in 1992, but the nonsensical notion that the Triple Crown can be equally measured as part of a snooker trinity was put firmly to bed when his ol' mucker Ronnie O'Sullivan admitted he worried about emulating White’s reservation on second place before he first lifted the trophy in 2001.
"Admittedly, the Jimmy White curse was weighing on my mind," said O'Sullivan. "You think about what happened to him and you wonder how he ever went back into that arena after losing the final six times. I was really feeling it from a mental point of view. I have never felt anything like it."
3. Paul Hunter (England)
World Championship semi-finalist 2003
Masters winner 2001, 2002, 2004
UK Championship semi-finalist 1998
Paul Hunter won three Masters titles.
Image credit: Getty Images
Paul Hunter never lived beyond his 20s, but crammed a lifetime’s worth of achievements into a timespan that felt as brief as Ronnie O’Sullivan’s world-record 147 in 1997.
Hunter was a fantastic player, a heavy scorer, but the likeable Leeds lad was denied the chance to mount a sustained assault on the event by ill health. The Yorkshireman was tragically cut away by cancer at the age of 28 when his talents hinted at greater times ahead at a true home away from home in Sheffield.
It says enough about his ability that he should be recalled as one of the finest competitors to never become world champion.
Nicknamed 'Beckham of the Baize' in his pomp, Hunter brought a touch of dash and elan to the darkened environs. The most memorable housewives favourites since Tony Knowles in the 1980s. It was snooker's loss that he was not allowed to make good on his early promise.
Hunter won the Masters three times in 2001, 2002 and 2004, all by a 10-9 scorelines, and all by recovering deficits. He was 7-3 down to Fergal O'Brien in 2001, 5-0 behind against Mark Williams in 2002 and 7-2 down to Ronnie O'Sullivan in 2004 yet won them all.
He made five centuries in his final victory over O'Sullivan, claiming the final three frames to snatch a famous victory at the old Wembley Conference Centre.
Snooker vodcast: 'We miss Paul Hunter... he would have been world champion'
"He won three masters titles, but for illness and sadly passing away who knows what he could have gone onto achieve," Jimmy White told Eurosport. "I think he could have well gone into the conversation of greatest ever players had he been alive and well."
The closest he came to reaching the final of the World Championship was in 2003 when Ken Doherty mounted a comeback from 15-9 behind to edge a taut semi-final thriller 17-16.
Hunter will be celebrated as a young Master. His name adorns the Masters trophy when it could easily have been the World Championship.
4. Matthew Stevens (Wales)
World Championship runner-up 2000, 2005
Masters winner 2000
UK Championship winner 2003
Matthew Stevens during the 2005 World Championship final.
Image credit: Eurosport
Apart from White, there are few men who have come as close to lifting the world title as Stevens.
The Welshman lost the 2000 final to fellow Welshman Mark Williams 18-16 having led 13-7 and suffered another 18-16 defeat to Shaun Murphy in the 2005 final having established a 10-6 advantage after the first day.
It was only the third time a four-frame deficit had been recovered on the closing day of the tournament, with White the other victim after blowing a 14-8 lead over Stephen Hendry to lost the 1992 final to lose 18-14.
Matthew Stevens produces magnificent swerve shot
There have also been some harrowing defeats for Stevens in the last four. He lost 17-15 to John Higgins in 2001, 17-16 to Peter Ebdon in 2002 and 17-15 to Graeme Dott in 2004.
It is easy to forget the enduring class of Stevens, but such blows are not so easy to erase.
He won the Masters in 2000 with a 10-8 win over Ken Doherty and overcame Stephen Hendry 10-8 in the UK Championship final in 2003, but the big one has eluded him.
If you subscribe to the notion that you only get so many title shots, Stevens has probably had more than most on the sport's grandest stage.
5. Stephen Maguire (Scotland)
World Championship semi-finalist 2007, 2012
Masters semi-finalist 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014
UK Championship winner 2004
Image credit: Getty Images
Maguire is known as 'The Maverick' and he plays with an inimitable passion. The man from Milton in Glasgow was another figure who looked destined to become a world champion when he rampaged to the UK title with a 10-1 rout of David Gray in 2004.
At the age of 23, he appeared to be set for future garlands after a 9-6 win over Ronnie O'Sullivan in the last 32. O'Sullivan somewhat eccentrically tipped the Scotsman to dominate the sport afterwards, but dominating his emotions has been a far harder task.
"Maybe I need a sport psychologist or something," said Maguire in 2014. "I wear my heart on my sleeve and get down on myself. During a match, sometimes it's me against me against him."
What If...? | Steven Maguire
Maguire has a formidable technique, but his temperament has perhaps left him wanting when faced by the torments that rage within such a sport of near misses.
At times, he looks like he would rather smash his cue up than play another shot, sporting a hangdog look, mimicking a bulldog chewing a hornet's nest.
But he is also a figure who is as proficient as anybody at scoring when he is among the balls. He is a Rolls Royce of a ball roller when the mood takes him. Mood being the operative word.
He has twice reached the semi-finals, losing 17-15 to fellow Scot John Higgins in 2007 and succumbing 17-12 to Ali Carter in 2012.
‘No wonder he shows emotion!’ – Maguire completes Robertson turnaround
Losing in the final of the UK Championship 10-6 to Ding Junhui in December 2019 will provide Maguire with fresh optimism about brighter times ahead.
On the cusp of turning 40, he has time yet to become world champion, but his inability to even contest a final at the tournament shows how difficult the challenge is the longer the elusion progresses.
6. Mark Allen (Northern Ireland)
World Championship semi-finalist 2009
UK Championship runner-up 2011, 2018
Masters winner 2018
Mark Allen at the Crucible in 2005.
Image credit: Eurosport
By his own admission, The Pistol has perhaps flattered to deceive at the Crucible when you consider his potting ammo. His best run in the event came in 2009 when he reached the semi-finals, losing 17-13 to the eventual champion John Higgins after ousting O'Sullivan 13-11 in the last eight.
He has also complete three runs to the quarter-finals in 2010, 2011 and 2018, but has not been back to the one-table situation at the Crucible in over a decade.
Allen, a left-handed strategist renowned for his aggressive play, is a former world amateur champion who has lifted five ranking tournaments. His career highlight came when he usurped Kyren Wilson 10-7 to lift the Masters title in 2018.
At 34, the affable Allen, from Antrim, has time on his side to become the third Northern Irishman to become world champion after iconic hellraiser Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins in 1972 and 1982, and Dennis Taylor in 1985.
But the game has changed remarkably since those days and the challenge to win the world title is stiffer than your typical Higgins short one from back in the day.
“I’m still very proud of getting into the top 16 after just three seasons on tour. If I don’t win another event, I can look back and say I won tournaments, and reached number five in the world," he told me in Sheffield.
Allen would like to look back and say he was a world champion.
7. Ali Carter (England)
World Championship runner-up 2008, 2012
UK Championship semi-finalist 2008, 2012
Masters runner-up 2020
Ali Carter at the Crucible.
Image credit: Reuters
Carter, full of fist pumps and fervour, is arguably a man whose name is more synonymous with the Crucible than any other venue. The annual trip to the Sheffield arena seems ripe for Carter to get his teeth into. He has become embroiled in several battles with Ronnie O'Sullivan, most notably in 2018 when both players bumped into each other next to the table.
That 13-9 win over O'Sullivan sums up Carter's mentality: he will never slip quietly into the night. Nobody can stick the wind up 'The Captain' when he likes to stick it to his opponents.
Carter matched O'Sullivan with a sparkling 147 during the 2008 event, but has twice lost finals to his fellow Essex player in 2008 and 2012. He is a real snooker hardman, afraid of nobody and armed with a natural ability to survive.
It is an outlook that has served him well in his personal life. He has twice fought and beaten cancer while he continues to pursue potting perfection battling Crohn's disease.
His will to win has been a key aspect of a career that has delivered four ranking tournaments and helped him rise to number two in the world in 2010.
Carter also lost the Masters final 10-8 to Stuart Bingham in January after taking advantage of O'Sullivan's decision to avoid the event.
He has time yet to realise his ambitions if he can add a heavier scoring streak to a technique that is one of the finest you will witness.
8. Barry Hawkins (England)
World Championship runner-up 2013
UK Championship quarter-finalist 2013
Masters runner-up 2016
Image credit: Getty Images
Fighting out of Ditton in Kent, the Hawk tends to fly high in Sheffield. He has enjoyed some remarkable wins and agonising defeats at an event that seems made for his heavy-scoring approach.
He came closest to landing the crown in 2013 when he reached the final only to be denied 18-12 by Ronnie O'Sullivan in a match that was closer than the final scoreline.
Inside the top 20 century makers of all time on 341, he has ventured to the semi-finals in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, running out of steam in the final furlong, but it remains an enviable record of consistency and class at such an exhaustive and ongoing tournament.
WATCH - Hawkins records 147 at UK Championship
Former world champions Ronnie O'Sullivan, Shaun Murphy, John Higgins and Mark Williams have all accounted for Hawkins in the penultimate round, hardly a rotten collapse.
His 13-12 win over O'Sullivan in the second round in 2016 was something to behold coming only three months after he was filleted 10-1 in the Masters final by the same opponent. Hawkins is adamant he will not wonder what might have been in Sheffield.
"If it happens one day, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. It's not the end of the world. I've been so close, but yet so far away. But if I thought about it too much, I would drive myself mad."
9. Marco Fu (Hong Kong)
World Championship semi-finalist 2006, 2016
Masters runner-up 2011
UK Championship runner-up 2008
Marco Fu of Hong Kong.
Image credit: Eurosport
For a figure with such a formidable break-building technique, temperament and talent, it is not ridiculous to suggest Fu has underperformed in his career for the amount of ability he possesses. On his day, the well-rounded Fu is as potent a potter as any in the world, but for various reasons has not managed to translate desire into fulfilment.
He is one of the most considered, well-mannered and thoughtful players in snooker. He is also one of the greatest break builders of all time having won the World Amateur and World Under-21 Championship in 1997.
Compiling 492 centuries in his 22-year career, Fu is the ninth heaviest scorer in history above former world champion Mark Williams, Stuart Bingham, Peter Ebdon and Steve Davis. Boasting such stats, the man from Happy Valley in Hong Kong should be revelling in higher returns than merely three ranking events.
Fu goes round the houses to set up final black
Fu has twice reached the semi-finals at the Crucible, going down 17-16 to Peter Ebdon in 2006 and 17-15 to Mark Selby in 2016, two matches that could easily fallen in his favour.
He has sadly been battling problems with his eyesight since 2018. One hopes it does not sound a death knell for Fu in attempting to enjoy a golden autumn in the sport.
10. Alan McManus (Scotland)
World Championship semi-finalist 1992, 1993, 2016
UK Championship semi-finalist 1990, 1992, 1996
Masters winner 1994
Alan McManus won the Masters in 1994.
Image credit: Eurosport
At one point during the early 1990s, it seemed that it was only a matter of time before Alan 'Angles' McManus would emulate his fellow Scotsman Stephen Hendry by becoming a world champion.
He lost in semi-finals in 1992 to Jimmy White before Stephen Hendry halted him at the same stage in 1993. McManus lifted the Masters in 1994 with a 9-8 victory over Hendry, an outcome that ended Hendry's five-year winning streak at the elite event.
He defeated the defending champion John Parrott in 1992 and downed Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins during their first appearances at the Crucible.
Despite a serious commitment to cueball control, McManus could not quite reach the final despite being a constant in the world's top 10 players for over a decade. Between 1992 and 2006, he was never out of the top 16. Form is temporary, but class is permanent.
There was still more to come when he ploughed a furrow to the last four in 2016 turning over Stephen Maguire, John Higgins and Ali Carter on the way only to find Ding Junhui a bridge too far in slipping to a 17-11 defeat in the last four.
Crucible Classics: Alan McManus attempts epic four-cushion pot from 2016
Compiling 222 centuries and winning two ranking tournaments, McManus has been a no-frills, no-nonsense, uncompromising competitor and was perhaps unfortunate to discover his best chance of winning the world title coincided with White and Hendry's personal duel at the venue.
When the triumvirate of O'Sullivan, Higgins and Mark Williams, the class of '92, joined the party in the mid-1990s, he was not the only figure to suffer from diminished opportunities, but has still survived in such hallowed company.