Preston’s former potting ace Ian McCulloch will be a keen observer this week as big-time snooker returns to his home city.
The Players’ Tour Championship grand final starts today at the Guild Hall and will be contested by some of the game’s biggest names.
With a top prize of £100,000 up for grabs, the tournament has attracted world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan and world No.1 Neil Robertson, alongside defending champion Ding Junhui.
McCulloch enjoyed an impressive career on the green baize for 20 years before retiring in 2012.
He reached two ranking event finals – including the 2004 Grand Prix at the Guild Hall – as well as the semi-finals of the World Championship in 2005.
McCulloch said: “I loved playing at the Guild Hall in front of my own patch – it was special for me.
“When there were 600 or so people watching, it inspired me.”
China’s Ding Junhui kicks off proceedings when he takes on Ben Woollaston this afternoon at 1pm but the match of the day takes place tonight as two ex-world champions clash. Shaun Murphy, who won the world title in 2005, will be hoping to continue his great run of form when he faces 2010 Crucible victor Robertson at 7pm this evening.
McCulloch said: “It’s a very tough draw for both of them and I can see it going 4-3 either way.
“Shaun is in great form, having just won the Haikou World Open and he doesn’t fear anyone.
“Neil is world No.1 and he’s made 92 centuries this season. I made 105 in my whole career, which just shows how good the guys are these days.”
Considering the strength in depth, McCulloch has been amazed by the exploits of Ding Junhui over the course of the season.
He is hotly-tipped to defeat Woollaston, but the Leicester-based star has shown in the past that he is capable of causing a shock.
“What Ding Junhui has done this season – winning four ranking titles and reaching another final – is phenomenal.
“The last player to win that many was Stephen Hendry, and in his day there weren’t as many good players.
“Ben pulls out some results that you don’t expect now and then but he needs to put pressure on from the start otherwise Ding will eat him for breakfast.”
Tomorrow sees the grand entrance of crowd favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan, who takes on Scott Donaldson in the afternoon session.
“Ronnie is the man to beat but not enough players stand up to him,” McCulloch said.
“There are a few who have had chances to put him under the cosh, and they don’t take them. Players shouldn’t be fearing him, they should be looking forward to the chance to beat him.”
Fellow crowd pleaser Judd Trump and four-time world champion John Higgins are also in action today.
Trump takes on China’s Ju Reti tonight, while Higgins is in action against Jimmy Robertson in this afternoon’s session.
“John has reached a couple of quarter-finals recently and he’s starting to look a threat,” McCulloch said. “Class is permanent and he is still a great player.”