Mark Williams at UK Championship 30 years after Stephen Hendry, Alex Higgins and a pig in a toilet

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Mark Williams is back again at the UK Championship after debuting 30 years ago (Picture: Getty Images)

Mark Williams is at the UK Championship once again, 30 years on from his debut in the event, when he narrowly lost to Stephen Hendry after Alex Higgins handed him a silver pig in the toilets.

The three-time world champion was just 17 back in November 1992 and was handed the toughest draw possible as he faced the world champion in the last 64.

The teenager gave the world champ a run for his money eventually falling just short, losing 9-8, but he showed plenty of what was to come in the years ahead.

The match came up in conversation with the Welshman as he now is unaffected by defeats, brushing off even the toughest-looking of losses, but was he so laid back even as an impressionable teen? The response was classic Williams.

‘I can’t even remember what you’re talking about,’ he told ‘Oh yeah, yeah, when he beat me 9-8? Yeah I was probably more gutted then because I was just coming through and I had him on the ropes. He made two 90s and a 70 to beat me 9-8, I think.

‘I was a little bit gutted then because I was only 17 at the time, so just to play him was great for me. I had him on the ropes and just couldn’t finish him off.

‘I wouldn’t have taken time to get over it. I’d have probably been straight after, shook his hand, then telling people, “I can’t believe I got to 9-8, I nearly had him.” Not sulking and moaning about it.’

Williams remembers the match as much for an unexpected incident in the toilets at Preston Guild Hall as the snooker itself, with Alex Higgins trying to wield some influence on the game through the medium of a lucky silver pig.

‘That was the time Alex Higgins popped in the toilet to see me when I was in front,’ Williams recalled. ‘He said something like, “Come on, beat this bastard, I can’t stand him!”

‘Then he gave me his little silver pig, he said it was his lucky charm and he wanted me to have it, put it on my waistcoat. It’s still on one of my waistcoats in the house. He said it was lucky and he wanted me to have it, then I went and lost 9-8, that’s lucky ain’t it? I’ve worn it a few times, maybe I’ll bring it up and wear it in the UK.

‘I wouldn’t have spoken to him many times before, it was out of the blue. I’ll never forget it, he just popped into the toilet.

‘I’ve met him a few times after that and he was always good as gold. I don’t know if he liked me or the way I played, I never had a problem with him. You hear stories from other people, but he was fine with me.

‘There was a bit of tension when I played him in Blackpool once, we were sat in the wrong seats and he wouldn’t break off until we swapped chairs. John Williams was the ref and it took 25 minutes before anyone broke off, but he was good as gold with me, never had a problem.’

Alex Higgins hoped Williams would invoke the power of the pig (Picture: Getty Images)

Ranked number six in the world three decades later, Williams has a clear opinion on how the game has developed, believing the standard has exploded among lower-ranked players, but not really improved at the summit of the sport over the last 20 years.

‘One of the top four was still in the top four 20 years ago. Three of the top six, are the same as 20 years ago. Work that out,’ he said. ’20 years ago it was me, Hendry, Higgins and O’Sullivan. Is the top four today better than that? I don’t think so.

‘I don’t buy into the “standard’s gone up so much” stuff. It has down the bottom end, 100 per cent, but at the top end, I don’t buy it. 50 downwards, oy my god, it’s different class, but not the top. I’m not saying they’re not brilliant, of course they are, but I don’t buy that the standard is better than it was 20 years ago.’

The 47-year-old admits that the standard may appear better in the modern game, with centuries flying in regularly, but he feels that is down to improved conditions as much as the quality of play.

‘Conditions we’ve played on for the last few years are perfect, but the pockets are very big,’ he said. ‘They’re playing really big probably down to how good the cloths are, the tables are, but they do play big. Middles are so tight it’s frightening, but the corners are playing big.

‘Tables, conditions, brand new cloths, it just makes the pockets play bigger, and bigger than I’ve ever played on. That’s not having a go at them, that’s just what happens, it’s some of the best conditions we’ve ever played in.’

Williams came within a frame of the World Championship final this year (Picture: Getty Images)

Part of Williams’ assessment that the standard at the top is not improving is that he feels his game, and that of Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins has been declining for years, and they are still up there with the best.

He knows that even a diminished Rocket is still world-beating, but as the Class of 92 approach 50 years old, he doesn’t accept that they can be improving or even treading water.

‘When I say Ronnie’s not playing as good as he was, or Higgins, they’re still top four or five players in the world, I’m not saying they’re crap, they’re just not as good as they was,’ he said.

‘At the end of the day, you can’t get better when you get to 50 years of age, it’s impossible! Your eyes don’t get better, you don’t practice as much, you can’t get better.

‘But you find a way to still be the best players in the world. O’Sullivan’s the best player in the world by a mile now. Some tournaments he plays in now he’s not interested and he’s still the best player in the world, and he’s not as good as he was.

‘There’s nothing wrong with that, he’s just not as good as he was, in my opinion, he’s still the best. It’s like any sport, it’s almost impossible to get better at 50. You just find a way to stay up there as long as possible.

‘Them two, I don’t include me in the 92 boys, but eventually they’re going to start slipping down the rankings and not get back up there. They won’t be able to find ways to prolong their careers, like they are doing now.’

Does Williams feel he is still gaining experience at 47, helping him scrap it out with the younger generations?

‘I’ve probably got as much experience as I can ever gain now,’ he said. ‘I can’t out pot these Trumps and Robertsons, I can’t really outscore them. All I can do is drag them down to my level and try and pounce on them at the end.’

Williams made more centuries than he ever has in a World Championship this year, when he equalled Stephen Hendry’s record of 16 at the Crucible.

Asked whether this shows he is still producing his very best, it was a rare moment of the Welshman talking up his game, rather than dismissing his own achievements.

‘I can still play the game,’ he said. ‘At the end of the day, if I could play the best I can ever play and anyone else can play the best they can play, there’s only two players who can compete with me, that’s O’Sullivan and Higgins.

‘But I can’t play at my best anymore, that’s long gone. Yeah it was good, at the Worlds, not bad. I can put in the odd performance now and again.

‘Most of last season was good, I just kept losing deciders, whereas 20 years ago I would probably have took them matches out, against Trump and Robertson. But I’m not at the back end of tournaments as often, not winning as much, you just struggle to get over the line I suppose.’

Those defeats were a Masters semi-final loss to Robertson in a deciding frame and a defeat to Trump at the same stage at the Crucible in a decider.

Williams narrowly lost out to Trump in an epic Crucible semi-final (Picture: Getty Images)

30 years on from the mildly gutted teenager of 1992, that 17-16 World Championship loss did not leave a mark.

‘It was a great game, I enjoyed it, I lost. I got in the car and it’s gone, I haven’t thought about it since,’ he said. ‘Commentators say it’ll be hard to get over. What a load of crap. Hard to get over because I lost 17-16 or 6-5 when he needed two snookers, what are they on about? Take a while to get over it? I lost a snooker match. Good God.’

Williams is back at the UK Championship looking for a third title in the event and heading straight into the last 32 in the revamped format, which he thinks is a big improvement, with just two tables at the main stages.

‘Absolutely, all the top players would prefer that,’ he said. ‘Go up there when there’s four practice tables out back and they’re using them for matches. It’s the UK Championship! What a waste of time that was!’

The veteran is back in York now, not just as a snooker player, but something of an entrepreneur, with his merchandise selling at rates he never expected.

‘The ball cleaner is the main one that’s selling unbelievable, gone worldwide,’ he said’ ‘Got a lot of clothes going as well, shirts, hats the lot. It’s going pretty good, way better than I could have ever thought.’

Asked how he came up with how to make his now world-famous ball cleaner, the canny businessman said: ‘Well that’d be telling. I’m like Peckham Spring in the kitchen.’

MORE : Mark Williams: I haven’t set foot in a players’ lounge since the Masters and never will

MORE : John Higgins on admiring Ronnie O’Sullivan, disagreeing with Mark Williams and Crucible pain

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