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Most of my last years five to follow were a great success in certain stages of the season.


Belgian potter Julien Leclercq in his rookie season got to the Shoot-out final. Jak Jones and Si Jiahui were excellent on debut at The World Championship. Jones lost in the quarter-final and Si went a round better and went oh so close to becoming the events youngest ever finalist. There were 83 wins between the five players (the other two being Jackson Page and Ben Woollaston).


I have a lot to live up to here then! 


My 5 to follow this year is in 5 parts, a player per day. Hope you enjoy them – each player is outside the world’s top 32. 

Jak Jones

I love a dedicated snooker player who is prepared to graft when they know they maybe aren’t as talented as other folk. This is not detrimental to Jak Jones and a whole host of other top players who clearly aren’t as naturally talented as say a Brecel or a Judd Trump. What matters more than talent is results. Jones regularly produces in that regard. There aren’t many on tour who practises harder and I had no qualms in making him my only reclaimer from last years five.


If you want to talk about the most improved player on the circuit in the last 12 months, forget the obvious and look no further than 29-year-old from Cwmbran. I actually said the same in last years piece and he’s improved rapidly again. I said I expected Jones to be close to the top 32 come the end of the season. Jones finished the season at 37, his highest ever world ranking and leapt 15 places – only Si went up more places. 

Question is, can he buck the trend again?


I think not only will Jones break into the top 32 this season but could get to the fringe of the top 16 if he can perform with his regular consistency. A tournament win might be required for that – he’s sure to be a contender for titles this season.

The route to the World quarters at the Crucible was full of top-class quality. Even before he step foot through the famous theatre doors he had won three matches in qualifying including beating ranking semi-finalist last season Robbie Williams in a decider 10-9 and then the biggest qualifying scalp of Barry Hawkins, 10-8. Two matches were won narrowly, underlining Jones’ match toughness and durability. 


I felt it would be a bridge too far, even for him, when he was drawn against two-time World finalist Ali Carter but he blew the Captain away winning 10-6 with seven breaks of 50+ including a century. He was then pitted in the last 16 against the greatest ever player from outside of the U.K. Neil Robertson, a world-class operator but perennial Crucible struggler since his win in 2010. 

In Jones’ first-ever best-of-25 he took it like a duck to water and pummelled Robertson into submission winning 13-7 with breaks of 138, 122, 100, 77, 74, 65, 53, and 52. 


Regardless of the format or venue, you don’t do that to Robertson unless you are a very special player. Mark Allen beat Jones 13-10 in the quarters but again, Jones performed extremely well with amples of composure and quality. He had just about run his course though Jones being a keen runner outside of snooker, I’m sure helped him no end and will do in his immediate future. 

No doubt the bookies have taken stern note of Jones where his rating will have gone through the roof. I fully expect him to push on again. Adaptable in all formats, a heavy scorer, a very clever player and tough as nails, don’t be surprised if Jones goes close to breaking his ranking title duck sometime in this coming campaign. 

Pang Junxu

It’s been a rough few months for snooker following the bans enforced by the governing body WPBSA to various Chinese players for match fixing. Snooker has to move on from this and it will. No player or country is bigger than the sport itself. At the World Championship, four young Chinese players qualified for the first time which proves the talent from Asia’s biggest country isn’t diminishing.


One of those gleaming lights is Pang Junxu. 


I’ve been a fan of Pang’s for a long while. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who gives so much thought to every shot. It’s like life or death to him.


The similarities between Pang and yesterday’s pick Jak Jones in all aspects of the game are quite uncanny too. 


His determination and concentration alone are right out of the Jones page book. They are at a very similar playing level as well. Like Jones, I expect Pang to be a huge contender in all ranking events regardless of the format. 


The other thing I admire about Pang is he doesn’t care one jot who he plays. Last season from the top 16 he beat Ronnie O’Sullivan, Kyren Wilson, Gary Wilson twice and came close to beating Luca Brecel. He can mix it up perfectly on the baize with strong scoring power (hit 16 centuries and 10x 90s) and a fine tactical game. 


Pang’s consistency last season was exemplary. He made the final group of the Championship league, the quarters of the German Masters, the semis in the Welsh Open then his first ranking final at the inaugural WST Classic losing to Mark Selby. In the latter, he beat Si Jiahui 4-0 in the last 32. The bookies don’t agree but I have Pang and Si at a level playing field.


Pang performed with so much promise at the Crucible, losing 10-7 to Ronnie O’Sullivan on the opening day of the Championship. It was a nerveless performance from the 23-year-old. He hit more 50+ breaks than Ronnie in the match including a sublime break of 133. In fact, Pang won the points scored count 847-824. 


There are no guarantees in snooker. Tell that to the 10 who got either suspended or banned for life. However, Pang just screams a certainty top 16 player in years to come. Take Ding out the equation, I don’t think there’s a more accomplished all rounder than Pang out all the chinese contingent. He is at a career high 35 in the rankings – he won’t be that low next season, I can absolutely assure you. 


You might never get a smile out of Pang – he’s as deadpan as they come but is one seriously good player that is sure to be in for some success this season coming. 


Absolute must follow category! 

Louis Heathcote

Talent wise, Heathcote has just got it. He’s not yet as successful but Louis is in the same bracket as Trump, Lisowski and Brecel for natural ability. He should have been nowhere near the back end of the rankings battling for his main tour card last season. Inconsistency is a problem for a lot of folk and the schedule of the tournaments in the past few years (though it’s the same for everyone) hasn’t helped matters. Lose a match, you are sitting on the sidelines for roughly a month or more and that ramps up the pressure.


Heathcote went the same way as another terrific talent, Alexander Ursenbacher, a player I was very close to having in this five to follow list. Losing matches has become a habit though Louis currently has two years guaranteed on tour, somewhat reducing the pressure with a busier season ahead for everyone.


I listened into his chat with journalists Nick Metcalfe and Phil Haigh on the excellent Talking Snooker podcast and Louis came across so well. I don’t know Louis personally but he seems a very positive character.


It was following his two events stint at the dreaded Q School where he came through gallantly in Event 2- an all or nothing for Louis. He was 3-2 down to Ryan Davies and I can’t begin to tell you the pressure he was under to win the following two frames. Forget making the Crucible, or making a frame winning break for a ranking event, Q School is do or die. Job or no job. Louis was bang under it.


In that situation, you can try too hard or think too much. Louis had to stay calm, take a ball at a time and remember why he had four successive seasons on tour. Because he is good enough. Trust the methods he’s been taught from being with Stephen Feeney at SightRight.


He made two frame winning breaks and it goes to show what he can do under the pump, when pressure is at its maximum.


Louis clearly lives and breathes snooker. Players like Andrew Higginson (made it on via Q School) have said it did him the world of good dropping off tour, giving him fresh impedes and reflection but he had been a pro for 20 years. Heathcote is young and hungry. A drop off might have hindered him. I just hope he doesn’t have to go back there again. He is just too good to come off.


Interestingly, he said on the podcast that he needs to knuckle down a bit more and keep fit. There’s a difference in world rankings but look how Mark Allen revitalised his career last season with a bit of discipline in what he eats and drinks. It’s these little things Louis will know that can be tweaked and results will be rewarded.


I love his attitude and dropping off the tour for a month will have given him the kick up the backside he needed. If he trusts himself and believes, he will break into the top 64 within two seasons, no problem. Heathcote is probably my ‘riskiest’ player to follow out of the five.


But I love a risk.

Liam Pullen

A rare commodity now – a young, up and coming English player, 17-year-old Liam Pullen from York. 

I was first drawn to Pullen during Q School in 2021, winning four matches including the scalp of James Cahill 4-3. He was two wins from making it on tour then. The final frame against Cahill, Pullen knocked in a break of 72 – a sign of things to come.


From then on, all I’ve heard off various people in snooker is Pullen is the name to watch out for. The one thing all these people said to me was Liam’s determination and dedication to make it professional is something out of the ordinary. Pullen knew he needed the best facilities to take his game to the next level so based himself at Leeds’ Northern Snooker Centre, nearly an hour from his home. Under the tutorship of Peter Lines, Pullen has improved bundles, especially in his scoring in the last two years and came into Q School this year as a contender for a main tour card.


Before this, Pullen took some knocks. A final defeat to Stan Moody in the WSF Junior Open in Australia was a bitter pill to swallow as a tour card was on the line. The WSF Open Quarter-Final defeat followed then a final loss in the European Under 18 final. Pullen received a wildcard entry in World Championship Qualifying pushing fellow Northern Snooker player Sanderson Lam to 10-7. After this, in mid April, Pullen captured the English Under 18 title which included breaks of 139 and 122.


All this experience was vital to gaining a tour card in Event 1 at Q School. In the midst of his six wins to glory, Pullen won three straight 4-3 matches. He was 3-0 down to former pro Craig Steadman and 3-1 down to Gary Britton. Pullen showed immense character and poise under pressure. He cracked in breaks of 69, 70 and a decider contribution of 109 against Steadman all from behind. That is quality out of the top drawer. 


In his last two wins, Pullen only required one break over 50 to win his eight frames signalling his all round game is already a good one. 


Moody is getting a lot of the attention in the media as the next big thing in English snooker. Even though he beat Pullen in Australia, I think Pullen is at the very least on par and as exciting. I personally think Pullen has a better all-round game and less to learn. 


I watched a fair bit of Pullen at Q School and a part of his game I’m extremely impressed with is his stance and technique. He has a bit of Mark Selby about him, rock solid on the shot. You couldn’t knock him over if you tried. He also plays with so much maturity, knowing when to be patient and when to strike.


Pullen hit 21 centuries as an amateur last season proving it to be a potent part of his armoury. I see more of those coming this season and Pullen can really flourish as a rookie. He’s a contender to become the rookie of the season next May. 


He’s going to be a big name in the sport in 10 years time. 

Liu Hongyu

The rookie crown for the upcoming season is a fascinating contest. It could come from a host of chinese youngsters off their regular conveyor belt. Potentially the best two are both 19-year-olds: Ma Hai Long, the WSF Open champion, the leading Amateur title in World snooker and the winner of the Asian Pacific Amateur Championship, Liu Hongyu. As I’ve seen the latters progression a bit more, I’m sticking by him. 

When Liu played in last seasons U.K. Q School, he reminded me very much of Si Jiahui when he played in it as an unknown in 2019. His scoring was very strong; breaks of 137, 134, 108, 100, 98, 90, 82, 79, 71, 69, 68, 67, 58x 3, 53, 51. That came in just 8 matches of best-of-7 and 25 frames won. At that level, or any level for that matter, savage scoring. His most impressive scalp came against now pro, Ben Mertens who went on from that defeat to win the European U21s. 

I messaged pro Martin O’Donnell after the Watford man beat Liu at Q School and he was very complimentary about his opponent.

Liu in various chinese and world amateur events last season hit six breaks of 100+ and was in scintillating form at the Asian Pacific Championship in New Zealand late April/early May losing just two frames in the whole event. 

Liu continued his form when playing in the Dongjiu Cup in Haining last month, full of Chinese pros/amateurs, and he lost 4-3 in the semi-final to eventual champion Yuan Sijun. Liu had the highest break of the match with 110. In the last 32, Liu defeated Si Jiahui 4-3 which included a run of 120 and the round after Zhang Anda 4-2.

With this sort of ammunition in his locker, Liu isn’t going to be intimidated on tour amongst the elite. Like so many in the past, he’s likely to embrace the challenge. It might take him a season to settle and could even drop off tour after two, but relegation did Si no harm. I try not to compare Liu and Si but anything is possible with belief and don’t be surprised if this lad causes a lot of shocks this season. 

I think he’s one of the most exciting young talents around and I can’t wait to see how he gets on. 

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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