From the train window, out over the grey fog of north London, Alexandra Palace rises.
Its light beige facade shines bright against the grassy hill on which it stands. The iconic Rose Window sits proudly within its walls, surveying like a glass eye the city that stretches out before it almost endlessly. Alexandra Palace is an antidote to the greying, soulless railway lines and bland terraced houses over which it looms — a sight for sore and troubled eyes.
Venue for many a memorable music act, notably the Stone Roses, Blur and Björk among others, along with sporting events like the PDC World Darts Championship and the World Championship of Ping-Pong, ‘Ally Pally’ as it’s affectionately called now plays host to the Masters snooker, and has done since 2012.
Each year snooker’s top 16 ranked players are invited to compete, freed from the shackles of ranking significance to cement their status among the sport’s elite.
Though Ally Pally has now become a much-loved and cherished venue, most will say that the original home of the Masters was the old Wembley Conference Centre where the tournament was staged from 1979 to 2006. A curved, futuristic construction in its day, the venue became famed for its uniquely raucous atmosphere, a far cry from the sombre silence of the Crucible and other snooker hotspots.
Close to 3,000 well-watered snooker fans would pile into the arena, where the players smoked and drank in their seats, creating a thin, grey, tobacco-scented smog which hovered above the table.
Members of the crowd were known to cough or rustle sweet wrappers in an attempt to distract players, usually those who threatened the success of local lads Jimmy White or Ronnie O’Sullivan. It was an atmosphere more akin to darts than the traditional calm of the baize.
The Masters has always been London’s snooker tournament, and the capital’s snooker faithful have always backed their men to the hilt, be it Jimmy or Ronnie, or even the Tooting potter Tony Meo who himself reached a couple of semi-finals in the 80s.
White especially has always been London’s darling in snooker, winning the Masters in 1984, and playing with the kind of flair that, barring Alex Higgins, had never been seen in the game before.
White’s well-documented defeats in six world finals seemed to galvanise his position as the likeable protagonist of snooker’s perpetuating storyline, the hero desperately trying to foil a villain who in this case was Stephen Hendry.
A prime example is White’s first-round victory over Hendry in 2004. Just listen to the roar that greets the Whirlwind’s game-clinching red. That is the sound of a sportsman on home turf, with an army of followers willing him over the line. As with another perennial Masters crowd pleaser Alex Higgins, it was White’s gung-ho approach to the game that won him so many fans.
Sheffield may be snooker’s spiritual home, but it has always seemed fitting that the Masters should stay in London, that the country’s capital city should play host to the sport’s capital showmen. The magnitude of each match, whereby each could easily be the final, aptly reflects the magnitude of the city itself — a physical manifestation of the significant, of the huge.
The redevelopment of Wembley Stadium and the area immediately surrounding it meant that the old Conference Centre was demolished in 2006, and with it a part of snooker’s fabric. For the following five years, the Masters was held at the new Wembley Arena in an attempt to preserve some of the magic conjured by the locale.
But the same atmosphere could never be re-created, as the combination of a dull, insipid venue and a sport struggling at the time to attract new fans stripped the event of much of its allure.
Indeed, much like Wembley Stadium, the new Wembley Arena could not emulate its prior incarnation, awkward and uncomfortable like an ill-fitting pair of orthotics that can never quite be broken in.
The decision to re-locate to Alexandra Palace, at a time when Barry Hearn was just beginning to breathe new life into the sport, has reaped dividends, reinvigorating a tournament which had stagnated during that vain attempt to cling to the past.
Now, the Palace seems the perfect home for this yearly clash of snooker’s giants, from the winding walk up the hill from the train station — itself a symbol of the toil required for a player to claim his place in snooker’s top 16 — and the fine stone and golden stair-rods which line the building’s interior, to the near 2,000 fans that hurry through those giant doors to see their stars in action.
Ally Pally is a fitting backdrop to the Masters, its inner finery and glass ceilings representative of snooker’s emergence from the dank, smoky confines of Wembley and into the light — an apt reflection of the sport’s growth into a global game.
Year upon year, the tournament grows more comfortable in its new home.
The atmosphere within may be slightly less raucous than the old days at Wembley, but occasionally cries of ‘come on, Jimmy’ still ring out around the arena, emerging from the mouths of fans keen to honour this tournament’s glorious past, as snooker’s most prestigious invitational bounds boldly over the horizon towards future traditions.