The two-time world champion has always been a popular hit with the fans, and that hasn’t waned with age.
His attacking style of play is still as prominent as ever. Renowned as one of the best single-ball potters in the game and always keen to pull out exhibition shots, he’s a star with bundles of natural talent.
OnCue caught up with the Welshman at the latest Premier League night in Guildford, to talk about life back at number one, another crack at becoming world champion and his formidable record abroad...
Mark, it’s great to meet you. Let’s kick off with the Premier League as we’re here. Is this a format of the game you like playing in?
Yeah sort of. I think it makes you rush a little bit on time though. That’s something you’ve got to get used to but I wouldn’t want to be playing too many tournaments with 20 seconds per shot. I wasn’t especially clued up on the rules coming here tonight, which probably didn’t help me.
It’s a good format to watch for the fans because you see people rushing but I think it’s a little bit too quick.
At the moment, you only get in it if you win a tournament, which I did last year. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been out of it for the last few years watching it on the telly. It’s one of the bigger tournaments to play in, in terms of prize money, so it’s nice to get in.
There are ten players in this year’s field, which will make it even tougher for you to win it for the first time...
I’m not sure why it went to ten but it was seven last year and it seems to have totally changed. There’s no £1,000 for each frame won but there’s just more prize money at the end.
As for winning it, I know I got to the Premier League final once and lost 6-0 to Ronnie. I think I might have been in another, but I'm not sure. It’s probably the only title that has eluded me really. I suppose my time is running out to win it as well. I haven’t got many more efforts
I suppose it’s eluded a lot of people because Ronnie has been so dominant in it...
Yeah. He is probably the only player who can play his normal game and not have to rush at all. Look how fast he plays when he’s in. It doesn’t really affect him.
I think it’s probably only Tony Drago who can play to 20 seconds a shot and not rush. You never practice differently before the Premier League either, so he’s at a great advantage.
You’re flying off to Shanghai straight after this. It’s a busy old schedule. How are you finding that?
Yeah since Barry’s come on we’ve got a tournament every couple of weeks, which is obviously good for everyone. We’ve been asking for tournaments and now we’ve got them.
You’ll be one of the favourites again in Shanghai and you’ve got a good record abroad. Why do you think that is?
I’ve won probably half of my ranking tournaments abroad.
I don’t mind travelling and playing far away. I’ve just got used to it. It’s getting more difficult having kids. I wouldn’t say I enjoy travelling that far away as much as I used to but I’ve always been of the attitude that once you’re out there, you get on with it.
There are some players who wake up in the morning and just want to go home. That’s probably why they get beat. I’m there and try my best and get home when I get home.
How good are the crowd in China having been out there so many times?
They are very enthusiastic. If you’re playing someone like Ronnie or Ding, it’s packed out. They do love the game out there.
They’ve got loads of good players as well now coming through. I was out there for quite a while doing stuff out there about a month ago and there are so many youngsters out there. I wouldn’t be surprised in the next five to ten years if half the top 16 are from China.
Shanghai is an important tournament for the battle for the world number one slot. How are you feeling about that?
I can honestly, honestly say I’m not really bothered about it. My aim was to get back to world number one and somehow I’ve done it. But staying there isn’t even in my head.
I’ve not played in a couple of PTCs and I’m not playing a couple more. If I was worried about it, I would enter them and be getting as many points as I can. I do my very best in every tournament I play in but I’m not going to be playing in them all like I did last year, which I had to, to see if I could get to number one. I’ve done it and staying there isn’t important to me.
I’m more than happy and proud of what I’ve done getting back to top spot. If I do don’t stay there for that long, I’m not bothered.
You’re not playing as much as some of the other top players but how do you feel about your game? Can you go out there and win it?
Yeah, I think I can. This is the start of the big tournaments for the season. I’ve played in a couple of PTCs and didn’t do very good in them, but if you don’t put any work in, you don’t deserve to do well. I didn’t put any work in for them.
You said you’re not bothered about being world number one anymore. I suppose your titles speak for themselves now...
That’s what I’ll get judged on at the end of the day but getting back to number one was just a goal I set myself. I reached that and, at the moment, I haven’t got a big goal which I probably need again. If it was possible, I’d like to win another world title. That’s the main thing I would like to do now.
You came pretty close this year getting to the semi-finals. Do you look at that as a good chance missed?
I may look back at it as the best chance I’ve had to win another one. Hopefully I’ve got another two or three good years left in me and I can have a good run at it, but I could quite possibly look back and say that was my best chance. I can never grumble ever though. I’ve done more in snooker than I ever thought I would. Whatever happens from here, I’m just trying to enjoy it more.
We’ve spoke a lot about your return, but what about the slide. Why do you think it happened?
There are a couple of reasons.
One is the main reason which I’m not going to go into just yet but the other is once you slip down, I had to start going to the qualifiers. I was playing players who are excellent in the cubicles. It’s very difficult.
I’ve done a lot of hard work practicing to get back up there and I’ve managed to do it. Obviously, I don’t want to slip back to number 47 in the world anytime soon but it can happen.
Did you ever believe you could climb all the way back up?
The first target was to get out of the qualifiers. Number one was never in my sights at that point. Once I did get back into the 16, I started playing with a bit more confidence and I set the number one challenge. I never thought I would get there but it was something to aim for. I managed to get a lot of wins and creep back up there.
How would you compare yourself as a player now to when you were number one before?
I don’t think I’m as good now. Myself, I think I was much better back then. But people who know me, know my game and watch me play, they say I’m better now. It’s such a long time ago, it’s difficult to accurately compare.
How does the enjoyment compare?
Yes I have been enjoying it the most I have for a while. The last time I was number one, I never enjoyed it as much as I could. If I’m not there in a couple of months, I’m still going to enjoy it. That’s the big difference.
Moving back to the PTCs. They’re a different kind of tournament. How intense do they really feel?
Yeah, horrible. You go to Sheffield into the cubicles and no-one is watching at all. You just see the opponent and the referee. You just think ‘this is awful, really, really awful’. It’s pretty much like the qualifiers but it’s better than not playing.
Does it feel like you have to play in them now?
Yeah that’s probably right. You have to play so you don’t drop down. I’m not going to not enter them all but I’ll pick and choose to get the balance right.
In terms of picking and choosing, you’re not going to Brazil. Why not?
I never thought about going when I saw the date. When it was first mentioned and in the pipeline, I was never going to go and a lot of other players pulled out as well. But I was never going to play in it.
I’m taking my wife to China and I’m going to have a few days after the competition there, so I’m not willing to scrap that on the head and fly halfway round the world to Brazil for another tournament. If it was a different date, I would have gone.
I suppose something’s got to give. How are you finding the calendar in general because it’s pretty packed?
I think your hands are tied on some of them. Some of the tournaments are on Eurosport and limited by TV dates available. With the amount of tournaments we’ve got at the minute, there’s going to be some clashes and tournaments straight after each other. There’s not much you can do about that. You’ve just got to enter them or not. The worst thing is entering them and pulling out after. It’s a difficult calendar but we’d all rather be playing.
You mention Australia. You looked to be in good form there to make the final?
Yeah I got to the final there and had a massive pay day of £9,500. That’s what I ended up with. I nearly fell off my chair.
Wow! I wonder what the guys who went out in the first round got. Anyway, you’re right up there with the legends now. You’ve done so much, but what do you look back on as your biggest achievement?
The only thing I can really remember is the re-spotted black against Hendry in the Masters. I don’t really remember any world title or any ranking tournament victory.
To be honest, I don’t really look back on stuff like that. I win a tournament and as soon as I get home, I forget about it and never really think about it again in my brain. People like you might be able to tell me what I’ve won but I probably couldn’t even tell you the people I beat to win in Berlin. I’m not really one to think about it.
Do you live and breathe the game though?
Yeah I love it. Whatever tournament is on, Power Snooker or the Shoot-Out, I’ll watch it on TV. I love the game. If I’m not playing, I’ll be watching it.
To finish, there’s a strong wave of Welsh players on tour at the moment. There are some good ones in there as well...
Yeah there are some good players coming through. I think the main one making an impact at the minute is Jamie Jones. The PTCs are massive for the guys lower down the rankings and no offence, but it’s a leveller for them. He’s had a couple of good runs and Ben Woollaston showed they can win them.
It’s a good tournament for them to shoot up the rankings. They should be loving it.
Do you practice with a lot of the Welsh lads?
No, it’s only really Andrew Pagett. He is the worst player ever to get to the Crucible.
I remember hearing you said that before the tournament. Was that a bit of banter to spur him on?
Yeah a little bit of banter but it’s also the truth. Let me tell you something about Pagett, no-one can spur him on. He’s in a world of his own.
I’m a big fan of Ryan Day. Can we expect to see him make a comeback?
Ryan comes up now and then to play with me. He’s been winning his qualifying matches and getting into the major ranking events again. He’s way too good to be out of the top 16 for too long.