Snooker: Rex still a regal presence: Time is running out for a silver-haired relic of snooker's golden age to make an impact on the world: Guy Hodgson meets the elegant cue master braving the bravado of youth

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IT WAS NOT just the grooming that set the man apart on one of the 22 tables. All the players in the qualifying tournament for the Embassy World Snooker Championship were smart, but he stood out even in this world of waistcoats and sharp creases. He was immaculate. The word urbane could have been invented for him.

Yet it was the silver of his hair that struck as much as the cut of his clothes. In Blackpool's Norbreck Castle Hotel this week, in a sport where youth has swept nearly all before it, he was an elderly man among boys. At 60, Rex Williams has gone beyond being a father figure; he is a relic, a bridge between the golden age of Joe Davis and the present era where potting and potty training seem to be entwined.

For 43 years he has been presiding at tables with the elegance of a maitre d'. The youngsters around him were scrapping for their futures; he was reliving his past, hoping rather than expecting to defy the years and reach the competition proper at the Crucible in three months' time. 'My great regret is that I have never been world champion,' he said.

'Why do I go on? Well, I love the game. I love the competition, relish the challenge. I still put in the hours of practice - I have a table at home - but I don't play enough against opponents. Not even 50p-a-frame games. I'm not match sharp.' He was blunted further by a 10-4 defeat by David McLellan that halted his measured tread towards Sheffield. Another chance, another year gone.

The lost chances he most regrets came in the Fifties when his finest years coincided with a decline in the sport. Joe Davis had said he expected the young man from the Black Country to become world champion and in those days it would have been almost an affront to prove the great man wrong. Williams was in his pomp, however, when there was no tournament to win and instead his greatest claim to fame is his 14 years as world billiards champion.

In snooker he will probably be remembered for his contributions off the table although he was the youngest winner of the English Amateur Championship until Jimmy White superseded him and was still sprightly enough to reach the final of the Rothmans Grand Prix in 1986. He was a founder and chairman of the WPBSA and made as big a contribution as anyone in guiding the sport towards its ridiculously high popularity of the Seventies and early Eighties.

In one sense reluctantly. At the vanguard was Alex Higgins, whose youth and exuberance cast him as the embodiment of snooker's resurgent soul. The Hurricane's winning of the world championship in 1972 was seen as the watershed, a passing from the old to the new, but Williams should have halted him in the semi-finals.

'It was the best of 61 frames in those days,' he recalls with a clarity disappointment has honed, 'and after days of snooker we arrived at 30-30. I was 18 points ahead in the deciding frame and I missed a blue into the centre pocket that would have won the match for me. You have to put defeats behind you and I don't wake up screaming at night about that blue but it's fair to say I've thought a lot about the miss.'

Time erodes everyone and Higgins finds himself, like Williams, chasing history at Blackpool. He will face the examination of Embassy qualifying tomorrow while Joe Johnson, a former champion beset with problems, will step into the cauldron on Wednesday. 'It's a different game,' Williams said. 'Snooker is full of young players who are very, very good. I get respect from them but not many come up and introduce themselves. Too shy I suppose. Or perhaps they don't feel they have much in common with someone old enough to be their grandfather. One who did was Ronnie O'Sullivan but he is an exceptional young man.'

O'Sullivan now is what Williams was when he turned professional at 17 in 1951, the future of the sport. Williams has played against the masters of four decades and places Stephen Hendry at the pinnacle in the modern era. 'But if you ask me who's the finest player I've seen I'd select Joe Davis. He had a control of the cue ball that put him apart.

'No one will dominate like him because the nature of the sport has changed. In his day matches were over 73 frames and the world championship final would be 145. Now we're thrusting players into nine-frame matches, there's bound to be upsets. It was amazing that Steve Davis took such a hold on the game for 10 years.'

The hold snooker has on Williams will ensure he will be pitting his experience against the bravado of youth for some time to come although he is not certain to attend the Crucible. 'I might go for a day. I don't know,' he said. 'I used to go every year but the tournament coincides with some very fine fishing, and I like to go to the Wye at that time of the year.'

Naturally, he will be the most elegant angler there.

(Photograph omitted)