Snooker: White out to show his true colours: Guy Hodgson reports on an elusive goal for a player who is popular with his peers and the public alike

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IT IS a cliche of the Embassy World Championship. Player after player is asked to nominate the man they would like to see as the next champion and they invariably choose Jimmy White. The problem is they are pretty sure their wish will not come true.

Someone can fall short once or twice, they reason, but when he continues to be stranded below the summit then doubts seep in. White, 31, has been in the final of the World Championship five times and still has not won. It is a pattern too deep to be attributed only to ill fortune.

And this season the mental barrier that such a sequence of near misses erects has been heightened by White's miserable form. His technique, normally fluent and exhilarating, has looked tired and ragged; he has not reached a final in any event in 1993-94; his last ranking tournament victory came 18 months ago.

It seemed his mind has strayed from the green baize. Never blessed with concentration that could exclude all but snooker, White has been preoccupied with off-the-table problems that have included a recent drink-driving case.

His mood was best summed up when he was beaten 5-0 at the Benson and Hedges Masters two months ago by his quarter-final opponent at the Crucible, Ken Doherty. 'My head was in a jam jar,' he said.

It is only in Sheffield that he has shown glimpses of genius he once could take for granted. He has beaten Billy Snaddon and Neal Foulds, the sort of opponents he has succumbed to in recent times, with barely a backward glance. 'There was too much pressure,' he said. 'Things have happened I don't want to think about. I'd rather look forward.'

The resolution of his court case with a driving ban and a community service order has seemingly lifted a weight off his mind and his rivals are talking of him as a contender again. Wishfully, maybe, but not with the weary fatalism of a few weeks ago.

'Anyone who thinks Jimmy can't win this event is mad,' Foulds said. 'You can tell when Jimmy's playing well by the way he strikes the balls and he's hitting them pretty sweetly. He's got a chance.

'The fact he has been to the final five times makes him one of the greatest snooker players ever at the Crucible. Even Stephen Hendry has not got there as often as Jimmy.'

Foulds was particularly taken by his opponent's long game, but it is the game between the ears that threatens to drag White down. Even against Foulds he allowed a 6-2 lead to be whittled away to 8-8, a lapse a better player than the world No 14 would have probably exploited.

It is the lost sessions, the ones where White's mind wanders, that have counted against him before and will probably weigh against him again. 'My concentration was spot on,' White said on Monday, but he acknowledged it has not always been the case.

Nevertheless, the collective will of the nation's snooker watchers will be with him as well as that of his peers. 'No one would begrudge Jimmy his world title,' Foulds said. And most would be surprised.