The Marshall Arena the MK Stadium in Milton Keynes has become almost a second home for players, tournament officials and media this season. 

Given the status of ‘elite sport’ snooker, like football, is as I write this still able to stage top-level tournaments with the Betfred Masters the biggest of the campaign to date.

The prestigious invitation event, featuring only the top 16 in the world, is always one to look forward to, savour and relish.

However the current coronavirus situation does mean that this year’s event is taking place amid unprecedented health protocols – as well as away from the spiritual home of Alexandra Palace.

No 2,500 fans then, but a wonderful playing arena. And for the first players on Sunday it all started two days before, having to travel to the MK stadium for tests and then isolation in the on-site hotel.

World No.1 Judd Trump and Jack Lisowski failed tests meaning call-ups for reserves Joe Perry and Gary Wilson, who had agreed to the hassle of attending and take tests on the off chance.

Spare a thought for Anthony McGill, technically the first reserve, who decided not to travel down from Glasgow – a decision that as it turned out cost him at least £15,000.

Once as a player, member of staff or media you have passed the test that is a huge sigh of relief and you can enter the building.

That is if you can navigate your way successfully from your hotel room through a labyrinth of corridors, stairs, hallways and at least one lift to the arena area.

There are temperature checks every day, masks when in all areas, and you are discouraged from leaving the building even to take a walk and get some fresh air.

No cheeky pint after the late session this week with the bars closed – we’ll be making do with Nongfu Spring water from one of the World Snooker Tour sponsors.

And for the commentators including Ken Doherty, Stephen Hendry, John Parrott and Dennis Taylor in their booth at the end of the arena things are also different with a Perspex screen divider between them.

Unable to wander out at will for food, the discussions over the evening meal delivery become a focal point of the day. Another Nando’s, or shall we go Wagamama’s tonight?

And Rob Walker, the BBC’s MC, admits he will never get used to calling the world’s best players into the arena, and giving them the big build-up…to total silence in the room with no crowd in attendance.

There are still plenty of moments of light relief. Snooker as a sport allows the media to get much closer to players than, say, football where access is far more limited and contact rare.

At a crucial stage of his last-16 match locked at 4-4 with Shaun Murphy, the two-time Masters champion Mark Williams gave early notice of what as to become a major talking point.

The restricted set-up at the Marshall Arena means the nearest toilet for players leaving the arena mid-match requires them to walk through a room full of journalists to get there.

Williams, thoroughly cheesed off with Murphy’s consistently excellent long reds, announced irritably to the sprinkling of media: “He won’t be potting a red off my next break”.

Sure enough when the time came in frame 10, he shocked the commentators by playing off the top cushion and resting in the back of the pack instead of splitting them and returning to baulk in the usual way.

After the ultra-defensive play, even the Magician wasn’t getting one from there – though he still went on to seal a place in the quarter-finals with a 6-4 win.

If only you could have had a punt on that break-off shot…

Whenever you bet, Betfred

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