MONDAY marks the return of the Welsh Open as the world’s best snooker players aim to get their hands on the Ray Reardon Trophy, writes Josh Thomas.

Among them are 13 Welshmen, including four from Gwent, one of which is Cwm’s 2018 world champion Mark Williams, the winner in 1996 and 1999.

But he wasn’t the first Welshman to play in the final of the tournament, which runs at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena from February 11-17.

That honour falls to another Gwent cueman in the shape of Newbridge’s Darren Morgan, who was beaten to the silverware by Stephen Hendry in 1992, the year the event was established.

Speaking at his Red Triangle Club in Cross Keys, the 52-year-old said: “I love the Welsh Open. It’s my chance to get back in touch with my old associates, my old friends and my old foes.

“You meet up with a lot of familiar faces that were there when you were playing, and it’s just a great time.

“You reminisce, you talk about different things, and it’s my way of keeping a little bit of contact with a sport that has obviously been so good to me.”

Commenting further on the event, he added: “Obviously it’s special. For me, being a Welshman, the Welsh Open was the main event for us, other than the World Championship.

“The Welsh Open has always been synonymous with great audiences, even when we played it at the Newport Centre for all those years.

“I know it has swapped over to Cardiff and took a couple of years to take off there, but the audiences now have followed on from the Newport days and you normally get a sell-out for all sessions.

“It’s a great atmosphere and the Welsh people are very patriotic towards the Welsh Open – obviously they would love to see a Welsh winner.

“It has always been well supported and I think that’s what makes it stand out maybe to the rest.”

And when asked why people should venture to the capital to see snooker’s stars strutting their stuff, he said: “If you love snooker, where can you go and see the top players in the world play?

“All the top players will be out to try and win this year’s Welsh Open, and if you are a snooker fanatic or an armchair follower it’s the best place for to go.

“I was quite sad when it left Newport because I had great success there, but Cardiff has become its new home and when I go down you can cut the atmosphere with a knife – it’s brilliant.”

Morgan retired from professional snooker in 2006 but has been cleaning up on the veterans’ circuit, winning world titles left, right and centre in recent years.

He will be at the Motorpoint Arena next week working as a television pundit, 12 months after earning a wildcard to play in his home tournament.

After John Higgins won his fifth Welsh Open last year, beating Barry Hawkins 9-7 in the final, Morgan feels that the 2019 event could be wide open.

“It’s hard to predict,” he said. “There’s three or four names you would say are in the running.

“Obviously Ronnie O’Sullivan is going to be there or thereabouts.

“Judd Trump has been playing really well, Mark Allen, who’s been doing unbelievably well this year, as well a couple of others.”

As well as Williams, Lee Walker, Jak Jones and youngster Jackson Page will fly the flag for Gwent next week.

Williams faces an all-Welsh first-round clash with Kishan Hirani, Newbridge’s Walker plays Ricky Walden, Jones, from Cwmbran, also has a Welsh opponent in Matthew Stevens, and teenager Page takes on China’s Zhao Xintong.

Jones and Williams are first in action on Monday and Walker and Page start their campaigns on Tuesday.

Ryan Day, Michael White, Dominic Dale, Jamie Clarke, Duane Jones, Daniel Wells and Alex Taubman are the other Welsh entrants.