Sixteen-year-old Stephen Hendry stepped out for his first-round match at the Mercantile Credit Classic in Warrington in 1986 with the doubts of his fellow professionals ringing in his ears.
Hendry had been hammered 9-2 on his debut at the UK Championship the previous year by Indian amateur Omprakesh Agrawal, and prospective opponents were relishing the prospect of a relatively easy draw against the inexperienced Scot.
Thirty-five years, seven world titles, 775 century breaks and nearly £9million in prize money later, the 52-year-old could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu as he prepares to launch his improbable comeback against his good friend Matthew Selt at the Gibraltar Open on Tuesday evening.
Expectations for Hendry’s first tour match since his crushing 2012 world quarter-final defeat to Stephen Maguire are not high, with many convinced the strength in depth of today’s tour will leave the game’s most dominant player experiencing little more than embarrassment.
But those who faced Hendry at the Spectrum Arena in what effectively constituted his first main draw appearance on the professional ranking tour can still recall how swiftly he shattered those initial preconceptions with his sheer ability and determination.
In his opening match Hendry faced a 46-year-old Dubliner called Dessie Sheehan, who had hovered around the lower reaches of the world’s top hundred for a number of seasons.
Sheehan, now 71 and a recently-retired taxi driver, recalled to the PA news agency: “We were playing together at the Pontins Pro-Am and his dad drove us down to the Classic, where we happened to draw each other in the opening round.
“Straight away you could tell he was a fantastic prospect. I played against all the greats – Alex Higgins and Steve Davis, and I practised with Ronnie (O’Sullivan) – and you could just tell they were going to be world champions.
“Stephen was the same. He had superb cue-ball control and was a fearsome potter. But when I heard he was making a comeback I thought it was an April Fool. It’s a lot harder now and he’s going to find it tough.”
Hendry beat Sheehan 5-2, thrashed Graham Miles 5-1, then edged the previous year’s British Open winner Silvino Francisco, then firmly ensconsed in the world’s top 16 – 5-4 to reach the last 32.
His next opponent was Neal Foulds, five years older than Hendry and already regarded as one of the game’s top prospects having reached two ranking event semi-finals.
“I thought it was a good draw for me,” Foulds, who will commentate on Hendry’s comeback for Eurosport, told PA. “I had heard a little bit about Stephen but everyone assumed he had turned pro too early.
“I went in front but all of a sudden he had a little spell where he was knocking in nearly everything. He had a very flashy cue action. It went to a decider and I made one of the best breaks I’ve ever made to win the match.
“He had a real swagger about him. He was immaculately dressed and he didn’t speak to anyone. He’d look you up and down and he wouldn’t say a word. There was a determination and a ruthlessness about him that I haven’t forgotten.”
The pair would go on to play 15 times in their respective careers: that match in Warrington remained the only one Foulds ever won, the victim, in his own words, of some “merciful hidings” at the hands of the Scot.
It is those painful memories that prevent Foulds from fully buying into the theory that Hendry’s comeback – and improbable ambition of battling through four qualifying rounds to return to the Crucible – is necessarily over-ambitious.
“I think it’s great to see Stephen come back,” added Foulds. “Of course the tour has changed and it is going to be difficult for him. But I wouldn’t put anything beyond him, because I know from experience he’s got a very strong mind.”
:: Hendry’s match against Matthew Selt at the Gibraltar Open will be broadcast live on Eurosport.