Tuesday, 5 July 2016

435 Snooker

First  viewed  : April  1980

As  mentioned  in  previous  posts  I  used  to  spend  Friday  nights  with  my  Gran  and  around  this  time  discovered  that  she  had  a  secret  passion  for  snooker  despite , like  us  , only  having  a  black  and  white  television. The  source  of  this  was  an  edition  of  This  Is  Your  Life   featuring  the  current  World  Champion  Terry  Griffiths. I  remember  visiting  my  friend  Stephen's  house  the  previous  year  when  his  granddad  was  getting  excited  by  Griffiths's  progress  to  the  World  Championship  Final  at  the  first  attempt  but  we  didn't  sit  down  and  watch  any  of  it. My  gran  loved  Griffiths  because  "he  was  so  modest  and  unassuming"  and  had  been  watching  Pot  Black  ever  since.

It  was  a  good  job  Griffiths  was  modest  because  if  he  thought  he  was  going  to  collect  a   long row  of  trophies  for  his  mantelpiece  he  was  in  for  a  rude  awakening. The  following  year he  lost  his  first   match  of  the  World  Championship  to  a  cocky   youngster  from  London   called  Steve  Davis  who  would  severely  restrict  the  opportunities  for  Terry  and  all  his contemporaries  for  the  next  decade. My  gran  never  forgave  Davis  for  this  and  would  seethe whenever  he  appeared  on  screen.

I  think  I  came  in  at  the  semi-Final  stage.  The  volatile but  often  brilliant  Alex  "Hurricane " Higgins, still  to  some  extent   the  enfant  terrible  of  the  sport  since  his  one  world  title  win  as  a  23  year  old  in  1972,  was  facing a  younger  version  of  himself  in  21-year  old  Kirk  Stevens  from  Canada, the  youngest  ever  semi-finalist  who  played  a  fearless  attacking  game  in  a  snazzy  white  suit.. The  other semi-Final   featured  another  Canadian  Cliff  Thorburn  who  couldn't  have  been  more  different , an  older-looking  32-year  old  with  a  baleful  glare  whose  tactic  seemed  to  be  to  bore  his  opponents ( and  the  audience ) to  death  with  his  slow  cautious  play. His  opponent  was  the  dapper  silver-haired  Mancunian  David  Taylor  who'd  put  out  top  seed  Ray  Reardon  in  the  Quarters.

Neither  match  went  the  way  I  wanted. I  was  enthralled  by  Stevens  who  became  my  favourite  player  but  Higgins  eventually  won  a  great  encounter  and  local  pride  demanded  I  back  Taylor  but  Thorburn  had  an  easy  win. By  the  time  of  the  Final  my  mum  and  sister  were  also  watching  and  we  were  all  backing  Higgins. It  seemed  like  his  for  the  taking  but  Thorburn  eventually  wore  him  down to  become  the  first  ever  overseas  player  to  win  the  World  title.

My  sister  had  a  brief  crush  on  Higgins, difficult  to  understand  as  he  was  a  small  wiry  bloke  with  gaunt  pinched  features  reflecting  his  Belfast  upbringing. The  following  year  she   defied  the  rest  of  us  and   switched  her  affections  to  Davis , immediately  recognising  a  winner. She's  never  been  one  for  siding  with  the  underdog.  There  was  never  any  doubt  he'd  win  that  year sweeping  aside  Higgins, Griffiths  again  and  Thorburn  ( whose  attritional  game  never  bothered  Davis )  with  his  robotic  precision  to a  Final  with  another likable  Welshman  Doug  Mountjoy.  Nerves  gave  Mountjoy  more  frames  than  he  probably  deserved  but  Davis  won  18-12.

The  1982  tournament  began  with  a  seismic  shock  when  Davis  was  taken to  the  cleaners  by  the  young  Bolton  pro  Tony  Knowles  in  the  opening  match. Knowles  won  10-1  to  throw  the  tournament  wide  open, the  more  so  when  Griffiths  and  Thorburn  also  departed  at  that  stage  if  less  dramatically. Attention  quickly  switched  to  another  young  Londoner  Jimmy  White  who  played  at  an  unbelievable  pace. Inarticulate  and  barely  able  to  write  his  name , he  was  nevertheless  an  impeccable  sportsman  who  quickly  became  a  crowd  favourite.  He  raced  his  way  past  both  Canadians  on  the  way  to  another  classic  semi-final  clash  between  two  swashbucklers  as  he  came  up  against  Higgins.  The  two  of  them  traded  blow  for  blow to  leave  White  15-14  up   as  the  clock  ticked  towards  midnight. He  clocked  up  59-0  then  jawed  a  tricky  red  played  with  the  rest to  throw  Higgins  a  lifeline  but  he  had  an  awful  lot  to  do.  He  proceeded  to  reel  off  one  awkward  pot  after  another  to  make  a  clearance  of  69. It's  probably  the  most  famous  frame  of  all  time, repeated  many  times  since. In  the  final  frame  which  no  one  really  remembers  Jimmy  hadn't  recovered  his  composure  and  pretty  much  surrendered  it  to  a  nerveless  Higgins. He  went  on  to  defeat  a  past-his-best  Ray  Reardon  in  the  Final  and  declare  himself  "the  People's  Champion", a  direct  challenge  to  Davis  whom  he  despised  ( by  contrast  he  and  White  became  lifelong  buddies ).

In  fact  it  was  to  be  the  last  Final  for  both  of  them. Reardon  made  the  semis   once  more   in  1985  where  he  was  annihilated  by  Davis  and  then  dropped  quietly  out  of  contention. That  wasn't  Higgins'  way. After  the  sweetest  of  victories  over  Davis  in  the  1983  UK  tournament   Final,  his  career  slipped  away  in  a  hail  of  controversies - death  threats, head  butts, tears drunken  rants  -  all  in  futile  protest  at  the  waning  of  his  talent . He  died  in  2010  after  a  long  battle  with  throat  cancer.

Davis  came  roaring  back  in  1983  with  only  Dennis  Taylor  in  the  Second  Round  putting  up  much  resistance. He  crushed  Thorburn  whose  previous  three  matches  had  all  gone  the  distance  18-6. Thorburn  had  the  consolation  of  being  the  first  person  to  score  the  maximum  147  at  the  tournament  though  not  in  the  Final.

I  started  playing  the  game  myself  in  1983  when  I  realised  that  my  hall  of  residence  had  a  snooker  table. I  wasn't  great  but  good  enough  to  have  competitive  games  with  my  housemates  and  later  some  fellow  Dale  supporters. What  took  me  back  a  bit  was  their  almost  unanimous,  visceral  hatred  for  Davis. His  comment  that  snooker  was  better  than  sex  seemed  to  particularly  rile  them. There  was  wild  applause  when  Spitting  Image  nailed  his  lack  of  charisma  with  the  famous  Steve  "Very  Interesting"  Davis  sketch. to  be  fair  to  the  guy  he  took  it  in  good  part  and  named  his  management  company  Interesting  Productions.

By  this  time  snooker  was  enjoying  a  real TV  boom  with  many  of  the  other  tournaments being  broadcast  and  ITV  getting  in  on  the  act. It  was  on  their  coverage  that  I  first  caught  the  ghastly  sight  of  professional  eccentric  John  McCririck  who'd been  brought  in  to  give  some  betting  coverage.  They  also  covered  the  Masters  tournament  in  1984  when  Stevens  scored a  147. Stevens  made  his  second  and  final  appearance  in  the  semis  that  year  where  he  narrowly  lost  to  White. White  then  lost  18-16   to  Davis  although  he  was  never  ahead  in  the  match.

Stevens  did  reach  a  Final  at  the  beginning  of  1985  in  the  Dulux  Open, a  match  he  should  have  won  against  the  shady  South  African  Silvino  Francisco  whose  curious  game  seemed  to  rely  on  making  things  harder  for  himself  by  constantly  losing   position. At  the  beginning  of  the  match  Francisco  grabbed  hold  of   Stevens  and  accused  him  of  being  on  drugs. A  disconcerted  Stevens  then  lost  the  match  13-9. After  the  game  the  authorities  heavily  fined  Francisco  for   misconduct  but  shortly  afterwards  Stevens  took  the  legs  from  under  them  by  admitting  he  had  a  problem  with  cocaine. Despite  going  into  rehab,  he went  into  a  rapid  decline, a  sad  end  to  a  very  promising  career  but  at  least  he's  alive  and  well  and  still  playing  in  Canada.  

In  the  World  Championships  that  year  the  solid  Irishman  Dennis  Taylor  attracted  attention  by  wearing  an  unusual  pair  of  oversized  glasses  to  help  him  see  the  balls. Nevertheless  they  seemed  to  spark  an  impressive  return  to  form  with  four  emphatic  victories  taking  him  to his  first  Final  since  his defeat  by  Griffiths  in  1979  . There  Davis  inevitably  awaited  him  and  when  the  Champion  went  8-0  up   many  people gave  up. Taylor  then  pulled  one  back  and  lifted  his  finger  as  they  went  into  the  interval.  It  seemed  painfully  quixotic  at  the  time  but  he  justified  it  gradually  crawling  his  way  back  into  the  match  as  Davis  faltered  until  unbelievably  ,going  into  Monday  morning  , he  pulled  it  back  to  17-17. The  TV  room  at  my  hall  was  packed  for  the  final  frame  with  the  steady  stream  of  abuse  hurled  at  Davis  increasing  in  pitch  and  virulence  as  the  stomach-knotting  tension  ratcheted  up. Then  incredibly  it  was  down  to  the  black  and  Dennis  had  first  dibs. He  missed  it  to  howls  of  anguish ! There  it  was  for  Davis - on a  plate  and  - no  he's  jawed  it !  People  were  on  their  knees. Dennis  had  a  second  chance  but  harder  than  the  first.  Yessss !!!!! That  was unique  - there  will  never  be  another  moment  quite  like  that  in  my  life , shared  with  18.5  million  people  across  the country  watching  the  television  after  midnight, a  record  that  will  surely  never  be  beaten.

Davis  did  himself  no  favours  in  the  post-match  interview  with  David  Vine , his  weak  joke  about  it  being  "all  there  in  black  and  white"  getting  lost  amid   the  otherwise  monosyllabic  answers  when  everyone  was  expecting  a  graceful  concession. Yeah  of  course  he  was  gutted   but  there  was  a  clear  etiquette  for  such  occasions  and  he  miserably  failed  to  play  his  part.
He  did  better  in  1986  when  he  lost  to  the  unfancied  journeyman   from  Bradford  , the  Anglo-Asian  Joe  Johnson  who  did  a  Leicester  City  and  suddenly  found  the  form  of  his  life  to  pot  his  way  to  the  title.  Johnson  got  to  the  Final  again  in  1987  after  some  very  tight  matches  but  this  time   round  Davis  was  too  good  for  him  and  he  went  back  to  his  former  level  almost  as  quickly  as he'd  risen.

By  that  time  I'd  started  work  and  as  you'd  expect  didn't  have  quite  so  much  time  to  invest  in  watching  a  snooker  tournament   as  before  so  I  gradually  started  to  lose  touch . Davis  won  two  more  titles  and  the  BBC  Sports  Personality  of  the  Year  in  1988  but  in  1990  young  Scot  Stephen  Hendry  won  the  first  of  his  record  seven  World  titles  and  effectively  blocked  Davis  from  ever  winning  it  again. The  nineties  saw  a  new  gripping  drama  with  the  repeated  failure  of  Jimmy  White  to  prise  the  title  away  from  Hendry .  In  the  1992  Final  he  led  14-8  but  then  lost  10  frames  in  a  row . Anecdotally  that  seems  to  be  when  many  people  turned  away  as  the  sport  suffered  a  severe  dip  in  popularity  though  I  think  I'd  gone  a  couple  of  years  earlier   despite  still  playing  it  fairly  regularly.

I  gravitated  back  towards  it  in  the  early  noughties  for  no  particular  reason  that  I  recall. Apart  from  Hendry  who  was  ridiculously  still  in  his  thirties  there  were  few  familiar  faces. Davis  was  still  plodding  away  and  John  Parrott  and  sadly  still  Jimmy  White  though  you  knew  he  was  no  longer  a  contender. Hendry  himself  never   won  the  World  title  in  the  new  millennium  so  White  had  no  chance. Otherwise  all  the  old  guard   were  now  pundits  including  Davis  and  Parrott  after  their  inevitable  early  exits. Davis  is, as  you  would  expect,   earnest, long-winded  and  boring  but  would  you  have  him  any  other  way ?

 There  were   interesting  new  faces  most  notably  Ronnie  "Rocket"  O  Sullivan,  the  natural  successor  to  Higgins  and  White,  although  his  outspoken  tendency  to  bite  the  hand  that  feeds  him  makes  him  rather  less  lovable.  I  rather  liked  Australian  nutter  Quinten  Hann  who  wound  up  his  opponents  so  much  one  of  them  ended  up  taking  him  on  in  a  boxing  match. In  2006  though,  he  was  banned  from  snooker  for  eight  years  for  accepting  an entrapment  bribe  from  The  Sun  to  lose  a  match   and  though  that  has  now  expired,  he's  shown  no  sign  of  wanting  to  return  to  the  sport  having  made  a  lot  of  money  on  the American  pool  circuit.

I  watched  Stuart  Bingham  win  last  year's  World  title  although  I  didn't  see  any  of  this  year's  competition. Too  busy  with  these  blogs  you  see.



1 comment:

  1. Steve Davis now of course has an, ahem, "interesting" sideline in DJing, featuring his somewhat esoteric tastes in music.