Tuesday, 5 July 2016
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.