March 18, 2013

Countdown to the Crucible Part One – Heroes, Tears and Tantrums, Alex and The Nuggett

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 8:30 am

Jimmy and Alex_Higgins

Welcome to Part One of my Crucible Countdown, here I take you through my personal experiences of the baize as a kid covering the ‘Golden Age’ of Snooker, the 1980’s. It’s a piece that is done from memory so please forgive any factual errors, I hope you enjoy it. 

Snooker has always been, since the age of ten, a massive part of my life. Like all love affairs there have been highs and lows, good times and bad times, times when I fell out of love with the game and times when it feels like only yesterday that I watched Alex Higgins for the first time on a rented colour TV set in the living room that used to make a strange hissing sound when it had been on too long and sat mesmerised at what I was witnessing. I’d found the sport for me, I’d found something that I thought I’d be able to do better than my friends, I’d found snooker.

I grew up in what has since been described, probably rightly as the golden age of snooker, the first Embassy World Championship I remember watching was in 1980, when Cliff Thorburn defeated Alex in the final and a young man called Steve Davis made the quarter finals in his second year at Sheffield.

From then on I was hooked, both on playing and watching whether it was Pot Black, the Hofmeister Doubles, the State Express Team Cup, the Coral UK, the Yamaha Organs, the Mercantile Credit Classic or whatever, I’d be watching it and taping it, once the family realised that a video recorder was essential as when snooker was on, they didn’t get a look in. It wasn’t long before I like thousands of other youngsters had a 6×3 table in the house, pretending to be the stars that I saw play on TV for hours and hours and hours on end.

Dracula - Very Dashing

Dracula – Very Dashing

Since then, the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible has remained my favourite two weeks of the year. Like Christmas come early, or late whichever way you look at it. The anticipation of the first day still fills me with excitement when the partition wall comes down, a hush descends on the arena and the click of the balls begins on both tables, I still get goosebumps.

Throughout the early eighties I continued to be glued to the TV whenever the snooker was on, I also became quite a competent player and was regularly amassing century breaks by the time I was 16, travelling around the country with my dad trying in vain to break into the big time and I even played on TV once with the Nugget himself. In 1981 of course, the domination of Davis started but I was more interested in my new hero by then (kids are so fickle), a skinny pale-faced potting machine by the name of Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White who was beaten by the eventual winner Davis by the odd frame in Round 1.

I felt I had more in common with Jimmy than with the other players, he was a working class lad who played without a care in the world and looked like he’d just been dragged through a hedge, quite a difference to the gentlemanly, very grown up looks of the Ray Reardon’s and Cliff Thorburn’s of this world. But I think I came as close to loving someone I’d never met as I ever have since, if you discount a later dalliance with Wendy James from Transvision Vamp, but the two obsessions were very very different in character.  I totally idolised the man, even to the point that I started playing left-handed for a bit, long before the days of the Rocket and knocking in 40 and 50 breaks this way. But that’s enough bragging, I wasn’t that good..

Not exactly best pals

The 1982 championship will remain in many people’s thoughts as the ‘Year of the Hurricane’ but to me I’ll always remember waking up on the Saturday morning, goosebumped, with a plate of jam on toast watching what to me then was the biggest shock I had ever encountered (well, I was only 12). Steve Davis had been close to unbeatable for the past two seasons, was a huge favourite to retain his title and now was suddenly being dismantled before millions of stunned viewers by qualifier and later world number 2, Tony Knowles. It made front page news the following day. I literally could not believe it and after recovering from the shock, I excitedly thought, now Jimmy has a real chance, I think I even asked my dad to put 50p on him for me at the local Billy Hills, such was my level of supreme confidence in my hero. But sadly it was not to be and in the semi-final, Alex did this  before going on to win the decider and break Jimmy’s heart for the first of many times at the theatre of dreams. Hills also unscrupulously kept my 50p, this being in the days when it was quite frankly impossible for 12 year olds to lay off, happily things have now improved in this area, Betfair are good for one thing at least.

Kirk Stevens – Smokin’

1983 was most memorable for Cliff Thorburn’s 147, but was a total Davis domination job and seemed to pass me by somehow, I think by then I was well and truly getting fed up of Davis winning absolutely everything as were most of this great nation of ‘loser lovers’. It was around this time that the infamous Alex quote appeared on the front of the tabloids ‘I Hate Steve Davis’. Then came 1984, and Jimmy’s first final against the Ginger Magician. It was the match everyone wanted to see, none more so than me. Jimmy went in as the Masters Champion after a magical unforgettable semi-final match with Kirk Stevens at Wembley, in which the white suited Canadian compiled arguably the best 147 ever seen on television.

I was full of confidence. But day one ended in me storming up to my bedroom in a teenage strop, hormones akimbo, inconsolable and close to tears as Davis took a commanding 8, or was it 9? frame lead. I remember the tears were partly triggered by one of those sentimental musical pieces the BBC used to do at the end of the programmes, it was called ‘Don’t wait until tomorrow’ I think (Leo Sayer sang it) and had montages of Jimmy missing ball after ball and panning onto his disappointed pale face. I vaguely remember that the following day was his birthday too. I hated the BBC for that and felt that they had ruined my life. But Jimmy as ever, did not disappoint his millions of fans and stormed back and even might have won in the end after a magical fight back, losing just 18-16. I stormed up to my room again the next night obviously, but consoled myself with the thought that as he got so close, it would only be a matter of time before my hero won it, probably a few times………..

Then came the shock wins for Dennis Taylor and Joe Johnson before Davis finished off the decade as he started it. In total dominance. Taylor’s win will obviously remain one of the iconic sporting moments and he’s been dining out on it ever since, but it does remain one of the greatest ever David and Goliath tales of modern sporting times, to see it again click here, not you Dennis, you’ve watched it enough.

But it is Joe Johnson, who can now be found regularly on Eurosport pondering that eternal question ‘where’s the white going?’, who has to go down as the most unlikely winner of this era. Perhaps only the triumph of Graeme Dott many years later can be compared to our Joe in terms of shock value, Joe played mostly flawless snooker for the whole two weeks and brought a much needed smile to many faces during the Thatcher years.

But who would have guessed that after giving John Parrott a hiding of 18-3 in the 1989 final to win his third successive and sixth title in all, it would be the last time we would see Steve in the final? A new kid was emerging on the block in the shape of a young Scot, who had been quietly watching and learning from the master and was now just about to change the way the game was played forever.

If you’d like to feel a little more nostalgic, why not read this back with this in the background I couldn’t write a piece about the 80’s without an honourable mention to London’s finest.

Part Two of the Countdown to the Crucible will appear soon.

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