April 2, 2013

Countdown to the Crucible Part Two – The Nineties: The Missed Black, The Wonder Bairn and the 147 Rocket Launch

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 8:30 am

‘He’s beginning to annoy me’ Stephen and Jimmy before their last and most dramatic final together in 1994

It’s time for another recycled gem from the archives as I chart my own personal Crucible snooker journey through the 1990’s, if anyone missed Part One of the greatest trilogy since Back to the Future, you can read that by clicking here.

This post was originally written in 2010 back in the early days of the blog so I will let the younger me take over from here…

The period of snooker played in Sheffield between 1990 and 1999 can really be summed up in two words; Stephen Hendry.

The first five years of the decade, with a courteous nod to 1991 champ John Parrott, can be summed up in five; Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White.

Here are some brief facts before we move on:

  • Of the ten finals contested in this decade, Hendry played in eight, losing only one.
  • The first five finals of the 90’s all featured Jimmy White.
  • There were only seven players that contested 90’s Crucible finals and only three in the first five of the decade.

Given the facts above, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a rather boring decade in terms of Crucible moments, and for me particular lows came in 1995 and 1996 when the Championship had lost a bit of it’s magic, but in amongst the statistics were some absolutely unforgettable moments in Crucible history.

The 1990 event started in controversial circumstances with our old friend the Hurricane getting involved in an altercation with a match official (he punched him in the stomach for no reason just before the clip I’ve included here), after losing to Brummie Biker Steve James in the first round before announcing his retirement in typical Alex fashion, though they have edited out the part where he uttered the eloquent line ‘ya can stick yer snooker up yer jacksy’. As it turned out however this was slightly premature and not one of the Hurricane’s better predictions as he did actually appear at the Crucible one further time following his 2 year ban for this, in 1994, losing to Ken Doherty. His final shots at the Crucible appear here.

But 1990 saw the start of one of the games great rivalries. Anyone who read Part One of my countdown will recall that as a teenager in 1984 I had sat sulking on my bed after my hero Jimmy was beaten in the final by Steve Davis, but consoled myself with the thought that he’d be back stronger than ever to win it multiple times. How wrong I was.

Somehow, Jimmy managed to go another six years before making his next final, against new kid in town Hendry, the young pretender who two years earlier Jimmy had stopped in his tracks in Round Two on a decider but who had this year, it turned out somewhat symbolically, beaten the-then undisputed king of the Crucible and holder Steve Davis 16-14 in the semi-final, an almost ‘the King is dead, long live the King’ point in time in the game’s history. I’d like to say I was confident, but by now, having turned 20 and long since realised I’d never make the standard to compete at this level, I had been aware of just how good Hendry was now for a few years, having played him when I was 15 at Pontins and seen him go on in massive leaps and bounds from there in a very short space of time (I like to think that he realised after playing me that he needed to improve, I like to think that, but it isn’t true of course, he beat me 2-0 quite comfortably I recall and his handshake didn’t exactly purvey a mutual respect, but he had more spots than I did so I consoled myself with that). There was no doubt that Jimmy was in for a test, even given his upper hand in experience. Needless to say, Hendry was superb, his iron-nerve holding to lift the first of his seven titles and becoming at 21, the youngest ever World Champion, even then it was clear that this boy was not going away.

Steve James – The Missing Link

But in 1991, Hendry, a strong favourite to retain his title faltered in the quarter final against that man again, Steve James who found himself in an unexpected semi-final date with Jimmy which the Whirlwind duly won to set up a final with Professional Scouser John Parrott. Surely this year my hero would make it third time lucky? Parrott had crumbled two years earlier in the final and was demolished by Steve Davis so Jimmy must surely start a huge favourite for this. But old JP played what he has described multiple times since as ‘the session of meee life’  to lead 8-0 (or it may have been 7), but whatever, from then Jimmy was playing catch up and never got those frames back, losing 18-11.

1992 saw Jimmy in magnificent form, during his 10-4 victory over Tony Drago in the first round he became only the second player to compile a 147 maximum break at Sheffield, to watch it again click here. Despite the fact that the whispers had now well and truly started that Jimmy ‘might never win it’, I still had faith in my man, despite the presence of a steel nerved Hendry who powered his way to the final with ease. Jimmy could take him this time, I was sure of it, he was playing better this year than ever before. It seemed, right up until the final session that at last, my faith was justified. Jimmy led 14-8 going into the final evening and was playing magnificently. Then, yet again, the unthinkable happened. Hendry won 10 frames in a row (still a record at the Crucible) to leave a stunned Whirlwind looking more like a light breeze in his sorry chair. That was it, he was never going to win it, I told myself.

Ronnie – One for the future perhaps?

1993 was notable for one thing, a 17 year old young man of whom great things were expected played at the Crucible for the first time. A raw talent, who had won his first 38 matches as a professional was beaten 10-7 in the first round by Alan McManus, he went by the name of Ronnie Antonio O’Sullivan, a great future lay ahead and a few months later he would be crowned UK Champion, still at 17, the youngest ever winner of a ranking event, a record very unlikely to be beaten. Would this boy eclipse Hendry’s accolade of being the youngest ever world champ?

But largely 1993 passed by with a whimper, Hendry in total dominance. Jimmy again made the final, I again thought, maybe, just maybe, but no, not even a final session this time as he was trounced 18-5 in a one-sided exhibition of winning snooker from the Scot. Surely now then, I must admit defeat and list Jimmy as ‘the greatest player never to win at the Crucible’.

Then came 1994.

Hendry had started the tournament with a 10-1 victory, he then injured his arm, his participation at one point being described as doubtful. However on his return he beat a pre-banana Dave Harold 13-2 and everyone wondered what all the fuss was about. 1994 was also notable for a resurgence in the fortunes of the Nuggett, Steve Davis who beat Les Dodd, Steve James (him again) and James Watanna before eventually losing to Hendry in the semi-final. This tournament also featured one of the greatest Crucible comebacks when Nigel Bond came back from 9-2 down against Cliff Thorburn to win 10-9. 1994 was the Grinder’s last appearance at the Crucible, he’d had enough.

In the other half of the draw Jimmy was quietly making his way to yet another final with some much less ‘Whirlwind’ style snooker and a more methodical approach, it seemed to be working and victories over Ken Doherty and Neal Foulds, before a stress free semi-final win against Darren Morgan put him through for what was to be the fourth and final time he’d play Hendry in the final. It was now becoming something of a yearly ritual but this one was to prove to be Jimmy’s last, but undoubtedly the pair’s most dramatic.

Maybe it was all a bad dream?

The first three sessions and most of the last of the final are a blur to me, a complete blur. But unfortunately I remember with crystal clarity what happened at the end. Never has one shot, in one place, at one time summed up a career so succinctly. I remember the detail down to Dennis Taylor’s one sided commentary and huge sigh when ‘that shot’ happened. I can’t even bring myself to write any more about it. For those that are brave enough to watch Jimmy’s last shot ever in a World Final, it’s here along with what followed. I won’t be joining you, it’s just too painful and I’m still not 100% sure that the therapy actually worked. Let me know if, when you watch it again the black actually went in and it was all a dream.

Afterwards, almost ten years to the day since I consoled myself in my teenage bedroom with tea and biscuits and the knowledge that Jimmy would have his chance again, I reached for something stronger and sat in silence, wondering where it all went wrong. We both knew, deep down that the dream had come to an end. It was just so difficult to come to terms with and even more difficult to say. It was the end of an era. Something had died that night, never to return. It was now time to move on.

Then came a lull for me in 1995. I, along with a nation of Jimmy followers had finally given up on my man and an argument and temporary split with snooker followed, it’s fair to say that it lasted for a few years after that to varying degrees. Jimmy made the semi-final in 95, losing to, guess who? Hendry winning his fifth final against Nigel Bond. But it wasn’t to be the last time the two old rivals met at the Crucible, that was to come a whole three more years later. Hendry’s sixth title followed like night follows day in 1996 but included hints of what might be to come in the next decade and beyond when a young Scot named Higgins and the enigmatic O’Sullivan contested a high quality Quarter Final match that finished in a 13-12 win for Ronnie. The Rocket narrowly missing out on a final spot when beaten by runner up Peter Ebdon in the semis.

John Higgins – Ready to take the baton from Hendry?

1997 saw something very special in Round 1. Recorded at a time of just 5 minutes and 20 seconds, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s fastest ever maximum break against upside-down glasses man and 90’s heart-throb, Mick Price, it’s still an incredible watch, but despite racking up ranking event wins he still didn’t win the big one. This year saw another new face in the final. The likeable Irishman, Ken Doherty. Would he be the one to stop the Hendry dominance and do what Jimmy, Nigel and Peter could not? The answer was yes, Hendry never competed with Ken who played some very solid snooker to break the hold that the Scot had on the title for the previous five years and secure Ken a place in all Dubliners hearts forever. The brave predicted the beginning of the end for the Scot, who would have to settle for equalling the six titles of Ray Reardon and Steve Davis.

This was to be Ken’s one and only world title, but given his contribution to the game he will surely go down as a worthy winner. He defended it valiantly the following year losing in the final. It was this year, 1998 which included Jimmy’s second victory over Hendry at the Crucible, this time in Round 1, by 10 frames to 4, but it can hardly be described as the last laugh as qualifier Jimmy was soon stopped at the Quarter Final stage by O’Sullivan, who must by now have been getting impatient to win the big one; Higgins gaining revenge on him in the Semi Finals before going on to pick up his first world title in impressive fashion, in which he looked every inch the new Hendry and a potential dominating force in the first decade of the new millenium.

But just like Steve Davis finished off in the 1980’s, the 90’s finished very much as they began with the a victory for the magnificent Hendry, who cemented his reputation by going one better than those before him with a seventh title, secured against young Welshman Mark Williams. The doubters were silenced.

Surely we will never see his like again, nerves of steel, the courage of a lion, the ultimate winner, the ultimate competitor and the ultimate champion. Snooker has indeed been very lucky with it’s champions, but unlike the close of the eighties we hadn’t quite seen the end of the king of the 90’s just yet…..

Concrete Crucible Conkers

For the musical interlude to this particular decade, I’d like to say ‘Enjoy’ in the time-honoured American way but, I really should say for the second time in this piece, click here if you’re brave, or in this case tone-deaf enough:

I knew there was a reason that I fell out of love with snooker in the mid-nineties. That guy has a lot to answer for, what was he thinking?

For those with any faith left in me; The Countdown to the Crucible Part Three will follow soon.

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