The Crucible: Forty years of magic

Crucible Forty years snooker magic

Read an extract from: The Crucible’s Greatest Matches

This year sees The Crucible celebrate 40 years of hosting the World Championship, with the iconic Sheffield venue setting the scene for some of the best matches of all time.

A new book by snooker expert and reporter Hector Nunns, The Crucible’s Greatest Matches: Forty Years of Snooker’s World Championship in Sheffield, goes through some of these top battles.

Only three Irishman have collected the title in that time, Alex Higgins, Ken Doherty and Dennis Taylor. The book includes one of each of their matches, and as well as the following extract detailing Taylor’s iconic ‘black-ball’ win over Steve Davis in 1985, there are plenty of interviews with some of the top names in the sport as they recollect their part in some of the best matches ever, including:

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND – MAY 02: Ronnie O’Sullivan of England in action during his Betfred.com World Snooker Championship Quarter Final match against Neil Robertson of Australia at Crucible Theatre on May 2, 2012 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

• The famous amphitheatre’s most dramatic contest, the 1985 black-ball final won by Dennis Taylor against Steve Davis

• The two most agonising final losses for People’s Champion Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White at the hands of his Sheffield nemesis, Scotland’s Stephen Hendry

• The fabled 1982 semi-final between a young White and his boyhood idol Alex Higgins, with some brilliance from the ‘Hurricane’ saving his skin

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
‘HURRICANE’ HIGGINS 1980: Irishman Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins at the tale during the final of the Embassy World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Higgins was beaten by Canadian Cliff Thorburn by 18 frames to 16.

• Cliff Thorburn’s Crucible first, a 147 maximum break against Terry Griffiths in an epic encounter that finished at 3.51am

• ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan’s excruciating description of his total collapse in 2005 when faced with a pedestrian Peter Ebdon display that sparked a ‘cheat’ storm for slow play.

• A foreword by and contributions from World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn

Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor 1985, final

“You can’t lose if you’re Steve in that match – you are 8-0 up against Dennis Taylor and you cannot lose, it is absolutely impossible”

Leaving other matches out of this book may cause irritation or bewilderment. Leaving the 1985 World Championship final out might have provoked a riot, and a contest that has long since entered into sporting iconography had to be in football-speak the ‘first name on the team-sheet’.

The mid-1980s were troubling times in Great Britain, a country that not only seemed ill at ease, but openly at war with itself throughout the miners’ strike of 1984–85, and via a football hooliganism problem that was spiralling out of control. But against this disturbing backdrop the ‘gentlemen’s’ sport of snooker was experiencing a huge domestic boom, a surge in popularity that arguably reached its zenith on the night of Sunday, 28 April 1985 when Dennis Taylor rolled it all into one against Steve Davis, already a three-time and defending world champion and dominant force – huge shock, magnificent comeback, and most dramatic conclusion.

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
Dennis Taylor winning the 1985 World Snooker Championship at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield against Steve Davis

The black-ball final, as it swiftly came to be known, kept 18.5 million people glued to their television sets until 12.19am and the conclusion of a truly epic battle royal, prompting some never-to-be-forgotten scenes and celebrations – plenty more of which later.

But the seeds for the eventual seismic outcome, as much as for any other match in this collection, were sown earlier in the season. Northern Irishman Taylor, born in Coalisland, County Tyrone, was 36 by the time of the 1985 World Championship and had previously lost one world final at the Crucible to Terry Griffiths in 1979, a defeat that still haunted him, and an opportunity that he felt strongly he had let slip away.

Taylor was regarded as a brave and canny player if not one to have yet hit the greatest heights in the game. But his personal and professional worlds were turned upside down in the autumn of 1984, when his mother Annie died unexpectedly aged 62. It was a huge shock for Taylor and his family, seeing him pull out of the Jameson International and temporarily at least lose all interest in snooker. But once persuaded to rejoin the fray at the Grand Prix Taylor was a different animal, almost a man on a mission to pay a proper tribute to his mother. He won a first ranking title with a startling burst of form, claiming an unlikely 10-2 win over Cliff Thorburn in the final.

Taylor says: “My mother’s death had a huge impact on me personally, and it came at a time when I had started to play some of the best snooker of my career.

“She was only 62, it was a huge shock and I lost all interest in snooker. It was my family that persuaded me I should get back playing and return at the Grand Prix in her memory.

“That’s what I did and the snooker I played there was the best of my life.

“I was finally getting used to the upside-down glasses designed and made by Jack Karnehm. With them, I am sure I would have beaten Terry Griffiths in the 1979 world final. They made a huge difference.

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
Dennis Taylor, 36, with the Embassy World Professional Snooker Championship Trophy after his dramatic victory over Steve Davis in the early hours of the morning.

“I won the Grand Prix beating Cliff 10-2 in the final, almost on a mission, playing for my mum – and that mindset continued through to April and the World Championship.

“Then at the Crucible I won with plenty in hand in the quarters against Cliff, and again in the semis with a session to spare against Tony Knowles.

“So I had got through to the final with something left in the tank, I thought, having had a few sessions off because it is a long haul.

“Steve had given me a few right pastings but I had played okay against him at the Crucible, he had beaten me in the semis and I beat him in 1979 when Barry Hearn was sure he would storm through the field. I had played good snooker against him.

Relentless

“So I wasn’t overawed by him before the match despite the dominance he was exerting on the sport, and I was really up for it.” Davis, now 27, arrived in Sheffield as once again the man to beat and expecting to win a third world title in a row, having lifted the trophy in 1983 and 1984 to add to his 1981 success.

He says: “I came in as world No.1 and favourite for the title, but also my stock had risen. It was obvious that after winning a third world title, it had got in the head of certain players.

“Doug Mountjoy had said in public that I was two blacks better than everyone else, the way we would handicap in clubs – seven points start, 14 points, 21 and so on, and other players weren’t too happy he had said it.

“It did feel like others were struggling to play against me, like I had a force field around me and people weren’t playing well against me. You sensed sometimes that players had checked out of hotels before they played you, it made you feel almost invincible.

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
Dennis Taylor (right) shakes hands with Steve Davis after winning the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible.

“The team around me was strong, and my matchplay was also strong, as I tried to take the game to another level. I was trying to be more relentless than any player ever seen, and I was capable of winning by huge margins, rather than letting them back into it.

“Dennis had played some good snooker that season, some of the best being played at times. He won the Grand Prix, a first ranking title and he had been like a man on a mission in that event after the very sad loss of his mother earlier in the year.

“He was very clever and canny, underrated as a player, and had worked on his cue action to make it smoother and stop it being so jerky. But he had grit and bottle, and was a streetfighter. But I had given him so many heavy defeats as a pro that I couldn’t have been in a better frame of mind.”

John Virgo had been working overtime at the 1985 World Championship with his exhibition ‘filler’ routine, with both semifinals finishing with a session to spare, and the quarter-finals involving Davis and Taylor also proving to be one-sided affairs against Terry Griffiths and Thorburn respectively. And it looked in the early stages of the final as if another mismatch was under way, as Davis won all seven of the frames in the first session on the Saturday afternoon, before adding the first of the evening to lead 8-0. And it was in frame nine that a moment both players describe as crucial influenced the course of the match, and quite possibly the outcome.

Speak to anyone else about which colour haunts Davis most in that contest and they will say the last black in the 35th and deciding frame.

But the man himself has always looked at a shot he played on a green when attempting to clear up and make it 9-0. Incredibly, having stolen that frame to get on the board at 8-1, Taylor used it as a springboard to get himself right back in the game, winning seven of eight frames to trail only 9-7 overnight.

Davis says: “I made a flying start, 7-0 in the first session, and then 8-0 after the first of the evening. I had him in an awful situation. “It is all going to plan, and I really have never understood how I then collapsed other than I must have just, like a long-distance runner, waited for my opponent to catch up.

Crucible Forty years snooker magic
A downcast Steve Davis after his defeat against Dennis Taylor in the final of the 1985 Embassy World Snooker Championships, held at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

“There was this moment at 8- 0 when I had a decision about whether to take on a green or play safe. It wasn’t that poor a decision to take it on. But Dennis was in such a bad place maybe I could have made it worse for him at that moment by tying him up and piling on more pressure.

“Maybe I didn’t have to take that chance, and asked him to come up with a tough pot rather than leave it easy. Judging the right shot at the right time was something I was good at, but that is one I would like to have back, play the safety and see what happened. Because I strongly suspect at 9-0, I win that final.

“But I end up going back to the hotel at only 9-7 up, and I am like a bear with a sore head. I couldn’t have been in a worse situation being in front, and found it hard to sleep that night, to banish those thoughts. It felt like I was losing.

Turning point

“We were in for a long day on the Sunday but I was fit and healthy, and adrenaline gets you through. The average frame times were longer then, and the miss rule had a lot to do with that, it wasn’t applied like it is today, and that made it easy to survive tactical exchanges.”

Taylor says: “And even at 7-0 down after the first session I still hadn’t given up hope. I was a bit down, but I was chatting away to fans in the audience in between frames – and speaking to my mum as well to relax.

“In the evening I won a few of the frames in one visit, and that left me feeling a lot better. I understand Steve didn’t sleep well that night, but neither did I due to the excitement.

“Steve was probably on a downer, and I was on an upper! I remember my good friend Trevor East of ITV and myself had a bottle of champagne that night. That wasn’t the usual thing to do and might seem very inappropriate, but I just needed to unwind somehow.

“Steve was all about the choice of shot, and the green in frame nine annoyed him more than the black in the decider, which he had to go for – there was no choice.

“But that one shot was huge. He normally would have knocked it in, but he could have played safe and put me under even more pressure.

“If that goes in it is 9-0 and the whole match changes. It was a huge turning point in the match, as you so often get in snooker. It gave me a first frame, one on the board. Everyone remembers me wagging my finger at the end, but I also did it after that frame – one frame won.

“And then that prompted the comeback in the evening. The breaks started coming and in the end I think it was 13 breaks of over 50 and a couple of high 40s.”

Taylor, of course, never led in the match until the end – and so while he drew level on a number of occasions the second day, much as the first, was an exercise in trying to get back on terms and prevent Davis from getting too far ahead.

He adds: “It was a battle. I got back to 11-11, then it was 13-11 behind again ahead of the evening.

“But given what had happened earlier in the match it just didn’t seem to matter any more. He didn’t feel safe a couple of frames ahead, and I didn’t feel out of it.

Crucible’s Greatest Matches is published by Pitch Publishing Ltd, RRP: £17.99

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