Since 1977, The Crucible in Sheffield has staged the annual marathon of the mind that is the World Snooker Championship.
In that time, fifteen different nationalities have graced the famous theatre – a low number in reality but one that has the potential to rise dramatically in the next decade thanks to the renewed global ambitions of the sport.
Two nations that were there from the outset were those that make up the Emerald Isle – Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – with both playing a pivotal role in the unique history of the major tournament.
19 cueists from the island played a part in the event’s history in Sheffield and Patsy Fagan, who a few months later would go on to lift the inaugural UK Championship trophy, contested in the very first Worlds to be held there, losing to Ray Reardon in the first round, and would go on to make the quarter-finals the following year in his best ever effort.
But in the early days the dominant Irish contingent was made up of two contrasting styles from north of the border.
Five years earlier, in 1972, a young pup by the name of Alex Higgins captured his first world title with his cocky charisma, coinciding with the introduction of colour television, initiating a thoroughly unexpected boom in popularity for the game.
Higgins’ fellow Ulsterman Dennis Taylor, a man who would later become one of his most bitter rivals on the circuit, would actually pip Alex to the post in terms of reaching the final in Sheffield for the first time but, consecutively, both of them were to lose at the last hurrah in 1979 and 1980.
This was just the practice run, though, because within five further years the pair would be synonymous with two of the classic Crucible moments of all time.
In 1982, the ‘Hurricane’ out-blew the ‘Whirlwind’ Jimmy White in a semi-final that many believe to be the greatest match of all time before breaking down in tears, desperately waving his newborn baby girl into the arena, after finally capturing his second title ten years after his maiden glory.
It’s tempting just to leave it at that because anybody who doesn’t know of 1985 at this stage require a head examination – or simply to listen to Dennis in BBC commentary for a few minutes once the coverage starts in a fortnight – but, of course, this was the year when Taylor came from the brink on countless occasions to oust the usually infallible Steve Davis in an oh-so dramatic black ball tussle in the deciding frame.
It took twelve further years for Irish eyes to smile once again and it was back down south as the ‘Darling of Dublin’ Ken Doherty entered the fray.
In this period, there had been an array of other players that came and went unsuccessfully – Eugene Hughes, Stephens Murphy and O’Connor, among others – but nothing of any significant note until 1997.
A certain Stephen Hendry, the King of the Crucible himself, was bidding for a record seventh crown but Doherty was on fire.
Indeed, nobody even came close to beating him that week such was his dominance and he almost broke the Crucible curse the following season to mount a successful defence the year after his first title – eventually losing out to John Higgins 18-12.
Ironically, Doherty’s second runner-up spot in 2003 became known as “Ken’s Championship” despite being on the receiving end of an 18-16 loss to Welshman Mark Williams.
In contrast to his overpowering triumph in 1997, Doherty competed in a remarkable 132 out of the maximum 137 frames possible during the entirety of the event – including another famous semi-final between himself and the late Paul Hunter.
Trailing 15-9 going into the final session, Doherty honed in an increasingly nervy opponent, aided by an outrageous fluke in the 31st frame when two down with three to play, to eventually prevail in a nail-biter 17-16.
In the midst of the Doherty years, his fellow Dubliner Fergal O’Brien got in on the act to reach the last 8 in 2000 while ‘Outlaw’ Joe Swail proved that romance was still alive by embarking on back-to-back incredible runs to the semi-finals.
In the second of these in 2001, Swail edged Dungannon’s Patrick Wallace in the quarter-finals – Wallace having come through three qualifying rounds to even get to Sheffield.
Some have been less fortunate under the bright lights and imposing cameramen with Joe Delaney, funnily enough battling it out on the opening day’s preliminaries for this year’s championship against Wallace as this article is written, scoring a miserable 310 points in his Crucible career to date.
Still, he can always say he was there!
Nowadays, the heady days are few and far between as, with the exception of Mark Allen, both nations struggle to produce a conveyor belt of budding stars.
Allen is one of around ten players that can realistically say they’ve got a chance this year and, having made the semi-finals a couple of years ago coupled with the fact that he is now a proven winner on the circuit following his World Open triumph, a third Northern Irish world champion might not be too far away.
For the Republic, things don’t look so rosey and a lot of hard work will need to be put in over the next few years to ensure that what has been a strong tradition does not become folklore down the local club.
The history of Irishmen in the pursuit of snooker’s holy grail is illustrious and it would be a shame if it became only that – history.