By Fin Ruane
As this year’s eagerly awaited World Snooker Championship nears we look forward to the seventeen day snooker jamboree in Sheffield with bated breath. Questions such as “how will Ronnie play and can he win a fifth world title?”, can Mark Selby win and complete the ‘triple crown’ of snooker?” and “what qualifier will enjoy the best run?” have already been asked. No doubt come Monday evening on May 6th these questions and many more will have been answered for us. What we will be left is a tournament full of memories to add to the countless ones that have been etched into snooker memory.
Everyone has their own special memory of the snooker at the Crucible. Ask any man on the street and more than likely you will get the memory of a tearful Hurricane Higgins pleading for his baby daughter Lauren to be brought out to him after his 1982 world final over Ray Readon. Others and possibly many more will recall the black ball finish in 1985 when Dennis Taylor lifted his cue aloft after defeating Steve Davis in that famous final.
There are countless others and as always they make great talking points. Some memories are happy ones such as the celebrations by Cliff Thorburn after he compiled the Crucible’s first maximum break, the image of a watching Bill Werbeniuk during the break admiring his friend’s feat is heartening. Other memories are not so happy. For example, the 1994 world final and the deciding final frame shoot out when the people’s champion Jimmy White was at the table with the balls at his mercy and he looked finally about to claim that elusive world title after five final defeats until a missed black off the spot allowed Stephen Hendry in to clear the table and claim the title whilst confining Jimmy to yet another loss. Heart-wrenching stuff for every single snooker fan.
There are so many moments but here are my own personal top ten Cruicble memories.
The 1999 final day of the semi-final between Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan featured without doubt some of the greatest snooker the famous venue has ever seen. Two great players playing at the top of their game produced what veteran commentators called “Snooker from the Gods”. Four centuries each with a flurry of half centuries had the match level at 13-13. Hendry eventually won 17-13 and duly went on to beat Mark Williams in the final to win a record seventh title.
The 1992 final saw Jimmy White lead Stephen Hendry 14-8 and with two frames of the third session left he looked on course to claim his first world title.
White took on a plant in the 23rd frame when a safety shot was the more obvious choice. His effort missed and Hendry cleared to win that frame and the next to only trail by four going into the evening session. Hendry won eight straight frames that evening to win his second world title and condemn White to his fourth final defeat. Not a great memory for White fans but the manner in which Hendry turned the screw was snooker mastery.
The 1992 World Championship saw seven Crucible debuts. Among those saw Peter Ebdon arrive at the stage for the first time. His opponent was – champion Steve Davis. Ponytailed Ebdon won 10-4 with an exhibition of flamboyant snooker and break building, not to mention his several vocal outbursts after each frame and it was a snooker moment to remember. Ebdon eventually lost that year in the quarter-finals to Terry Griffiths. Incidentally, Irishman Stephen Murphy, who in my own opinion is the most naturally talented player to ever come out of Ireland, also made his Crucible debut that same year, unfortunately losing out to eventual champion Stephen Hendry in the first round.
After one semi-final finished early during the 1982 World Championship, organisers pondered their next move as to how the paying punters should be entertained. Enter John Virgo and what happened next was 45 mins of pure entertainment.
Virgo at the time was still competing on the pro circuit but was becoming more known on the exhibition roadshow, mainly due to his impressions of his fellow snooker players.
That Saturday afternoon in the Crucible his act went mainstream and in front of the capacity audience and the TV cameras he provided us with an act of sheer comedy. He did them all from the snail like approach of Terry Griffiths to the lightning speed of the Hurricane, complete with the cue tapping the side rail, to Dennis Taylor wearing ridiculously large glasses. He had the crowd in raptures with his side-splitting routine. Fantastic entertainment still enjoyed by many.
The 1982 tournament saw one of the biggest shocks ever in the blue riband event. Defending champion Steve Davis faced rising star Tony Knowles in the first round, but by the time the first day’s play was over Knowles would be a household name. Knowles destroyed Davis 10-1 with an exhibition of fluent potting and break building. Davis had no answer and the curse of first time champions not to defend their title at the continued. Knowles eventually lost in the quarter-finals to Eddie Charlton but went on to enjoy a successful snooker career reaching a highest ranking of two.
The 1986 final saw Steve Davis return to the scene of his worst nightmare where 12 months previous he lost his title on a final frame black ball to Dennis Taylor. This time Davis was up against qualifier Joe Johnson. The odds were against the Bradford man right from the start of the tournament as he had never won a match at the Crucible and with pre-tournament odds of 150/1 nobody expected much from him during the tournament. To everyone’s surprise Johnson made the final and rounded off his fairy tale tournament with a resounding 18-12 victory over hot favourite Davis. The image of Johnson potting those final few balls to claim the title with those dancing eyebrows and smiling to himself are magic.
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s maximum in 1997 during his first round win over Mick Price was one of those snooker moments when it seemed that time stood still and the world was watching a snooker genius provide us with one of the most magical of snooker moments. Five minutes and 20 seconds of snooker prowess only one player could produce. It was pure genius that will never be matched, the cue ball and O’Sullivan floated around the table without a care in the world whilst we all watched mesmerised. Making a maximum at the Crucible is one thing but making one in that speed is nothing short of sensational. No doubt the break will be screened again during this years championships, and rightly so.
The 2003 world semi-final between Ken Doherty and Paul Hunter provided us with Saturday afternoon drama only the Crucible Theatre can produce. After three sessions Hunter established a 15-9 advantage and needed only two frames from the final session to earn a berth in the final for the first time. Hunter was well worth his big lead and he was beginning to look like the world champion that so many, including myself, had tipped him one day to become. Ken came out of the blocks really quickly in the final session and a succession of breaks saw him reel off the first four frames to trail 15-13, and winning the first after the break brought him to within one frame of leveling the match. Hunter, to his credit, rallied and won the next to make it 16-14 but when Ken won the 31st with an outrageous fluke on the blue after Hunter had it for match ball you just knew there was only going to be one winner. Ken finished out the match by winning the next two frames with a clinical display of matchplay snooker – again made all the better when it was effective against a player as flamboyant as Hunter.
My abiding memory of that match was how Hunter conducted himself after the game. He came to the dressing room to congratulate Ken again and wished him all the best for the final. Not many players would have done that especially after what had just happened It was a mark of the man that Paul Hunter was. Sadly that was the closest he ever got to becoming world champion.
Back to 1982 and i’ts the semi-final between Alex Higgins and Jimmy White. The score is 15-14 to White and he’s 59 points ahead with six reds left. What happened next has gone down in snooker folklore as possibly the best break ever made in snooker. Higgins, without having any complete control over the cue ball, twitched, jumped and snarled his way to clear the table with a magical 69 break to force the decider. White and the audience could only sit back and enjoy the genius of the Hurricane at his very best. Higgins went onto win the decider and the championship defeating Ray Reardon in the final.
The seventeen days at the 1997 World Championship will live long in many Irish people’s memory due to one of my closest friends Ken Doherty realising his childhood dream of lifting the famous trophy on the final night. For me, those seventeen days I spent in Sheffield leading up to that night were and still remain the highlight of my snooker life.
A hard fought 10-8 win over Mark Davis was followed by convincing wins over Steve Davis and John Higgins. Ken faced Alain Robideux in the semi-final and won the match with a session to spare. The other half of the draw saw Stephen Hendry come through with wins over Andy Hicks, Mark Williams, Darren Morgan and James Wattana.
It was Ken’s first final and remarkably Hendry’s sixth in a row. The champion had not lost a match at the Crucible since 1991. The following two days play saw match play snooker of the most amazing standard with both players giving nothing away. Ken led from the start and kept Hendry restricted to half chances. The only time I felt Hendry was creeping back in was when Ken was leading 14-12, Hendry had a red along the cushion for a possible frame winning break, but the red stuck in the jaws and Ken pounced to win the frame. Three frames later it was 18-12 and the match and title belonged to Ken.
Sitting in the press room deep in the Crucible I marveled at my friend’s achievement, accepting congratulations from the many press guys who were very obviously delighted at his triumph. To win the world title was one thing but to defeat a champion like Hendry on what had basically become his home patch was all the more remarkable.
Later that same night I was sitting at the table during the champion’s banquet with the trophy while Ken was making a speech. I spent a few moments reading the illustrious names that were engraved on the famous old trophy. That very moment brought home to me the enormity of what Ken had achieved those past seventeen days.