By Fin Ruane
As the countdown continues to this year’s World Snooker Championship in Sheffield and all eyes turn to the Crucible Theatre, many snooker fans are looking forward to visiting the famous venue – some for the umpteenth year in a row, others for the very first time.
Visiting the Crucible is like a snooker pilgrimage for fans of the game and, just like the hundreds of players who have played at the venue over the years, walking through its doors instantly gets the adrenalin pumping for players and fans alike. Quite simply, the Crucible is the mecca of snooker.
Since 1977 when the Crucible hosted the championships for the first time, the prestige of the tournament has grown in stature each year. It has truly become the home of snooker’s blue riband event and, from the first ball potted on that opening session on the Saturday morning to the last ball on the Bank Holiday Monday night, the world’s attention turn to the famous theatre.
In the 37 years at the Crucible there have been 18 different champions. Some unforgettable moments from the funny to the sad are seared into our memories. Images of “Big” Bill Werbeniuk stretching across the table in a match against Dennis Taylor only to rip his trousers, to pictures of a triumphant and tearful Alex Higgins in 1982 calling for his baby daughter after his final victory over Ray Reardon, to a dejected Jimmy White sitting in his chair watching his final opponent overcome his challenge yet again all remain engraved in our minds.
What, then, has the Crucible got that the other famous snooker venues throughout the UK and overseas have not?
With a capacity seated audience of 980 the Crucible is indeed one of the smaller venues but it’s the close proximity of the spectator to the table that really brings it home how intimate an arena it really is. Add in the two commentary boxes, press seats and the location of the floor cameras, it then really becomes an enclosed space, even more so when the famous dividing wall comes down to separate the two tables that are utilised until the end of the quarter-final stage.
Famous snooker stages down through the years such as the Guild Hall Preston, The Hexagon in Reading, The Barbican in York and The Assembly Rooms in Derby all had a great affinity with the sport but just lacked that atmosphere that the Crucible generates. Even new venues such as the Alexandra Palace don’t seem to instill the tense feeling one gets in Sheffield. Any professional player’s ambition, apart from winning a ranking title, is always to qualify for the Crucible.
Many players have enjoyed success there whilst many have just the one appearance at the theatre to their name. Careers have been defined at the venue. Stephen Hendry, the greatest of them all, will always be known as the ‘King of the Crucible’, owing to his seven titles there whilst Jimmy White has endured the torture of six final defeats and to this day is introduced as the six-time runner-up. He would swap them all for that one elusive victory.
Even after a redevelopment in 2010 the Crucible still holds the feeling of the pressurised snooker cauldron it has become famous for. The main foyer areas have enjoyed a revamp, as has the underground belly of the theatre where the practice tables, tournament office, press room and dressing rooms are located. The stage door area remains pretty much the same and it’s here where the players come and go and are met by the army of snooker fans looking for that all important photo and autograph.
Without doubt, though, it’s the arena that captivates the spectator and players alike. From the moment the players are introduced and walk through that curtain, the lights are dimmed and that hush descends on an ever-expectant audience. Every player will tell you it’s the only place where they feel there is just nowhere to hide – even more so when it’s down to the one table set up. For such a famous venue there are players who will admit it can be the loneliest place on the planet.
This famous venue has hosted countless special moments throughout the years and everyone has their favourites. The first World Championship 147 by Cliff Thorburn in 1983 is always a popular mention as is the ‘Rocket’s’ incredible five minutes and twenty seconds maximum fourteen years later. Alex Higgins’s miraculous 69 break against Jimmy White in 1982 remains one of those special breaks as does Stephen Hendry’s swan song 147 two years ago.
My own greatest personal memory is of course in 1997 when my good friend Ken Doherty overcame defending champion Stephen Hendry to lift the famous trophy. Sitting in the press room in the bowels of the Crucible watching my friend clear those final colours is a memory I’ll find difficult to forget.
However, the one memory that almost everyone remembers and associates with the Crucible is of course that 1985 black ball final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor. I can only imagine the atmosphere and electricity that was in the arena that memorable night.
In recent years countless speculation on whether the tournament should be moved abroad to countries such as China to further enhance the popularity of the sport always surfaces around the this time and no doubt this year it will be the same. I feel as long as the BBC are involved and the sponsors are there then the Crucible should remain the World Championship’s rightful and spiritual home. In the end, though, I feel finances will talk and I fear for the day when we may have to watch the final at 9 a.m. some Sunday morning.
I’ve been lucky to visit the Crucible many times over the years and have had the fortune of being there for three world finals. Even after my visit twelve months ago I still look forward to going back and I’ll be there again this year.
Whatever the future holds for the championship remaining in Sheffield, the magic of the Crucible is without doubt the best snooker feeling in the world.
Follow Fin on Twitter @Fin_Ruane and visit the CrossGuns website here.