By Fin Ruane
On the eve of this year’s World Snooker Championship, just like the millions of snooker fans across the world, I cannot wait for the action to begin.
We all hope for an exciting championship with plenty of headlines for all the right reasons.
Many of us think back to our favourite Crucible moments down through the years. For those of us lucky enough to have visited the famous venue the memories are aplenty.
From the first time I visited the Crucible to watch Paddy Browne play Willie Thorne in 1989 to my visit for the final last year, there are countless moments that I recall from time to time.
However, there is one memory that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
May Bank Holiday Monday 1997 was the day one of my closest friends achieved his snooker dream of becoming world snooker champion.
For Ken Doherty, as he went about clearing up the colours to defeat defending champion and Crucible legend Stephen Hendry, it seemed a casual and somewhat calm affair. For me, hiding behind a monitor in the press room deep in the bowels of the Crucible Theatre, it was possibly one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Here was a guy I had known since we were 13 years of age, who I socialised with every weekend, had shared a home with in London, with each of us supporting rival football teams, becoming world snooker champion and with it reaching the pinnacle of his career.
All the failings and dreams of my own time as a player felt like they were exorcised when he hoisted the famous trophy that night in the arena.
Ken’s performances leading up to the tournament in Sheffield that year have been well documented time and time again. No one, not even his closest friends, had suggested a title win was possible as, quite frankly, Ken’s game wasn’t in great shape.
Yet, his displays in the World Cup the previous October in Bangkok, when he captained the Republic of Ireland team to the final only to be beaten by the Scottish dream team of Hendry, Higgins and McManus, suggested the form was in there waiting to be unleashed.
One frame winning clearance Ken made during that competition was in my opinion, and several of the other snooker hacks present, as good as the famous Alex Higgins break of 69 at the Crucible in 1982.
I’m reminded of what Stephen Murphy – Ken’s Irish team-mate – said as he rolled in the final black that Ken’s clearance was world champion material. Stephen was never more on the money with that statement.
Ken’s 1997 World Championship campaign began against Mark Davis on the first weekend of the tournament. Davis had defeated Ken in the first round two years previously so on paper it was hard to pick a winner. The match was a scrappy affair and at 8-8 it really was a toss of a coin. The first attack of the event on my fingernails began during the 17th frame and a 40-odd clearance saw Ken take the lead at 9-8. A missed red from Davis in the next afforded Ken the opportunity he duly accepted to run out a 10-8 winner.
A huge sigh of relief overcame Ken, and I remember saying over dinner later that evening with Ken and Bill King that perhaps the pressure would lift now that he could feel his way into the tournament.
Next up was the Nugget Steve Davis and with a completely relaxed attitude Ken went about his business. He literally destroyed the six-time champion 13-3 and almost topped off a great performance with a maximum, only to miss the 13th red.
I flew back to Dublin and CrossGuns the next day, albeit reluctantly as I began to feel something was in the air with Ken’s game. Off the table he was in great form and on it his game was starting to come together in all departments.
Ken’s quarter-final match against John Higgins was a match where both players played their part. Higgins, seeded number two that year, pushed Ken hard all the way before Ken prevailed 13-9 and reached the semi-finals. As gutted as Higgins was, little did he know that he would exact his revenge in the final twelve months later.
Back home I was following every frame on television and radio and spoke to Ken almost every day. I wanted to get back over to Sheffield as quickly as I could and be part of his journey towards a possible final appearance.
The likeable French-Canadian player Alain Robidoux was Ken’s last four opponent. With the greatest of respect to Alain, I never for one minute doubted that Ken would beat him. My flight ticket was booked and myself and another of Ken’s pals Mick McClean travelled to Sheffield.
As expected, Ken defeated Robidoux 17-7 with a session to spare. As there was now no semi that night the Crucible crowd was treated to an exhibition by Cliff Thorburn. The grinder had the sellout audience in the palm of his hand, showing off his repertoire of trick shots. We watched the show from the balcony and more surprising than Cliff’s superb skills for me was the laid back – almost casual – demeanour that Ken oozed. Here was a guy on the eve of an appearance in a world snooker final laughing and joking and joining in the fun.
The morning of the final beckoned and after some breakfast we headed over to the Crucible for a practice session. Hendry was on the other table in the practice room and the atmosphere, albeit jovial between the pair, did have a slight edge to it.
The final itself is a blur to me. I spent many of the frames walking the corridors of the Crucible and many others watching the action on the monitors in the press room alongside snooker journalists Dave Hendon, Phil Yates and John Dee.
The Hendry faithful, although quietly confident of another triumph and a sixth successive title, knew that this match would be tight. Ken had earned Hendry’s respect over the last several seasons and Hendry himself knew he would have to be at his best to beat Ken.
As I said, I don’t remember every moment of the match but one frame and shot in particular was for me and many others the turning point.
Throughout the final Ken had stuck to his game plan of solid match snooker as he knew he could never match Hendry in the scoring stakes.
It was the 28th frame and Ken was leading 15-12, although he had surrendered the previous three frames and his opponent could smell blood. Ken was beginning to struggle and fatigue was coming into his game.
Hendry attempted to roll a red along the black cushion. Fully expecting the red to drop he was already up and had begun to walk around the table when the red wobbled in the jaw and somehow stayed out. Ken was up out of his chair and managed a frame-winning break to extend his lead back to four frames at 16-12. More importantly, it was time for the final interval of the match. Sitting in the dressing room knowing he had dodged a bullet showed on Ken’s face. Suddenly from looking at his lead down from six frames to two he was now back four frames ahead. Ken, myself and Mick did by now the usual group hug and the pair of us wished our friend all the very best as he headed from the dressing room to the arena.
Most players and commentators know a match can change and swing on one shot and without question that missed red from Hendry was that key moment. It stopped the defending champion in his tracks and handed Ken the incentive to go on and win the next two frames and achieve his snooker dream.
I remember hearing the crowd cheer as Ken went about clearing the colours to win 18-12. I was sitting on a chair in the tournament director’s office watching it on a monitor when Mick ran in – the tears in his eyes said it all really. We made our way the few metres towards the backstage curtain and peered out as our friend accepted the applause and handshake from Hendry.
Within minutes the trophy was presented and held aloft. I remember talking to Ronnie O’Sullivan on the steps down into the arena – Ronnie was there to collect his cheque for his phenomenal five-minute maximum break earlier in the tournament. Ronnie was laughing when he said he was nearly sharing the cheque as Ken had come so close to the max against Davis earlier in the tournament.
We didn’t get to see Ken for half an hour or so due to press interviews and the drug testing but when we eventually did nothing was really said. I suppose the enormity of what Ken had just done had begun to hit home. Later, when I was holding the trophy in the quiet of the dressing room and reading the names inscribed on it, that enormity became even greater.
Afterward, the champion’s dinner was a special night. Eamon Dunphy and Niall Quinn had travelled to Sheffield alongside many of the lads from the club Ken was based in back in Ilford. Hendry, obviously disappointed at losing his crown, was in good spirits. Both players had a lot of respect for each other and it showed that night as Hendry congratulated Ken several times in his speech. All the commentators and press I felt were all genuinely delighted to see Ken win the tournament.
The following day we drove down to London for a reception at the club in Ilford that night. Owner Ron Shore was in great form and it was great to see so many of the local lads join in the celebrations. We stayed in Ken’s apartment before catching a flight to Dublin the next day.
RTE’s Claire McNamara met us in Heathrow and joined us on the flight home, interviewing Ken during the short trip. Aer Lingus had the champagne flowing and we were told a reception was going to be held at Dublin Airport, followed by an open top bus journey through the city to Ken’s home village of Ranelagh. I know my mum Gloria will not thank me for saying this but she was instrumental in organising the bus that day!
The crowds along the route to Ranelagh were incredible. People we hadn’t seen in years seemed to appear from nowhere and took their place up front accepting the plaudits but, hey, I suppose this was their moment too. Not many Irish world champions have gone open top bus through Dublin.
I took my seat downstairs with Ken’s manager Ian Doyle for the journey. Ian couldn’t believe the reception Ken was receiving and I could tell that, although Hendry was always his number one player, Ian was genuinely delighted and proud of Ken.
Ranelagh was one big party that day and night. Ken’s mum Rose, always one to avoid any limelight, welcomed her son back home as if he was just in from work. Deep down I know she couldn’t have been any prouder.
The cup went from person to person and, even though it wasn’t the time of camera phones, hundreds of photos were taken.
It’s funny, and perhaps many people don’t know this, but the trophy was really badly damaged when Ken got it. The centre stem of the cup was barely holding it together and really needed urgent repair. Some say Hendry fully expected to retain it and never bothered having it repaired. A trip to a well-known jeweller in Dublin the subsequent afternoon soon put it right.
All throughout the following few weeks we were invited to meet the Irish Taoiseach at government buildings, had the VIP treatment at every bar and nightclub in Dublin, sat in the presidential box at sporting events and met many celebs on the Irish showbiz scene.
Throughout this Ken remained remarkably calm until one evening in Ranelagh when local businesses got together to arrange an evening for him. As he spoke into the microphone to thank everyone for his support his voice finally broke. I think he just looked out over his hometown and realised what this had meant to each and every one of his neighbours and it hit home. That’s the moment I think Ken recognised that he was actually the world champion.
For the next twelve months the famous old trophy remained on top of the TV in his mum’s front room. Some nights I’d call over and we’d watch a match on the TV and hardly give the cup a glance – it just seemed to belong there. Mick, though, would come in and plant a kiss on it every time!
The following May Ken put up an incredible defence of his title, eventually losing out to John Higgins 18-12 in the final, ironically the same score he defeated Hendry by the previous year. Another defeat in 2003 to Mark Williams was Ken’s last appearance in a Crucible final.
Will there be another? My head says no but my heart says maybe, just maybe.