In this special guest post, the author of a new biography about legendary snooker talent Patsy Houlihan presents his countdown of seven key snooker matches from the Deptford wonder’s rollercoaster green baize career.
By Luke G. Williams
Patsy Houlihan 5-0 Jim Chapman
(London Area Amateur Snooker Championship final, Burroughes Hall, London, 14 January 1954)
Prior to entering the 1953-54 English Amateur Championship, Patsy Houlihan had come to prominence by winning the Billiards Association and Control Council (BA&CC)’s National Breaks Competition award for the highest certified amateur snooker break of 1952 (courtesy of a 122 made at Lewisham Temperance Hall in November).
Houlihan followed up this landmark by romping his way to victory in the London Section of the English Amateur, thumping Jim Chapman 5-0 in the final, scoring quick-fire breaks of 41, 44 and 71 along the way.
It was, by any measure, a sensational performance and one hailed by The Billiard Player’s influential editor Richard Holt as ‘a revelation’.
Holt also stated: “I am inclined to believe Houlihan may turn out to be the finest amateur snooker player in snooker history.”
Houlihan’s capture of the London title was a portent of things to come; over the next decade or so this championship would become his personal fiefdom, with seven victories in all out of eleven entries.
Patsy Houlihan 6-5 Ray Reardon
(English Amateur Championship, Southern Area Section final, Burroughes Hall, London, 5 February 1965)
Although Houlihan dominated the London section of the English Amateur Championship after his debut in 1953, the overall national title would elude him until 1965 – largely because of his penchant for all-out and uncompromising attacking play.
When Houlihan finally lifted the amateur game’s most prized trophy, he did it the hard way having to negotiate a fiendish draw, beating a host of former English Amateur champions and finalists including Geoffrey Thompson, George Humphries and Gary Owen (then the reigning world amateur champion).
In the Southern Section final, Houlihan faced future six-time world professional champion Ray Reardon, who had won the English Amateur the previous season.
When Reardon led the best-of-11 showdown 5-1, Houlihan looked dead and buried. However, a wondrous do-or-die clearance of 67 kickstarted a memorable comeback and – aided by a Reardon miss on the brown in the deciding frame – the Londoner managed to secure a sensational 6-5 victory.
At the end of the match, Houlihan’s supporters climbed out of their seats and mobbed him in scenes of jubilation that surpassed anything ever seen in the usually genteel Burroughes Hall in Soho Square.
To his credit, a shell-shocked Reardon still found time for a quip when congratulating Houlihan. “As we shook hands, Ray said I ought to be locked up,” Patsy later recalled. “As he was a policeman then, I thought that was rather good.”
Patsy Houlihan 11-3 John Spencer
(English Amateur Championship final, Tower Circus, Blackpool, 18-19 March 1965)
The peak of Houlihan’s career came in 1965 at the Tower Circus in Blackpool.
In front of successive packed houses of 1,750 spectators, the 35-year-old slaughtered future two-time world professional champion John Spencer 11-3 – wrapping up the English Amateur Championship he had long coveted with a whole session to spare.
“The atmosphere was terrific,” Houlihan would later recall. “It was like going out to a bullfight.”
- CLICK HERE: Patsy Houlihan – the man, the myth, the legend
On the baize, Houlihan played a more balanced game than his usual all-out attacking approach, proving that he was far more than just a potter and break-builder, but also a skilled tactician.
“On this form Houlihan was unbeatable,’ was the assessment of Harold Phillips, then BA&CC chairman who had previously declared that the Deptford man would never win the title due to his cavalier approach to safety.
“His mastery of every facet of the game was made manifest. It was Houlihan all the way, he made snooker look so easy.”
Across 1964-65 there is a sound case to be made that Patsy Houlihan was the best snooker player in the world – not only did he win the London, Southern and English titles, but he also picked up the BA&CC ITV Television Tournament and the Muswell Hill ‘Green Man’ trophy too, while conjuring an incredible run of 20 successive wins.
Patsy Houlihan vs Charlie Poole
(Money match, sometime in the 1970s, Zans Snooker Hall, Tooting)
Many of Houlihan’s greatest nights were forged not in amateur or professional competition, but amid the smoky haze of late night money matches in various snooker halls up and down the country, where he was renowned as probably the greatest money match player and hustler of all time.
On one such night at Zans snooker hall in Tooting, a young Jimmy White witnessed Houlihan in action for the first time.
Thereafter, ‘The Whirlwind’ was a Houlihan fan for life. Playing against Houlihan that night was Charlie Poole, another phenomenal and flamboyant talent.
“I’ll never forget when I first met Patsy,” White layer recalled. “I was about 12 and one day he came to Zans snooker hall in Tooting and played a guy called Charlie Poole for a tenner a frame… I think Patsy and Charlie played 16 frames in about three hours. It was just incredible snooker.
“Above all, Patsy was a phenomenal ball striker. He hit the centre of the ball so beautifully. He had everything Houlihan, you could see that.
“He was so quick, so attacking. Total dynamite. Everyone wanted to watch him and no one wanted to play him because he could make you look stupid.”
Houlihan’s career was stuffed with prestigious amateur honours, but it was matches such as the one against Poole that created a mythical aura around him as the greatest snooker hall player of all time.
Houlihan’s friendship with White – later solidified by several years playing together alongside Tony Meo, Eugene Hughes and others at the legendary Pot Black snooker club on Vardens Road, Battersea – would also ensure his name remained in the consciousness of snooker fans, thanks to White’s consistent advocacy of his talents.
Cliff Thorburn 13-8 Patsy Houlihan
(World Snooker Championship, last 16, The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 17-18 April 1978)
After the brilliance of his amateur career, Houlihan’s spell in the professional ranks (which stretched from the early 1970s until the 1992-93 season) was anticlimactic.
Plagued by eyesight issues and a lack of opportunities in his first decade on the tour, Houlihan never acquired the necessary momentum or matchplay experience to mount the sort of assault on the game’s richest prizes that his talents warranted.
However, Houlihan did qualify for The Crucible in 1978, courtesy of fine qualifying wins against Chris Ross and Jim Meadowcroft.
In those days, only 16 players competed in Sheffield and Houlihan was handed one of the toughest draws possible against Canada’s granite-tough Cliff Thorburn.
Reflecting on the match years later, Thorburn told me: “I had to be very careful against Patsy because if the balls were open he could get to you.”
“When he got among the balls he would look like he was just at the practice table because he was that fluent. A very dangerous player.”
Wearing contact lenses, Houlihan struggled with long pots under the bright television lights at The Crucible, but he did give the crowd – and the BBC2 audience watching the daily highlights programme – a taste of his supreme talents with a succession of impressive breaks – including an 83, 79 and 72.
Sadly, however, none of the footage of those breaks survives in the BBC archives, so unless someone out there happened to have a VCR player in 1978 and recorded the coverage, they have been lost forever…
Patsy Houlihan 5-4 Tony Meo
(BCE International, Trentham Gardens, Stoke, 11 September 1986)
After several quiet years on the pro circuit, Patsy Houlihan gave a reminder of his supreme snooker talents in the 1986-87 season-opening ranking event, the BCE International.
After practising solidly for a month in the summer, Houlihan beat Dave Chalmers and Graham Cripsey 5-1 apiece in the qualifiers to earn a last-64 showdown with old Vardens Road mate Tony Meo.
- CLICK HERE: Patsy Houlihan – the man, the myth, the legend
At the time Meo was ranked eleventh in the world, while Houlihan was a full 80 places lower, but Patsy turned back the clock to pull off a major upset, edging Meo out 5-4.
Houlihan notched the highest break of the match – a 78 – in frame two, and snatched the final frame with a nerveless clearance of 32 consisting of red, brown and all the colours.
“The last time I beat a leading player, London Bridge was a lighthouse,” a buoyant Houlihan quipped after the match.
Jimmy White 5-3 Patsy Houlihan
(Anglian British Open, last 64, Assembly Rooms, Derby, 20 February 1989)
Houlihan’s final day in the snooker sun came in the last 64 of the 1989 Anglian British Open against his old friend Jimmy White, then world ranked number two.
Sadly, the televised section of the tournament hadn’t begun, so the minor classic the two men conjured has – like the rest of Houlihan’s career – not been recorded for posterity, although it lingers as a folk memory.
For the 102 minutes the best-of-nine match lasted, White and Houlihan succeeded in conjuring what the Daily Telegraph admiringly labelled a ‘high-speed potting match’.
It was almost as though the last decade hadn’t happened and the pair were back at Vardens Road again, playing for laughs and cash.
White got in first, snatching the first frame courtesy of a rapid 66, before Houlihan smashed a 51 to level at 1-1.
Houlihan took the third frame before White edged a tight fourth 73-66 on a re-spotted black and then blasted a brilliant 101 break to move 3-2 ahead.
Another quickfire frame went White’s way 63-17 and he was just one from victory, but Houlihan wasn’t finished – summoning some breathtaking pots he won the seventh frame at a canter, 73-35.
The symmetry of the two men’s shared history dictated that really the match should go to a decider, but prosaic reality intervened.
White, his cue tip red hot, almost cleared the table – notching a 99 break to secure a 5-3 victory.
“Jimmy has youth on his side and produced something extra out there,” Houlihan admitted after the match admiringly.
As for White, he generously made sure he told everyone and anyone that would listen just how special Houlihan was and how much he meant to him.
“I first met Pat when I was just 12 years old, and from 14 I practised with him for weeks on end,” he enthused.
”He taught both Tony Meo and myself a tremendous amount about the game and I have the utmost respect for him as a player.”
“I believe that in his prime he was in the same class as Ray Reardon and John Spencer. He was one of the great players of that time. He was the business.”
‘The Natural: The Story of Patsy Houlihan, the Greatest Snooker Player You Never Saw’ is published by Pitch Publishing and available now. For details on how to order a copy of the book, click here.
Featured photo credit: Clive Everton / Pot Black