I’ve interviewed quite a few well-known people over the years, and you really shouldn’t – to quote Eamonn Dunphy – be a fan with a typewriter. Journalism should triumph over personal feelings. But hey, we’re all human, and one particular evening in the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon totally mashed up my role as journalist with my childhood as a fan. I’ve interviewed other sportstars, musicians, actors and more politicians than I could throw a discredited manifesto at, but nothing before or since has compared to you and you and you…or him and him and him.
‘Taylor clearly thinks he has lost’
‘When he misses it (the black) Taylor clearly thinks he has lost. He goes straight back to his chair without daring to look at the table. Only when he gets there does he realise that the black is not a formality for Davis, requiring a very fine cut into the top pocket. Seven times out of ten, Davis says later, he would get it, but perhaps only three times out of ten under pressure. The white is close to the cushion, so he has to play down on it, which tends to magnify the slightest error. The pocket he is aiming for is out of his direct vision. As he says later: ‘It’s not difficult, but it’s not easy’. In the event he makes too thin a contact on the black, which rebounds a few inches away from the pocket, leaving Taylor a relatively straightforward pot for the championship. It’s all over…Taylor raises his cue triumphantly over his head in two hands…David Vine described it as ‘one of the greatest sporting moments of all time’’
From ‘Snookered’ (Donald Trelford)
It would be difficult to convey to so-called millennials just how massive televised snooker was in the 1980s. 18.5 million people in the UK stayed up into the early hours to watch those dramatic closing stages of the 1985 World Snooker Final, when Northern Ireland’s Denis Taylor sensationally defeated Steve Davis on the final black in the final frame.
We were already in love with snooker, even before Taylor’s unlikely David and Goliath-like heroics. In snooker’s truly golden era – the 1970s and ‘80s – the cast of stars was full of colourful characters. Their successors today, for all their technical brilliance, are by contrast boring and robotic (Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump being honourable exceptions). The snooker players of the ‘80s were like The Rolling Stones; in contrast, the perfectly nice but rather grey players of the 21st century are Boyzone of the baize.
There was Gentleman Ray Reardon, a multiple world champion who was nicknamed ‘Dracula’; white-suited wild boy Kirk Stevens; Big Bill Werbeniuk, the hard-drinking, baby-faced Canadian; Terry Griffiths, a ferocious competitive streak behind his ‘favourite uncle’ image; Cliff Thorburn, a man whose stare had more ice than the average cocktail; and the thrilling and enigmatic Jimmy White. Most gripping of all for a few years was the rivalry between bad boy Alex Higgins and the ice-cool and ruthless Steve Davis. Davis won six world titles between 1981 and ’89, before giving way to the new kid on the block, the even more brilliant Stephen Hendry.
Higgins is worthy of a ‘Heroes’ column all to himself, and may well get one. When, back in 1972, the Belfast-born genius won the world title at his first attempt, he changed the game forever, dragging it from the sporting shadows into the limelight…through his extraordinary talent, unique style of play and the charisma that would make his career compelling and chaotic in almost equal measure.
We spent thousands of hours watching these men…investing our time and hopes and emotions in these wonderful sporting dramas that were played out on our TV screens in the era before multiple channels and social media. Snooker – a mesmerising marriage of gripping sport and soap opera – had us in the palm of its cue-caressing hands.
‘No doubt in my mind…the world title was finally mine’
‘After beating Drago I progressed to the final against Hendry after wins against Alain Robidoux, Jim Wych and Alan McManus and I thought it was my year. Fourth time lucky Jimmy, this is it. And for a long time in that final, it really did look like this was it. When I was 14-8 up against Hendry I was absolutely cruising it. I was just flying in that final. My potting, safety play and positional skill in the first three sessions were just something else and I was good value for my six-frame lead. There was no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the World Championship was finally mine. Hendry was a great player. I knew that even by 1992, but then so was I and there was no way I was going to let that lead slip, not in a race to 18 anyway. But I suppose the signs were there’.
From ‘Jimmy White: Second Wind’
Oh Jimmy. Not again. ‘The signs were there’. Year after year, the wonderful Jimmy White fell at the final hurdle, when within sight of the world title that everybody was desperate for him to win. Six times he was world championship runner-up, and six times our hearts sank at this sporting cruelty. On that agonishing last day of the 1992 final, when the trophy was within his grasp, he lost all of the final ten frames, Hendry ruthlessly crushing the hopes of millions of people, winning 18-14.
But nice guys can win. Of course most of the champions over the years were nice guys, but it was always great to see someone new emerge from the pack of hopefuls. There was Joe Johnson (complete with his sparkling shoes), in 1986. Then in 1997, Ken Doherty from Dublin reached the summit. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
It’s just a few years ago (at a guess, four or five) and the ballroom in the Abbey Hotel is filling up with misty-eyed fathers and young sons who weren’t even born when Ken Doherty was world champion.
For many years now, the snooker stars of the past have been doing the exhibition circuit, cashing in on their fame and public nostalgia. Tonight, Roscommon will host Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Ken Doherty.
I went along for the Roscommon People, but really for the younger me. When I got to meet and interview my heroes – during a break in the exhibition – all that was missing was the now sadly departed Alex. Just to be in the presence of Davis and White was surreal. Davis, balding now, older, still lean; White, of heavier physique, a lived-in face, tired but friendly eyes.
We sat a table in the Abbey bar, where the snooker greats tucked into some food and a drink, while I began the interview. All three could not have been more courteous. When I had the temerity to suggest to the once invincible Steve Davis, superstar of my youth, that snooker may be on the wane, he politely exposed my ignorance, pointing out that while TV viewing figures in this part of the world are indeed a shadow of what they were in the golden era, the sport is enjoying unprecedented growth worldwide. Steve then accidentally spilt his glass of Guinness over my notebook, quickly apologising (no need, I was honoured). It wasn’t the first time that Steve Davis messed up the black, but I obviously didn’t mention that.
Half an hour later, I stood in the wings, a fan with a typewriter, no question. Beside me, still making small talk and waiting to be introduced again by promoter/master of ceremonies Joe Finnegan, stood the Republic of Ireland’s only snooker world champion, the genius that is Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White, and the legendary Steve Davis. A lot of the joy of my sports-watching youth wrapped into these three middle-aged men. Then they were gone, back into the auditorium, each with cue in hand, each in the footsteps of Alex, these veterans trading now on some mix of memory, celebrity, nostalgia and faded brilliance. A richly deserved lap of honour for kings of the baize. Heroes always.
(Series continues next week)