It was one of the most memorable – if unlikely – sporting images of the last 30 years. A slightly portly middle-aged man in a bow tie and comedy glasses, wagging his finger in an “I-told-you-so” fashion, with an enormous grin on his face.
Dennis Taylor was said finger-wagger. He had just beaten Steve Davis on the last ball, of the last frame of the 1985 snooker World Championship final and more than 18 million of us had stayed up after midnight to watch it on TV. Yes, that’s right. 18 million. Watching snooker. On a Sunday night. On BBC2.
This was arguably snooker’s finest hour, and certainly the peak of its mass-market appeal. In the mid-eighties, with football in the doldrums, Britain had gone snooker loopy. If you are over the age of 40 and remotely interested in sport then there’s a good chance you watched the 1985 final. Not only that, you probably also watched most of the other big tournaments that filled hours of television schedules at the time.
You will also have known the names of all the leading players on the snooker circuit. Davis and Taylor obviously were superstars of the green baize but by far the most popular players were the mavericks, Jimmy White and Alex Higgins. But there was strength in depth and the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Tony Knowles, John Virgo, Kirk Stevens and Terry Griffiths all had their devoted fans. And with the arrival in 1991 of the BBC1 quiz show Big Break (with its theme tune that was originally written by chief Womble Mike Batt and performed by Captain Sensible for an ill-fated musical based on Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of The Snark. It’s like punk never happened…) these guys and those that followed in their footsteps, all became prime-time celebrities.
Just as famous as the players, was the venue. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield started hosting the World Championship in 1977 and by the mid-eighties it had become synonymous with the sport. Three decades later it remains the spiritual home of snooker. As a British sporting venue, it is up there with St Andrews, Lords, Wimbledon and Wembley in terms of prestige and history. But compared to those grand old locations, it’s an unlikely icon. There are no ivy-clad walls, no 700-year old stone bridge, no giant arch. In fact there’s nothing in the way of grandeur or tradition in its four concrete walls. It looks exactly like what it is: a provincial theatre tucked away in a quiet corner of Sheffield city centre.
For 50 weeks of the year, the Crucible happily fulfils that worthy, if rather unglamorous role, providing a stage for the same sort of hotchpotch of plays, shows and lectures that you’ll find in any similar-sized venue throughout the country.
But for the other two weeks of the year the place is transformed from regional playhouse to international sporting arena. And not just any international sporting arena. For the duration of the World Championship, the Crucible becomes a battleground with a cauldron-like atmosphere that is hard to beat anywhere in sport. Think Centre Court at Wimbledon, but more oppressive. The 18th hole on the Old Course? A mere bagatelle in comparison.
Snooker may have lost a lot of its popularity in recent years, but for its devoted fans the Crucible has lost none of its magnetism. Thousands are drawn to Sheffield every year for the tournament and it remains a major event on the British sporting calendar. I’ve stopped following the sport closely but I’ve certainly not forgotten how much of an impression it made on me in my formative years, which is why a visit to the Crucible has long been on my “must-do” list. This year I finally got to tick it off.
POT THE REDS…
I’ve seen the annual trip to Sheffield described as a pilgrimage and a near-religious experience for the sport’s devoted followers. If so, it must be the only spiritual journey where the pilgrims are mainly middle-aged men dressed in polo shirts and Jeremy Clarkson jeans and surrounded by the faint (and frankly, sometimes more than faint) whiff of fart.
My Sheffield experience began at the Landmark Chinese restaurant across the road from the Crucible, where the excellent and extensive all-you-can-eat buffet is an obvious attraction for the snooker fans. Indeed, judging by the staggering amount of food being shovelled away by some diners (and that’s coming from someone who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to repeat plate fills) I rather suspect this may be the source of much of the aforementioned wind problem.
Inside the Crucible we queued and were subjected to a bag search. I’m not sure what we were banned from bringing in – perhaps a doggy bag from the Landmark Buffet – but I was allowed entry, despite my “joke” about having a vuvuzela with me. However, as we shall see, perhaps security needs to be a little more thorough in their bag checks.
In the arena, there was an overwhelming sense of being behind the scenes at the recording of one of your favourite TV shows. Everything was familiar, but with the very obvious presence of the cameras and production crew, it all seemed slightly strange, almost surreal. It quickly becomes clear that everything is driven by the demands of television, which is hardly surprising given the vital role TV played in the development of the sport. The cameras are huge and conspicuous, but they silently glide around the table like giant robots, somehow managing to keep out of the players’ way. Watching the cameramen choose their positions and their shots, you realise how knowledgeable they must be about the game.
The man in charge – in public at least – is the MC, Rob Walker, a lanky, sharp-suited sports reporter with spiky hair, a catchphrase (“let’s get the boys on the baize”) and a penchant for inventing nicknames for the players. He uses these when he announces their arrival, boxing-style, in the arena, accompanied by an appropriate blast of music (veteran Alan “Angles” McManus walked on to Return of The Mack, for example). Walker’s brand of fast-talking patter is about as far removed from the hushed tones of whispering Ted Lowe as it’s possible to get and you’d imagine that snooker’s old guard probably don’t approve. But whatever they think, it’s all good fun and the Crucible crowd certainly seem to enjoy his attempts to inject a little showbiz into proceedings, although I would question the wisdom of whipping a snooker audience into a state of mild hysteria.
No sooner are the aisles rocking than we have to shut up and let the players concentrate. As a hush descended over the arena I became vaguely aware of the white noise of a radio trying to tune into a station. At first I thought it was something to do with the headsets that allow you to listen in to the TV commentary but it quickly became apparent the sound was coming from my rucksack. As fellow spectators started to glare in my direction, I realised it was the radio I’d taken with us on our camping trip the night before. Not only had it switched itself on, but somehow the volume had been turned up to full. It was surely only a matter of time before Hallam FM was blasting through the silence and I would be hauled out of the theatre in front of a national TV audience and banned from ever attending another snooker match. Then, inexplicably and without warning, the radio switched itself off and the drama was averted.
…THEN SCREW BACK
In the opening stages of the tournament, there are two tables playing at a time. On the far side, it was McManus against the “Wizard of Wishaw” John Higgins. On table one, where i was sitting, we had Chinese world number two Ding Junhui against debutant Michael Wasley. Ding was leading 6-3 after the opening session and with five ranking tournaments to his name this season already, he was expected to cruise through to the second round against his inexperienced opponent.
The opening frame of the afternoon was not memorable. It took 13 minutes for the first red to be potted, then another five for the next as both players focused on making sure they didn’t give their opponent a chance. The guy immediately behind me was unimpressed – greeting each safety shot with increasingly audible groans and the occasional “SHITE!” In those opening stages, the biggest excitement was when the ref in the other game knocked over a bottle of water. Judging by the regular bursts of laughter from the other side of the theatre, the veteran Scots didn’t seem to be taking things quite as seriously as they were on our table.
Wasley eventually won the frame but it was scrappy and to be honest I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then it got interesting. In the next frame Wasley put together a break of 135 and then won his third consecutive frame to draw level. Ding took the fourth and fifth frames of the afternoon to go two ahead again, only for the Englishman to win the following two. Without realising it, I had got caught up in the drama. Just as Wasley seemed to have seized the initiative, Ding fought back again to take a 9-8 lead.
He needed just one more frame to progress to the next round but much to everyone’s disappointment time had run out. The players were told they had to return to finish their match at the end of the scheduled evening session. We were turfed out and would have to watch the rest of the game on the BBC’s Red Button that night. Just like that classic match between Taylor and Davis 29 years ago, it would be after midnight before the game came to a conclusion. And just like in 1985 it was the underdog who won it, Wasley taking the deciding frame on the pink.
…FOR THE YELLOW, GREEN, BROWN, BLUE, PINK AND BLACK
I don’t pretend to know that much about modern-day snooker, but those who do have some insight put Ding’s defeat down to the fact that he does not cope well with the unique pressures and mental demands of the Crucible’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And that’s what makes the place so special. There is speculation that the tournament could be moved away from Yorkshire when the current contract ends in 2015, possibly to the Far East. But you wonder if any new venue would be able to recreate the sort of atmosphere that the Crucible can generate.
It seems unlikely, but the reality is that it will be market forces that will determine whether or not change happens. And with snooker’s growing popularity in China, who would bet against it? It would, though, be a sad day for snooker, and in fact British sport in general, if the Crucible, with all its memories, was abandoned. Whatever happens, I’m just glad to have been able to enjoy it, even if it was just for a few hours.