Sportsnight #9: 1985, Snooker, World Championship – the Black Ball Final

by George_East on May 22, 2013

Good evening and welcome to Sportsnight.  The action tonight comes from a packed Crucible Theatre in Sheffield as three times world champion and hot favourite, Steve Davis plays the outsider from Northern Ireland, Dennis Taylor for the biggest trophy in the sport

Back then snooker was king.   It sounds odd now, but everyone played snooker as a kid.  The stars were massive.   Not just the bad boys like Ronnie O’Sullivan now (and Alex and Jimmy back then) but the dull as ditch water make weight players like Doug Mountjoy and Graham Miles.   It is strange to think that a scandalous story about Bill Werbeniuk or Eddie Charlton could have made the tabloid front pages then let alone the game itself getting exhaustive coverage on the back pages.  But that is how it was in the first half of the 1980s  as I was growing up. It seemed perfectly normal.  It was as big as football.  As those cultural mavens, Chas and Dave, pointed out the nation was Snooker Loopy.

I was a junior member of a small snooker club in a coverted church.  I’d go every Sunday morning with my Dad (and for a time my Granddad).  It was what the blokes of the family did (and at 11 or 12 I wanted to be seen as that). We would have some bonding time over a few frames.  My Dad would have a couple of pints of light and bitter, and I’d sip a coke.  All before going home for a great roast dinner, cooked up by my Mum.    It is my memory that this routine went on for years and years but, realistically it probably was no more than a year or so, as I soon discovered music and hit my teen years and then hanging out with my Dad wasn’t cool.  Better to sit in my bedroom wearing black playing Joy Division and The Smiths.

Even though I’d given up going to the snooker club by then, the 1985 world snooker final utterly gripped me, my family and by the viewing figures the entire nation.   It is probably the greatest snooker match ever played.

Steve Davis was all but unbeatable then – he had blown away the old billiards guard that had dominated snooker in the 1970s with his first world title victory in 1981.  He was precise in his shot making, metronomic in his reliability and as Spitting Image identified with their Mr Interesting caricature, not very.  He did though collect vintage northern soul 7 inch singles, which always made him a little bit more interesting than his image allowed.  Other than the legendary teary Alex Higgins’ victory in 1982, Davis had been World Champion ever since that first title.

His opponent, the genial Northern Irishman, Dennis Taylor had only been to the final once before.  In 1979, when he lost against the qualifier, Terry Griffiths.   He was 9 years old than Davis – though at 36, not quite as ancient as he seemed in my memory of the final.     No one expected him to beat Davis. Not even I suspect, Taylor himself.   He was ranked 11th in the World and in the 10 places between them there was a chasm of class.

Taylor had one defining characteristic– his upside down Joe 90 glasses designed to give the short sighted Taylor maximum vision.

The final started exactly as everyone expected.  This was going to be a whitewash. An embarrassment of a final; over before it began.  In a first to 18 match, Davis took every frame in the first session – 7-0.  Taylor didn’t have a look in.  Taylor didn’t have a chance.  As the evening session, started it looked like the humiliation would continue, Davis easily took the first frame – 8-0 Davis. Almost half way there.  The commentators began to speak of a 17-0 walkover.

Then came frame 9.   Taylor seemed to find something – the self-belief that had been wholly absent in the first session arrived from somewhere.  The frame was tight – cat and mouse, but Taylor managed to edge it, winning on the pink.  8-1.  At least he had a consolation frame.

What happened next was one of the most extraordinary turn arounds in fortune,  not just in snooker, but in sport.   Taylor playing the world champion and overwhelming favourite on the top of his game seemed to forget that he was miles behind.  He started chalking up winning frames – again and again until he won the second session 6-2.   Amazing, incredibly, impossibly – the score was only 9-7 overnight.

There can be little doubt, as John Williams, the match referee, brought the second session and the first day to a close, that Taylor would have wanted to continue playing, through the night and into the morning.  He had found his winning streak and would not have wanted to stop under any circumstances.

Taylor’s day one comeback was all over the Sunday papers.  The world final which already had an enormous audience, suddenly seemed to become one of those national events – like the royal wedding in 1981, or the Olympic opening ceremony last year.

Everyone  and I mean everyone, tuned in for the play on day 2.  What they witnessed was the most amazing bit of cat and mouse that has probably ever occurred in support.  Just as Taylor would catch up and level the match, Davis would pull ahead again.   Davis went 11-8 up,  Taylor leveled it at 11-11.  Davis opened up a 13-11 lead, Taylor brought it back to all square at 15-15.    As the hours started ticking by and the audience at the Crucible remained rapt, like the audience in front of their tellys at home.

Davis dug deep and seemed to find something extra to pull ahead again to 17-15.  He only needed a single frame now; Taylor needed to win all three remaining.   The odds once again moved sharply to the champion retaining his title.    Anyone betting against the odds would have seen a nice pay out, as Taylor extraordinarily leveled the game to 17-17.

It was now all on the last frame.  It was cagier than a zoo.   It  would last well over an hour. The clock was now well past midnight.  It was Monday morning.  The BBC2 audience was still over 18 million – nothing like it has been seen before or since for post-midnight television.  And all for the snooker.

The final frame appeared to go like the rest of the match on that fateful second day.  Taylor was in the game but appeared not to be able to do quite enough.  Davis had an 18 point lead with the last four colours, worth 22 points, on the table.  Davis needed to pot only one of the balls.  Taylor needed all four.

And they weren’t easy balls.  The brown in particular was an extraordinarily difficult long shot.  Taylor potted it with confidence and then took the blue and pink.   Davis lead was 2, there were 7 points and 1 ball left on the table.

The destination of the world championship now rested on the final ball in the final frame.  Taylor on a roll, tried to double it into the middle pocket.  He missed but it stopped safely.  Davis responded with the kind of exquisite safety shot for which he was famed, leaving it nestled on the baulk cushion.  Taylor recklessly tried a double into the left hand pocket – it was the kind of shot you’d try and fail to pull off at the snooker club on a Sunday, not the kind of shot you’d play for the world title.    Taylor was lucky, the ball ended up in a safe position.

The players traded relatively easy chances.  Both missed.  Davis’ miss – causing gasps from the audience and a legendary under-stated, ‘no’ from Ted Lowe in the commentary box, left Taylor with a potting chance into the top pocket.   Taylor had to stretch out – he refused to use the rest as he wanted maximum control.  The stretch across the table.  The cue hitting the white. The white hitting the black and the ball rolling into the pocket.   Then at 20 minutes past midnight on Monday morning, pandemonium.  Taylor had won.  He famously beamed the biggest of Irish smiles and wagged his pointing finger at the audience and the camera.  ‘He’s done it’ said Ted Lowe.

Amazingly it was only with that final black that Taylor pulled ahead of Davis.  At no other time in the match had he even been a single point, let alone a frame ahead.    The greatest snooker match in history was at an end and we could finally go to bed.  Sleep, not so much.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie East-West May 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

George – what is your record break?
I had a similar upbringing. I had a table at home and played in various low dives around St Andrews.
At 11 years of age, I remember being allowed to stay up and watch the 1985 final. It still has the biggest ever TV ratings for a post midnight broadcast.
It is funny – I used to loathe Steve Davis, and was really pleased that Taylor won. But, now Steve Davis has become a national treasure, like many from that era.
I probably still remember more snooker players from that era, than players of today.
Davis, Knowles, Thorburn, Taylor, Higgins, Meo, Mountjoy, Reardon, Stevens (white tuxedo and waistcoat to cover up the cocaine), White, Griffiths, Werbeniuk, Foulds, Thorne, Francisco, Hallett, Charlton (the slowest fucker in history – even slower than Griffiths or Thorburn), Spencer, Virgo.
So many characters – A perfectly legitimate reason to say it was much better back then.

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George_East May 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Oh I was never very good. I got a 42 once which was all a bit flukey. Didn’t really play after I was 13. My main memory of it now was father/son bonding time (my sisters were never invited). Then I discovered black tee-shirts and skinny black jeans, and that was that.

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