Saturday, 19 April 2014

1983 World Snooker Championships

Snooker was still very much on the ascendancy as the 1983 World Championships approached. Television viewing figures were healthy, Riley Leisure had made a £1.4 million profit for the 17 months up to December 1982, and now had 51 clubs open in the UK due to the growth of snooker. According to newspaper reports, Steve Davis had recently become the first man to earn £1 million from playing the sport, which was all well and good, yet what Davis really wanted more than anything was to add a second world title to his CV.

After winning the 1981 championship, Davis had experienced an up and down 1982 season. On the one hand, he won the UK Championship and the Masters, but the dreaded Crucible Curse saw him humiliated 10-1 by Tony Knowles in the first round, and as the 1983 season progressed, Davis was starting to show signs that he was in fact human. Defeat in the quarter finals at both the UK Championship and the Masters led to many members of the press questioning whether the world number four had lost his mojo, although the bookies - who, let's face it, normally know a thing or two - had installed Davis as pre-tournament favourite at a best price of 11/8.

After sitting down and sorting out his mind and his game with his dad Bill, manager Barry Hearn, and coach Frank Callan, Davis sent out a warning to the rest of the field by winning the Irish Masters the week before the World Championships. Davis' main threat in the top half of the draw was undoubtedly defending champion Alex Higgins, the two scheduled for a mouth watering clash in the semi-finals. Naturally Higgins was filling column inches before the start of the tournament, and would fill more throughout the course of the 17 days, his form a concern to him as he looked to defend his title that he had won so thrillingly in 1982.

Higgins' wife Lyn had been in hospital for three weeks prior to Sheffield, due to complications during the birth of their second child (Jordan), and although mother and child were now fine, Higgins' preparations had been greatly impacted. The fact that his trusted cue had also been broken in the post five months previously did not help either, Higgins using a substitute as the tournament neared, and a lack of practice time, coupled with the early Crucible starts that Higgins disliked, led him to dismiss his own chances. As many pointed out though, his form had hardly been steady during the run-up to the 1982 tournament, and a player as naturally gifted as Higgins could always deliver on the biggest stage.

The bottom half of the draw looked a lot more open. Ray Reardon had his backers, the world number two tipped to win by the Daily Mirror's Terry Smith and labelled as "an outstanding challenger in the bottom half of the draw," by the Times' Sydney Friskin. Reardon's compatriot Terry Griffiths had won the UK Championship in November beating Davis and Higgins in the process, and was one of the many contenders for a final berth in a half of the draw that also included 1982 semi-finalist Jimmy White, Canada's Kirk Stevens, 1981 finalist Doug Mountjoy, Tony Knowles, and 1980 winner Cliff Thorburn.

For Thorburn the 1983 World Championships would be a white knuckle ride, a roller coaster of emotions and experiences, ranging from elation to utter despair, taking in huge quantities of fatigue along the way. In all, Thorburn would play over 50 hours of snooker during the championships, be involved in three final frame deciders, all of which ended at an ungodly hour, and would play in 120 of the 589 frames that were played at the Crucible, a shade over 20% of the total number contested. And of course, along the way he would become the first man to score a maximum 147 break at the Crucible, before he eventually hit a wall in the final, and was hit by personal tragedy that put everything else into perspective.

The first round was a mere appetiser for what was to follow. Of the sixteen seeds, only Jimmy White would exit the tournament, losing 10-8 to qualifier and old South London school mate Tony Meo, before both players promptly burst into tears over the emotion of the occasion. Terry Griffiths was pushed close by Mark Wildman, coming back from 8-7 down to win 10-8, in a painstaking finale (the crucial 16th frame lasting 49 minutes and including a period of play where the pair took 17 minutes to pot the brown). John Spencer admitted he was lucky to beat Mike Hallett 10-7, with Ray Reardon also unhappy regarding his form, labelling himself a beginner during his 10-7 win over Eugene Hughes.

Davis and Higgins had less concerns. After taking an early 6-0 lead, Davis thrashed Rex Williams 10-4, an ominous sign to the rest. Higgins managed to brush off the dangerous Dean Reynolds 10-4, a player that he had only just scraped past at the UK Championships earlier on in the season. The Canadians enjoyed a comfortable cruise into the second round, a flu-ridden Thorburn defeating Australia's John Campbell 10-5, with pin-up boy Kirk Stevens, who had recently produced his first pop record, hammering Mick Fisher 10-2.

If the tournament was warming up in the early matches, then it truly came to life in a dramatic second round. Centre of attention was Higgins, but not necessarily for the right reasons. In the second frame of his match with Willie Thorne - who had beaten John Virgo 10-3 in the previous round - Higgins accused his opponent of deliberately missing a red, although referee John Williams disagreed. Thorne alleged that Higgins called him a cheat, an accusation which Higgins refuted: "I didn't call him a cheat, but I told him I don't like people who would sell their own grandmother for two bob". The uneasy tension was not helped when in the seventh frame Thorne levelled the same accusation at Higgins. There was not much love lost between the pair.

Ultimately Higgins would win through 13-8, and both players would kiss and make up, but the controversy that seemed to dog the reigning champion showed no signs of disappearing. "Willie and I are the best of pals again. It's just because I'm Alex Higgins that it is blown up into a nuclear explosion," said Higgins, although this would not be the last time he would have to plead his innocence during the tournament. In fact his behaviour was becoming so irritating to some that Tony Knowles would later state that Higgins needed "a good thump between the eyes," although the young Englishman later apologised for his rather frank comments.

In what would be his biggest test of the tournament, Davis sneaked through 13-11 against a rejuvenated Dennis Taylor. Taylor's improved form had seen him gain revenge for his first round defeat to Silvino Francisco the year before, when he beat the same player 10-9, a change in fortunes that Taylor was largely attributing to a new pair of £67 glasses that had seen him described as "a cross between Elton John and Joe 90" and "the front end of a Ford Cortina".

Davis would feel the full force of Taylor's new found confidence, admitting that he was relieved to stay in the match at certain points. Although Taylor led 4-3, 8-7 and 9-8, Davis looked to have shrugged off his opponent when he won four frames on the bounce to take a 12-9 lead, and despite a Taylor fight back, Davis finished the job. Taylor must have been sick of the sight of Davis when he lost to the Englishman in the 1984 semi-final too, yet as we all know, he would certainly have his share of glory in their 1985 epic.

Two other matches would go to the penultimate frame; Eddie Charlton beating John Spencer, with Tony Meo winning four of the last five frames to end Mountjoy's hopes. After winning the world doubles championship with Davis, Meo was beginning to find some success on his own, still using his trusty cue which he had bought off a friend for £3 six years previously. Meo would meet Knowles in the quarter finals, the latter having come through a final frame decider against Ray Reardon. "I threw it away and did not do myself justice," bemoaned a gutted Reardon, who had high hopes on arriving in Sheffield, after his wins in the Professional Players' Tournament, Welsh Professional Championship, and the Yamaha Organs International in the 82/83 season.

David Taylor's path to the quarter finals was blocked by the large figure of Canada's Bill Werbeniuk. A feature in the Daily Mirror detailed Big Bill's drinking regime, a necessity for Werbeniuk in order to combat an hereditary nervous tremor. Breakfast would be washed down with a pint of lager, followed by another six or seven before the match. "I don't usually start that early but I've got to with the match kicking off at 11am," Werbeniuk stated, but despite the fuss surrounding his preparations, Werbeniuk was enjoying a fine season, reaching two finals and helping Canada win the State Express World Team Classic.

Taylor's comfortable first round win over Jim Meadowcroft had been overshadowed slightly when Taylor moved to the opposite end of the arena due to excessive cigarette smoke (created by Meadowcroft) getting in the eyes of his opponent. "By the end of the second frame I couldn't see the end of the table," complained Taylor, who would have to endure Werbeniuk's chain-smoking during their second round match. Werbeniuk won 13-10 after trailing 10-6, but along the way both players would take a unscheduled break to witness a slice of sporting history.

Cliff Thorburn and his 147: probably worthy of a blog on its own. And to think it all started with a fluke. Leading 2-1 against Terry Griffiths, Thorburn luckily got his break underway when a red rattled in one pocket and rolled along the top cushion to knock another in. It was a break that started an historic break, as the balls sat perfectly on the table for what was to follow.

As the break progressed there were a few squeaky-bum moments, and some fine shots were required with the rest, as Thorburn managed to keep the chances of a 147 alive. It was after the eighth black had disappeared that Rex Williams began to mention the chance of a big break for Thorburn, with fellow commentator Jack Karnehm declaring that he did not even want to bring up the subject of a maximum for superstitious reasons. But it soon became apparent just what was happening, as all eyes began to focus on Thorburn, including those of Werbeniuk and Taylor playing on the other table.

The tension was filling the arena as Thorburn opted to take a mini rest after fourteen reds and thirteen blacks had been potted. "I had this terrible vision of making history with a runny nose," Thorburn later admitted, his ability to think logically under such pressure so admirable. After sinking a very missable yellow, everything was in place for Thorburn's moment of glory. "Good luck mate," uttered Karnehm famously - one of my favourite commentary moments of the 1980s - as Thorburn finished the break that would earn him £13,000.

"I'm still in shock. It's simply mind-boggling," Thorburn said, although after a couple of glasses of champagne he was back at the table, trying somehow to come down from that enormous high, and continue with the remaining frames in the match. And what a match it turned out to be. Griffiths fought back from 12-9 down to take the match into a final frame, as a seven hour final session spilled into Monday morning. Approximately 200 hardy souls remained in the Crucible at 3.51am, as Thorburn finally edged out his opponent after 13 hours and three minutes of mentally draining snooker. "I have certainly been through the mill and if I have to go through this all over again I shall end up insane," noted Thorburn. Oh dear.

Thorburn's opponent in the quarter finals would be fellow countryman Stevens, who had experienced his own health concerns during his 13-3 destruction of South Africa's Perrie Mans. Suffering from glandular fever, Stevens was given a separate dressing room and allowed to play his second round match without a tie. Both Canadians would be tested physically and mentally, as again Thorburn was involved in a gruelling match that went the distance. Initially all seemed to be going well for Thorburn, as he took an early 4-0 lead, but at the 1983 championships, he rarely did things the easy way.

Stevens hit back, and when he moved 12-10 ahead, Thorburn looked done for. Yet the next frame was Thorburn's, and when he levelled the match after a 53 minute 24th frame, Thorburn was back in familiar territory. The final frame was just as nerve-wracking, stretching on for 61 minutes, as Thorburn took it to win a 12 hour 32 minute match which finished at 2.12am. "It's nice to finish so early," joked Thorburn, who must have wanted to sleep for a week.

Thorburn may well have been centre of attention for a few days, but soon Higgins was making headlines once more. After being called for a foul in the third frame of his quarter final with Werbeniuk, Higgins appeared to flick a V-sign towards referee John Williams, something Higgins vehemently denied. What was clear, however, was that Higgins was adamant that Williams should be removed from refereeing duties, storming out of the arena muttering "I want the referee changed - he's not doing a good job". Play was held up for five minutes as Higgins argued his case with tournament promoter Mike Watterson - two days later Watterson discovered that his services were no longer needed, as the WPBSA were taking over from 1984 onwards - before Higgins' request was turned down and play resumed.

Trailing 9-7, Higgins looked in trouble, before rallying to move into a 10-9 lead. Frame 20 was peculiar to say the least; Werbeniuk established a huge lead, leaving Higgins requiring ten snookers, yet the Hurricane refused to concede, prompting the Canadian to play three shots one-handed. At 11-11 the match was up for grabs, but Higgins won the next two frames to keep his title defence rolling on. Afterwards a tearful Higgins broke down as wife Lyn and daughter Lauren arrived in Sheffield, although the ongoing drama surrounding all of his matches seemed to be getting on top of him too.

The other two quarter finals were less eventful. Tony Meo never recovered from a poor start against Tony Knowles, falling 5-0 behind and eventually losing 13-9. And the Steve Davis bandwagon continued, a 13-5 thrashing of Eddie Charlton notable only for an excellent serving of sour grapes from the Australian, who declared "Nobody ever appreciates the luck Steve gets until you play him. He's a great player and beat me fair and square but, by God, nothing ever goes bad for him".

"No disrespect to the other semi-finalists, but this is like the final," said Higgins regarding his eagerly awaited clash with Davis. Unfortunately for Higgins, he would suffer the same fate as eventual finalist Thorburn, Davis reeling off seven frames in a row to lead 9-2. Not even a telephoned death threat could slow the Davis charge, the Crucible sealed off by the police and play delayed for 35 minutes as spectators were body-searched and the venue checked; a call had been received stating that Davis would be shot if he won ten frames.

Luckily Davis was not made aware of this threat until after the match, but it probably would not have blocked his progress anyhow, such were the new heights his game was reaching. Higgins may have had a stomach upset - throughout the match he existed on a diet of lager and honey - yet he would have had to be at his very best to even compete against Davis in the form he was in. Five frames in a row put Davis into the final, his 16-5 victory meaning that he could put his feet up for a bit - or more likely practice for a few hours - whilst Thorburn would once again slug it out to the bitter end in his semi-final with Tony Knowles.

At least Thorburn's matches were gradually finishing earlier, his deciding frame win over Knowles concluding at a far more reasonable 1.06am. For a while it looked as if Thorburn's marathon run was over, Knowles leading 15-13 and just needing the pink for a place in his first world final. But a nervy miss let Thorburn in, leaving a tearful Knowles distraught: "I'll keep seeing that pink over and over again. I was so tensed up. If only I'd stepped back for a second".

Sadly Thorburn would leave the Crucible in tears too, but for vastly more tragic reasons. During the semi-final, Thorburn discovered that his wife Barbara had suffered a miscarriage on the day of his 147, news that had been kept from him by his family, but told to him accidentally by a visiting friend from Canada. A heartbreaking episode for a man already exhausted by his experiences during the championships.

Unsurprisingly Thorburn had nothing left in the tank for the final, his body and mind simply not able to respond anymore, especially against the relentless pressure exerted by Davis. At 2-2 the match was a contest for the last time, as Davis won seven frames in a row, before taking a 12-5 lead into the Monday.

Any hope of a staggering comeback was put to bed the next day, another Davis surge, this time five frames on the bounce including a break of 131 in the last of the sequence, putting him one frame away from his second world title. Thorburn would win one more frame before Davis became the first man to win two world championships at the Crucible, celebrating with a back-breaking leap as he potted the re-spotted black at the end of the 24th frame.

"This is more important than the first title," remarked Davis, who admitted to shedding a tear or two in his dressing room afterwards. Not only did Davis have £30,000 to go with his world title, but he also returned to the number one spot in the world rankings. Davis' period of world domination had truly begun.

"I'm bitterly disappointed - now I know what it's like to go through purgatory," said Thorburn about his last few days. "I tried like hell but when I woke up after my semi-final win over Tony Knowles the final was anti-climatic, I just felt numb". Certainly the Canadian could be excused for his lacklustre performance in the final, the energy-sapping slog he had been through, coupled with his devastating news, finally catching up with him.

The final had been watched by 9.9 million viewers on BBC2, proof that the sport was still popular in the UK, and showing no signs of reaching saturation point as yet (compilations like this highlight the great names involved in snooker at the time). Through these peak years, Davis would remain at the top of the tree, his 1983 win a microcosm of his legendary career of greatness, which saw him claim six world championships, and set the standards upon which future players were measured against.


  1. Great stuff. That ,and the video , brought back a lot of memories.

  2. Wonderful. Snooker is the quintessential 80s sport. They say Steve Davis was on TV more than Margaret Thatcher...