Tuesday, 1 December 2015

1985 UK Championship: Willie Thorne

The calendar year of 1985 was going so well for Willie Thorne. A breakthrough win at the Mercantile Credit Classic in January provided the perfect start, and although Thorne's performances towards the end of the 84/85 season and the beginning of 85/86 were not particularly encouraging, it looked as if the December would see the twelve months bookended with another ranking tournament win.

Thorne's displays at the 1985 UK Championship in Preston had been impressive, so much so that even Steve Davis seemed unable to halt his charge in the final. Leading 13-8 and only three frames from victory, the Leicester-born player was well amongst the balls and seemingly on his way to a 14-8 advantage. But with just three colours remaining, Thorne played a shot that would change the course of the final, and live with him forever more. Thorne's mood was about to turn very blue.

It was such a shame that it had to end that way. A comfortable 9-6 win over Paddy Browne kicked off Thorne's run to the final, and after a final frame win over John Virgo in the next round, the Thorne snowball began to gather momentum, as three World Champions were brushed aside. First to suffer was Cliff Thorburn in the last 16, with Terry Griffiths, and current World Champion Dennis Taylor also beaten on the way to a final date with Davis (all three beaten by the same 9-7 score).

Along the way Thorne had demonstrated the talent that many in the snooker world knew he possessed. His 140 break in the win over Browne gave him the highest break of the tournament and in all he would make seven century breaks during the two weeks. Obviously a significant hurdle remained to be cleared, but at least Thorne could approach the final against Davis in a positive frame of mind.

Davis may well have shown frailties in the 1985 World Championship final, but he was still undoubtedly the man to beat. His win at the recent Grand Prix indicated that his Crucible headache was beginning to clear - the deciding frame win over Dennis Taylor banishing some of his Sheffield ghosts - and he only lost fourteen frames in beating Dessie Sheehan, Tony Drago, Tony Meo, Barry West, and Jimmy White on his way to the UK Championship final.

The tournament sponsors were certainly hoping that the form book was adhered to. According to reports in The Times and the Daily Express, a Thorne win would see Coral lose between £150,000 and £250,000 depending on which source was to be believed, with the former reporting that Thorne himself would scoop £150,000. As the two-day final progressed, Coral and Steve Davis must have been mightily concerned; Thorne's game was showing no signs of cracking, and for a significant proportion of the match it looked as if he would take the scalp of a fourth World Champion on the way to his second major win.

Davis took the opener, yet an undeterred Thorne hit back immediately with a 112 break to level matters, and although Davis took the next, the World No. 1 would not take the lead again until the 29th frame. Throughout the first day the quality was high with neither man able to make a decisive move; Thorne went 4-2 in front, only be pegged back to 4-4, and a Thorne century break (121) in the 9th frame was answered immediately with a 104 from Davis in the 10th to leave the pair level once more. Thorne did end the day 8-6 in front, yet with a potential 17 frames remaining the final was still in the balance.

That was until the Sunday afternoon session. Thorne came out firing, winning the first four frames to move into a 12-6 lead, with the final frame of the run seeing Thorne hit his last century break of the tournament, his clearance of 115 seemingly creating an impregnable position for the man who was a 40/1 shot at the start of the tournament.

Sydney Friskin writing in The Times described Thorne's display as "the best potting exhibition seen for many a day, his accuracy supported by growing confidence", and despite Davis stopping the rot with two frames out of three, Thorne went into the evening session with a 13-8 advantage, and with one hand on the trophy.

However, Thorne openly admits in his Double or Quits biography to being fragile mentally when it came to snooker, and a chance remark from his old pal Gary Lineker planted the first seed of doubt in his mind. Before the final session, the Everton striker saw Thorne in his hotel and attempted to deliver words of encouragement.

"I know he didn't mean to give me the jitters, but when you're lacking in mental strength as I was, one phrase, no matter how innocently meant, can lodge itself in your head," Thorne explains. "One more frame and he'd need to beat you 8-1 to win the match," Lineker told his friend, Thorne agreeing that he was playing so well that there was no way he could lose.

"I went out to play, feeling fairly confident, though trying to get that phrase of Gary's out of my head...'One more frame...One more frame...One more frame...'". Even so, Thorne looked to be holding it together during the opening frame of the final session, battling away to put himself 59-50 in front with the final three balls on their spots. The blue was a formality, the frame ball that would give Thorne that one frame that Lineker had mentioned, and push him 14-8 in front.

But inexplicably the blue was missed, the gasp of astonishment in the crowd matched by the facial expression of Thorne as he returned to his chair. Sat with his hands around the back of his head, Thorne looked on as Davis inevitably took advantage of his mishap. The very definition of a turning point.

"I hit the blue almost without thinking," Thorne recalls. "The delivery felt fine. There was no hint of twitching and I didn't get a bad contact. I was trying to roll the cue ball through to the pink so I stunned it to save me a walk around the table. Oh no...the blue was jawed!" Against anyone else Thorne may have had time to regroup, but Davis was no ordinary player. The best player in the world could smell blood.

"I went back to my seat and the doubts kicked in straightaway. Gary's phrase came back almost like a mantra I couldn't shake out of my head. I was still 13-9 in front but all I could think about was the way I'd failed in big games in the past". Thorne's miss concocted a dangerous cocktail; his anxiety and insecurity mixed with Davis' reputation and relentless nature combined to leave the Leicester man vulnerable.

The enormity of the moment soon became apparent as the session progressed. From a possible 14-8 deficit, Davis rattled off frame after frame, each pot sinking a knife into Thorne's heart, each second in the chair putting more and more doubt into his head. As Davis edged closer and closer, Thorne watched on, no doubt thinking endlessly about that blue. Before he had time to rid himself of any negative thoughts, the lead had been cut to 13-12 as the mid-session interval arrived, and despite being one frame in front, Thorne had a psychological mountain to climb.

Davis drew level in the first frame of the final session, yet to his credit Thorne found the resolve to compile a break of 96 to edge 14-13 in front. Alas it would be the final frame that Thorne would win; Davis took frame 28 with a break of 86, and then took the next two comfortably to gain a scarcely believable 16-14 victory. He may have been booed by some sections of the crowd when he collected his £24,000 cheque and the trophy, but Davis was rarely bothered by such behaviour.

"The sloppy miss on the blue let me back in," Davis admitted after the match. "I would have been beaten 16-8 if he potted it. I was surprised that he missed the blue but not at all surprised at what happened afterwards. If you look at big matches in the game you will find that they often turn on one shot". One shot. One seemingly unmissable pot. A moment of madness that would cost Thorne dearly, but saved the sponsors plenty. "I couldn't miss that in 100 attempts normally, but I just didn't look at it," Thorne told reporters after the match. "Perhaps I didn't deserve to win after missing a shot like that".

"If I'd got that first blue it would have been 14-8 and I would have been home and dry," Thorne went on. "To say it was an injustice is an understatement. I had completely outplayed him and should have won by 100 yards. But it was a terrific performance by Steve, even though I should have won it by 16-8 or thereabouts." Thorne may well have outscored his opponent overall in the match (1674-1588) and outplayed him for large parts, but it would be Davis' name on the trophy once more.

Thorne would go on to lose three more finals during the 1986 season - the British Open to Davis, the Irish Masters to Jimmy White, and the Pontins Professional to Terry Griffiths - his reputation of being the bridesmaid rather than bride growing after Preston. Thorne's world ranking peaked at No. 7 during his consistent 1986 season, but he readily admits that during his career he "really should have been winning more tournaments".

Like it or not, Thorne will often be remembered for that blue ball miss in the 1985 UK Championship final. Indeed he was still talking about it himself when he appeared on Fantasy Football in the 1990s, showing how self-deprecating he could be by sitting next to David Baddiel whilst the comedian was dressed as Thorne. "This is unmissable," Thorne joked, as he was forced to watch his career nadir in front of a laughing crowd. Therapeutic it probably wasn't.

It could have been so different if Thorne had just made that pot. A second ranking event in the bag, and the confidence of beating Davis over a long distance would have surely given Thorne the belief that he belonged, the conviction in his own mind that he could win major events against the best in the world. But just as Jimmy White, Doug Sanders, and Don Fox had to live with their famous sporting misses, so did Thorne. Some things are just not meant to be.

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