Monday, 3 April 2017

1987 World Snooker Championship

Looking back at the 1987 World Snooker Championship, as Steve Davis gains some revenge over Joe Johnson, and the sport is dragged into a debate involving the usage of performance enhancing drugs.

There were a number of players with a few points to prove as the 1987 World Snooker Championship commenced on Saturday April 18. None more so than the reigning champion, and the man he had beaten in the 1986 final. For Joe Johnson and Steve Davis, the next few weeks would go a long way to answering any doubts regarding their current standing in the game.

Johnson's stock had fallen dramatically since his 150/1 triumph just twelve months earlier. The world No8 only had a couple of quarter final appearances in the Masters and Irish Masters to show for his efforts during a turbulent season, as the Bradford man struggled to cope with his new found fame.

"The limelight's not for me," admitted Johnson before his title defence. "I'm just happy supping a few pints with the lads at Morley Snooker Centre, Leeds, where I practice every day." Sadly an increase in public appearances - including being filmed by the BBC for a programme called An Ordinary Joe - disrupted his previous routine. "There were a million voices in my head, so many things to think about," Johnson said. "When I won the world championships I knew how to react to the people of Bradford but not worldwide. I was so nervous playing I didn't know how to adapt."

Davis, on the other hand, was enjoying a successful season, winning the UK Championship, Mercantile Credit Classic, and Irish Masters, but he arrived in Sheffield with an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders, after his previous two World Championship finals. The thought of the 11/8 favourite going another year without claiming the World Championship seemed unthinkable.

The biggest threat to Davis was possible semi-final opponent Jimmy White, now a fully fledged member of the Barry Hearn's Matchroom stable; prior to the tournament, Davis and White had joined forces with Terry Griffiths, Neal Foulds, Tony Meo, Willie Thorne, and Dennis Taylor, to produce the instantly forgettable Romford Rap with Chas and Dave. Snooker Loopy it wasn't.

White (4/1 for the title) had lost a classic Mercantile final to Davis in the decider, but had won the Rothmans Grand Prix and British Open during a fine year. Foulds (10/1) had won the BCE International Open, and many were tipping the 23-year-old to reach the final in the half of the draw that did not contain Davis and White.

A lot of the usual suspects were mentioned in tournament previews, although looking beyond Davis and White seemed foolhardy. Taylor, the Benson and Hedges Masters winner was priced at 10/1, with Thorne (14/1), and Tony Knowles (40/1) also in the perceived easier section of the draw. Alex Higgins, about to serve a five tournament ban for headbutting World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) member and tournament director Paul Hatherell, was a 20/1 shot for the title, but a potential second round encounter with his Crucible nemesis Terry Griffiths (40/1) loomed on the horizon.

One young man who was a magnet to the press during the championship was Stephen Hendry, who had reached Sheffield after winning three qualifying rounds. The 18-year-old was tipped for great things, with his manager Ian Doyle stating: "We are not just going to Sheffield to make up the numbers."

The young Scot, who had started playing the sport on a mini table that he received as a present as a 12-year-old, had set himself a target of becoming snooker's youngest ever world champion; Alex Higgins held the record after winning the title as a 22-year-old in 1972. 1987 may have been seen as too early for Hendry, but many felt it was a case of not if, but when would he win his first world title.

Hendry truly announced himself in a first round that was littered with shocks, as many of the old guard slowly started to fade away from the scene. Hendry's 10-7 win over world No7 Thorne left the Leicester man stunned - "How can he go on potting like he does?" - and saw his odds slashed immediately from 66/1 to 12/1 for the title. "He can't win the world title yet," Thorne commented after his loss. "He is just a fraction too loose, but he will become the youngest ever world champion."

Other top ranked players were vanquished by qualifiers. Knowles (world No4) admitted to a huge lack of confidence as he exited 10-6 to Mike Hallett (after leading 6-5), a year of "pot and tell" stories gradually taking their toll; Meo (11) lost 10-8 to John Parrott, with Kirk Stevens' (9) defeat to Steve Longworth meaning that both players would slip outside the top 16 in the world at the start of the next season; and Cliff Thorburn (2) was stunned when New Zealand's Dene O'Kane won nine frames in a row to turn a 5-1 deficit into a 10-5 memorable win.

Johnson, Davis, and White would all be tested fully in their tournament openers. Johnson scraped past Eugene Hughes in a final frame decider, with White coming from 8-6 down against Dean Reynolds to win 10-8. Davis showed some rare signs of frailty, before beating Warren King 10-7. "I love this tournament but hate the first round," Davis admitted. "Warren was going for my throat and had the taste of blood in his mouth. I could sense it and it shook me."

Any early nerves were pushed to one side, however, as Davis began to crank through the gears. In his last ever appearance at The Crucible, Ray Reardon was hammered 13-4 in what the Times described as "a devastating display of top class snooker." And Terry Griffiths may have ousted Higgins in the second round, but he was no match for a rampant Davis in the last eight. Davis' comfortable 13-5 victory sounded alarm bells for the rest of the field.

It only took a few days for the tournament to be shrouded in controversy, but for once the usual characters were not involved. The usage of drugs within the sport, be it recreational or performance enhancing, dominated the sports pages throughout the season, and when news broke during the championships that there had been six positive drugs tests in the last fifteen months, the pressure on the WPBSA to reveal names grew and grew.

To the general amazement of everyone, Neal Foulds would publicly admit that he was one of the men on the list, his usage of a beta-blocker called Tenormin prescribed by a doctor due to a diagnosis of tachycardia (rapid heartbeat). "I am obviously concerned with the doctor's diagnosis. Now I want to concentrate on the rest of the tournament," Foulds declared after beating John Virgo in the first round. "But in making this public I hope I will be left to do just that."

There was little hope of that. Despite the WPBSA stating that prescribed drugs, used properly as an authorised medicine to treat a condition were legal within the sport, politicians took little time in getting involved. Colin Moynihan called for Foulds to be thrown out of the tournament, with Sports Minister Dick Tracey indicating that there should be a further probe into the use of drugs in snooker. Foulds was fully in the media spotlight.

To his enormous credit, Foulds marched on to the semi-finals, although after defeating Dennis Taylor in the second round he revealed that he needed a pep talk from his first round opponent to put him in the right frame of mind. "I went into the match feeling very unsure about myself. After certain people said I should quit the tournament it was only my friend John Virgo who kept me going and made me feel I had a chance of winning."

Foulds would meet Johnson in the semi-final, the reigning champion gradually playing himself into form with a second round win over Murdo MacLeod, and a nail biting quarter final that went the distance against Hendry. All looked plain sailing for Johnson when he surged 8-1 in front, but, as we would soon discover, Hendry was made of tough stuff.

Reducing the deficit to 9-7 overnight, Hendry once again was on the brink as Johnson moved into a 12-8 lead on the following day. But back came Hendry once more, winning four frames on the bounce, and although Johnson won the decider, the young Scot had laid down a marker, with his world ranking subsequently leaping from 51 to 23.

As expected, White took his place in the semis, setting up the eagerly awaited clash with Davis. A tense 13-11 win over John Parrott led White to believe that "I can only get better", and he was true to his word in the last eight against O'Kane, who had knocked out another top 16 player in Doug Mountjoy in the second round. Taking just 96 minutes to go 8-0 up, White was unstoppable, and although he took a 9-0 lead that was later reduced to 9-5, his 13-6 win indicated that his forthcoming match with Davis had all the chances of being a classic.

Sadly, as with many sporting events, the Davis-White semi did not live up to the pre-match hype that saw the papers talking about the clash of the big two, and Davis stating: "It should be a stormer. The crowds will certainly get excited." White did take an early lead, yet when his 4-3 advantage was turned into an 8-4 deficit, the writing was on the wall. Davis marched on to his sixth final, his 16-11 win giving him the opportunity to right the wrongs of the previous two years.

The other semi-final between Johnson and Foulds had been a close affair at one point. A break of 109 in the 15th frame put Foulds 8-7 in front, but from this moment onwards, the match ceased to be an exciting contest. Winning eight frames in a row, Johnson would eventually triumph 16-9, proving to himself and others that his 1986 antics had not been a complete fluke. Obviously the biggest test of all awaited in the final, but for now, Johnson could be content with his achievement of reaching consecutive Embassy finals.

The final would get off to the ideal start for Davis, his 127 clearance giving him his only century break of the tournament, and earning Davis £8,000 for the highest break of the championships. Yet Johnson was not fazed. Winning the next three frames, and later moving into a 4-3 lead, Johnson was doing his best to add to Davis' mental scars from the previous two finals. But sadly for Johnson, it would be the last time that Davis would trail in the tournament.

Securing five of the next six frames, Davis had made a decisive move, and when he converted his overnight lead of 9-7 into a 13-8 advantage on the Bank Holiday Monday, the fat lady was starting to warm up her vocal cords. However, Johnson showed his class and spirit, and come the evening session, Davis would later reveal: "I thought it was going to be three successive finals and three defeats."

Taking the last frame of the afternoon session to trail 14-10, Johnson then rattled off another three frames to move to within one of Davis, and it was now game on. "Everything seemed to be caving in," Davis said after the final, although he managed to gather himself, and with breaks of 64, 73, and 53 he moved within a frame of victory. The end was nigh.

Johnson would take one final frame before Davis' 78 break sealed his fourth world championship. Clearly emotional after crossing the finishing line, a relieved Davis praised Johnson, and highlighted the anxiety he had felt after going 3-1 down and then having his lead cut to a single frame in the final session. "This has got to be my most satisfying win," Davis said. "It was a test of character after Dennis Taylor beat me on the black to win one final and then Joe demolished me last year."

"I'm glad the mantle has been given to someone else," Johnson declared after collecting his cheque for £48,000 that doubled his season's earnings. "I'm just pleased with what I have achieved. Steve is now world number one and world champion. That's just about right because he is one of the greatest players of all time." Even in defeat, Johnson's reputation had been enhanced.

Talk soon turned to whether Davis could equal Ray Reardon's haul of six world titles. "Ray's titles will be hard to beat. I know I am already favourite for next year, but it will not get any easier." Davis' title wins in 1988 and 1989 did bring him level with Reardon, but as the 80s moved into the 90s, the young Scot that everyone was raving about in 1987 was about to take snooker to another level.

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