Snooker seemingly stood at a crossroads as the 1988 World Championship tournament neared. With less coverage of the sport on our television screens, and viewing figures declining, the glory days of the sport appeared to be fading into the distance.
It probably didn’t help that a major crisis was hovering over snooker. During the 1987 World Championships, a number of stories had broken in relation to drug usage, both recreational and performance enabling/enhancing. The next year would be dominated with front page news involving snooker players, rehab, drugs tests, and beta-blockers.
One man fully immersed in the scandal was Canada’s Cliff Thorburn. After failing a drugs test at the 1988 British Open, Thorburn’s participation in the World Championship was under threat, with a disciplinary panel meeting on the Thursday before the tournament. Fortunately, Thorburn’s management team Matchroom applied successfully for his hearing with the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) to be delayed until May 5, three days after the final ball would be struck at Sheffield.
When the case was finally heard, Thorburn was banned for the first two tournaments of the following season, fined £10,000, and docked two ranking points, after traces of cocaine had been discovered in his urine.
Thorburn was not the first Canadian to be linked with cocaine in the recent past. Kirk Stevens had confessed to being addicted to the drug in 1985, and after undergoing treatment, he had slipped outside the top sixteen in the world. “I am the last person I expected to see at Sheffield,” Stevens admitted, after he qualified in Preston.
In a twist of fate, Thorburn would beat Stevens in the first round, as the Grinder put his problems behind him and reached the semi-finals. He wasn’t the only man to perform admirably with the media spotlight firmly shining on him. Neal Foulds had come clean about his use of beta-blockers during the 1987 World Championship. The fallout would be messy.
Branded a cheat by Sports Minister Colin Moynihan, Foulds spent the majority of his time defending his actions, informing the press that he was prescribed a beta-blocker to slow his heart rate down. “To me it was simple: Take the drug or die. What would you do?”
“The weeks that followed were dreadful,” Foulds stated, as the sleepless nights grew, and the pressure mounted. Coming off the beta-blockers a month earlier than suggested, Foulds understandably experienced an indifferent 1988 season. Yet his run to the World Championship quarter final – where he lost 13-9 to Terry Griffiths – managed to silence some of his critics.
Foulds was not alone, however, and it would soon be Bill Werbeniuk’s turn to face the music. Famous for drinking 30-40 pints of lager a day to counteract a hereditary tremor in his cueing arm, Werbeniuk had been prescribed Inderal to slow down his heart beat. But Inderal was soon to be added to a list of banned drugs by the WPBSA.
After losing 10-8 to Dennis Taylor in the first round, Werbeniuk explained his dilemma. “I’m not going to die for the game of snooker but if I stop taking Inderal it would be like committing myself to a long-term death sentence.” The Canadian promised to fight any proposed ban by the WPBSA. Sadly, he couldn’t fight the powers-that-be; a one month suspension in October 1988, and a £2,000 fine signalled the beginning of the end for the popular Werbeniuk, and his career was over by 1990.
Another man entering the tournament under pressure was Alex Higgins. Banned earlier in the season after head butting a tournament director Paul Hatherell during the 1986 UK Open, the double world champion needed to get through the first round to remain in the world’s top sixteen. But a harrowing 10-2 defeat to Malta’s Tony Drago highlighted his fall from grace. “I shall return,” Higgins said defiantly. Yet he would only make the finals at Sheffield twice more in his career.
In between the controversy, there was time for the occasional memorable moment during the 1988 World Championships. A classic second round match between Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry; the story of Steve James; Terry Griffiths making his second world final; and the inevitable march to glory for Steve Davis.
Prior to the tournament, Hendry was big news, the British Open and Rothmans Grand Prix winner seen as a breath of fresh air in a sport that desperately needed young blood. Setting himself the goal of becoming the youngest ever world champion, the bookmakers were apparently set to lose over £1 million if the world number 23 could triumph at the Crucible.
However, there was a big hurdle for Hendry in the second round; Jimmy White. The classic confrontation between the pair at least attracted attention back to the green baize, as both players took turns to illustrate their skills. White led 6-3, before Hendry rallied with two century and four 50+ breaks to surge into a 9-6 lead.
Trailing 10-7, it was then White who upped his game, winning four frames in a row to edge in front. Appropriately the match went to a decider, with White’s 86 break proving decisive. But even in defeat, Hendry’s nerveless and fearless snooker emphasised that predictions of future world championship glory were looking accurate.
Debutant Steve James could count his blessings that he even made it to Sheffield. Writing off his BMW prior to the tournament, the world number 67 explained his lucky escape. “I walked away with cuts and bruises so I’m going to the Crucible just delighted still to be in one piece.”
Come the end of the tournament, James could easily afford to replace his £7,000 car. Defeating Rex Williams and Joe Johnson on his way to a 13-11 loss against Thorburn in the quarter final, James earned £14,250, and also claimed £9,500 for the highest break of the tournament for his 140 against Williams.
There may have been a lot of uncertainty in snooker, but one constant remained; the relentless drive of Steve Davis. After narrowly seeing off John Virgo in the first round – even Virgo had entered the competition defending his use of cannabis ten years before – Davis lost just five frames in total as he thrashed Mike Hallett and Drago.
From 8-6 up against Thorburn in the semi-final, Davis stepped up a gear, reaching his sixth consecutive final with a fine 16-8 win. There he would meet Griffiths who reached his first final since his 1979 win, the world number six beating Steve Longworth, Willie Thorne, Foulds and White along the way.
After coming back from 5-2 down to finish the first day level at 8-8, Griffiths threatened to push Davis all the way. But after a slow start on the Bank Holiday Monday, Davis surged into a 14-10 lead before final session. Two century breaks in the final session confirmed the obvious; Griffiths may have knocked over the world on the Crucible stage, but Davis was still on a different planet.
With his fifth world title in the bag, Davis fired a warning to his rivals. “This has been my best season by far,” he said. “Next year I am going for more.” True to his word, Davis returned the following season and claimed his final World Championship. Hendry’s period of domination would come, but for the foreseeable future, Davis was still the man to topple.