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Dennis Taylor: How dramatic shot watched by millions changed his life forever

As Dennis Taylor returns to Belfast to commentate on a snooker legends match, he talks to Ivan Little about his World Championship victory, and that row with Alex Higgins

Published 07/10/2015

On the ball: Dennis Taylor
On the ball: Dennis Taylor
Dennis Taylor won millions of fans worldwide with his famous win over Steve Davis in 1985
Steve Davis
Rory McIlroy
Alex Higgins

The laid-back legend of the green baize Dennis Taylor could be forgiven if he wakes up with the odd attack of the heebie-jeebies as his subconscious takes him back to the most famous shot in the history of snooker three decades ago.

For the snooker world and its wife knows that Taylor's life would be very different today if he'd missed that final black in the nerve-jangling World Championship showdown against Steve Davis at the Crucible in Sheffield in 1985.

But the 66-year-old Coalisland man insists: "Not only have I never had a nightmare about that pot, but it's never featured in my dreams. And to be honest, I've never really thought about what would have happened if the black hadn't gone in."

However Dennis remembers every second of that cliff-hanger which was watched by an astonishing 18.5 million bleary-eyed TV viewers, who sat up way past their bedtimes to see one of the sporting dramas of all-time reach its breath-taking climax.

It was a record audience for a post-midnight show and few folk have ever forgotten Taylor's last shot or his euphoric celebrations. And that goes for people who didn't actually see it at the time but who can't have missed the regular replays of the 35-frame decider on the box.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of Taylor's date with destiny and his ready smile spreads just that little bit wider and his Irish eyes twinkle that little more brightly as he reflects on that magic Monday, April 29, 1985.

Steve Davis would probably prefer to blank it out of his mind altogether, but he ruefully says that no-one will ever let him.

Dennis says: "Steve handles it all very well. He tells me it's one of the most memorable things in his whole career and he'll remember it more than the six World Championships that he won."

With his tongue firmly in his cheek Davis regularly chides Taylor for making so many references to the 1985 final on the TV. "He's made it an art form," he laughs.

But the boot could easily have been on the other foot if Davis had sunk his relatively easy cut of the black ball into the top pocket, but his miss left it Taylor-made for Dennis to play out the final drama with a pinpoint pot that sent half the country crazy.

Not everyone was backing him however. The woman who was later to become Taylor's second wife, Louise was cheering for Davis in her family home on the Isle of Man, going against the grain of the rest of her loved ones who wanted Dennis to win.

He'd clawed back a massive eight-frame deficit and most people were rooting for the underdog. He'd also lost his mother just a few months earlier and revealed he'd been thinking of her throughout the 1985 final which he and Davis have had regular requests to re-create down the years.

That nail-biter of a contest produced a number of famous images of Dennis. After his win as he brandished his cue in triumph over his head and wagged a finger with a knowing look at someone in the Crucible.

But who was it? A rival player? A friend of his opponent? A family member?

"No, it was Trevor East, who was the head of sport at ITV and also a good friend," says Dennis, whose custom-made oversized glasses became almost as well-known as that final pot.

"I had worked with Trevor throughout the 17 days of the competition and my gesture was saying 'I told you I would beat him in the end'."

The celebrations in Coalisland went on into the wee small hours as hundreds of people gathered to hail their hometown hero.

"I wish I could have been there," says Dennis, but he did return shortly afterwards and the party still seemed to be in full swing.

Next Monday, Dennis will be in Belfast as big time snooker returns to the city. Taylor's won't be playing, but instead he will provide the commentary, the trick shots and the jokes as Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry go head to head at the Waterfront.

And Dennis bigs them up. Big time.

"They're the two greatest players who have ever picked up a snooker cue up. You've a seven times world champion playing against a five time world champion. And it will be a great match.

"I did one of these shows with Ronnie last weekend and he proceeded to get himself a maximum break against Jimmy White."

Dennis, who has moulded himself into one of the most popular and most articulate snooker commentators on the box, is a renowned joker in the pack off the screen as well as on it.

The man, who once told Desert Island Discs that his luxury item as a castaway would be a joke book, says: "I like to give people a bit of a laugh during a show. I don't practise my trick shots all that much. I just keep practising the jokes.

"The whole idea is to warm the audience up and get them in the mood. But that doesn't usually apply to Irish crowds. They're usually in the mood long before the show anyway."

Listening to Dennis in full flow, he sounds like a natural who was born to the difficult job of entertaining.

"But that's not the case," he says. "When I moved over to England first, when I was about 17, I wouldn't have said boo to a goose. The aunts that I stayed with couldn't believe how I ended up doing the trick shots and spinning the yarns.

"But it's something that I learned as I developed my game and my rapport with the fans."

And Dennis admits that he styled his demeanour on another Tyrone snooker star, Jackie Rea, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 92.

Dungannon-born Jackie, who was a former Irish champion and a regular competitor in British tournaments and star of Pot Black on the telly, was never short of a quip and became a major draw on the exhibition circuit right up until his retirement in 1990.

"I remember when I was about 14 or so, Jackie came to the snooker club in Coalisland where I played and he had a lot of fun with the crowd," says Dennis.

"He was the most amusing figure among all the professionals in those days. He did the trick shots, too."

Dennis, who had to stand on a lemonade crate to reach the table in Gervin's snooker club in his younger days, resorted to humour during his exhibition matches to cover up the embarrassment of a trick shot going wrong. "I thought if I miss them, I'll tell a joke," he says.

And the jokes became more and more a part of his act. But there's also a touch of the Frank Carson about Dennis after he launches into stand-up mode.

Dennis admits that he was fond of Frank and recalls how the Belfast comedian fell asleep in mid-joke in Canada after the pair of them had arrived jet-lagged for a promotion for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board "Fifteen minutes after he dozed off, Frank woke up again and picked up the joke from where he'd left off," says Dennis, who started his working life as a youngster selling ice creams in Coalisland's picture house.

As well as telling jokes next Monday night, he'll tell a tale or three about the household names of snooker including the sadly-departed Belfast snooker icon Alex Higgins, even though the Hurricane once threatened to have Dennis blown away by a gunman.

The two men, who were from opposites sides of the religious divide, were playing for Northern Ireland in the snooker World Cup in 1990 when they lost to Canada and a disagreement ended with Higgins telling Dennis that he would have him killed.

It was a threat that Dennis took seriously but he prefers not to talk about it anymore especially as Alex passed away five years ago.

"He did a lot for the game. He was unique, a one-off and he was a bit like the John McEnroe of snooker," says Dennis, who is on record as having forgiven Alex, though it's unlikely that he'll never forget his menacing words.

But did Alex ever apologise for that outburst?

Dennis replied with a safety shot.

"Oh, I wouldn't even start getting into all that again. It's water under the bridge," he says.

Dennis is a huge admirer of modern day Ulster sporting heroes like golfers Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

"For three lads from home to win three majors was quite incredible," he says.

"Rory's one of the best ambassadors that our country has ever had. I think he's brilliant. I was over at the Irish Open as a guest of his foundation's CEO Barry Funston, who is a big snooker fan.

"I had a fantastic couple of days at Royal County Down. But it would be great to see Rory getting another win under his belt after his ankle injury," says Dennis, who used to play football against Darren Clarke's father Godfrey as they grew up in Tyrone.

"I only discovered a few years ago that Godfrey played for Dungannon Swifts while I turned out for Coalisland Celtic after I played Gaelic football for Tyrone minors."

Dennis's two sons from his first marriage are both involved in golf, which is their father's other sporting passion away from the snooker table.

Damien is a European Tour coach and Brendan manages some of the top golfers in the world with the massive American WMG company.

"They should be able to help me, but I have worked out my own little system because I've known a lot of the golfers down the years.

"And since retiring from the main snooker tour I have been able to get my handicap down to nine and I am getting better in my old age."

Dennis, who waltzed his way to eighth place in Strictly Come Dancing 10 years ago, has three grandchildren but he's also a dad for a second time with Louise.

"I have a 10-year-old and an eight-year-old so I'm doing the fatherhood thing all over again."

  • Snooker Legends 2015: Ronnie O'Sullivan plays Stephen Hendry at the Waterfront Hall , Belfast, next Monday, October 12

Belfast Telegraph

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