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Snooker's greats are still potty about the Crucible


By John Skilbeck

Sheffield was considered "drab and dreary" by put-out potters and the Crucible was said to be "an embarrassment to the city" - but in 1977 snooker's wandering World Championship roadshow stumbled upon a permanent home.

The time had come to put down roots, half a century after Joe Davis beat Tom Dennis at Birmingham's Camkin's Hall billiards club to become the first world snooker champion.

In the seven years before its arrival in Sheffield, the tournament had travelled to Manchester, Middlesbrough, London, Birmingham, Melbourne and Sydney. Those who were there recall a state of shambles, with the tournament crying out for stability.

The Crucible celebrates a 40th anniversary this month as the modern home of snooker, now practically synonymous with the sport's premier tournament, which starts next Saturday.

Its great champions have become household names: the likes of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ulsterman Dennis Taylor and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Seven-time winner Hendry remains the Crucible's number one.

Since retiring five years ago, the Scot has moved into the commentary box.

"The Crucible's the only place to watch snooker in my opinion," Hendry said. "There have been other great venues but nothing compares to the Crucible."

Cliff Thorburn, the famous 'Grinder', lost to John Spencer in the 1977 final before landing the title in 1980.

The Canadian is a Crucible lifer. Like many of the sport's famous faces, Thorburn will be in Sheffield this year. He would have returned regardless, but landmark celebrations add to the poignancy of another transatlantic trip for the 69-year-old with the Magnum PI moustache.

Thorburn will never be short of friends in the Steel City, but each year he notices the survivors from that first year becoming fewer and farther between. Taylor, Willie Thorne and John Virgo remain fixtures, but the class of 1977 is slowly dying out.

"I'll be missing quite a few people that I was great pals with, like John Pulman, Graham Miles, John Spencer and Fred Davis," Thorburn said.

"They were a big part of it, and of course Alex (Higgins) was a very big part of it. But looking back there'll be a lot of very happy memories. I'm looking forward to being a part of it again."

Spencer received £6,000 for triumphing in 1977 which equates to £40,000 given four decades of inflation, peanuts compared to the £375,000 for this year's winner.

Professionalism and the urge to explore Sheffield's hot spots have often become mangled over the years.

"In 1977 they had a casino and a nightclub not far away and we all socialised a bit. It was quite different back then," Thorburn said.

"All that I remember about Sheffield is that when the World Championship is on, it always seemed to be sunny.

"I hear it was drab and dreary, but you get used to red brick. If you win the World Championship, it could be your favourite colour."

Why Sheffield and why the Crucible? That was down to businessman and future Derby County chairman Mike Watterson.

Watterson's wife, Carole, saw a show at the theatre and suggested to her husband it might make a sporting arena. By May 1976, a plan was hatching. When it came to checking out the venue, it was hardly love at first sight for Watterson.

"Back then it was a dropout's hangout, an embarrassment to the city. You'd go in and find dropouts lounging in there - 'beatniks' we used to call them," Watterson said.

"But the fact there's never any smoking in there helps a great deal. When I took the old sponsors Embassy in there, I put my back over the sign that said 'No smoking'."

The theatre floor was initially thought to be two feet too narrow.

"To this day it's very, very tight when there's two tables there," said Taylor, winner of the famous 1985 final.

"A lot of players don't like that, but every player who turns professional would love to win the World Championship at the Crucible Theatre. It's like Wimbledon: it's the home of our game."

Steve Davis ruled snooker in the 1980s, stacking up six world titles, although losing that '85 decider on the black ball.

"I don't remember much about what the city was like in the early days, except it was more of a concrete jungle and nowhere near as pretty as it is now," he said.

"Mike Watterson told me that even though the Crucible was made with the arts in mind, it quickly fell into disarray.

"So it's amazing to think that snooker has maybe given it a sense of identity."

Belfast Telegraph


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