Obituary: John Pulman

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JOHN PULMAN holds a unique place in the history of snooker as a player who held the world title for 11 years.

The legendary Joe Davis, a role model for the young Pulman, won more world championships. However, no other player, including Davis's younger brother Fred, has been in possession of the game's most coveted prize for such an unbroken sequence. And in the modern era where the major prizes swap hands from tournament to tournament, let alone year to year, Pulman's achievement may never be equalled.

Unfortunately for "Pully", the statistics do not tell the full story. That is perhaps why his name doesn't immediately spring to mind when listing past champions in order of greatness. Snooker, despite its current internal wranglings and lack of major sponsorship deals, is in a far healthier state than when Pulman was in his pomp.

A runner-up to Fred Davis in 1955 and 1956, Pulman made it third time lucky when he travelled to Jersey for the 1957 world championship. However, just four players entered the event: Pulman, Kingsley Kennerley, Rex Williams, the present and much maligned chairman of the game's governing body, and the Ulsterman Jackie Rea.

The "final" saw Pulman prevail 39 frames to 34 against Rea to become world champion. Just as his star was in the ascendancy, however, the sport's popularity waned to an all-time low. The championship became dormant until 1964 when revived on a challenge basis. When play resumed Pulman defeated Fred Davis 19-16.

He was to retain his title through six more challenges over the next four years including a six-week tour of South Africa with Williams. On one occasion during the trip, annoyed by the low attendance, they flipped a coin rather than play the match.

Unlike the plethora of titles up for grabs in the modern era, Pulman's triumphs were largely confined to his world championship victories. His last successful defence came in 1968 with a 39-34 victory over the Australian "newcomer" Eddie Charlton. In 1969 the championship reverted to a knockout basis and the title holder lost to another emerging professional, Lancastrian John Spencer, in the first round.

The venue was the Wryton Stadium, Bolton, normally used for all-in wrestling. Pulman had lost his grip on the championship for ever. He did make the final again in 1970, however, and enjoyed one of his finest moments of a 34-year professional career in 1977.

Against the odds, and perhaps due to his decision to stay teetotal from the turn of the year, Pulman reached the semi-finals of the first Embassy- sponsored event held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. He led the eventual champion John Spencer 7-3 and later recovered from 15-10 down to trail just 17-16.

Spencer though secured the all- important 34th frame and went on to beat the Canadian Cliff Thorburn in the final. However, it was testimony to his immaculate cueing action - described by Spencer as "one of the best" - that he was able to compete at an age when most sportsmen and women are well past their prime.

Pulman made two further appearances at the Crucible and played his final professional match in 1981. Already contemplating retirement, his mind was made up for him when, the same year, his left leg was broken in five places following a collision with a bus.

John Pulman was born in Teignmouth in 1923 but moved to Plymouth in 1929 when his father, Ernest, sold his confectionery business and bought a billiards club. The young Pulman initially flourished at billiards, making a century break at the age of 12 and a half.

Soon, though, he was competent at snooker and with the family now in Exeter he honed his skills in the new club. He came to national prominence at the age of 22. His first entry into the English amateur championship resulted in a title win over one Albert Brown. Despite his future successes Pulman steadfastly described his amateur title win as "the best of my career". A big regret was his failure to score snooker's perfect break - a 147 clearance - though he did manage a 146.

When he finally hung up his cue, Pulman wasn't lost to the game. It was while he was hospitalised after breaking his leg that he was offered a contract to commentate on snooker for ITV. He continued to do so up until his death. Ironically, his "rival" on BBC was "Whispering" Ted Lowe who had been Pulman's first manager when he turned professional in 1947.

Lowe is widely regarded as the voice of snooker but Pulman was his superior according to the 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor, now a broadcaster for the BBC: "The sound engineers would often tell me what a pleasure it was to work with `Pully' because his voice was so marvellous."

Before his ITV deal Pulman worked for the BBC and was behind the microphone at the 1980 world championship when coverage was interrupted by live action from the Iranian Embassy in London. When the broadcast resumed Pulman's opening line was: "Welcome back to the world championship. It's a case of from one Embassy to another."

His mellifluent tone was no doubt enriched by a fondness for a glass of whisky or three. John Pulman was a humorous raconteur and bon viveur on the circuit both during and after his playing days.

John Pulman, snooker player: born Teignmouth, Devon 12 December 1923; English Amateur Champion 1946; runner-up, World Snooker Championship 1955-56, world champion 1957-68; married (three children); died Northampton 25 December 1998.

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