Great Sporting Moments: Dennis Taylor defeats Steve Davis 18-17 at the Crucible
It began as a fairly low-key contest. Then, as frame followed frame, word began to spread that something extraordinary was happening. Nick Harris recalls an epic confrontation that captured the nation's imagination.
Sunday 12 July 2009
If you are over the age of 30, there is a good chance that you watched at least part of the snooker World Championship final on the BBC over the weekend of 27-28 April 1985. The climax, as the endgame between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis stretched, in excruciating fashion, from Sunday night into the first hour of Monday, was watched live on BBC2 by 18.5 million people in the UK it was a record for the channel and remains so. It was the largest post-midnight audience for any programme on any channel, and remains so. Snooker as a mass-market sport reached its peak that night, in one match, in one frame, with one ball In the end, famously, it was all about the black. But it was also about an Ulsterman in oversized glasses potting the only ball that mattered, at the fourth time of asking, to the delight of a gripped nation Snooker's pre-eminence as a TV sport in that era came through a coalescence of cultural and social trends. Football, the national sport, was heading to its lowest ebb, ravaged by hooliganism, blighted by dreadful facilities, and unattractive to families tired of being herded into cages. Within a month of the 1985 snooker final, the Bradford City stadium fire would have claimed 56 lives and the Heysel tragedy 39 more Snooker was a cheap and easy way to fill hours of airtime with feel-good figures. It had surged in popularity thanks to maverick tabloid mainstays such as Alex "Hurricane" Higgins and Jimmy "The Whirlwind" White. When they weren't playing, they were drinking, shagging, gambling - or frittering their time away.
Then there was Cliff Thorburn, the Canadian heart-throb with a moustache to match anything that Hollywood's Tom Selleck could muster, and Tony Knowles, a home-grown lothario, and old-timer entertainers such as Eddie Charlton and Ray Reardon, who kept the grey brigade tuning in Taylor, a 36-year-old from Coalisland, County Tyrone, was already hugely popular, renowned for his goggle-like "upside down" glasses. They had been hand-crafted by Jack Karnehm, a player and leading BBC commentator of the day. "His family business was making spectacle frames," says Taylor. "He made that pair himself by hand and it took him two days. I've still got them at home."
Taylor earned his living on the exhibition circuit as much as in tournaments, as did Terry Griffiths, the postman from Wales, who had so memorably won the World Championship as a rank-outsider qualifier in 1979, defeating the favourite, Taylor, in the final
And then there was Davis, aged 26, who already had three world titles to his name (1981, 1983 , and 1984), had been the world No 1 for two years, and would go on to become a six-times Crucible winner and a sporting icon in the age of get-rich-quick Thatcherism. The first prize at the Crucible in 1985 was £60,000, one of the biggest pots in any individual sport anywhere in the world at the time. The runner-up earned £35,000. Snooker wasn't just at its zenith, but was centre stage on TV in an age when home computers were rare, mobile phones were virtually non-existent, and Google, Twitter and texting were all decades many years away.
Britain had four TV channels, with the youngest, Channel 4, in its infancy. What could a family do together on a Sunday night? Watch television together, of course. The biggest weekend TV shows were That's Life, The Two Ronnies, Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours - and, for one amazing weekend, World Championship snooker.
The conclusion, of that weekend - actuallyin the small hours of Monday morning -, remains one of the most famous moments in the history of televised sport in Britain. Dennis Taylor, having just beaten Steve Davis on the black ball in the 35th and last frame of the 1985 snooker world championship final, wags his finger at someone in the crowd before planting a kiss on the trophy that he has spent 13 years dreaming about winning Every winner kisses the trophy, but who was the object of the finger wagging? "My good mate Trevor East," says Taylor, more than 24 years on, recalling the moment that defined his career, his life, his sport. "He was with me throughout the whole championship. That finger wag said: 'I told you I'd do it.'"
For a fortnight in 1985, East was Taylor's amateur psychologist, and his talisman during two extraordinary days of drama at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. East says: "The end is indelibly etched on my memory, it was one of the greatest moments." Their partnership is not the only aspect of the final that remains widely unknown almost a quarter of a century later. East was then the executive producer of ITV's snooker coverage. He'd hired Taylor, a top player, as a commentator, and the pair had become close friends.
East's background included reading the sports bulletins on Tiswas, the anarchic Saturday morning kids' TV show. His future included being the kingpin of sport at BSkyB as it become the major player in pay-TV, and later the director of sport at Sky's ill-fated rival, Setanta Taylor reached the final by thrashing South Africa's Silvino Francisco in the first round (10-2), Charlton in the second (13-6), Thorburn in the quarter-finals (13-5) and Knowles in the semis (16-5). Davis beat Neal Foulds (10-8), David Taylor (no relation, 13-4), Griffiths in the quarter-finals (13-6) and Reardon in the semis (16-5). The final, the best of 35, started at 2pm on Saturday, 27 April. Davis, youthful and pale, his thick red hair plastered flat over his head, wore a dark blue waistcoat, a pale blue shirt and a dark maroon tie with spots. Taylor was dressed in a pale pink shirt, light grey waistcoat, and a grey tie with pink diagonal wavy stripes.
In a masterful first session, Davis took a 7-0 lead. That session was the only one in the final when East wasn't in attendance to support Taylor. He was a director of Derby County FC at the time. They had a match that Saturday, at home to Cambridge United, and East needed to be at the Baseball Ground "As soon as the game ended, I turned on the telly and saw the score in Sheffield," East recalls. "I just thought 'shit', jumped in my car and sped 40 miles up the M1. "Dennis and I got on so well. He would often lose focus and concentration, and had a tendency to get downhearted about the smallest things. I don't know why, but I used to be able to press the right buttons in him somehow." After losing the first frame, Taylor was relaxed, chatting to supporters near his chair at the bottom left-hand corner of the table. At 7-0 down, he was reduced to fidgeting. "I wanted a hole to open up and swallow me," he says.
Davis won the first frame of Saturday evening, for 8-0. Taylor clasped his hands together. "The determination and fight was there," he says. "I was 36 years of age at the time, and I knew that this would probably be my last chance."
In frame nine, Davis missed a green. "Maybe I relaxed a bit," he says. Taylor came to the table and snatched the frame, for 8-1. It was 8.15pm. By the end of Saturday night, Taylor had clawed back to be trailing 9-7.
The protagonists retreated to their lodgings. Knowing he would struggle to sleep, Taylor ordered a bottle of champagne from the bar of his hotel, The St George, outside Sheffield, and drank it with his wife, Trish, and East The next morning, there was no hangover, nor much thought of Davis. "The hotel had a lake and I spent some time walking around it, looking at the ducks, thinking about my Mum," recalls Taylor. His mother, Annie, 62, had died suddenly the previous October from a massive heart attack.
"Foremost in my mind wasn't really [that] I was trying to beat Steve Davis, the greatest player in the world. It was my Mum. I'd been in one final before, in 1979, and a friend had flown Mum over for that. I'd led into the final day, I should have done better."
Back at the Crucible on the Sunday, the score moved to 11-11, and by late evening, with families everywhere gathering around the box, to 17-15 in Davis's favour. The sponsors were in the wings with a cheque. Taylor kept them waiting by pulling back to 17-17. The 567th and final frame of the tournament started at 11.15pm.
Davis broke off, superbly, leaving the white tight on the bottom cushion. "I was in all sorts of trouble already," says Taylor. He missed: 4-0 to Davis. Taylor had never been in front during the entire match. He never would be, until the last ball was down.
It took four minutes before another error by Taylor allowed Davis in for a red. "The balls were in horrible places already," says Davis. Most of the reds were in a bunch towards the top left corner. The colours were off their spots. There had not been a single century in the whole final and there certainly wouldn't be one now Davis potted a green and a red for a break of five and 9-0. Taylor potted a stunning long red, but could build nothing: 9-1. Minutes passed. He managed another red: 9-2. After 20 minutes, and errors on both sides, the score had only reached 13-7.
Taylor surveyed the table, and fiddled with his ear. "One bad mistake then and it would be the end: of two days' work, two weeks' work, and in my case 13 years of waiting to win the title," he says. "The championship would have been all out the window."
Davis made a bad mistake, leaving a red. Taylor took advantage, hitting a break of 22 for a 29-13 lead. But he ran out of position and had to play safe.
He walked back to his chair, staring high up into the crowd. "I was looking up at the gods there, thinking: 'What a golden opportunity just went by'." Davis potted a red and blue, but lost position. He leant on the table with both hands, then tried a red with the spider and missed: 29-19. Taylor tried a red and went in-off: 29-23. Davis potted a long red, but missed a blue: 29-24. "You can only put that down to carelessness, which it wasn't, or pressure," Davis says. "There were a lot a chances going begging."
On and on the torture went, the volume of gasps and groans in the auditorium increasing as they were in homes across the nation. It was midnight. The frame was 45 minutes old, and Taylor was 44-28 ahead. He missed another red, allowing Davis in with a plant to the top right Says Taylor: "Steve realised this was a chance and I could barely look. I'd spent three quarters of an hour building a lead of 20 points and in minutes it was going to be gone."
Davis potted blue, red, blue - at which point Taylor's head dropped as he waited for the kill - then red, blue, red, blue, red, for a break of 25. But then he ran out of position and played safe, hiding the white. Taylor fouled trying to escape. Just the last four colours remained, worth 22 points, while Davis had a lead of 18, at 62-44. Davis, in effect, just needed the brown. Taylor needed everything. Davis tries to cut in the brown. It rattles the jaws of the pocket and stays out. Davis shakes his head. Taylor mouths something indiscernible. Taylor misses the brown. The crowd gasps. Davis leaves it on for Taylor, but it's a narrow cut. Taylor pots it. "Best shot of the tournament, I thought he'd play it safe," says Davis.
"I thought, 'I'm not going to lose the tournament playing a safety shot that goes wrong'," says Taylor, who potted the blue and pink. It was 62-59 to Davis, with the black left and Taylor still at the table.
Taylor tries to double the black to the middle. He misses, but it runs safe. Davis plays safe. Taylor wipes his hands with a towel for 20 seconds, then tries an audacious table-length double. He misses. Davis tries a double, and misses. The white is near the top right pocket, the black 3 feet away and the obvious target pocket, the bottom left pocket, 9 feet further on. Taylor misses, leaving the black, cuttable, over the top right pocket. Davis overcuts it.
Taylor comes to the table. He eyes the black, not far from the top right pocket now. He pots it.
He raises his cue above his head. He shakes Davis's hand and the referee's. He shakes his cue, then thumps it on the floor, twice. A fan runs up and embraces him. A second tries to. The referee stops him, but Taylor shakes his hand anyway. Davis nods to himself and sits down.
Taylor puts his cue on the table, his face disbelieving. Then he wags his finger, folds his arms, tip-toes to the trophy, and kisses it.
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