Steve Davis: Talking the talk and potting the pink with the pope of Romford

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It is a chilly mid-February morning, although in the bowels of Romford Snooker Club there is little evidence to suggest that it is mid-February or chilly or indeed morning. Like casinos, snooker clubs are hermetically sealed against excrescences such as daylight.

I have arrived with Steve Davis. To arrive at Romford Snooker Club with Steve Davis must be what it is like arriving with the Pope at the Vatican.

Pictures of him festoon the walls, this is his manor, but people are still thrilled to see him in the flesh. One lad utters "Steve Davis" over and over, as if to convince himself that he is seeing what he thinks he is seeing. "I saw you on telly, Steve," he adds. "Yeah, that's right," Davis says, affably. "I'm very good at snooker, Steve," he says. "Good, keep practising," Davis says. "Can I have your autograph, Steve?" "Sure."

We are here because I have asked Davis to give me a masterclass in the mechanics of snooker. He seems pleased to be invited to do something other than sit and talk. Most newspaper interviews with him, including one I did myself about three years ago, spend hundreds of words nailing the myth that he is a boring human being. That myth, and the nailing of it, is the only boring thing about him.

He is, in fact, one of snooker's great characters, a better raconteur than Jimmy "Whirlwind" White, a sharper wit than Ronnie "The Rocket" O'Sullivan.

His offence was to keep winning. When he stopped winning, his popularity soared. And when he rolled back the years by reaching the final of last month's Welsh Open, he found himself cast in the unfamiliar role of the people's choice, even though his opponent was "The Rocket". A similar process befell Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, and Nick Faldo at the Open. It is a British quirk. Only when they are proved fallible do we find room for them in our hearts.

We set up the balls on the very table on which he took Romford by storm all those years ago. Davis lived in South-east London, but Romford was where a geezer called Vic Harris hung out, and Harris was the best amateur player around. Davis needed better competition, although pretty soon not even Harris could live with him.

I tell him, as I make a shambles of my break, that I once played a frame with O'Sullivan, but that "The Rocket" was more of a damp squib when it came to telling me what I was doing wrong, in the same way, I suppose, that George Best could never have taught someone to perform the perfect nutmeg.

"Yeah, the difference is that I have always looked at myself as an apprentice," Davis says. "I wanted to know everything about it, from the rules, to putting a tip on, to why the balls behave as they do. People like Ronnie don't care about that. If you ask how they do it, they say they just do it. Which is just as valid."

We knock the balls around for a few minutes, while Davis assesses my style. It is not much of one. My highest break is 40, but that was achieved in the distant past, around the time that he won the first of his six World Championships. Still, I'm not completely useless, which he acknowledges, while rather damning with faint praise. "You're not without an ability to find the line of a pot," he says. This, it occurs to me, is like a driving instructor saying that his pupil is not without an ability to point the car in the right direction.

"It is quite a simple game in some respects," he adds. "It's like a darts action; pull back, push through. Now, let's assume that you're lined up right. If a dart player pulls back quickly, it reduces his chance of pushing through correctly, so the pull-back is important. You need a controlled pull-back and in the transition from the cue going backwards to forwards, you must stop the cue for a split second. The hit is a separate action from the pull-back, using separate muscles.

"The biggest fault that occasional players like you make is that they're in free fall from the instant they pull the cue back. It's like the caddie says to the golfer: 'If you could slow your backswing down to a blur, sir, you'd be a much better player'. You need to feel that you're pulling back at half-speed, quarter-speed even, and then pausing before the push-through.

"Most of the players - myself, Stephen Hendry - have some sort of pause. A few don't pause - Jimmy White, Tony Drago - but the suspicion is always that they'd be even better if they did. Paul Hunter hasn't got much of one, but he's got one. Ronnie has one, but then of course there's a style within the style."

Davis tells me that Hendry's is the cueing action I should watch if I want to get better. "If you improve your pull-back, that will improve your level of consistency beyond recognition, and that then encourages other good things. Stephen's is excellent, very simple, and Steven Lee has a great cueing action too. They'd be good players to copy, and I'm not bad. But if you tried to copy Ronnie you'd probably come unstuck with the speed."

He watches my new improved pull-back, and seems content that I have absorbed the message. "If I was a coach I'd take your money now and tell you to go away for a week and practise. There'd be no point doing anything else in the session." But our session continues, with me asking him to explain the different spins he exerts on the cue ball.

"You know Newton's Cradle, the businessmen's toy? If a ball with no spin hits another ball, it stops. It's like in curling. If a stone hits another head on, it stops dead. But the snooker ball is usually at least rolling, which is spin, and gives it forward momentum. When you hit it with overspin, which means it's spinning faster than it's rolling, that's when it powers on through.

"But there's an effect on the object ball, not only on the cue ball. When you put left-hand sidespin on the cue ball, it puts fractional right-hand sidespin on the object ball, which is what you need to know when you're trying to avoid the double-kiss. Every spin on the cue ball has the opposite effect on the object ball. You have to be aware of the physics. Ronnie doesn't know any of this, except that he does know it, by instinct."

Davis concedes that he doesn't love snooker as much as he used to, doesn't spend the hours on the practice table that he did in his pomp. "But one thing that's kept my enthusiasm for this length of time is the science of it. I've always been mechanically minded, and in one respect it's kept my sanity."

As the snooker season moves towards its blue riband event, the World Championship at the Crucible, the former champ knows that at 46 he can still pose a threat. There was a time - the era of Ray Reardon and Eddie Charlton - when 46 was downright young to be a top snooker player. Not now. The game has changed dramatically, but Davis, to his credit, has tried to change with it.

"One of the ways it has changed is that we now play on very thin cloths. There is less friction, so when we break off, it's the difference between breaking off on carpet and breaking off on ice. After three or four safety shots the reds are everywhere. So you have to be more proficient at break-building than safety, whereas in the Eighties safety and tactics was one way of winning.

"The whole mindset has changed. There used to be a school of thought which said that the shot along the cushion was too risky. The modern-day thinking is to go for it, because if you miss it there are more parts of the table for it to go safe than places over a pocket. Twenty or 30 years ago there was one player ahead of his time, Cliff Wilson, who used to play that way. Then others came along - Alex Higgins, Jimmy White.

"The other line of thinking now with a difficult pot is 'This guy's so good, this could be my only chance to win'. Years ago I could turn shots down because I knew I would get another chance to win. It was a percentage choice. Why take the risk? He'll probably mess up a safety shot soon. Now, the 60-40 against shot is probably worth going for. So I have had to teach myself not to be afraid of certain shots."

Once upon a time it was Davis who set trends. He was the first player with a full-time manager, the irrepressible Barry Hearn. Now, although he is still with Hearn, he is amused to find himself one of the few players without an entourage.

"To be a successful golfer these days you need not only the nutritionist, not only the technical coach, but also the mind coach, all vying not just for attention but also for wages. There's nowhere near as much money in snooker, but there are a few sports psychologists on the circuit. And they say that you can have all the technical ability in the world, but it's no good if your mind's not right, to which the technical coach says that if you haven't got the basics in place it doesn't matter what your mind's like.

"Obviously it's a mixture, but to me it's predominantly technical. I did start reading that book by Napoleon someone that Peter Ebdon went on about after he won the World Championship [it was Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and I know because Ebdon gave me a copy, as he gives copies to virtually everyone who crosses his path]. I could understand where it was coming from, but it wasn't for me.

"I have also read The Inner Game Of Golf, which in essence says try not to try, don't get your mind in the way of a shot. That's all very well, but there are moments when you have to try, and that's when the mechanics click in.

Even if your mind's telling you you're going to miss it, the mechanics can still get it in. The mind coaches all go on about visualising the shot, visualising yourself lifting the trophy, but really, what else can they say?"

It's a safe bet that Davis, in preparing for the World Championship, will not visualise himself lifting the trophy. He's got a whole library of videos of himself doing that, after all. But nor will he be short of confidence. By reaching the final of the Welsh Open, which he lost to O'Sullivan, he reminded himself that he could still mix it with the best.

"I'd lost the habit of getting to the final stages, and it is very much a habit. And you do get better towards the end of a tournament, because by then it's just another day in the office. The first round is the nervous one. By the end of the tournament you're on auto-pilot. Even in the final of the World Championship there's less pressure than in the first round. I know it sounds silly, but that's the way it is."

While he tells me this, I complete a flawless break of seven - red, blue, red - and he declares himself happy with my progress. "If you walked into a snooker club and someone saw you hitting the first few shots you hit, they'd think 'He's a mug'. Now, with you pulling your cue back under control, whether you get the ball in or not, your credibility is raised."

Turning up with Steve Davis doesn't hurt the credibility, either. Maybe that's the part I need to practise.

Steve Davis life and times

1957 Born in Plumstead.

1959 Given first (2ft) snooker table as Christmas present.

1974 Meets future manager Barry Hearn at the Luciana Snooker Club in Romford.

1978 Turns professional.

1981 Wins first of six World Championships with an 18-12 victory over Doug Mountjoy. Begins a period of eight years as the No 1 ranked player in the world.

1982 Becomes first player to make a ratified maximum break in a major tournament when he makes 147 against John Spencer in the Lada Classic at Oldham.

1985 The infamous World Championship final. Davis is beaten on the final black by Dennis Taylor in front of a record 18.5m television viewers.

1988 Wins BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

1989 Wins his sixth World Championship, beating John Parrot. Awarded MBE.

1997 Beats Ronnie O'Sullivan in final of Benson & Hedges Masters to collect a cheque for £135,000 - his largest one-off pay day.

2000 Awarded OBE.

Jan 2004 Defeated by Ronnie O'Sullivan in the final of the Welsh Open in Cardiff, aged 46. Climbs to No 11 in world rankings.

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