Snooker: Old rivalry in young man's game

Snooker, now the province of teenage talent, makes way for Steve Davis and Joe Johnson, both world champions of yesteryear.
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IT IS funny how stress can play tricks with the mind and, as Paul Hunter and Fergal O'Brien waited to play their second round match in the Welsh Open yesterday, their past flashed before their eyes.

Two middle-aged men were also fidgeting nervously in the shadows of the Cardiff International Arena and, if the two twenty-something tiros had thought "Ah, they're letting the old folks on the tables for a treat", you could have forgiven them.

The strange thing about snooker is that, for a sport which largely involves sitting around with the not exacting alternative of sedately hitting balls round a table, it has become almost exclusively a profession for the young.

In the 1970s, when Fred Davis could reach a world championship semi-finals at the age of 64, anyone looking for an appropriate sponsor would have lit up at the thought of Sanatogen, now with players winning titles almost before they are out of nappies there would be misgivings about anything more adult than Tizer.

But not for the two players on table two yesterday. Steve Davis and Joe Johnson are not in the vanguard of snooker's youth movement, indeed they would be bringing up the rear if Dennis Taylor had not also incongruously qualified for Cardiff. At 41 and 46 they are relics of another, some would say golden, age.

Thirteen years ago they were the principal players in a tale which very nearly matched the greatest match in snooker's history (come on now, Taylor, black ball and 18m television viewers) when Johnson, an unknown outside snooker's inner sanctum, won the world championship beating Davis 18-12 in the final.

"Fluke" it was said except Johnson got to the final at the Crucible the following year and was only just nudged out of a second title by Davis at the height of his powers. The two players bending their wills against each other yesterday have a history.

Ah, history. Some would say yesterday's men cling to that in their twilight years except that yesterday they were the men. Hunter, 20, is the Welsh champion while O'Brien, 23, is ranked 17th in the world and rising and as you would expect the crowds, such as they were at 10am, flocked to their match.

They did what? The spectators barely gave the younger men a glance as they took their vantage points for Johnson and Davis. They might be classed as dinosaurs but then Jurassic Park did better at the box office than any brat pack movie.

Not that anyone would describe Davis as looking much different from 1986. There may be a few more wrinkles on snooker's Mr Stoneface but they were not visible from the gallery and his frame is as straight as his cue. Johnson, however, shows signs of middle age and when he wandered, bespectacled and blinking, into the arena with a brown tweed over his bib and tucker he gave a good impression of an eccentric professor who had put on the wrong jacket for a posh night out.

Then again, when you are having a mini-renaissance among rivals who are less peers than grandchildren-like you are entitled to appear studious and Johnson, who has had several heart attacks, is happy to be able to play at all never mind at 55th in the world.

In a sense he belongs to an era even earlier than Davis, who won the world title at 23, five years before Johnson's year, but who was the harbinger of the youth revolution that is still fermenting.

Johnson was nearly 30 before he turned pro, an age when players now are looking for their slippers and an early retirement, and he would have remained amateur if it had not been for the weather on the M62. En route to the English Amateur Championships from his home in Yorkshire his car was stopped by snow and, defaulted from the tournament and denied another chance at the world amateur, he went into the moneyed ranks.

"I was happy as I was," he said. "I was No 1 amateur in the world, I was captain of the England team, been in the final of the world amateur. I was king of the table, the last thing I wanted to do was become just another pro. I was a little bit old any way."

There is no "bit" about it now because Johnson is Methuselah-like in this teenage land and like anyone of his seniority he is entitled to take his time. The four matches around them had long since finished and the afternoon session had started before Davis prevailed 5-3 in a three-hour- 33-minute meander down memory lane.

The turning point came at 3-3 when Johnson led 46-11. "I thought I was going to win, but he played some fantastic snooker and I don't think I got another look at a ball. It was as if Steve said: `I refuse to lose'."

Had his mind wandered to previous meetings? "I remember being very relaxed in the world final," he replied, "it was more like playing in the local club. Once you get the prize-money and the ranking points the pressure is off you. In some ways it was more nerve-racking today."

Davis, too, was aware of precedent. "Joe belongs to an era which I'm supposed to have dominated so if I hadn't won it would have been regarded as total failure," he said. "People forget how good Joe was and is so I tend to prefer playing young players rather than people from the Eighties."

Davis will get his wish. Yesterday's match was a nostalgic reprise in an unstoppable march towards younger and younger champions.