John Spencer

Three times world champion who with Ray Reardon and Alex Higgins changed the face of snooker

Wednesday 01 April 2009 15:43

John Spencer, snooker player: born Radcliffe, Lancashire 18 September 1935; English Amateur Champion 1966; World Champion 1969, 1971, 1977; Benson & Hedges Masters champion 1975; Benson & Hedges Irish Masters champion 1978; Chairman, World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association 1990-96; married 1969 Margot Sawbridge; died Bury, Lancashire 11 July 2006.

He wasn't as confrontational as Alex Higgins, or as successful as Ray Reardon, but John Spencer was an integral part of the threesome that helped change the face of snooker in the 1970s.

From his local billiard hall, the Grott, on the banks of the River Irwell in Radcliffe, Lancashire, Spencer progressed to become champion of the world on three occasions. In 1975 he was also the inaugural winner of the game's longest running invitation event, the Benson & Hedges Masters, and in 1979 the first professional to compile a competitive 147 maximum break.

There were other lesser titles for the Lancastrian, who died on Tuesday in a cancer hospice just a few miles from Radcliffe, where he was born, one of five children, in 1935. Indeed, despite a playing career spanning four decades that took him all over the world, Spencer, known affectionately throughout the game as "Spenny", never moved from his beloved Lancashire.

Had it not been for his arch-rival Reardon and the emergence of an Ulster firebrand called Higgins, Spencer would certainly have dominated the game to a far greater extent. Spencer and Reardon were never close friends away from the table, perhaps a reason why their rivalry on it was so fierce. "Everyone thought we were the best of friends, which certainly wasn't true as far as I was concerned," Spencer said a couple of years ago. "I never really got to know him personally," Reardon, a six-time world champion, confirmed on hearing of Spencer's death. "But he was a great player."

Ray Edmonds, a contemporary and later commentary-box colleague, described Spencer as a "professional's professional". Terry Griffiths, the 1979 world champion, said: "I probably played John after his best, but he never complained when he lost. He just shook your hand and that was credit to him."

John Spencer collected his first world title in 1969, beating Gary Owen 46-27 at the Victoria Hall in London and received a cheque for £1,050. (In contrast, Graeme Dott collected £200,000 earlier this year for his marathon victory against Peter Ebdon.) The bulk of his titles came during the 1970s; an era when he added two more world championships, including the honour of winning the first ever tournament held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, in 1977. He won the Pot Black tournament on three occasions, having lost in the first final in 1969 to Reardon.

Spencer didn't enjoy anything like the same sort of success in the 1980s due to the emergence of "youngsters" such as Steve Davis and Jimmy White. Higgins, who denied him a fourth world title in 1972, was still at the peak of his powers. In 1985 Spencer was diagnosed with the incurable eye disease myasthenia gravis, a condition that brought a premature end to his career and also took him to the brink of insanity.

He wrote movingly about his condition and the devastating side effects of his steroid intake in his autobiography, Out of the Blue into the Black (2005). The steroids caused him to suffer terrible mood swings, devastating for someone who had been known as the game's No 1 practical joker. Indeed, his biggest fear was ending his days in a psychiatric ward. "When I was down, I never went any part of any day or night without contemplating suicide," he said. Unsurprisingly, his marriage broke up, but he received unswerving support and loyalty from his partner of the last 16 years, Jean.

Despite the health problems, Spencer played on, and in 1987 reached the quarter-finals of the Dulux British Open at Derby. After leading Jimmy White, he eventually lost 5-3, but his prize of £9,000 remained the largest of his career.

With his vast knowledge of the game and its characters, Spencer was an ideal choice as a television summariser. Few have bettered his brand of dry wit and intelligent commentary. He appeared a less likely choice as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, particularly during the regular periods of unrest and civil war that have been detrimental to the sport in recent times. However, from 1990, "Chairman John" held the post for nearly six years before depression and the political manoeuvrings led to his resignation.

He was to be seen less and less at tournaments, although he was always a welcome visitor. In 2003, Spencer was diagnosed with the lung and stomach cancer that eventually ended his life. Realising there was no cure, he shunned further chemotherapy treatment in order to live as normal a life as possible. Last summer he made a parachute jump from 13,000 feet to help raise funds for the Myasthenia Gravis Association.

One of his last public appearances was at a book signing session at the Grand Prix in Preston last October; a month later he received a lifetime achievement award from the Snooker Writers' Association.

Despite the sadness surrounding his later years Spencer will always be fondly remembered for being one of snooker's all-time great exponents as well as a legendary prankster and practical joker.

Trevor Baxter

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