The countdown to the UK Championship starts here! (apart from all the other places it has started).
In four articles I will provide a brief history of the tournament, divided into four decades: the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
The UK Championship was born in 1977 and first played at the Tower Circus in Blackpool.
Let us pause for a moment to consider what the professional game was like in those days. There were no calls for fewer tournaments or a better structured calendar: there was no calendar, really, to speak of, just a small handful of events for low prize money.
However, the BBC’s interest in tournament snooker was growing. Having already agreed to provide full ball-by-ball coverage of the forthcoming World Championship, they elected to screen the final of the UK Championship.
It was originally solely for players from the UK and Ireland and hence did not become a ranking event until 1984 when it was opened up to all (and renamed the UK Open, incidentally, although it reverted back to its original name in 1992).
That first final was between Patsy Fagan and Doug Mountjoy, who had already won the Masters and beaten John Spencer, Willie Thorne and Alex Higgins to reach the UK final.
Fagan was a talent not long out of the amateur ranks, hardened by money matches and ready to make his way as a professional. He won 12-9. His reward was £2,000.
A year later the tournament relocated to Preston Guild Hall, which would become as synonymous with the UK Championship as the World Championship became with the Crucible.
Fagan lost in the first round to David Taylor, aka the ‘Silver Fox’, who reached the final where he was beaten 15-9 by Mountjoy.
The 1979 UK Championship will be remembered for a bizarre incident which left John Virgo doing an unplanned sprint through the Guild Hall’s adjoining shopping centre.
Virgo was through to the final – the biggest match of his career against the then world champion, Terry Griffiths.
He was doing well, too, leading 11-7 and requiring only three more frames for victory in the final session. However, the BBC’s Grandstand programme had requested a 12pm start rather than 1.45 – as it had been all week – and Virgo had not checked the schedule.
Having failed to show up at the venue he was phoned at his hotel some 15 miles away not long before the start. A manic dash to the Guild Hall ensued by he arrived 31 minutes late and was docked two frames.
Griffiths, always a sporting sort, campaigned on Virgo’s behalf but to no avail. Hardly surprisingly the Welshman won the first two frames and was thus level at 11-11 going to the interval.
Still unhappy that he could win in these circumstances, Griffiths knocked on Virgo’s dressing room door during the break and suggested they split the prize money, a well intentioned gesture that was nevertheless met with a blunt response from Virgo: “you haven’t won it yet.”
Griffiths led 13-12 but Virgo, his composure now restored, won the final two frames for his unlikely 14-13 victory.
The first prize was still only £4,500. Clearly, snooker was still growing in popularity but was yet to receive the huge cash injections that would see the sun shine permanently on the sport and its top players in the decade to follow.
Two men in particular would bask in the riches soon to be on offer. Mountjoy’s title defence had ended in the first round to a 22 year-old ginger-haired lad named Steve Davis, backed by his garrulous manager, Barry Hearn.
As one decade ended and a new one began, they were poised to change snooker forever.