25.11.11

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE UK CHAMPIONSHIP: THE 1980s

Though it may not have been apparent at the time, Steve Davis was in the right place at the right time: a talented young snooker player turning professional just as the sport was beginning to move forward.

A student of technique, he had something less definable, a quality of personality which enabled him to retreat into his own mind when the chaos of snooker, with its heady mix of skill, pressure and luck, was all around him.

Barry Hearn, his gregarious manager, had the opposite persona to his shy young charge. Hearn came from a working class background but went into accountancy on his mother’s advice: “you never meet a poor one” she had told him.

He purchased a string of snooker clubs and in Davis identified a rare character, and someone who would work as hard as was necessary to achieve his goals.

They were part of the Romford mob, a brash crowd who would reap the financial rewards of a sport swiftly demanding serious TV time.

In 1980, the BBC upped its coverage of the UK Championship from three days to nine. Davis won it, beating Alex Higgins 16-6 in the final. It was the first of more than 80 titles he has won thus far.

A demonstration of his growing confidence and status came in the semi-finals where he demolished Terry Griffiths 9-0.

In the 1981 final Davis, already world champion, steamrollered Griffiths again, 16-3, to defend his title.

Griffiths got some sort of revenge in 1982, beating Davis 9-6 in the quarter-finals, and in the final edged Higgins 16-15 from 15-13 down in what one newspaper dubbed ‘The Shoot-out at the UK Coral’ – the bookmakers having come in as title sponsors.

The 1983 final still provides great memories for Higgins’s loyal army of fans. If snooker was a soap opera than Higgins was Dirty Den: mad, bad and dangerous to know. Davis, on the other hand, was Ken Barlow: boringly dependable.

The point, though, is that while Den was killed off (twice, in fact), Barlow is still going strong to this day.

In 1983, it looked as if the player given the ironic nickname ‘Interesting’ would prevail after Davis raced into a 7-0 lead.

But Higgins was never better than in a fight and he roared back, his supporters with him for every ball, to win 16-15, one of his greatest ever victories and one of snooker’s most pulsating finals.

The rematch came a year later but fizzled out, Davis winning 16-8. He was deep in trouble in the 1985 final against Willie Thorne, who led 13-8 only to miss a straightforward final blue and lose the frame.

Davis scented blood and launched his own fightback, winning 16-14 in a defeat that almost came to define Thorne’s career.

A fifth UK title came Davis’s way in 1986 when he defeated Neal Foulds 16-7 in a tournament best remembered for Higgins’s headbuttting of the tournament director, which led to a £12,000 fine and five-tournament suspension.

A sixth title was secured when Davis beat Jimmy White 16-14 in 1987, which he described afterwards as “the highest standard match I’ve ever played in.”

It was ten years since Patsy Fagan had won the inaugural UK Championship and collected a winner’s cheque for £2,000. Davis’s prize was £70,000, a sign of how snooker had gone forth and multiplied in the intervening decade.

Indeed, it seemed as if Davis’s run of success would go on and on. However, a few weeks before his sixth UK triumph, an 18 year-old Scot named Stephen Hendry had won the Grand Prix.

Hendry had many of the same qualities Davis possessed: self assurance, a strong work ethic, in Ian Doyle a canny manager and, of course, the talent on the table to succeed.

He swept Davis away 9-3 in the 1988 semi-finals but his coronation was not to be. Doug Mountjoy, at 46 and ten years on from his first UK title capture, instead authored a remarkable fairy tale by winning it again.

Dropping down the rankings and apparently into the autumn of his career, Mountjoy went to see Frank Callan, a Blackpool fishmonger and astute coach who set about rebuilding his game.

After the first day, the final was poised at 7-7, but Mountjoy pulled away in style, winning all seven frames of the third session and compiling three successive centuries.

Hendry recovered to 15-12 but Mountjoy duly completed an emotional 16-12 victory.

Hendry’s time would come, though, and indeed did a year later when he won the last UK title of the 1980s with a 16-12 defeat of Davis.

He had beaten him before but never over this distance in a match of such importance.

It was symbolic of the changing of the guard at the top of snooker: the Davis era of dominance was over and the Hendry years had begun.

6 comments:

jamie brannon said...

Mark King and Peter Ebdon would be the Mitchell Brothers.

mg147 said...

Good article! :)

These best-of 11`s nowadays don´t really seem right for the 2nd most important tournament..
If they (BBC?) insist on best-of 11´s, why not at least have the final best-of 31, to give the tournament a worthy finale?!

mg147.

Ray said...

Excellent piece Dave and a very good summation of Higgins and Davis.
Two of the most incredible changes of character and persona in any walk of life (let alone sport) must be Steve Davis and boxer George Foreman. They are unrecognisable now to how they were at the height of their powers - like 2 different people.
Incidentally it's a disgrace that the 83 and 88 UK Championship Finals are not available on dvd. They were 2 of the most iconic finals in the history of snooker. What a crying shame.

Tim Sandle said...

This is a great series of articles.

Alex Higgins had a very impressive run in the UK for a period of time:

1977: semi-final, 1978: semi-final; 1979: quarter-final; 1980: final; 1981: quarter-final; 1982: final; 1983: winner; 1984: final; 1985: last-16; 1986: semi-final; 1987: last-16; 1988: last-32; 1989: last-32

Not close to Davis' achievements, but probably second best over that era in terms of number of matches won, at least until his natural ability slipped away.

Certain players play their best over long matches and it's a shame that these better tests of ability are fewer these days.

wild said...

Although the UK is still with us today and is still a Major championship the single biggest mistake any governing body in snooker has made was reduce the final from a best of 31 in 1993 even bigger than the Best of 11 of this year.

as a kid for me the UK Was the Winter World Championship something different to the norm then during the 90s it became very much the same as any other event and culminating in the format this year.

reduction might be done with the best of intensions but you might aswell say it killed the UK as a true MAJOR.

Graeme said...

Terrific piece Dave.
The UK in the 80's provided so many memorable sporting moments.

Higgins' amazing comeback to defeat Romford Slim in '83 was as much about putting one over the Hearn dynasty and everything it represented. One to the street fighter.

Davis v White in '87 was another 'classic' that Jimmy fell just short of.

Mountjoy's swan song victory against Hendry in '88 was equalled only by his magnanimous and generous praise of Hendry during his acceptance speech. A very classy gesture and a very accurate prediction.

Snooker has much to be proud of.