The UK Championship was first held in 1977. Its champion in 1978 was Doug Mountjoy, who two years earlier had won the world amateur title and thus found a way into the professional game, at the time a shop not so much closed as boarded up.

Mountjoy had won the Masters in 1977, went on to reach the 1981 World Championship final, became a familiar face on TV and spent 11 successive years in the elite top 16.

But by 1988, he was in decline. At the age of 46, he was dropping down the rankings. A 13-1 defeat by Neal Foulds at the Crucible had ended a miserable 1987/88 season in which he had won only two ranking event matches and finished 24th in the world, surely destined to keep sliding down the list.

Or so it seemed. In one of those rare, heart-warming moments sport uniquely and sporadically produces, Mountjoy authored one of snooker’s most remarkable fairytales, a compelling triumph against many odds.

But first, some background. There was no thriving circuit for a teenage Mountjoy to join. When the young players complain about money today they should consider how lucky they are to be born at a time where there is any at all in professional snooker.

At their age, Mountjoy was down a coalmine in South Wales, working long days and playing snooker only after his back-breaking shifts were done.

It was a hard life and a harder road to the top. Mountjoy turned professional at 34, when careers at the highest level are traditionally thought to be entering their final phase.

By 46, his game had declined but he made a decision which proved to be life changing. He went to see Frank Callan, a former Blackpool fishmonger who had gained a reputation as one of snooker’s leading coaches.

By following ‘the drill’ – one of Callan’s key technical routines – Mountjoy began to play with more confidence. The first sign that things might be turning round for him came at the Grand Prix in Reading in October 1988 where he knocked out the then defending champion, Stephen Hendry.

He arrived at Preston Guild Hall the following month for the UK Championship ten years after he had won it and found that the Hendry victory had been no fluke. Finding confidence and form, Mountjoy beat Foulds, Joe Johnson and John Virgo to reach the semi-finals.

In the last four he beat his old friend and compatriot Terry Griffiths, finding himself so relaxed that he went to sleep in his dressing room during one of the intervals.

And so, against any predictions, Mountjoy was back in the UK final. And facing him was Hendry, still only 19 but a player well poised to inherit the snooker earth.

This was a clash of styles, of generations and of goals: Hendry was looking to win the biggest title of his career to date, Mountjoy hoping to improbably turn back the clock.

In those days the final was played over two days and four sessions. Hendry made two centuries in the first of these but Mountjoy ended it 5-2 ahead.

A 98 break on the resumption made this 6-2 but in the next frame he missed a red which would have given him a five frame lead. Hendry, always a ruthless exploiter of opponents’ mistakes, seized his chance and levelled at 6-6. He made a third century in the last frame of the day to leave the final poised at 7-7.

Logic dictated Hendry would pull away on the second day. In fact, the opposite happened as Mountjoy produced surely the finest session of snooker of his whole career to win all seven frames played, ending with back-to-back centuries.

He began the evening with a third in succession to lead 15-7. Watched by a peak BBC audience of 13.2m, Hendry started to pull back the deficit, rallying to 15-12, but Mountjoy did enough in the next to win 16-12, land the £80,000 first prize and see his name once again etched upon a major trophy.

Of Callan’s contribution, he said: “I didn’t have a game. It’s difficult on your own to find out what you’re doing wrong. I went to Frank. He’s helped me so much he must be sick of seeing me. Without that guy I’m nothing.”

This alone would have been a fine story for the snooker annals but there was to be a memorable postscript as Mountjoy went on to win the next ranking event as well, the Mercantile Classic.

He rose to fifth in the rankings and reached another ranking final at the 1991 Dubai Classic, losing to Hendry.

And then, with everything going well again, Mountjoy suffered a double setback: he had a cancerous lung removed and found that a manager had badly ripped him off.

His career declined again and he quit the circuit in 1997 to coach in Dubai. Recently he has reappeared on TV screens in the World Seniors Championship and has practised at Tredegar Snooker Club, owned by Mark Williams.

Mountjoy’s second UK Championship triumph was 25 years ago this week. It doesn’t seem that long, perhaps because it is one of those snooker moments which feels timeless – a genuine tale of adversity conquered and of victory all the sweeter second time around. 


Snookerbrain1968 said...

Excellent Dave.
Of that Tennents UK championship in '88, Mountjoy was so generous and wholesome of his praise of Hendry, almost to the point of deflecting most of glory of his own victory. A very humble but nonetheless classy gesture.
Just as Nicklaus triumphed at the Masters at the same age two years earlier, always inspiring when a veteran can battle against the odds to come out on top one last time.

dancatz said...

I remember Doug's renaissance well, and it led to me learning about Frank Callan and buying his book. So lovely that you have brought these memories back. I think Doug also got the highest break in one of these tournament victories, a beautiful 145? I might be getting mixed up. One quote from Doug that sticks in my mind from this time was him saying something along the lines of 'Frank discovered that I'd been hitting across the ball whenever I applied side' which helped me with my own game. Nice one Dave :)