He may not be playing at the Crucible this year but no reminiscence about the World Championship is complete without mention of Steve Davis.

It is now 30 years since he won the world title for the first time, 30 years since his manager, Barry Hearn, barrelled across the Crucible stage and nearly knocked him over, 30 years since they cemented in the public mind a partnership that would conquer new ground for the game.

Davis first played at the Crucible in 1979. James Callaghan was still prime minister and Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

On that debut appearance, and perhaps unused to such long matches, Davis felt peckish and so had a ham sandwich delivered to the arena. These were more innocent times but he was still accused in the press of not giving the game enough respect.

Steve Davis not giving the game enough respect! Is there anyone, anywhere in the world with a deeper love for and fascination with snooker?

His other love was, of course, for winning, which he very quickly set about doing after his initial 13-11 defeat to Dennis Taylor.

In 1980, Davis beat the defending champion, Terry Griffiths, for the first of seven times at Sheffield before losing 13-9 to Alex Higgins.

By 1981 he was UK champion and an obvious world champion in the making. Davis was a shy man but part of a brash, ballsy group from Essex, led by Hearn, and the ‘Nugget’ seemed to relish being part of a team in what was, and remains, a peculiarly individual sport.

That year Davis beat Jimmy White, Higgins, Griffiths, Cliff Thorburn and, in the final, Doug Mountjoy to win his first world title.

This was a gruelling route to glory. It’s fashionable to look back at this era as being somehow low in standard. It wasn’t. These guys were hard match players still playing for a meagre living. They gave you nothing and you had to scrape them off the table.

Cloths were thicker and balls were heavier. Break building was tough and the game was full of arch tacticians.

Hearn, who had been introduced to Davis in one of his clubs in the 1970s, possessed an entrepreneurial spirit that could thrive in an era where television was putting snooker front and centre. The pair made serious money in endorsements, exhibitions and personal appearances.

But it all took its toll on Davis that first year. Exhausted, he fell 10-1 to Tony Knowles in the first round in 1982.

The titles kept coming, though. He was by now clearly the best player in the game and in 1983 swept through the field – a 13-11 defeat of Taylor in the second round his only close match – beating Thorburn 18-6 in the final with a session to spare.

In 1984 he lost a 12-4 lead over White but still beat him 18-16 in the final. Davis went into the 1985 championship as a racing certainty to land a fourth world title.

But we all know what happened in the final. And his defeat to Taylor opened up a crack in his confidence that clearly played a role the following year when Joe Johnson beat him 18-12.

Even in 1987 it was close, Johnson recovering from 14-10 down to just 14-13 before Davis won 18-14.

And in 1988 he led Griffiths 5-2 but, after being hauled back to 8-8, was fearful of another turnaround. On the morning of the last day, Davis went for an early morning walk around Sheffield to clear his head. He won 18-11.

In 1989 he blew away John Parrott 18-3, the heaviest defeat inflicted on any player at the Crucible, and stood on top of the snooker world, its imperious, all conquering top dog.

But, inside, Davis was not happy with his game and he was also aware that Stephen Hendry was biting at his heels.

As one decade ended and another began, so a new snooker era would dawn, dominated first by Hendry and then by three outstanding talents: John Higgins, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Snooker had changed. The boom Davis led had created a string of talented young players, all of whom looked instinctively to attack. Standards rose and many of the old guard were simply left behind.

Back in 1981, there were 13 centuries recorded at the Crucible. Last year there were 61 – itself 22 fewer than the record.

When the 1990s began Davis was still better than almost everyone but Hendry overtook him in the rankings, White beat him in the 90 semis, John Parrott in the last four in 91 and, the following year, he was humbled in the first round by Peter Ebdon.

Even so, he was still winning titles and went into the 1994 championship knowing that if he went further than Hendry he would return to no.1 spot in the official world rankings.

They met in the semis – what a shame they never contested a Crucible final – and Davis led 9-8 before Hendry pulled away to beat him 16-9.

Davis managed one more quarter-final appearance until he was relegated from the top 16 in 2000. For two years he failed to qualify but returned in 2003.

I remember him sitting in the pressroom in Malta a couple of months before the 2005 championship, the last to be sponsored by Embassy.

He said he didn’t really practise much but that he would be putting the hours in for the World Championship, out of deference to the departing Imperial Tobacco.

Davis duly reached the quarter-finals at the age of 47, an admirable feat in its own right but what followed last year topped it ten fold.

It wasn’t just that he beat John Higgins, it was the way he did it, playing some of the frighteningly hard snooker he employed to put so many opponents to the sword in the 1980s.

The reception he got afterwards was proof of the esteem in which he is now held as the game’s elder statesman.

It all ended against Neil Robertson and it is a great irony that the changes Davis and Hearn have introduced have hastened his decline.

The PTCs are for younger, hungrier players. Davis is sliding down the rankings and, though I suspect he will carry on, it’s hard to see his career continuing for too much longer.

Yet to update a famous Davis quote, it's all there in colour: his triumphs and his glories, the titles and the trophies. As long as people talk about snooker, they will talk about him.

At 53, it seems likely that Steve Davis has walked off the Crucible stage for the last time.

But hasn’t he left us with some wonderful memories?


Colin M said...

What a fantastic article Dave! I hope we'll see Steve again in a playing capacity at the Crucible. But if we don't, I'll never forget his performance at last year's championships. Truly an awesome display that will go down in the annals of snooker history....

John McBride said...

Hard to know Dave what's to be said about the Man that already hasn't.

My first experiences of the fella dates back to the early 80’s when he used to come in to our club (Ron Gross (RIP) SC in Neasden) & practice there ahead of his B&H Masters matches.

I ended up playing him in ’85 at the Wembley conference centre, just a month after his loss against Dennis Taylor. I asked him if he’d mind me introducing my Mum to him. He ended up sitting beside her having a drink with her, laughing away, let my sisters take as many pictures as they wanted, an all round top bloke.

When he beat John Parrot 18-3 in the final you mention above, I thought then that Snooker couldn’t be played any better, perfection if you like.

The Man has all my respect & always will have. Long may he continue to look down a cue too.

Keith said...

I know people run a mile from any concept of "wildcards" but I don't see why previous champions shouldn't be invited back up to a reasonable limit by age (or perhaps by world ranking). It works well in the Open Golf.

Sparky said...

Davis must have been in a gruesome part of the draw back in 1981.

He beat White, Griffiths, Higgins and Thorburn to reach the final. You could argue that these 4 along with Davis were the 5 best players of the time.

The other half of the draw must have been A LOT easier...?

Dzierzgul said...

Also, one memorable thing about his 1989 Crucible victory: en route to the title, he lost only 23 frames and played 93 frames, which I believe is still a record since 1980 when they introduced the format used - albeit slightly changed - till today (best od 19, of 25, of 25, of 31/33, of 25). Stephen Hendry came close second in 1993; he won the title in 96 frames, having lost 26 of them.

Dave H said...

Sparky - Mountjoy had a pretty brutal draw too

He beat Willie Thorne, Eddie Charlton, Dennis Taylor and Ray Reardon to reach the final

Betty LOgan said...

I don't think you could put White in the top 5 at that stage of his career, but Davis had to beat the previous two world champions and the following year's, so I think it's fair to say he beat the best three players in the game at the time (Davis ironically probably didn't join the elite until his world title win). I still maintain this is the toughest route ever to a world title, even more so than Hendry's in 1999.

Anonymous said...

i disagree on your last point betsy

Gus gorman said...

Excellent article Dave!
I hope its not the last we see of him at the Crucible.
It was very dissapointing to see him bow out at the qualifyers like he did.

He is one of the games greats,come win or lose,his passion for the game will never be matched.
Im sure if he could force himself to put in the practice needed he could come back.

He has lost a lot of close games this season 5-4 so who knows.
It will be a sad day when he packs in,i suspect he will be dragged off the circuit before that though!


Hi David. Great memories, Great man. More than just "Interesting."

Anonymous said...

on another note dave. just seen ding has been fined £2000 for losing to fellow chinese player wengbo. reason given he played not feeling well and didnt tell wsa. no inquiry into this maybe being a match which could be bent and had money bet on the outcome in china then? mmm .makes u think cus hes 4 in the world and china is the future for snooker perhaps barry and co decided it wasnt in thier financial interest to rock the boat.

Dave H said...

There's no evidence of unusual betting patterns on the match in question.

Also, Hearn doesn't handle disciplinary cases. They are processed by David Douglas.

Anonymous said...

not on about unusual betting patterns in the bookies in uk dave. serious cash only bets could easily take place in china ,hong kong ,thailand. its how it works in the far east.u telling me this cant happen?

Anonymous said...

dave (i am not 12.38)

i dont know of any betting patterns and if there were i think theyd have been uncovered by now.

what i think will be a cloud over Ding is that anyone watching that video will conclude HE COULD ;) HAVE BEEN playing poorly and letting his friend win......then when a video of it appeared on the internet and an investigation was started he had to have an excuse, so said he was unwell and took the rap for not letting WS etc know before the match.

if the video wasnt posted on the net etc then i doubt the claim of being unwell would have been required etc

all of the above is what a lot of people will conclude for themselves.

of course what ding said was wrong with him is actually true and any conjecture is purely that ( and if it doesnt agree with the official story, then its wrong ;) )

Anonymous said...

Seems harsh to me.

Betty Logan said...

Wow, I'm glad Jim MacDonald robbed the bank last night; if it happened during the world championship I'm not sure I could take all the excitement.

Mal said...

Yes, Davis certainly had it tough to win in 1981, but in terms of tough routes to the WC, in 1985, Taylor had Silvino Francisco - the last ranking winner - British Open champ - so in form, Eddie Charlton no 6 in the world and then the world's top 3 players - Thorburn, Knowles and Davis of course.

He destroyed all his opponents en route to final losing only 18 frames (Davis lost 23)

It is the only time the WC winner has beat the top 3 seeds.

Still think 1999 was the toughest, and would edge 1985 above 1981.

Betty Logan said...

The thing about 1999 was that Hendry's opposition was a bit "Tomorrow's World". Williams and O'Sullivan were world class, but yet to make the step up to all-time greats; Hunter and Stevens were still very much in the process of making names for themselves.

jamie brannon said...

Tend to agree with Dave, that was the toughest route anyone has had to win a world title.

They were all world-class players at that point, during a period when the game's standard at the top end was as good as it has ever been, arguably.

Mal said...

I take your point Betty, but Wiliams and O'Sullivan were already great - only due to Hendry and Higgins that they were not already no.1 and no.2 - and they were to win the following two world champs and had already won plenty of other ranking tournaments. Stevens had just got to the UK final and Hunter was a ranking tournament winner. (and Wattana was still tough proposition in those days)

Betty Logan said...

Round 1: Hunter trumps White (Hunter was a ranking winner, White was yet to win a tournament).

Round 2: Higgins trumps Wattana easily.

QF: Griffiths trumps Stevens (Stevens was in the ascendency, but Griffiths won the WC and Masters in the previous two seasons, and would win the UK the following year)

SF: Thorburn trumps O'Sullivan (Ronnie obviously became the better player, but Thorburn was the defending champion and would finish the season world number 1)

F: Williams trumps Mountjoy (Mountjoy's big wins came a few years earlier, whereas Williams had won the Masters the previous year and would finish the year UK champ)

The result: 3–2 to 1981.

Colin M said...

Shame Reardon got knocked out in '81 Dave. Davis vs. Reardon would have been an appropriate world final, but perhaps the "Snooker Gods" were against it....