“The most remarkable world final I’ve ever seen” was how Ted Lowe described the finale of the 1986 World Championship.

This was some statement considering just 12 months earlier Ted had called home Dennis Taylor’s dramatic black ball defeat of Steve Davis.

But he had a point. Whereas Taylor had already been in a world final and was among the favourites to win in 1985, Joe Johnson’s run to glory had come from nowhere.

Where specifically had Johnson come from? Answer: a time before playing professional snooker could give you a good living.

A keen player in the Yorkshire area, Joe worked for the gas board and played in the amateur ranks, eventually reaching the 1978 world amateur final, where he lost to Cliff Wilson.

Johnson did not believe there was much point turning professional but was inspired by Terry Griffiths’s title victory in 1979. If Terry could overturn the old order, why couldn’t he?

He was 27 when he took the plunge – very late by today’s standards – and there were only two pro tournaments he could enter.

He topped up his earnings with exhibitions and money matches with, among others, Steve Davis, against whom he had a very good record, something that would be crucial to his eventual Crucible triumph.

Progress on the circuit was slow but, in 1983, Johnson reached the final of the Professional Players Tournament, a ranking event, where he lost 9-8 to Tony Knowles.

Later that season he qualified for the Crucible for the first time, losing 10-1 to Dennis Taylor. He did enough the following year – including a semi-final appearance in the Mercantile Classic – to squeeze into the elite top 16 at 16.

In 1986, he did not expect much. He had a poor record against Taylor, who he was due to meet in the second round. But Taylor fell to Mike Hallett on the opening day and Johnson beat Dave Martin and then Hallett to reach the quarter-finals.

In the last eight he met Griffiths, something of an arch nemesis. Johnson found him very difficult to play and had almost always lost to the steely Welshman.

Griffiths duly overturned a 9-7 deficit to lead 11-9 at the final interval and then 12-9 a frame later before Johnson produced what remains one of the most inspirational four frame bursts seen at the Crucible.

On the attack, he made two centuries to come through 13-12 and for the first time raise the prospect of going all the way.

I know Joe is still grateful for some words of advice Griffiths gave him afterwards, not least because he must have been so disappointed to go out.

Now feeling he had nothing to lose, Johnson swept aside Knowles 16-8 in the semi-finals to set up a two-day final with Davis, who was anxious to put right what had happened the previous year against Taylor.

The way Joe saw it, all the pressure was on his opponent: he himself was guaranteed £40,000 – more money than he had ever seen before – and whatever happened it would be an experience to remember forever.

He had the crowd on his side, not just because he was an underdog but also because he was a Yorkshireman. And he knew he could beat Davis – he had done so in many of those money matches.

He wore distinctive pink shoes and seemed to represent the everyman, giving hope to all those players who dreamed of being part of such a special occasion.

Day one ended with the match tied at 8-8. Johnson sneaked 13-11 ahead going into the final session.

And though the pressure should have been on, he just seemed to enjoy himself as he coasted to an 18-12 victory, which, despite not being close, drew a television audience of just over 16m.

At 33 he was world champion. It was unexpected, remarkable as Lowe had said, and his life would change in ways he could not have imagined.

There was the good – invitations to all manner of events, the best service, being treated like a king – but also the other side of fame: newspapers rifling through his private life, constant attention and the feeling of being under siege.

His life was no longer his own and his form deteriorated rapidly. The following season was a write-off until the Crucible came round again.

Johnson wobbled in the first round, beating Eugene Hughes 10-9, but then embarked on another run to the final, beating a teenage Stephen Hendry 13-12 in the quarter-finals and Neal Foulds 16-9 in the semis.

He went into the final session against Davis trailing 14-10 but won the first three frames to suggest another improbable victory. It wasn’t to be. He was beaten 18-14 but remains the first time champion who got closest to a successful title defence.

He was by now 35 and therefore at the stage where players tend to start declining. He won another title, the 1987 Scottish Masters, but ill health played a part in him gradually slipping down the rankings.

A foot injury heralded his retirement from the circuit in 2002. Earlier this season he reunited a few old pals for the World Seniors Championship. He will be commentating on this year’s World Championship for Eurosport.

Still a popular figure in the game, he has mentored young stars such as Paul Hunter and Shaun Murphy and coaches regularly in Yorkshire.

His world title victory remains one of the great shocks not just in snooker but in any sport.

Johnson managed to play the best snooker of his life at the one time in the year when it matters most.

In a bizarre postscript, many years later when he dug out the tape of the final to show friends who had never seen it, Joe discovered that one of his children had taped over it with several editions of ‘He-Man: Masters of the Universe.’

Thankfully the BBC was able to supply a replacement for this unlikely, amiable, unassuming master of the baize.


Colin M said...

Steve 'avenged' that '86 defeat in Bradford last November :-)

I had the pleasure of meeting Joe in Bradford and he's a genuinely nice guy.

He really outplayed Steve in 86, but there was a moment at a critical time in the match where Steve had him in a very difficult snooker and the BBC decided not to broadcast what happened. I didn't see the escape, but it was successful. If memory serves me corretly, the Guardian showed a graphic of it a couple of days later. Gosh it's 25 years ago now, but does anyone remember the circumstances of this shot...?

jamie brannon said...

Can anyone clear up a couple of things.

Who won the recent mixed doubles world title?

Also, what is the record number of centuries compiled in a professional match?

Anonymous said...

Sidenote: who is playing on saturday? I've looked and looked on blogs, worldsnooker, eurosport etc. but failed completely. Who will be playing in the Crucible on opening day?

Thanks and sorry for interrupting.

Anonymous said...

fond memories of happy times.
thanks dave
and joes decent at commentating....

colin, seems nobody as yet remembers....

kimball said...

What I remember is that Joe J. changed shoes back and forth,
always the slick italian gigolo
models, pink-black,white-black.

We had a good laugh about it, and he
played some terrific agressive modern

Matt said...

To the Anon asking for the Order of Play, it's here:


Anonymous said...

6-34pm http://www.worldsnooker.com/page/BetfredcomWorldChampionshipTournamentsArticle/0,,13165~2330480,00.html

Anonymous said...

Copy and paste then press related links then format..


Hi David. Joe Johnson, the 150/1 outsider. the man with the unforgettable fancy shoes. the pop singer.

As he came out for the final session of the 1986 world final, he shook David Vine's hand, with a cup of tea in his other hand, I well remember. 25 years ago.

He is My snooker coach. A great player and a great guy.