Steve Davis had not enjoyed the greatest season in 1988/89, yet at the Crucible he showed his true class, winning his sixth and last World Championship.
The state of the game
As the last World Snooker Championships of the decade neared, a debate was raging as to whether the sport had lost its appeal with the viewing public. Certainly there were arguments to be heard from both sides of the partition. On the one hand, the BBC had just paid £11 million to secure television coverage until May 1996 in a deal with the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), but on the other the number of hours devoted to the sport on our screens was steadily declining. In 1985/86 400 hours of snooker had been shown, dropping to 350 in 1987 and 300 in 1988, giving the impression that over saturation in the peak days of the mid-eighties had led to apathy amongst TV executives.
News that a couple of tournaments were losing their sponsors added fuel to the fire that snooker was struggling, with Anglian Windows no longer backing the British Open and Tennents withdrawing from the UK Championship. Yet when it came to the World Championship the impression remained that the enthusiasm would still exist within both the snooker enthusiasts and casual observers alike, after all the fortnight at the Crucible in Sheffield was always special. Snooker needed an exciting 1989 World Championship, but come the end of the tournament, the ruthless displays of one of the greatest players to have held a cue left many wondering if things were becoming too predictable.
Perhaps the sport needed normality on the green baize after controversy upon controversy during the season. From the cocaine related stories involving Kirk Stevens and Cliff Thorburn, to the beta-blocker tales of Bill Werbeniuk, via match fixing allegations involving Peter Francisco, the sport was rarely off the front and back pages. Naturally Alex Higgins was often in the tabloids, suffering a broken foot when trying to escape out of a flat window after a row with his girlfriend Siobhan Kidd, but he also highlighted his undoubted talent when he defeated Stephen Hendry in the final of the Irish Masters just two weeks before Sheffield.
Higgins would not make it to Yorkshire, however. Beaten 10-8 by Welshman Darren Morgan in the qualifiers, the Hurricane was not the only notable absentee. Werbeniuk had been stripped of professional status after failing to pay a £2000 fine for his use of beta-blockers; six-time champion Ray Reardon was again not present; Kirk Stevens' troubles meant that he also failed to qualify; former champion John Spencer exited at the last qualifying stage, as did Rex Williams. In all there were seven debutants at the Crucible - Steve Newbury, Joe O'Boye, Steve Duggan, David Roe, Darren Morgan, Gary Wilkinson, and Paddy Browne - indicating that times were changing as the end of the decade approached.
An open championship?
The journalists previewing the tournament may have been casting doubts over the chances of Steve Davis winning a record equalling sixth title, but this was definitely not reflected with the bookmakers, Davis installed as 5/4 favourite, with Hendry at 5/1, John Parrott 7/1 and Jimmy White 8/1. The reason for the question marks hanging over Davis was his unusually mediocre showing in the 1988/89 season. After winning the International Open and Grand Prix at the start of the campaign, Davis had uncharacteristically failed to build on this, beaten three times out of four by Hendry, losing the Canadian Masters final to White, defeated by Parrott in the European Open, and suffering the humiliation of losing to World No. 51 Tony Chappel in the first round of the Mercantile Credit Classic.
Even so, Davis' earnings were still approaching the £500,000 mark for the year, and the mere sight of the Crucible was always an inspiration to the World Number one. "The World Championship is different, a mini-season within a season," Davis announced on arriving in Sheffield, before defending himself against accusations that he was not the player that he used to be. "I've not gone soft. This is an exciting time for me. You know what's coming, what to expect, how hard it is and how you've got to prove yourself".
Davis' main threat was undoubtedly the 20-year-old starlet Hendry. The Masters champion had not enjoyed as successful a season as he had 12 months before, yet the victories over Davis were an indication that he could cut it at the very top level of the sport, and many were already talking up the prospect of the Scot becoming the youngest ever world champion. With the pair due to meet in the semi-finals, all eyes were set on the possible Davis-Hendry clash, although Hendry would be involved in a tense opening round match that nearly scuppered this straight away.
John Parrott was seen as another possible contender. The Daily Mirror's Tony Stenson offered the opinion that "The Nearly Man is about to come of age", with commentator Jack Karnehm also stating that Parrot "has come of age" and that "this could be his year". The European Open champion was set to shoot up the world rankings after a fine season, and was sounding understandably confident on the eve of the tournament. "I wasn't ready before. Now I feel I've served my apprenticeship".
Of the rest of the field, Jimmy White had endured a slump in form since his Canadian Masters win, and was not expected to end his World Championship pain. Conversely, Doug Mountjoy had won the Welsh Championship, Mercantile Credit Classic, and UK Championship in a stirring season that saw the 46-year-old move from 24th to 10th in the world, with the Welshman tipped to do well at Sheffield. Former world champions Dennis Taylor and Joe Johnson were not considered realistic prospects for another title, although 1979 winner and 1988 finalist Terry Griffiths was a consistent performer who could not be completely ruled out.
As the tournament progressed, it appeared that any rumours of Davis' demise had been greatly exaggerated. A comfortable 10-5 win over Steve Newbury in the first round was a mere warm-up for his next victim. Steve Duggan may have thumped Cliff Wilson 10-1 in the opening round, a defeat that meant the Welshman exited the top 16 in the world, yet Davis was a different prospect completely. Davis won the match with a session to spare, his 13-3 win spelling out a warning to the rest that he was on top form.
Another 13-3 win over Mike Hallett in the quarter final gave Davis more time to practice, not that his performances suggested that he needed it. "I was expecting a harder game, but Mike gave me bundles of opportunities," said Davis, the loser at least improving on his 13-1 loss to the same man in the second round of the 1988 tournament.
Hallett would move up to world number six after his Crucible showing, his first round win over a rejuvenated Mountjoy a personal highlight, especially after the Welshman had dismissed Hallett's chances before their match. "It spurred me on," said Hallett after his 10-8 win. "I had the hump because he dismissed me". In defeat, Mountjoy stood by his original views, stating "I didn't rate him before the game, and I still don't now. I lost rather than he won". Not the most dignified way for Mountjoy to end a season to remember.
Davis may have moved serenely through to the semi finals, but it was a very different case for Hendry in the first round. Playing Gary Wilkinson, Hendry looked to have started his campaign in emphatic style, moving into an early 4-0 lead, and although Wilkinson pulled back to 6-3 down, the bookies odds of 14/1 on the English debutant gave a fair indication of his perceived chances.
The odds were soon slashed to 5/1 though when Wilkinson narrowed the gap to 7-6, and when Hendry missed a couple of chances in the 16th frame and the match went to 8-8, it appeared as if the Scot was struggling. Hendry won the next with an 88 break, but back came Wilkinson to set up a deciding frame. In a lively atmosphere, Hendry was booed both before the break and at the conclusion, yet he composed himself enough to put in a break of 67 to seal the narrowest of victories.
"It was strange hearing the boos," Hendry admitted. "It hasn't happened to me before. It didn't affect me, in fact quite the opposite. It geed me on". Hendry had survived his scare, openly declaring that he was unnerved when Wilkinson began his comeback. The number four seed would go from strength to strength as he cranked through the gears in his next couple of matches, but his 1989 World Championship adventure could very well have been over before it had even started.
Seeds drift out
Hendry may have sneaked through, but for four other seeds there would be no such luck. Joe Johnson never recovered from an 8-0 deficit in his match with Tony Meo, eventually losing 10-5 to put the victor into the second round for the first time since 1985. Peter Francisco suffered in a different way to Johnson, leading Dean Reynolds 7-4 before losing six frames in a row and also dropping out of the top 16 to complete his misery.
Tony Knowles did not exit the tournament quietly, his 10-6 loss to David Roe overshadowed by a row between Knowles and referee John Williams. The contentious incident occurred in the 15th frame, as Williams twice called Knowles for a miss, the Bolton man furious that his escape, involving four cushions, was punished. "It wasn't a miss. If it had been I would have called it myself," said an irate Knowles at his press conference. "The crowd knew it was a bad decision".
Trailing 8-6, Knowles lost the crucial frame and was soon on his way out, completing a poor season for the number eight seed. "It's nothing to do with my ability," Knowles confessed. "It's my confidence as a person that is the reason". His time at the top end of the world snooker rankings was becoming a distant memory.
A war of attrition
The fourth seed to fall at the first hurdle did so in a match of such length that it deserves a section on its own. Cliff Thorburn's 10-9 defeat to Australian Eddie Charlton was not a major surprise, giving the Canadian's year and the determination of his opponent. But the reaction of Charlton afterwards left a lot to be desired.
There could be many adjectives used to describe Charlton's 10-9 win: wearing is one, maybe methodical, tactical and/or technical. But many of those present during the match may have plumped for plain old boring, the marathon between the pair not finishing until 2.39 on the morning of Thursday April 20 (it was scheduled to finish on the Tuesday) with roughly 50 spectators present and many reports even suggesting that at least a dozen of those were asleep.
The match lasted 10 hours and 24 minutes, Thorburn calling it the "survival of the fittest" and "a bit of a grind". Those were relatively kind words. The Daily Express' John David described the encounter as "the most tedious first round match in Crucible history", Frank Malley declaring in the same paper that Charlton "couldn't pot a tomato plant without lining it up a dozen times".
You might have thought that Charlton would have shown some sympathy with the people who had endured the drudgery, but not a bit of it. "I'm a professional snooker player and I play to win. If the fans don't like it, they can lump it". In some ways you had to admire his honesty, after all he won the match and to Charlton that was what mattered. But it really wasn't very pretty and Charlton perhaps should have shown a little more respect to those paying spectators and fans of the sport.
"In 1956, Eddie Charlton carried the torch at the Olympic Games in Melbourne," wrote The Times' Steve Acteson. "In the early hours of yesterday morning he conspicuously failed to do the same for snooker". Charlton's reaction was strongly lambasted throughout the British press, and when he lost 13-8 to Tony Meo in the second round, there were not a lot of tears shed.
A sporting gesture
One man who did his very best to show snooker in a better light was WPBSA chairman John Virgo. Virgo had defeated Higgins' conqueror Darren Morgan in his opening match, ending his Crucible jinx that had seen him knocked out in the first round every year since 1983, which set up a second round date with Jimmy White. The match was nip and tuck throughout and inevitably entered a final frame decider, as I sat at home watching eagerly on Grandstand. A break of 26 saw Virgo move 33-31 up as White watched on helplessly, the balls sitting in an ideal position for a match winning visit to the table. And then Virgo made a sporting gesture that still lives long in my fading memory.
Brushing a red with his cue, Virgo could have easily got away with his crime, his contact so thin that nobody noticed apart from him. But the honesty of both the sport and Virgo meant that this was not a viable option. Virgo immediately stood up from the shot to admit to his foul, an action that brought praise from one and all, even more so when you consider that White cleared up to book his place in the last eight. Sometimes an individual will reaffirm your faith in top level sport, and Virgo's actions on that Saturday was one such example.
Meo's Indian Summer
Snooker had not been kind to Tony Meo in the past couple of years. Steadily dropping down the rankings since 1986, the extremely talented Meo had departed the 1987 championship in tears, his loss meaning that he had slipped outside the top 16 and would need to qualify in 1988. When he failed to do so, Meo openly admitted that he considered quitting the game, but with the support of Matchroom manager Barry Hearn, gradually the Englishman started to get his act together.
Ranked 31 at the start of 1988/89, Meo finally broke his tournament duck, defeating Dean Reynolds in the final of the British Open to bury the ghosts of his 1984 Lada Classic nightmare when a well intentioned shout of support disrupted Meo in his deciding frame shootout with Davis. Despite his good year Meo still needed a good showing at the Crucible to get back into the top 16 for the next season. He got that and some more.
After his wins over Johnson and Charlton, Meo then defeated Reynolds 13-9 in the quarter final in a match that contained plenty of talking points both before and after. In the lead-up to the quarter final, the press happily dug up Reynolds' comments made after the British Open final in which he had criticised Meo for being "slow and negative", even though Reynolds had subsequently apologised for being "totally out of order". Ironically though it would be Reynolds who would be punished for slow play during the World Championships, with referee John Williams issuing a warning to him to "buck his ideas up" during a pivotal 18th frame.
Reynolds broke down in tears during his press conference, labelling Williams as "incompetent" and arguing that the referee had cost him dearly. "I was in the middle of a break. I was really gutted and after that every time I was down on a shot I was conscious of the time I was taking instead of giving thought to the shot". Reynolds' opinion was backed up by Virgo, who had been commentating on the match at the time, but that was probably very little consolation.
Hendry is coming
After his first round scare, Stephen Hendry soon got back on track. Willie Thorne did not provide much opposition in the second round, his numerous mistakes leading to a crushing 13-4 defeat (although television viewers missed quite a lot of the match due to a 24 hour BBC strike), but it would be Hendry's quarter final display against Griffiths that truly got tongues wagging. Winning nine frames in a row, including the tournament highest break of 141, Hendry's 13-5 win set up the match every snooker fan wanted to see: Davis v Hendry.
Initially Davis tangled up Hendry in his carefully planned safety game, taking a 5-2 lead overnight and increasing this to 10-4 after the morning session on the second day. However, we were then provided with a sign (if we needed one) that Hendry was truly made of the right stuff, as he began to chip away at Davis' advantage. At one point Hendry narrowed the gap to 12-9, and although Davis then rattled off four frames in a row for a place in the final, Hendry had announced himself at the Crucible. The King would reign for a little longer, but it was becoming apparent that he would find it difficult to keep the heir off his throne. The baton of world dominance was about to be passed on.
Parrott on a mission
Saturday April 15: the opening day of the World Snooker championships was not the only big sporting event to be taking place in Sheffield. The FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was being played at Hillsborough, just a few miles away from the Crucible, yet on a day of indescribable tragedy, 96 football supporters lost their lives in a stadium disaster that is still difficult to comprehend. Snooker paid its respects. On the following Saturday play began at 3.07pm after a minute's silence, and one man made it his goal to try and win the World Championship for his grieving city.
John Parrott had worn a black armband throughout his first round match over Steve James, and after a nail biting 10-9 win, he openly spoke of the pain he was feeling. "I stood on the terraces at both Anfield and Goodison. The people who died were my people, special people, a different class". As momentum built, Parrott continued on his quest, knocking out Dennis Taylor and an out of sorts Jimmy White to seal a semi-final berth with Meo. Pledging "to do my damnedest to take the trophy back home for the people of Liverpool", Parrott was riding on an emotional roller coaster, but still managed to put in high quality displays that had been prominent throughout his season.
Meo was simply no match in their semi-final, with Parrott surging from 8-5 to a comfortable 16-7 win. Disappointment for Meo, even if he did jump up 17 places in the world rankings, yet Parrott was now only one step from his first world title. The only problem was that the obstacle in the way of what would be a poignant victory was a certain Steve Davis.
Indeed the final would prove to be one step too far for Parrott, although it is debatable as to whether anyone could have lived with Davis in the form he was in. "I've played the best snooker of my career," said Davis after he had secured his sixth world title. No one disagreed. "The best I've seen him play in the 13 years I've been with him," declared Hearn. "One of the most remorseless sessions ever witnessed in a World Championship match," wrote Acteson after Sunday's evening session, with Stenson adding to the praise, calling Davis' display as "a performance of sheer perfection".
The 18-3 thrashing was a chilling inevitability from the very first frame, Davis simply relentless and capitalising on any Parrott error to open up a 13-3 lead overnight. Parrott, who later stated that he played "like a slow puncture", was helpless to prevent the biggest final defeat in Crucible history, as Davis once again wrapped up a victory with a session to spare (Parrott was then put through the torture of an exhibition match with Davis in the evening, which was less than welcome).
As the dust settled on the tournament, many considered the ease at which Davis won the title and the possible consequences for the sport if he continued to dominate. On paper his three successive world titles and the fact that he only lost 23 frames during the 1989 championship hinted that Davis' time at the top was not yet up. But amazingly 1989 would be his last ever World Championship final. As the decade of Davis ended, so the Hendry years commenced. 1989 proved to be one final demonstration of Steve Davis at his very best.