On April 17, 2016 Steve Davis retired after 38 years as a pro. Fittingly he said his farewell to the professional sport at the Crucible, and I was fortunate enough to be there, thanks to Jason Francis and Ronnie who gave me a “players guest” pass on the day.
Wednesday 21 Dec 2016 09:32AM
Earlier this year one of snooker’s all-time greats donned his waistcoat for the final time. As 2016 draws to a close, we caught up with the six-time World Champion to look back on his 38 years as a professional…
Steve Davis’s snooker dynasty came alive at the Crucible Theatre and the curtain dropped on his storied career at the same location earlier this year. However, the Nugget’s snooker journey traces its roots to surroundings far removed from the almost gladiatorial setting in Sheffield.
Davis was introduced to the sport by his father Bill at a local social club in Plumstead, South East London. Due to a lack of coaching or opponents, Bill quickly realised he needed assistance to help nurture his son’s considerable talent. They turned to the manual written by one of modern day snooker’s founders Joe Davis.
“There was nobody very good to play against in my local area. It wasn’t like nowadays where you only have to go down the road to find someone who is capable of knocking in a 100 break. That wasn’t the case back then,” said the 28-time ranking winner. “When I began to show some interest, my father and I started working with the Joe Davis book on how to play. My dad didn’t have enough knowledge and I didn’t have the opponents to practise with, so we used this book as the blueprint. It’s stood the test of time.”
Another figure who was integral to Davis’s progression to the summit of the sport was the now World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn. The pair’s paths intersected at the beginning of their lives in the world of sport. They met by chance in the Romford venue of Hearn’s chain of Lucania Snooker Clubs.
Hearn recalled: “I was sat underneath my club in Romford and Les Coates, who was the manager, phoned down and said you’ve got to come and see this kid, he’s a bit special. I went upstairs and there was this ginger lanky boy playing against Vic Harris, who was the local Essex Champion. There was a crowd around the table and without saying I saw the greatest player to hold a cue, I did see someone who was totally committed, had great concentration and a passion for the game. I was fortunate enough that it was the beginning of a great friendship.
“The whole thing in those days was a total buzz. I was brought up in a council house in East London and he was from a council house in Plumstead. We didn’t have any money. I never went to university, nor did Steve. It’s a very good rags to riches story.”
During Davis’s amateur career a series of challenge matches were arranged in Hearn’s clubs against the likes of Alex Higgins and John Spencer, where they would gamble with their illustrious opponents. But once the extent of the Nugget’s talent became apparent there was only one way to go.
“If it were up to me I’d have waited until I won the English Amateur Championship before turning pro,” said the six-time World Champion. “I could’ve sat around for ages waiting. Barry kept going on at me and nagging me to turn professional. He eventually bullied me into signing something on the back of a lamppost in Blackpool in 1978.”
Davis’s initial breakthrough came at the 1980 UK Championship where he recorded a 16-6 demolition of Alex Higgins to claim his first major title.
“I used to talk to him about what would happen when we win our first big event,” said Hearn “We would have tears rolling down our eyes just thinking about it. I always said when you are one frame from winning come to the backstage toilet and I will go through your winning speech. When he got to 15 against Alex I thought to myself I wonder whether he will do it? I went and stood in the backstage toilets of the Guild Hall in Preston. He burst in and his first words to me were, ‘this could be terribly unlucky you know!’ He gave the best acceptance speech ever.”
It wasn’t long until Davis began making waves on the game’s grandest stage. At the Crucible Theatre in 1981 he strode to his first world title and one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport, against Doug Mountjoy.
Davis reminisced: “Funnily enough, even though it was my first final I was the favourite. After beating Alex 16-6 in the UK Championship, I think I’d established I was the main man for that tournament. That in itself is a problem and it’s one that all of the top players have had to deal with. The expectation. You are in another level and it’s a marvellous level to be on, but it still has its own problems.”
Davis was indeed the favourite and the match mirrored his standing. He rushed into a 6-0 advantage. It was a deficit which Mountjoy couldn’t overturn, as Davis ran out an 18-12 winner. After the last ball was deposited Davis, famed for his even temperament and poker face, simply looked to the skies and exhaled. In stark contrast the jubilant and extroverted Hearn came rushing through the arena to greet his player with a rambunctious embrace before turning to shout out to the rafters.
It was at that moment that Davis had fully established himself as the dominant force in an era when snooker rivalled even football for popularity in Britain. Such was the level of interest in the sport, the player ironically nicknamed ‘interesting’ by the comedy programme Spitting Image for his perceived lack of persona, won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
“It’s funny that on the one hand I was Sports Personality of the year and on the other I had the boring thing going on with Spitting Image,” said Davis. “I think it just showed how popular snooker was. I was really delighted on two levels. It’s a nice thing to get awards like that, particularly from the public. It was also great for snooker. We’ve all been labelled misspent youths and other non-accolades like that.”
At the time Davis was unparalleled in his dominance of the sport. Alongside his six world titles, he also wore the UK crown a record six times. The last of those came courtesy of a 16-13 defeat of Jimmy White, in the 1987 final at the Guild Hall. His next two final appearances were in consecutive years against Stephen Hendry in 1989 and 1990. Davis would lose on both occasions and the defeats marked a transition of snooker eras as Hendry went on to dominate the 90s. However, 15 years later the Nugget would have his revenge.
He faced Hendry in the UK Championship once more in 2005. By this point the Scot had amassed all seven of his world titles and all five of his UK Championship wins. Davis was a heavy underdog, but he rolled back the years to record a memorable victory. After leading 5-0, he held off a comeback charge from Hendry to win 9-6 and book his last appearance in a UK Championship final against Ding Junhui.
“Hendry was my nemesis really throughout most of the 90s,” said Davis. “Even though I did beat him a couple of times he had got the best of me. I really struggled against him although I never gave up trying. On this occasion I got the better of him. I froze a bit in the final against Ding and lost 10-6. I think perhaps I had run my final against Stephen. It was a fantastic feeling to beat him.”
Following a 10-4 defeat against Fergal O’Brien during qualifying for the 2016 World Championship Davis decided it was the correct moment to call time on his 38 year-long professional career. Despite not reaching the Crucible stages, the Nugget was given the chance to step out into the famous venue one more time with the World Championship trophy in his hands and bid farewell to his adoring fans.
“My father passed away earlier in the year and considering the fact we had been on a big journey together, it felt like a fitting way to go out,” said Davis. “He would have probably cringed at me going out into the arena, but I’m glad I did it. We’d already discussed that I was going to stop playing so we reached the end of the journey together.”
The 59-year-old has found fame beyond the table. He’s gone from the I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here jungle – to performing at Glastonbury – to presenting the BBC’s One Show. He also hosts a weekly radio programme for local Brentwood radio station Phoenix FM, which showcases his alternative music taste.
“Glastonbury was just crazy,” he smiles. “It was a completely surreal moment for me. To soak up the atmosphere was amazing. Suggs from the Madness came on stage out of nowhere. We just had a fantastic time.
“All of these things are an added blessing. With snooker my hobby turned into my profession. How lucky are you to be able to do that? It’s great that because of that I’ve also been able to do all sorts of things as a result of being a snooker player.”
Recently one pro snooker player, who I won’t name, suggested that nowadays a young Steve would have struggled to make it to the last 48 of the rankings. That’s not just disrespectful, it’s plain stupid. Conditions have changed, the tour structure has changed, the way the game is taught and approached has changed, but talent and temperament are immutable and Steve had – has – both in spades. He is a great Champion and would have been a great Champion in any era. I feel privileged to have seen him play live, to have been able to photograph him, to get to meet him and know him, and to have been at the Crucible on that day.