Eurosport: What are the greatest Crucible finals?

Another “All-time top ten” article by Eurosport

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by Desmond Kane

1. Judd Trump (Eng) 18-9 John Higgins (Sco) – 2019

Judd Trump 2019 World
Judd Trump completed an 18-9 win over John Higgins in 2019. Image credit: Eurosport

A modern masterpiece, and an all-time classic. Never has a final attained the heights or the quality of the 2019 final. Judd Trump produced the greatest level witnessed by any player in any World Championship final in butchering four-times world champion John Higgins 18-9.

The numbers speak for themselves: Trump made seven centuries, and Higgins compiled four yet still trailed home a distant second. Trump produced runs of 135, 126, 114, 105, 104, 103, 101, 94, 71, 71, 70, 63, 62, 58 and 51 in an awe-inspiring display of power potting, percentage snooker. That he did so against the arguably the finest all-round player in history made it an altogether more staggering feat.

Higgins made an imperious 125 to lead 5-4, but was forced to sit and suffer from that juncture onwards as Trump laid waste to the table, trousering eight straight frames to career 12-5 clear and put the final beyond doubt before the second day. Higgins had suffered a third straight loss in a World Championship final, but unlike the defeats to Mark Selby and Mark Williams in the previous two years, he accepted his fate with great candour.

“I was the lucky one to not have to pay for a ticket, he was just awesome,” said Higgins.

It will be the first of many I am sure, to produce a standard like that is incredible. He was unplayable. I never expected to get to the final, I came up against an unstoppable machine.

As this onlooker wrote in the aftermath: “At times, it was like watching snooker’s version of Swan Lake such was the deft and graceful way the lithe frame danced around the table, almost eyeing up the balls like prey. It was a cathartic experience, like he was at one with the table.

“Well-mannered, thoughtful and talkative in interviews, Trump possesses every quality you would seek from a snooker world champion. He is a marketing man’s dream, the first world champion in his 20s since Neil Robertson in 2010.”

“I was trying to enjoy it, and put on a show for the fans,” said Trump. “Play a few different shots that other players don’t play.

You practice so hard in private so you’ve got to go out and show it somehow.

Fitting that the greatest show was reserved for a great showman. Bristol cream had risen to the very top.

2. Ronnie O’Sullivan (Eng) 18-12 Barry Hawkins (Eng) – 2013

Ronnie World 2013Ronnie O’Sullivan completed an 18-12 win over Barry Hawkins in 2013.
Image credit: Eurosport

It turns out the only way isn’t Essex. O’Sullivan, fighting out of Chigwell, astonishingly returned from a year’s sabbatical when he apparently fraternised with part-time work on a farm to successfully defend the trophy with a swashbuckling display, high on pressure pots and little regard for his opponents. For a man who loves jogging, O’Sullivan seemed to be in a sprint towards his destiny. Only O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Mark Selby have successfully defended the old pot in Sheffield, but nobody has managed to do it with such flair as O’Sullivan in 2013.

Until Trump’s fabulous exhibition of high octane elegance in 2019, it was the finest performance by any Crucible champion and one in keeping with his ongoing status as snooker’s greatest natural talent. O’Sullivan never lost a session during his run to a fifth world title usurping Marcus ‘The Pride of Dumbarton’ Campbell, Ali Carter, Stuart Bingham and Judd Trump, but saved the best for last by producing six centuries in the final.

O’Sullivan contributed breaks of 133, 124, 113, 106, 103, 100, 92, 88, 86, 77, 76, 76, 74, 67, 55 and 54. He fairly galloped away from his fellow Englishman Hawkins, a heavy scorer from Ditton, with the final locked at 7-7, winning 11 of the closing 16 frames to rejoice in the moment of a fifth Crucible title to accompany his victories in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

“I thought it was a brilliant final and great to be a part of. I always knew Barry had the talent and the game and he put me under a lot of pressure,” he said. “Everyone in the outside world thought it would be a procession, but people within the game all knew just what a good player Barry is.

I managed to play my way through the tournament and got stronger and stronger. And I managed my mind better than I ever have done, which got me through. You have to face your demons during this tournament and that’s why it’s such a hard tournament to win. In the final I had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

3. Mark Williams (Wal) 18-16 John Higgins (Sco) – 2018

256920Mark Williams World 2018Mark Williams completed an 18-16 win over John Higgins in 2018. Image credit: Getty Images

Mark Williams experienced something akin to a damascene conversion ahead of the 2017/18 season when he decided to alter technique and begin pursuing the snooker truth according to coach Stephen Feeney, purveyor of SightRight, and a better way to potting perfection. With nothing to lose after six years without a ranking tournament win, it provided Williams with the key to the matrix. Not only did he resume life as a major event winner at the Northern Ireland Open and German Masters, he was sharp enough to claim a third world title in Sheffield, a remarkable 15 years after his second victory at Crucible, the longest gap between titles of any Crucible winner.

The final with John Higgins was an instant classic between two men who turned professional in 1992 yet seemed untouched by the ravages of time. At the age of 43, Williams was the second oldest champion at the Crucible behind his compatriot Ray Reardon, who had lifted the last of his six world titles aged 45 in 1978.

Williams had witnessed Higgins restore parity at 15-15 from 15-10 behind, but maintained his composure as key contributions of 100 and 69 were enough to quell the Scotsman’s trademark resistance. He turned up naked at the post-match conference content in the naked truth that he had emerged victorious after hours of dedication to his chosen vocation.

Last year I was seriously thinking of giving up, but my wife said I can’t sleep in the house 24 hours a day.

4. Dennis Taylor (NI) 18-17 Steve Davis (Eng) – 1985

Steve Davis - Dennis Taylor World 1985Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor after their iconic final in 1985.Image credit: Eurosport

The black ball final was dramatic in its day, a cultural phenomenon and will be remembered as one of the most celebrated finales in the history of British TV sport. Yet it did not contain a single century over 35 frames, and was probably recalled as truly nail-biting because both men felt the pressure right until the bitter end. Davis had blown an 8-0 lead and missed a relatively straightforward cut on a black to claim the crown after midnight in the early hours of Monday 29 April 1985 with Northern Irishman Taylor, who looks younger these days, wiping the steam from his goggles to sink the winning black before wagging his finger in the air like an excitable umpire at Lord’s.

“Steve is wonderful the way he handles everything. He didn’t talk much about it for a couple of years after it happened,” said Taylor.

We both realise now that we were involved in a piece of snooker history, we didn’t at the time. It is 35 years on and people still remember that one. I was just very lucky to have been involved in snooker history.

Despite record viewing figures of 18.5m on BBC2 for snooker’s most famous match, it was a moment in time that illustrated snooker’s popularity at a time when the standard was several levels below what we witness today. To put this into context, only 14 centuries were made in the 1985 tournament compared to 100 last year. It is match that transcends the sport, but it could also be argued that Davis, a pristine perfectionist in his peak years, progressed to play to a higher standard in remaining competitive in the 1990s and 2000s than when he dominated the sport in gobbling up the game’s trophies.It is an argument best illustrated by his 13-11 win over the defending champion John Higgins at the age of 52 in the last 16 of the 2010 World Championship, but defeat to Taylor hurt when he was far and above the rest of the competition in his decade of superiority. The final frame lasted 68 minutes, but has been discussed far more extensively over the past 35 years. Did Davis bottle it? Quite possibly is the harsh answer when the man nicknamed Romford Slim was obviously of a higher calibre yet was also prone to playing negatively under extreme heat.A year earlier, he had crawled over the line 18-16 against young Jimmy White having led 12-4 in the 1984 final, but paid a heavy price for over-thinking and a lack of clarity in his shot selection as the fates conspired against him. Still human foibles make for nerve-shredding suspense.“It will be nice to watch all the old stuff, but it will remind us that a lot of it wasn’t that good,” he said. “There was no century break in the 1985 final, and the standard of play these days has gone through the roof.

I think we’re living in the golden age of snooker now, and we’ve got so many great players to tap into. You’ve got to be even more outrageous if you want to be a character today.

5. Stuart Bingham (Eng) 18-15 Shaun Murphy (Eng) – 2015

Bingham World 2015

Stuart Bingham of England poses with the trophy after beating Shaun Murphy in the final of the 2015 Betfred World Snooker Championship at Crucible Theatre on May 4, 2015. Image credit: Eurosport

“Four words: winner, winner, chicken dinner,” said Stuart ‘Ball-run’ Bingham as he finally made good on his reputation as a fearsome breakbuilder by carrying off the game’s greatest prize as a 50-1 long shot. Bingham’s run to the title was fraught with danger yet he stood up to the pressure with a fabulous effort of personal perseverance by eclipsing Ronnie O’Sullivan (13-9), Judd Trump (17-16) and Shaun Murphy (18-15) to claim the old pot.

It was quite a feat with Bingham overcoming the obstacle of self-doubt to hold off the 2005 world champion Murphy, who had rallied from 15-12 behind to level at 15-15 having led 8-4. Murphy had seemingly steadied the ship heading for home, but Bingham had other plans in summoning the strength of Samson to see it through.

“At 15-15 I thought my chance was gone, my arm felt like someone else’s and nerves sort of got to me,” said Bingham. “We had a marathon 31st frame and I sort of pinched it on the colours and from then on I played pretty solid. It’s just unreal, I can’t believe I’m the 2015 world champion. I’m going to be the same person. I’m going to be playing in all the tournaments, and hopefully I’ll be a good role model being a world champion.”

And he has been the same person, a figure who loves potting snooker balls. Bingham joined Ken Doherty as the only player to win the world title at amateur and professional level. Bingham produced knocks of 123, 112, 105, 102, 89, 88, 87, 87, 76, 65, 57, 57, 56, 55, 53, 51 and 50 to earn the praise of tennis icon Martina Navratilova, who had been keenly following the happenings on TV. Bingham claimed the Masters at the outset of 2020 to complete a remarkable renaissance in his latter years as a competitive professional.

Since turning 35, he has won all of his six ranking events and the Masters. As a late developer, few have been greater.

6. Joe Johnson (Eng) 18-12 Steve Davis (Eng) – 1986

150-1 outsider and talented part-time singer Joe Johnson, sporting some snazzy shoes and a calculating train of thought, was firmly on song in 1986. The then unheralded Bradford professional produced a breathless display of potting ambition to achieve one of the greatest Crucible upsets of all time against the dominant snooker force of the day. Having somehow blown an 8-0 lead to lose to Dennis Taylor a year earlier, Davis made three centuries in the final, but was again mysteriously afflicted by being a hot favourite against Johnson as he succumbed 18-12 with the sport’s iceman suffering another very public meltdown.

Johnson made two centuries in recovering from 12-9 behind to oust Terry Griffiths 13-12 in the quarter-finals before a 16-8 win over Bolton’s Tony Knowles helped him ease into his first world final. He trailed 7-4, but led 13-11 before the final session, an evening he dominated to rejoice in a stunning victory as Davis wilted in the face of some imposing potting.

Johnson almost regained the title a year later to illustrate his golden period was no fluke by beating a young Stephen Hendry 13-12 on his sojourn to a rematch with Davis in 1987. He lost 18-14, but no player has come as close as Johnson to ending the Crucible Curse in becoming the first maiden champion to successfully defend the trophy. Johnson will be recalled as one of the sport’s most popular champions, and the main protagonist in one of its finest finals.

7. Stephen Hendry (Sco) 18-17 Jimmy White (Eng) – 1994

Hendry World 1994Stephen Hendry celebrates victory in 1994. Image credit: Eurosport

Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White lost in six Crucible finals, but will never come as close to lifting the world title as he did on May 2, 1994. In his sixth, and what would prove to be his final fateful stab at becoming world champion, White came up agonisingly short. He had suffered five final defeats to Steve Davis in 1984, John Parrott in 1991 and Stephen Hendry in 1990, 1992 and 1993, but finally seemed set to lift the sport’s most coveted prize.

White had trailed 5-1 on Sunday, but fought back courageously and was among the balls in the final frame when he choked a black off its spot as the realisation dawned that he was on the verge of ending his reign as sport’s ultimate nearly man. The rest as they say is history with Hendry, who had triumphed despite fracturing an elbow earlier in the tournament, contributed a priceless 58 to win his fourth world title.

White never appeared in another final while Hendry would lift three more world gongs in 1995, 1996 and 1999. “What can I say Jimmy apart from Happy Birthday,” said the formidable TV presenter David Vine on White’s 32nd birthday.

“He’s beginning to annoy me,” responded White. He had led 14-8 in the 1992 final before losing 18-14 to Hendry. The defeat two years later was different in nature, but far more cutting.

8. Peter Ebdon (Eng) 18-17 Stephen Hendry (Sco) – 2002

Ebdon World 2002

Seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry would never win the world title beyond the 1990s, but in his private moments will probably wonder how he contrived to lose the 2002 final. Having overcome Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last four with an exceptional display of cueball control, Hendry was a strong favourite to become champion for an eighth time.

He made a record 16 tons in 2002, the most any player has produced during the World Championship at the Crucible yet still found a way to lose. Hendry had outclassed Ebdon 18-12 to win the tournament in 1996, but encountered a steelier figure six years later. The man from Wellingborough – a 33-1 shot to win the event – had led 4-0 and 11-8, but was forced to confront only the third final frame decider in the modern era of the World Championship after missing a black off its spot leading 52–27 in the 34th frame.

Hendry watched Ebdon contribute 59 in the concluding frame before a safety error trying to snooker his opponent allowed The Force to finish off matters in his favour. “Stephen’s been a magnificent ambassador for the sport,” said Ebdon in a weirdly foreboding analysis. “Players like Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams wouldn’t be playing the standard they are playing now if it wasn’t for Hendry.”

The final signalled the deterioration of Hendry as a winning machine in the sport. He reached one more major ranking final at the UK Championship in 2006, which he lost 10-6 to Ebdon, but would never return to a world final.

He can console himself with the fact that he is likely to remain the Crucible’s most prodigious winner of all time.

“I can’t see anyone beating it. O’Sullivan’s got five. He can do it if he keeps playing. But there are four others playing at that level,” said Hendry.

At his absolute best Ronnie wins. But he’s getting to that age where he’s not doing it often. He’ll talk all sorts of bull***t, saying he doesn’t care about the record. But deep down he wants to beat me while, of course, I want to hold on to the record.

9. John Higgins (Sco) 18-15 Judd Trump (Eng) – 2011

Higgins World 2011John Higgins after his 18-15 win over Judd Trump in 2011.Image credit: Eurosport

The 2011 final was a battle of style and wills as 21-year-old Bristol lad Trump bulldozed his way to the final potting balls for fun and opting largely against the strategical excellence for which his opponent was renowned. He had served notice of his intention to progress deep into the tournament with a 10-8 win over the defending champion Neil Robertson in the first round and further victories over Martin Gould, Graeme Dott and Ding Junhui suggested Trump was ready to pot his way to glory.

Higgins was also in supreme form buoyed by victories over Stephen Lee, Rory McLeod, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams to reach the final. Trump rolled in breaks of 104 and 99 to move 12-9 clear, but a missed blue on the cusp of a four-frame advantage proved costly as Higgins responded with a run of five straight frames to lead 14-12.

Trump would level at 14-14, but Higgins always looked the more complete player and finally sealed the victory with a quite majestic double on the pink. “He was the better player. He was playing a brand of snooker I have never seen before in my life,” said Higgins.

It was unbelievable the amount of long shots he was potting, it was incredible. It was great to watch – we have got the new sensation of the game.

It was also a learning experience for Trump, who has crafted a lauded tactical game in the ensuing years.

For Higgins it was a fourth world title, and his last at the venue having also lost four times in the game’s showpiece encounter, but the narrative is correct that Higgins is one of the sport’s true giants.

10. Shaun Murphy (Eng) 18-16 Matthew Stevens (Wal) – 2005

Murphy World 2005Shaun Murphy celebrates victory with the trophy in 2005.Image credit: Eurosport

If Jimmy White is recalled as the Crucible’s most famous nearly man, Matthew Stevens is not a bad second, so to speak. 22-year-old Shaun Murphy, an audacious potting talent with a formidable technique, became the first qualifier since Terry Griffiths to lift the world title in 1979 at odds of 150-1.

He had trailed 12-11 heading into the final session, but revelled in a performance beyond his years to emerge victorious in the last year the tournament was sponsored by Embassy due to the ban on tobacco advertising. Murphy enjoyed breaks of 137, 125, 107, 97, 84, 83, 80, 68, 66, 64, 64, 56, 56, 55, 52 and 51 to end Stevens’ hopes of a first world title including closing runs of 97 and 83 to catapult himself over the winning line from 16-16.

Stevens also lost 18-16 in the 2000 final to Welshman Mark Williams, and has suffered some agonising defeats in the last four, including a 17-15 defeat to John Higgins in 2001, a 17-16 loss to Peter Ebdon in 2002 and a 17-15 loss to Graeme Dott in 2004.

“I challenge any of those people to walk out in the Crucible Theatre, and try to make more than 10,” said Murphy in 2016. “It is not as easy as we sometimes make it look, and I’ve been on the backend of the (seven-times champion Stephen) Hendry era and through (five-times winner Ronnie) O’Sullivan’s dominance of the noughties. I’ve played in some fantastic matches here, but unfortunately some of them haven’t gone my way.”

It went his way in 2005, and he remains one of only 21 men to have become world champion at the Crucible. He finds himself in an esteemed company of green baize goliaths.

Whilst I somehow agree with the first three, I strongly disagree with n°4. That was a horrible final and the drama of the last balls doesn’t change that. Of course, not putting it in this list might have got Desmond Kane in trouble with the editor I guess.

The first weekend of May 1994 will remain a cursed weekend in many snooker fans’ memories. Not only did Jimmy White manage to lose to Hendry once again, but this was also the weekend when Ayrton Senna was killed at the San Marino Grand-Prix after Rubens Barichello had been seriously injured, and Roland Ratzenberger had died during the qualifying stages.

I disagree with Desmond when he says that the 2002 defeat marked the start of the deterioration of Hendry as a winner. To me, it had started five years before, when Ken Doherty managed to beat him by 18-12, with a high break of 85, whilst Hendry had 5 centuries. I believe that this defeat damaged Hendry’s confidence very badly and showed the other players that he could be beaten, and how.

I was on the Crucible floor at the start of the 2011 World Championship final session and the atmosphere was incredible, electric. It’s difficult to describe really. I’ve never felt anything like it, before or after. Not only had Judd Trump been phenomenal throughout the tournament, and a breath of fresh air, but emotions positives and negatives were running high about John Higgins. It was only the year before that the World Championship had been “tainted” by the NOTW scandal. Some admired his will to win after returning from his ban and losing his father earlier in the year, others were strongly of the opinion that he shouldn’t be there playing at all.