The World Championship: A Trip Down Memory Lane

One motto I have always tried to stick to when writing this blog is that I have always wanted the blog to be about the snooker and not about me, but as I prepare for my seventh fortnight at the Crucible, I thought that I would share some of my favourite memories of the tournament since I have been a regular there…

Where it all began…

While I have always been a fan of snooker and watched it whilst growing up, I had never thought about making the 66 mile trip to Sheffield to watch it live but a couple of factors led me to change my mind about that in 2005. The first was that a friend of mine was halfway through their first year at Sheffield University that year, giving me somewhere to stay while it was also being widely reported at the time that 2005 would be the last year during which the tournament would be staged at the famous old Theatre. Combine that with the fact that it was the historic 30th and final year during which the tournament would be sponsored by Embassy and I decided that I simply had to go.

Having not previously seen a live snooker match at any tournament before, in many ways I had no idea what to expect. Would I be able to see the balls, would I be able to cope without having the commentators to guide me through the play, would I find it as interesting as on the television or would I get bored?

My first ever sighting of the Crucible!

Walking into the arena for the first time however I remember being absolutely staggered as to how small the place actually feels. People often say that it is like watching snooker in your living room, but even on Row K as I think it was, it truly does feel like you are on top of the table. The first match that I saw on that opening morning was the clash between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Maguire and what a session it was as the two rattled through the frames, Maguire in particular impressing me with his presence around the table. The quality of their play was highlighted by the slow pace on the other table which by my recollection had not reached the interval before Ronnie and Stephen were done.

One thing that I wondered was would I be able to take photos or the players or get autographs easily? Taking along a camera for the occasion as well as a marker pen, I soon found out that the answer was very much yes…

Gone but not forgotten

While I have since been able to catch most of the players for a snap during one year or another, one particular memory that has stuck with me is that of bumping into Paul Hunter on day one back in 2005. Having recently been diagnosed with cancer and finding himself on the wrong end of the score against Michael Holt, he could have easily been forgiven for wanting to get away, indeed nobody would have held that against him

Paul smiles for the camera

Instead however he chose to spend at least 20 minutes at stage door, mingling with the many well-wishers and standing for photos with anyone who wanted one. I am sure that there was not a single fan there who left without having either a photo or an autograph which was indicative of what a special character Paul was. He left a lasting impression on me that day.

Unfortunately however, just a year later Paul would leave me with a lasting memory of a more sombre nature as he lost out to Neil Robertson in what would turn out to be his last professional snooker match. Whether or not this came across back home on the television I do not know but I am sure that it was obvious to everyone in the arena just how much Paul was struggling, not so much with his game but physically.

And signs the programmes

Experiencing particular difficulty when it came to simple tasks that are taken for granted such as picking up his cue extension, it was a testament to his character and his fighting spirit that he even decided to show up. It was a horrible evening, the least enjoyable I have had at the Crucible and I was glad when it was over. I remember chatting to Neil at Stage Door shortly after his win and he too had obviously found it difficult playing Paul in the state that he was in, though was naturally still pleased to be through.

Maximum Moment

I imagine that there are many snooker fans who go through their entire lives without having witnessed a maximum break in the flesh, so it must be said that I was very lucky to do so during my first week!

It came during the final frame of Mark Williams’ 10-1 victory against Robert Milkins and as far as 147 breaks go, was a real cracker given the positions of some of the reds. Usually I am quite quick to spot and predict/jinx a maximum break but on this occasion I remember looking at the score at around 40 and thinking that there was only a 146 on. Only as the break approached 70 did the penny drop, albeit more due to the reactions of those in the crowd than me suddenly learning how to count.

My maiden max

While that maximum remains to date the only one that I have actually seen completed, there have been a few near misses and I can honestly say that there is nothing more exciting in snooker than a maximum chase in my view. The ever-increasing tension as the player edges closer and closer, the thoughts turning to the inevitable awkward red that the player has left until last, and the sense of despair as their position snowballs out of control before the eventual miss. Every maximum is special and nowhere more so is that true than at the Crucible.

Turning back to the reaction following Mark’s effort in 2005, I remember being the first person to see Mark at Stage Door as he made a run for his car but freezing like a rabbit in the headlights!

The Hendry Factor

While I like to watch the majority of players, the man who drew me to the sport as a youngster was always Stephen Hendry and therefore he was the one that I wanted to see the most. While results have been mixed during the past few years, he has certainly given value for money in terms of sheer drama!

While in 2005 his campaign was fairly uneventful, 2006 was anything but as he played out a match that will live with me forever, his 10-9 defeat to Nigel Bond on a re-spotted black. The atmosphere for that final session was among the best I have ever experienced, the crowd initially with Hendry as he resumed 6-3 down before seemingly screaming for everything as the match headed to a decider.

Stephen in 2005

2007 for Hendry was also pretty quiet but notable for me for two big reasons. The first came immediately after his opening round win against David Gilbert when perfectly situated on the front row and armed with a copy of the Scot’s old autobiography, I wasted no time it shoving it in his face as he tried to leave the arena and getting him to sign it. As well as getting me a couple of seconds of fame on the TV, I also got a cracking autograph!

The real fun however was yet to come as later on at Stage Door I somehow managed to nearly got myself into a fight, arguing with a stranger about the footballer Jamie Carragher of all things! As fate would have it however, just as I saw my life flash before my eyes and thought that I was going to get a smack in the face, who else was to come ambling down the stone steps than Mr Hendry himself, not only giving me an opportunity to get a photo with him but also defusing the situation and saving my skin! The only frustration however is that my photo attempt was to be thwarted thanks to the photographer failing to press the button properly.

The prized possession!

Moving onto 2008, that year was year was to see him atone for the Bond defeat in what is probably my all-time favourite session of snooker that I have seen at the venue. Resuming at 6-3 down, it looked as though Mark would extend his lead further to 7-3 without two much trouble before Stephen did something that I had not seen him do before or since, win the frame having needed two snookers! As he remained down on the shot on the final black for some time after it went in, I knew that we were in for something special and so it proved as he eventually came back to win 10-9, celebrating with a clenched fist to the camera as Allen was denied.

And two years later it was to be a similar story, that time against Zhang Anda in 2010 when he again came back from 9-7 down to win 10-9 in the first round and book his spot in the last 16. It would be fair to say that win or lose, many of Hendry’s matches have certainly been compelling.

Good Luck Tony!

While regular readers will know that I recently got to know Tony Drago much better at the World Championship qualifiers, my first meeting with the man from Malta was just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons!

Good Luck Tony!

Standing at Stage Door back in 2005, I saw Tony heading towards me from across the road and like the fledgling amateur snooker photographer that I was, I duly lined up the photo. To my surprise however, I was thrown by someone else asking me to say something to him and without much thought, uttered the immortal words ‘Good luck Tony!’

In normal circumstances this would have been fine, unfortunately however as was very quickly pointed out, Tony has in fact already lost his last 32 match 10-5 to Stephen Lee and Tony judging by the look on his face was not too impressed. I did manage to get the photo (see above), but rarely have I wanted the ground to swallow me up quite like at that moment!

Debut Delight

While Mark Allen’s 2008 defeat against Stephen Hendry was memorable, equally so was his debut the previous year when he took the Crucible by storm and defeated Irishman Ken Doherty to reach the last 16 at his first attempt. What impressed me most of all however was not his long pots or the breaks, but his body language and demeanour around the table. Here he was on his debut up against a former champion and current world number two and from looking at him around the table you would never have known it. He dominated the table and without doubt impressed me to a far greater extent than any other debutant that I have seen at the Crucible since my first visit in 2005.

Mark and his daughter shortly after his win against Ken Doherty

Following his shock victory he looked just as comfortable dealing with the attention outside the venue shortly afterwards and it was nice to see him enjoy the victory with his daughter Lauren and now former partner Reanne Evans. The scenes there that day would have brought a smile to anyone’s face. Except Ken I suspect.

Since then I have always made a point of buying tickets to Mark’s matches at the Crucible and since then he has continued to provide entertainment, in 2010 becoming the first man to make a maximum break at the venue during his match against Mark Davis. Strangely the atmosphere, I suspect encouraged by the commentary coming through the earpieces which made everyone fully aware that a 146 had not been made before at the venue, was just as if it were a maximum break and the sustained round of applause that followed the final black reflected this.

The Finals

Aside from 2008 I have been fortunate enough to be there for each of the finals and the first back in 2005 was to prove among the most memorable. Not so much for the match, although that was very good indeed, but for the champions parade organised to coincide with the 30th anniversary celebrations that year. It was special to see the majority of the game’s great players such as Joe Johnson, John Spencer, Ray Reardon, Cliff Thorburn and more, strolling down the red carpet.

John Higgins speaks to Ray Stubbs in 2007

Another footnote to Shaun Murphy’s victory that year was the fact that I had a university exam back home at 9:00am the following morning so let’s just say it was a test of my commitment to stay for that final! I did pass the exam though.

As far as finals go, while the 2006 clash between Peter Ebdon and Graeme Dott is often derided by snooker fans, in terms of how I will remember it, certainly it is right up there! The final session in particular was full of drama, not least during what was at the time the longest ever frame played at the Crucible and I am certainly glad that I was there.

Neil Robertson en route to victory in 2010

The most memorable final weekend however would have to be last year’s, not only for Neil Robertson’s dramatic maiden triumph but also the John Higgins story that was to break in the News of the World just minutes after Graeme Dott’s victory against Mark Selby in the second semi-final. The events of that evening as we digested the information on a laptop in the nearby pub long after midnight were unique and unfortunately for the final, the primary talking point during the tournament’s final two days.

Crucible Evolution

While I have only been going to the Crucible for six years, during that time the venue has changed significantly, retaining its character yet becoming a far more suitable venue for the game’s biggest tournament.

The Crucible 2010

Indeed it is only now that I look back over old photos that I can appreciate the scale of the changes which have seen the front of the building completely rebuilt, the roof resurfaced, the box office relocated and the arena seating replaced.

Final Thoughts

What other memories do I have? One that springs to mind is the sea of fans that awaited Ding Junhui as he left the venue following his heavy defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan back in 2007. While the fans were no doubt waiting for Ronnie, it was Ding who came out and to his credit, remained out there for a good while signing autographs and standing for photos before he was escorted to a courtesy car.

Ding faces the fans

Judd Trump was another player who I had seen for the first time that year and at the time it felt somewhat strange to see a player younger than myself, indeed he looked like he should still be at school!

To be honest I could go on for hours but hopefully I have already been able to give you some sort of idea of what goes on at the tournament and in particular how much I have enjoyed my trips to the Crucible down the years. I hope to see some of you there this time around….