The Crucible’s Greatest Matches
This year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first World Championship in Sheffield, and to mark the occasion, snooker’s leading journalist Hector Nunns has written a book about the Crucible’s greatest matches.
The book throws the spotlight on classic matches involving Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White, the late and much-missed Alex Higgins and Paul Hunter, Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths, Ken Doherty and of course the 1985 black-ball final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis.
The book is available to buy now and makes a fantastic souvenir of the 40th anniversary, or a gift for anyone who loves snooker. Click here for more details.
The book is also on sale in the Crucible throughout the Betfred World Championship.
We spoke to Hector to find out about his experience of writing the book…
Hector, how much fun did you have writing The Crucible’s Greatest Matches?
A lot of fun. I knew from last summer I wanted to do a book, my first, that was in some way related to the 40th anniversary of the Betfred World Championship taking place at the Crucible in Sheffield. So it was just choosing what to do, and I quickly settled on a book of greatest matches to celebrate at the same time a special venue, a unique tournament, and the game itself. And I knew I wanted the chapters to be long enough to be self-contained stories, taking in some career and season background on the players when we met them for the first time in the book, as well as the blow by blow account of the match. Interviewing is probably my favourite part of journalism, and I wanted to have first-hand recollections from as many of the players involved as possible. Given that some great players featured more than once I also thought I needed to have as a bare minimum Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White on board. Luckily that happened, and for those featured sadly no longer with us like Alex Higgins and Paul Hunter, I was able to add quotes from those that knew them well in addition to past interviews and cuttings. Then, armed with all my interviews, Chris Downer’s Crucible almanac, and watching a lot of archive footage, I spent most of November, December and January writing it up, either in the wooden cabin that serves as an office at the end of the garden, and then in my hotel at the Masters.
Which players gave the most fascinating interviews during your research?
The first thing to express is my gratitude and appreciation for all the players who generously gave of their time to talk about the matches selected. Whether they were legends of the game, or players who simply were part of one amazing match at the Crucible, they spoke candidly and honestly, and basically made the book. Of course, it is fascinating to hear Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis talk about the 1985 ‘black-ball’ final, and even though it is hard to get anything really new (given it is one of the most discussed and written-about moments in sporting history) hopefully there is the odd new perspective. But I loved the conversations with both Ronnie O’Sullivan and Peter Ebdon about their incredible 2005 quarter-final, when eventual winner Ebdon slowed the pace down so much that he was accused of doing so deliberately and ‘cheating’ by journalist Matthew Syed in The Times. Ebdon sued over the comments, and lost. My respect for Jimmy White – always high, as one of my favourite players as a kid – only increased as he was able to talk about painful defeats with such a total absence of bitterness. Regret, but no rancour. Ken Doherty and Paul Hunter’s former manager Brandon Parker spoke very well about one of my own favourite matches that I covered as a journalist, the 2003 semi-final that saw the Irishman come back from 15-9 down to win 17-16. And the (costly) transatlantic phone call to Cliff Thorburn was more than worth it as he spoke about the 1980 final against Alex Higgins, and the 1983 match against Terry Griffiths that saw the first Crucible 147. The Canadian remains one of snooker’s great characters, as does Tony Knowles whose recollections of being out nightclubbing until 4am during his 10-1 win over Davis in 1982 had me laughing out loud.
You have been covering the World Championship yourself for over a decade. Do you have a personal favourite moment at the Crucible?
While I had covered the World Championship from the office for a couple of years, and done a few player interviews in London, my first time in Sheffield was in 2004 when Ronnie O’Sullivan won his second title, and the first time will always be special. Of course I will always remember it but the matches that mainly sticks out for me apart from the final was the semi-final and seeing the player I had watched dominate for a decade, Stephen Hendry, absolutely destroyed by O’Sullivan 17-4. Also the last-16 match between Matthew Stevens and the late and still much-missed Paul Hunter; great friends, two players I always enjoyed watching and a cracking match won 13-12 by the Welshman. I would have to say that this year’s 40th anniversary gala celebration in the arena, and seeing all the former Crucible champions, was a great evening. Away from the table and work there are plenty of good memories, not all of which centre around big nights out in Sheffield, a city I have always had a lot of time for having also studied here. There is a camaraderie in the media, and team curries help you through the marathon. I try to get out towards the Peak District and have a walk around Ladybower Reservoir if I can, and sneaking out of the venue to relive my youth at a Happy Mondays gig over the road one year was another major highlight.
In writing the book, did you find yourself immersed in the intensity and emotion of those classic matches – even the ones which happened before you covered snooker?
I would say just about every match in the book I either watched all or most of at the time, or was here covering them at the Crucible. Then in writing the book I spent hours going over any old footage I could find to remind myself of key moments, and sometimes find shots or misses that the players had specifically raised in their interviews. So in that sense yes, you had to immerse yourself, and certainly writing the book brought back many of the feelings from watching the matches live. That said, it is of course far more intense for the players – with the possible exception of Jimmy White. Yes he was very upset, but he thinks (and I agree) there are still fans who were more upset than him he never won a world title, and he regularly has to console people to this day.
Do you feel snooker has a unique capacity – among all sports – to create that kind of drama?
Without any doubt snooker has the power and the capacity to create huge drama in an almost unique way. World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn was kind enough to pen the foreword for the book, and as usual he puts it better than most: “Unlike a lot of sports snooker can be a slow burner, the tension builds minute by minute, frame by frame, hour by hour and especially at the Crucible where the matches are the longest we see. It is like reading a long book with a series of plot twists, and you are gripped but don’t know until the final page what will happen.”
There are so many tournaments around the world now but do you feel the World Championship still stands alone in terms of the atmosphere and attention it generates?
There are some great tournaments around the world, and I have been fortunate enough to cover snooker from many of them including events in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Mumbai and Berlin – the German Masters for many years one of my favourite events in an incredible city. Could any of these one day stage a successful World Championship? Probably they could. But could they stage a World Championship with the same atmosphere, buzz and unique appeal that we have now at the Crucible and in Sheffield? It is very hard to believe that would be possible, and the question is now redundant for 10 years at least. I have included in the book a quote from Paul Hunter from an interview I did with him in April 2003, just before his run to the semi-finals at the Crucible. In it he said: “I just like going down the M1 and seeing the signs to Sheffield, it gives me a huge buzz.” I think he spoke for everyone.