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Murphy’s Crucible Highs And Lows

It’s 21 years since the Magician first cast his cue at snooker’s Theatre of Dreams. Over that period, Shaun Murphy has made World Championship history, suffered heartbreak and thrilled fans with his dazzling brand of snooker.

The Englishman secured his first trip to the World Championship in 2002, when he defeated Marco Fu in the final round of qualifying to earn a dream debut at the age of 19. Murphy couldn’t have been handed a more daunting initial assignment than the one he got, a meeting with seven-time World Champion Stephen Hendry.

Murphy recalled: “I learned more in that match against him, than I would in 20 matches against other players elsewhere. To play Stephen at the Crucible and watch how he went about it was amazing. How he interacted with the audience and how he played certain shots up close. This was the greatest player of that generation and I had the best seat in the room. I learned from how he was backstage, some dos and don’ts. He wasn’t in the player’s lounge playing cards. It was work, he came in and played then left. He didn’t know he was giving me information, but I learned a lot about professional life there and then.

“Before you walk out there, you have no idea how claustrophobic you are going to feel. The people on the front row can almost step out and touch the player’s cueing arm. It is an incredible set up and almost unlike any other sporting environment.

“It is massively important to have the Crucible. That is the home of snooker. If you stop someone in Sydney and ask them where the home of snooker is, they will say the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. There is just nowhere better to play snooker. The amount of iconic matches and things which have happened there certainly wasn’t lost on me. Maybe it was all too much for me in the end on that debut appearance (he lost 10-4).”

Fast forward three years and Murphy embarked on another Crucible campaign, again as a qualifier and having never won a match at the hallowed venue. With pre-tournament odds of 150/1, he could have been forgiven for not anticipating what was to come.

Murphy did secure that first Crucible match win against Chris Small in the opening round. He then registered landmark defeats of John Higgins in the last 16 and Steve Davis in the quarters, before victory against 2002 World Champion Peter Ebdon in the semis.

Murphy was pitted against Matthew Stevens in the World Championship final. Once the gravity of his achievement settled in, he came to the realisation that he was just hours away from taking to the baize in the most important game of his life. What he didn’t anticipate was that, as he lived in Rotherham at the time, he was about to receive rapturous backing from the local fans. Murphy was inspired and came through 18-16 to become the second youngest winner of the event, aged 22, and was the first qualifier to lift the famous trophy since Terry Griffiths in 1979.

He recalls: “When we turned up for the final it was the morning of the Sheffield Half Marathon. My coach Steve Prest and I arrived at the back door of the venue and we couldn’t get across the road for the runners. Every single one of them ran past shouting ‘come on Shaun’ and ‘do it for Yorkshire’ or ‘do it for Sheffield’. Because I lived there at the time I had so much support and to some degree they were the 12th man.

“I just managed to hold on to my composure to get to 16-16. I won the penultimate frame in one visit. I remember when the referee, Eirean Williams, was racking up the balls for what turned out to be the last frame I said to myself that I had better win the next one. I was thinking that if it went to a deciding frame, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Of course he was in first, missed and I did step in with a frame and match winning break.

“Afterwards it was crazy and I was completely unprepared for it. There are books on how to cope with failure. There aren’t many out there to teach you how to deal with success. I found that really hard to adjust to. Things like going to the local shop and being recognised or going to the petrol station and filling your car up then being asked for an autograph. Not being able to do simple things like going out for dinner without being recognised. That is of course very normal and what happens, but it was a jump into the deep end and I wasn’t prepared for it. I look back at some of the things I said and I cringe. The ignorance of youth, I didn’t know some of the things I was saying and I regret that. It was all new to me. At 22, I was really just a kid.”

Over the next ten years, he would complete snooker’s Triple Crown with victories at the 2008 UK Championship and 2015 Masters. During that time, Murphy reached two further world finals.

In 2009, he faced Higgins and was comfortably beaten 18-9. He and Stuart Bingham played out one of the best standard Crucible finals ever seen in 2015, but it was Bingham who prevailed 18-15. Looking back on those matches, Murphy reflects that although they were very different, the pain from losing is just the same.

He admitted: “I’m not sure that how you lose affects how easy losing is. When I was younger, I felt that if you play well and lose it is easier to take. These days I just think losing sucks! Whether you lose 10-9 on the black in a re-spot or you lose 10-0, I don’t think losing gets any easier to deal with.

“I didn’t leave the house for two weeks after losing to Stuart. It was like I was grieving for somebody. It was horrific. The morning after losing I went to the local shop to stock the house up and the woman behind the counter got all flustered and went to congratulate me, as she was saying it, she realised she had the wrong person. I was thinking that this wasn’t the pep talk I wanted, I just wanted to buy some bread! It was bad and I was in a dark place. The great thing with sport is there is another opportunity just around the corner. You get back on the bike and keep peddling.”

The entertainer inside Murphy relished performing in front of an audience again at the 2021 World Championship, following a period of Covid restrictions. He made it all the way to the title match and was up against close friend Mark Selby. At 17-15 down he took on a difficult red with the rest, but missed. Selby pounced and cleared to get over the line 18-15.

Despite suffering defeat, Murphy believes it was a transformative fortnight for him. He also says that his fist pumps and interactions with the crowd, which were criticised by semi-final opponent Kyren Wilson after the match, are something which isn’t seen enough in snooker.

“If you go to the West End to watch a show and the actors and actresses just walked off at the end, it would be really weird,” said the ten-time ranking event winner. “That is what happens after every match in snooker. The players very rarely give anything back to the people who have paid their money to come and watch. I find that criticism really hard to take. I’ve never had that from any member of the public, nobody who has parted their money to come and watch us put on a show has criticised me for that. I’ve had a lot of criticism from players who are yet to have the successes that some have. Nobody who has won the World Championship has ever criticised me for doing those things, because they know what it takes.

“I remember the shot (in the final against Selby), should I have taken it on or shouldn’t I? I was reading him, because he had started to wobble. Although I was two frames behind, I had been four behind. The atmosphere in the room had changed. I had 99% of the support and I was on the crest of a wave. I felt that if that red went in, I was going to win the tournament. I got the rest out, took a deep breath and tried to pot the red. I didn’t think there was any way he could win if I won that frame. Of course, I missed the red and had to sit down and watch him pot the last eight balls. Once I missed the red, I knew he was going to clear up as he is a man of great stature. He has the bottle, he has the technique and he wasn’t going to make a mistake from there. That was my moment and I missed it.

“It is important for snooker not to be forgotten in the history books as we look back at the pandemic and lockdown. Snooker led the way for live sport and the return of audiences. It was great to be a part of that. It was fantastic to be the first sport back with a full house and have that interaction with other people again, who wanted to watch us perform. We were very lucky to be part of that. One of the things I look back on, is that I said the crowd during that championship had helped bring me back to life. They really did.”

Looking ahead to the future, Murphy’s biggest ambition remains the same: to join only six other players to have lifted the famous trophy more than once at the Crucible.

He added: “I think winning a second world title would almost bookend my career. I’ve always held multiple World Champions in a slightly different regard to single time winners. There’s a little asterisk next to players who have won it more than once. I don’t think you can fluke a World Championship. If you ask any of the players who have only won it once, they will tell you the same. It is very difficult.

“If you took all my championships away, including that one and let me have another go at my career, I’d probably turn it down. I’ve got my name on that trophy and nobody can ever take that away from me.”