Michael McMullan catches up with 1986 Crucible king Joe Johnson, 30 years on from his remarkable triumph.
Every return to Sheffield evokes memories of championships past for players and fans, but in 2016 those memories were particularly strong for Joe Johnson.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Bradford man’s extraordinary capture of the title, one of the most famous moments from a time when snooker was, for a few years, the most popular sport in Britain.
After turning professional in 1979, Johnson’s early seasons were a struggle, but then runs to the final of the 1983 Professional Players Tournament, and the semi-finals of the 1985 Mercantile Credit Classic, elevated him to the top 16 for the first time.
Johnson went on to have a reasonable first campaign among the elite, including quarter final appearances in two ranking events, but there was nothing to suggest what was about to happen at The Crucible, and so he was available at 150/1 for the title.
The snooker journey of a lifetime started against Dave Martin, as Johnson made six breaks over 50 on the way to a 10-3 win. It was the first time he had ever won a match at the game’s most famous venue, and elsewhere in that first round, the defending champion was cleared from his path.
“I was due to play Dennis Taylor who I’d never beaten, and then Mike Hallett beat Dennis. So it fell just right for me,” Johnson recalls. “I’d played Mike many times as amateurs and professionals, and I knew if I played well I could beat him.”
Johnson was again a comfortable winner at 13-6, and a run in which he compiled breaks of 60, 110, 73 and 85 in four successive frames in the middle of that match, gave the first hint of what was to follow later in the championship.
He was through to face Terry Griffiths in the quarter finals, and was in an ideal state of mind. “After beating Mike I’d earned more money than I’d ever earned in my life, and the ranking points which put me safe in the top 16,” he explains. “So I had no pressure whatsoever. I decided to play an attacking game because Terry was superior to me in the tactical side.”
It seemed to be working as he took a 9-7 lead into the last session, but when Griffiths came out and won five in a row, Johnson’s adventure was one frame away from ending. The whole match seemed to turn though, on an unexpected miss by the Welshman early in the next.
“He missed a green and I thought to myself ‘he’s going to need two or three chances to win this match,” Johnson remembers. “So I thought ‘I’m going to try my best not to miss from here on in.”
Which was more or less what happened, as a run of four straight frames, two of them with centuries, saw Johnson come back to win 13-12. “I played a screw shot in the last frame, the red was full length of the table, and I screwed it right back into baulk and nearly out again. That was how much adrenaline I had. And that was the shot that won it for me. Just going for it in a final frame in the quarter finals of the World Championship, it looks stupid now, but at the time I didn’t think I could miss.”
Having been a surprise world champion himself seven years earlier, Griffiths was well placed to sportingly approach Johnson after the match with some advice on how to handle things if he went on to land the title.
“He was fantastic. He took me to one side and said ‘the press are going to be pestering you so after the championship get away if you can, let it settle down a bit’. I’ve always liked Terry and I really appreciated him coming to me.”
Johnson would now experience the one-table stage of the championship for the first time, in a semi-final against Tony Knowles, ranked number three in the world.
“The thing with Tony was that again we’d grown up together as amateurs, and I’d beaten him probably more than he’d beaten me. I was on so much money by then it was like winning the pools. I could pay off my house and there was no pressure on me, but there was on him because he was playing someone who was probably an unknown to the general public. So I played totally relaxed snooker against him.”
In contrast, Knowles seemed to grow increasingly frustrated about failing to impose himself on a match he was expected to win, and Johnson came through 16-8. He was now into the final against Steve Davis, who had already won the world title three times, and who was desperate to get it back after his famous defeat to Taylor on the final black the year before.
“Steve made two centuries in the first session but I was still in the match, so I remember going into the dressing room thinking ‘he’s played as well as he can, I haven’t played like I have been doing, so I can compete with him.”
The wide open space of the one-table arena also helped him perform to his best. “It’s very rare that you can just play the balls and not the man, but in a world final you can because you don’t actually see the other guy as it’s a long distance to the chair. So I wasn’t playing Steve, I was just playing the balls. It was wonderful.”
From 8-8 overnight, Johnson won the first four frames on Bank Holiday Monday. A timely century in the last of the afternoon kept Davis in touch at 13-11 down, and even after Johnson had won the first of the night, Davis cleared up to take the next on the black and stay in contention.
Perhaps the most important stage of the whole final arrived in the next frame though, as Johnson came from behind to clear to the pink with 40 and pinch it. From there the momentum never seemed to leave him on the way to an 18-12 triumph, and the 33-year-old who had never won a professional snooker tournament before, had somehow won the biggest one of all.
“I just think I won the important frames. I didn’t think about the score, or what it meant. I always expected him to win the next frame, so when he didn’t it was a bonus.”
It would be almost impossible to explain to anyone not old enough to remember it, just how big a deal snooker was in Britain in those days, and what a huge status came with being world champion.
“It was difficult at the time” Johnson agrees. “Suddenly I was on morning television, I was the subject of This Is Your Life. I had to start saying ‘no’ to so many things because people were recognising me so much that my wife and I couldn’t go out anywhere. It was crazy. We had to buy another house because everyone knew where I lived.”
Johnson’s year as champion brought many great memories as well though, including a booking to play on the QE2 which was apparently made without considering the implications of trying to play snooker on an ocean liner. “I broke off and all 15 reds went into the corner! But afterwards this guy called Gerard Kenny came up and asked for my autograph. I didn’t know who he was but somebody told me he’d written New York, New York and all these other songs. So I chased after him and asked if I could have his autograph! He came on This Is Your Life; he played the piano and I sang along.
“I had one of the Rolling Stones, Ronnie Wood, coming up and talking to me like he’d known me all his life. I also got a letter from Paul Newman to say that he’d watched it and it reminded him of when he’d played pool in The Hustler.”
There was probably no bigger star in the world at that time than Princess Diana, and when she recognised him in a long line of people she was shaking hands with at an event, it led to an unexpected invitation.
“She said ‘do you like tennis?’. I said I did and she asked me ‘would you like to come to Wimbledon?’ Then she said ‘who’s your favourite celebrity?’ so I said ‘Cliff Richard’ and she said ‘I’ll invite him along’. So we had a box, I was sat next to Diana, my wife was sat next to Cliff, and my wife kept asking if we could swap, but we never got the chance.”
With everything that was going on, Johnson had a dreadful run in the year leading up to his title defence, with just one last 16 appearance in the season’s ranking events. “People were asking me to do all kinds of things and once they get to you it’s very difficult to say ‘no’. One person asked if I’d say a few words to their daughter who was in a coma and how can you refuse that? I never got the chance to practise as I wanted to. And there was the pressure of being world champion, because everyone expected me to win then.”
Not wanting to go back to Sheffield and let his reign as champion fizzle out, he made sure his preparation improved for the big one. “I disappeared for two weeks. My manager got me somewhere and said ‘I don’t want you to play or practise, just relax.’ Then I practised at a place where only I could go so nobody could get hold of me. I had a wonderful five days by myself.”
The result was that twelve months on, Johnson found himself playing Davis in the final again. He was right in the match at 14-13 down, and although Davis pulled away to win 18-14, Johnson’s run remains the closest any first-time Crucible champion has ever come to successfully defending the title.
Johnson stayed in the top 16 until 1990, and was the oldest player on the circuit by the time he retired more than a decade ago. He was once again part of the Eurosport commentary team at this year’s championship, and knows how much he owes to one extraordinary fortnight 30 years ago.
“I always class myself as very fortunate that the only ranking event I won was the World Championship. I’m still working, still doing exhibitions. If it had been something like the Mercantile Credit Classic then it wouldn’t have ever been the same.
“I was never in the class of players like Davis and Griffiths. I was close to it, but they were a step above me; but those two weeks, I beat them.”