Looking back across 40 years, there is one incident that still makes Dennis Taylor chuckle. In fact, throughout the four-decade staging of the Betfred World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, the 1985 champion says it is a moment that somehow defines the intimacy of the place.
It happened when Taylor was playing Bill Werbeniuk, a giant Canadian who suffered from an involuntary shaking which he self-medicated through a prodigious intake of lager.
“It was a long match and Bill was already about 30 pints down,” Taylor recalls. “I was thinking: ‘how’s he standing up?’ Yet there he was on a break of 80. And then to reach a shot, he tried to stretch over the table, bringing his leg right up on the side. He was a big lad, it was a strain, he’d had 30 pints. So the inevitable happened.”
As he stretched, the sizeable Werbenuik broke wind. It was not a subtle release. This was a fanfare that echoed long and loud round the auditorium.
“Well, I’m sitting there chewing my knuckles trying not to laugh when he turns to the front row of the crowd, who were right there, right in his firing line, and his face getting pinker by the second, he says: ‘Who did that? Can we have some quiet please’.”
Until it arrived in Sheffield, the World Snooker Championship had been a peripatetic competition, staged in snooker halls and leisure centres across Britain and, in 1975, Australia. Then in 1977, it landed – initially just for one year – at the Crucible. This year, when the tournament starts on Saturday, it will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. Which according to those who were there that first time is no surprise: it immediately felt like home.
“It wasn’t the first time a tournament had been held in a theatre,” recalls Taylor. “They’d staged the Masters in the New London Theatre, which we all loved. It made a heck of a change playing in a place with proper plush seats rather than lines of fold-up chairs.”
The tight banking of the seats, the way the players were surrounded on three sides, and the fact that even those spectators on the back row were less than the length of a cricket pitch from the action, gifted the place an immediate sense of occasion.
“We were so close, people on the front row could grab hold of the back end of the cue,” recalls Taylor.
Yet somehow, the very proximity encouraged the audience to maintain absolute silence when the action started. “It gets so quiet in there,” says Barry Hearn, who has watched every Crucible championship, first as a player’s agent, now as chair of World Snooker. “I remember Dennis Taylor getting right narky because someone unwrapped a sweet on the back row when he was addressing the ball.”
Actually the noise that really got to Taylor was more specific. In the early rounds two tables are somehow crow-barred on to the auditorium floor. Which, for Taylor, brought peculiar auditory challenges.
“I used to dread the match on the other table finishing while you were still playing,” he recalls. “From behind the curtain you’d get this swish swish of the brush on the baize as they cleaned it ready for the next match. Used to drive me potty.”
Indeed, if you wanted now to create the ideal location for a snooker championship, the Crucible, small, confined, old fashioned in its facilities, might seem an unlikely choice.
“The thing is, when you talk about the Crucible it’s the atmosphere you’re talking about,” says Steve Davis, who won the world title there six times in the Eighties. “As a venue it’s cramped. When there’s two tables together in the early rounds you can hardly move. It’s the same backstage: tiny. You’re bumping into each other constantly, no one has room to breathe.”
In the early days of the competition there wasn’t even a practice table for the competitors. “You had to go out on to one of the tables in the auditorium after the matches had finished for the night,” recalls Taylor. “Though first you had to find a BBC electrician to switch the lights on. God forbid you tried to switch them on yourself. You’d have probably started a strike.”
Even when practice tables were introduced backstage, such was the lack of room available, only two could be installed. “And they were always in use,” remembers Davis. “You were restricted to half an hour and had to put your name on a list, but you could never get on.”
There was a reason for that, as Stephen Hendry, who won six titles there in the nineties, admits. “After the first round, I’d put my name down early on the list, then, immediately after my name, put down the name of someone who’d just lost and I knew would have gone home,” he recalls. “That way, the session after mine wouldn’t be taken and I’d get a full hour. Little tricks of the Crucible!”
Whatever its faults, for the players it was what went on in the auditorium that made the place unique.
“Because it had the acoustics of a theatre, everything was amplified,” says Davis, who has just made a BBC documentary about 40 years of Crucible snooker. “It felt a classier place. Walking out, you thought you’d arrived.”
So intense did things get that when Davis and Taylor fought out the greatest match to take place there – the 1985 final – the pair were totally unaware of what was going on outside the confines of the building.
“We had no idea everyone was talking about us, everyone was watching us on telly,” says Davis. “We had no idea that the national grid almost went down or that the crime rate in Belfast fell to zero. It was just us two and 900 in that room. Time stops still at the Crucible.”
Which is a sensation that can prove overwhelming. “One match I’ll never forget was in 1979 when I beat Steve in the last 16,” recalls Taylor. “Barry Hearn was going round saying he was invincible, how he couldn’t lose. But Steve himself seemed very nervous. I knew I had him when he got up from the chair to take his shot holding a glass of water rather than his cue.”
Indeed, for Davis the Crucible harbours bitter as well as sweet memories. “The worst feelings I had in snooker were in that room. Not just 1985, but 1982, as well. That was when I was champion and got steam rollered in the first round, everyone was so pleased that the wheels had come off for me. I couldn’t handle everyone’s delight that I’d lost.”
Davis – along with Taylor and Hendry – will be back there this year working on the television commentary. And this will not be the last time. Hearn has just signed a deal to keep the championship at the Crucible for another 10 years. That is against the advice of many of the leading players, including Ronnie O’Sullivan, who would gladly see it moved elsewhere, but Hearn is having none of it.
“On one shoulder has been my commercial demon saying: ‘You could get a fortune, move it somewhere big, sell it to China’,” he says. “On my other has been my conscience asking if I really want that on my tombstone – the guy who took a British institution out of the country for money. Much to the regret of my bottom line, it was my conscience that won.”
Which means, for Hendry, the memories will continue to be rich. “When I go there on Saturday, I’ll still get a buzz. Everything will remind me of what happened there. Even the toilets,” he says. “The odd thing is, I’ve never been to the Crucible when there wasn’t a snooker event. Imagine going to see Hamlet there. It would be really, really weird.”
- Steve Davis’s The Crucible: 40 Golden Snooker Years will be on BBC Two, 9pm – 10pm, on April 23