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The Magnificent Seven: Magic moments at The Crucible

Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has seen some remarkable snooker over the years – but which moments made the cut in this week’s Magnificent Seven?

Image: Paul Barker/PA Archive/Press Association Images

1. The story of the Hurricane

(1982 World Championship Semi-Final)

It was perhaps the definitive “do or die” moment in Crucible history. Trailing by 15 frames to 14 in his best-of-31 semi-final against Jimmy White, Alex Higgins stood and surveyed the opportunity which had unexpectedly presented itself.

With a 59-0 advantage in the penultimate frame, the 20-year-old White had been just two balls away from a place in his first ever World Championship Final. Even when the youngster failed to capitalise and left the door ajar, the haphazard placement of the balls seemed destined to rob the infinitely more experienced Higgins of any real opportunity to save his tournament.

Yet, somehow, this idiosyncratic Northern Irish genius managed to turn such adversity to his advantage, recklessly firing balls across the table at impossible angles without any real consideration for where the cue ball might come to rest.

It was one of those rare situations in which no textbook approach or strategy would have paid any dividends, a fact which suited Higgins perfectly.

Summoning the whole array of shots in his arsenal, he played the finest of cuts, took on each and every long pot, and deployed some of the most outrageous side-spin which the Crucible has ever seen in his attempt to give himself any positional advantage, no matter how slight.

Somehow, the reds kept dropping and as the Hurricane methodically worked his way through the final remaining colours, it became very apparent that this was anything but a standard 69 break.

Buoyed by his resurrection, Higgins went on to snatch the deciding frame from a crestfallen White before claiming his second World Championship crown with victory over Ray Reardon in the final.


2. Taylor and Davis’ black ball final

(1985 World Championship Final)

This isn’t the first time that this particular website has extolled the magnificence of the 1985 World Championship Final.

But, despite the risk of repeating ourselves, no list of Crucible moments could be considered complete without its inclusion.

However, if there is one flaw which can be identified in Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor’s gripping battle, it is that the final frame was a little too good. So much so that it now dwarfs the other 34 frames which made for some excellent television in their own right.

The story of those two days in a Sheffield theatre can be told from countless different angles, each as compelling as the last. At first, it was the tale of Davis, the three-time champion in search of another crown, versus Taylor, the plucky underdog vying for a first Crucible success.

Over the opening day, the story evolved from one of utter dominance on the part of the champion as he raced into an 8-0 lead to one of the challenger’s resilence, fighting for every last frame and clawing himself back into the match at 7-9.

As the final session began on the Sunday evening, nobody could possibly have imagined that in the small hours of Monday morning over five hours later, more than 18 million people would still be glued to their television sets, scarcely daring to breathe as each tension-laden shot of that final exchange threatened to finally bring closure to the whole saga.

When the end eventually arrived and Dennis Taylor joyously thrust his cue skywards, it was the perfect ending to a match which might never be bested.


3. Joe who?

(1986 World Championship)

Scrolling through the Crucible honour role from the 1980s, the most striking point is the sheer dominance of Steve Davis whose name appears no fewer than six times in a ten-year period.

After that, the next thing which the eye is drawn to is the name in the winner’s column for the year 1986 – Joe Johnson.

Em, who?

In 1986, many found themselves asking the same question. After seven years on the professional circuit, the 33-year-old from Bradford was still in search of his first tournament win.

What’s more, the Crucible was probably the place in which he was least likely to end his ongoing drought. After all, Johnson had never even won a first-round match at the Sheffield theatre which has become the home of snooker.

As a qualifier pitted against former English Champion Dave Martin, one can only imagine the trepidation with which Johnson approached the first round proper of the 1986 tournament, the prospect of a first Crucible victory as remote as ever. A 10-3 win over Martin may have been the biggest milestone in his stalled career to that point but in the wider scheme of things, it scarcely registered.

From then on, Johnson reeled off a series of quite unthinkable scalps, beating some of his most celebrated contemporaries including Terry Griffiths and Tony Knowles to claim a place in the final.

Almost inevitably, Steve Davis was waiting for Johnson at the final table and the world accepted that even the most unlikely of fairytales had to come to an end at some point.

To be fair, Johnson probably expected the worst himself. Over the two previous weeks, however, he had reaped the unforeseen rewards of gamely having a go.

By early Monday evening, he was the champion of the world.


4. The “Golden Boy” comes of age

(1990 World Championship Final)

If the 80s belonged to Davis, then the decade which followed was even more emphatically the province of Stephen Hendry.

With seven World Championships in the space of ten years, including a remarkable five successive victories between 1992 and 1996, it is quite easy to understand why speculation about Hendry’s imminent retirement earlier this week was greeted with such heavy hearts.

Though we don’t yet know how one of the sport’s most remarkable careers will end, we do know how it all began.

Stepping up to the baize in April 1990 against Jimmy White, 21-year-old Hendry was far from an unknown. In fact, to those who knew anything about snooker, this moment had been a long time in the making.

The Scot’s rare talent had been more than sufficient to see him turn pro just three months after his 16th birthday in 1986. There was little hand-wringing and debate over whether this was the right move for the young prodigy. On the contrary, it was widely accepted that Hendry would do just fine.

One of the great advantages of the youngster’s early entry into the professional ranks was the fact that he was practically a veteran by the age of 20, having spent four years mingling with and learning from some of the sport’s great professionals, honing and developing his craft through regular tournament play.

Trace a finger through his early-career results and the progression is unmissable. By the beginning of the 1989/90 season, snooker’s Golden Boy was ready to take centre-stage.

And he did, winning the UK Championship. And the Dubai Classic. And the Asian Open, the Scottish Masters, and the Wembley Masters. Not to mention the small little matter of a first World Championship.

In hindsight, you really have to feel for Jimmy White who must have suspected that he was coming up against something of a phenomenon in the Crucible that year.

Nobody – not even Hendry himself – could have imagined just how good this kid would ultimately become.


5. Ronnie races the clock

(1997 World Championship First Round)

What is there to say?

It was five minutes and twenty seconds which encapsulated all that is good about Ronnie O’Sullivan’s presence in the world of snooker.

The confidence, bordering on arrogance, that a maximum was achievable at such lightning-fast pace.

The vision to conceive it complemented by the ability to pull it off.

The fact that while John Virgo, commentating for the BBC, was struggling to analyse some of O’Sullivan’s more testing shots, Ronnie was knocking them in with hardly a moment’s pause.

The sheer showmanship of the whole endeavour.

And, above all, the fact that O’Sullivan executed this unparalleled piece of skill not out of any overwhelming desire to please, entertain or show off.

He did it simply because he could.


6. Doherty ends Hendry’s streak

(1997 World Championship Final)

Such was Stephen Hendry’s dominance in the mid-1990s that few of his fellow professionals would have been so bold as to imagine that they could beat him.

White (three times), Bond and Ebdon had all tried and failed on snooker’s biggest stage as the Scot recorded five successive World Championship titles between 1992 and 1996.

In 1997, it was the turn of an Irishman to try where this litany of Englishmen had failed.

A World Championship final at The Crucible may have been a far cry from his daily workouts in Jason’s of Ranelagh but Ken Doherty had earned the right to take a shot at ending Hendry’s 29-match unbeaten run at the Sheffield arena.

It had been a long time since Irish snooker fans had anything to get truly worked up about. Now, with a Dub in the final, the whole country was enthralled.

Doherty did not disappoint, establishing his dominance early in the first session, capitalising on every half-chance which Hendry left on the table. That was the way which it had to be for the champion would be every bit as merciless and more if Doherty failed to take advantage.

As the evening session got underway, the Dubliner stuck to the task, nervelessly extending his lead frame-by-frame until his 18-12 victory was complete.

At last, Hendry’s spell had been broken.


7. So near and yet so far …

(2003 World Championship Final)

With all due respect to the 2003 final between Mark Williams and Ken Doherty, there probably wouldn’t be room for it on most round-ups of the Crucible’s finest moments.

However, as I have the final say over this list, it makes the cut.

This was my equivalent of Davis-Taylor in 1985. Yes, I am aware that such a statement is practically sacrilege. Yes, I am also aware that Doherty-Williams was hardly a patch on the greatest final ever seen.

Yet as I sat glued to every last one of the 34 frames, I reckon I experienced startlingly similar emotions to the 18.5 million people who watched the black ball final all those years ago.

As with Taylor, first came the initial crushing of dreams devastation as Doherty fell behind by ten frames to two, the devastation hardly tempered by the Irishman’s late rally on Sunday evening which allowed him to cut the deficit to six frames.

And then Monday, the dawn of a glorious new day in which everything once more seemed possible. Having started the afternoon merely praying that Ken could salvage some pride, a truly mesmerising comeback began to unfold.

I can vividly remember the moment when I really began to believe that it could actually happen – a 112 break in the 32nd frame to tie the match at 16-16.

Then, as rapidly as that fleeting sense of hope had been born, it was dashed.

So near and yet so far.


Read more of Niall Kelly’s Magnificent Seven series here >

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Niall Kelly

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