My sporting disappointment: Jimmy White and the elusive World Championship
The Whirlwind was alluring and made it all feel possible but never tasted Crucible glory
Alex Higgins looks on as Jimmy White is at the table during the 1986 World Championships. Photograph: Adrian Murrell/Getty
Whenever you are asked about least favourite moments in sport or, it is impossible not to hear David Brent’s immortal answer to his biggest life disappointment - “Alton Towers”. Sport, by its nature, dishes out low moments and tough memories and low moments with the slick indifference of a card dealer in Vegas. If there is a winner, then there must be a loser. There is always hurt. To play or to follow, to care at all is to be sometimes left feeling hollowed out.
It really doesn’t matter what the level is. You might have run and lost in the Olympics or in Croke Park or it might be that sitter you missed aged eleven, shortly before you retired from the game forever, disenchanted and broken. If you’ve been involved in sport at any level, then chances are you’ve had that moment so eloquently and unforgettably portrayed by Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney, when asked how he felt just minutes after watching his Monaghan team narrowly fall to a smashing Kerry team in an All-Ireland quarter final.
“Like I’ve had my heart taken out without surgery,” he confirmed. Which may seem like over-statement now but in that moment- the cool shadows of the Croke Park underworld, the cruel cheers of the next game underway- it felt about right. Indeed, had Banty held the bloodied, beating heart aloft in his hand, none of the gathered press folk would have batted an eyelid- although there may have been a rush of discreet messages sent to the desk advising the need for more space.
Sport can be a torture and we all have numerous days or moments of results that we can’t forget and so consciously decline to remember. How many times have GAA stars referenced never having watched the losing final that still stubbornly returns to them in the middle of the night? And for supporters, it can be just as bad.
So it would be tempting, when thinking about a least favourite moment in sport, to return to the All-Ireland final of 2014. But when your county is making just its third ever September Sunday having enjoyed two perfect days in a summer when it has just dethroned the team regarded as unbeatable, the feeling is not so about a ‘least favourite’ moment as a permanent psychic wound. The world loses a little of its primary colour, is all. And then you go home.
Or it would be easy to return to the brilliantly hot summer when a number of fools from the ‘Ballyshannon Massiv’ sat down in the Lions Head in Bethnal Green to watch England v Cameroon in 1990. This was long before BG was bothered by gentrification and the like and if a fack-load of paddies thought they could drink in a boozer crowded with young drunk English lads in a fugue of patriotic fervour, and cheer when Roger Milla put the Indomitable Lions 2-1 ahead without getting a deserved kicking afterwards, on the street, in the sunshine, then they were mistaken. That battering could count for a least favourite sporting moment except it was just all too ridiculous and violent.
You could easily detail any of Liverpool’s various mishaps or return to the dismal years of Irish rugby as afternoons and evenings that left you feeling hollow. But the more I thought about least favourite moments in sport, it is the pale and haunted face of Jimmy White that kept appearing.
It’s hard to understand why that is. I never played snooker but when White ‘burst’ onto the scene - and the scene then was the Embassy World Championship in Shefffield which was on all day and all night on BBC - there was a kind of snooker revolution going on. In our town, for instance, an actual club with full size tables and triangles and spiders and cue racks and chalk and all that flash stuff was up and running in the ‘98 hall.
It wasn’t unknown for some players to have their own cues, carried in a sinisterly narrow suitcase and assembled with the solemn efficiency of an assassin. If it was quiet you might get to play but for those of us versed only in pool, the table seemed the length of an airport runway once you crouched down. The light meter would die and a single frame could take what felt like hours.
Watching snooker, though, was different and 12 was the perfect age to be caught up in the soap operatic theatre of errant stars like Alex Higgins, Kirk Stevens and Big Bill Wurbeniuk and to watch White’s first World Championship final appearance in 1984. In 1982, there’d been a kind of electrical storm when Higgins held off White in a riveting semi-final. But this was to be White’s moment. He was up against defending champion Steve Davis, the Romford boy whose steady, impassive, cautious play was the perfect opposite to the state of fast, velvety agitation in which White played the game.
For a start, he had a face straight out of Dickens
What was so compelling about him? For a start, he had a face straight out of Dickens, like someone who’d been whisked in adolescence straight from the clutches of Gradgrind and gussied up in the tux and shines without ever once exposing himself to a moment of sunlight. He had these darting pensive eyes and always looked like he needed to win fast as he had an appointment to keep- possibly in a pub or with a dealer: tantalising chronicles of his escapades would soon feature in the headlines.
And he was thrilling to watch, playing a game that seemed invented as a form of self-expression, just for him. What was he so worried and strained about? It was as if he was in on some dastardly secret: if you don’t clear the table in under seven minutes then a bomb will detonate. And, of course, in the real world, the bombs were detonating across the border and in England. Anglo-Irish relations were complicated and that informed how Irish teenagers regarded England at that time. It was fine to adore all the music stars but when it came to sport, the rule was thumbs down.
White was an exception: the Englishman that it was ok to like because he never seemed English. Davis took care of those stereotypes by excelling at snooker while appearing as though he was on his lunch break from an advisory role in the Home Office. Years later, in interviews, Davis rubbished those perceptions by revealing a very funny and laid back personality who was just genius at masking his doubt. But the contrast in play felt like a battle of two clashing ideologies as to how best to live life. Who would triumph? Davis’s cautious, technical excellence or White’s instinctive and sometimes foolish flamboyance.
The 1984 final was played on May 6th and May 7th. Years later, White would attribute one of the reasons for his fame to the fact that there were “only four channels.” It is difficult to remember how concentrated and limited the experience of watching television was then. This was the first golden age for TV shows - on the Saturday of the final, for instance, Kojak, Dallas and TJ Hooker were all scheduled. But RTÉ One only opened at 12.50 in the afternoon. On the Monday evening, the entertainment finished with Benny Hill at 11pm followed by the late evening news before it went dark at 11.35pm.
The English channels went later but not by much. One of the attractions of the evening snooker session was that they had to keep showing it, tossing aside scheduled programmes for games that went down to the wire. Snooker had a captive audience and the players of that era loomed large in the popular imagination. Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis featured alongside pop stars and politicians on the wildly popular Spitting Image satirical show, which caused a sensation when it made its debut in 1984.
The final was first to 18: people could plan their whole weekend around those marathon sessions. Inevitably, White fell into an alarming hole after the first session, trailing 12-4 and on the brink of a personal disaster. And just as predictably, he produced a storming comeback to turn the final into an epic: 14-16 down with Davis needing to reach 18 frames to ‘clinch’ the Embassy trophy. It’s all on YouTube. And even watching it now you find yourself kind of invested in White in a way you couldn’t fully understand. He’d knock down these nerve-wracking, must-pot shots with nerves of steel and then bomb on a more straightforward attempt, as though suddenly bored. You could never fully rely on him, which was why so many probably rooted for him.
I was so confident that I’d win it the next year or the year after that I was okay losing
There was a moment, trailing 15-16 down, when he was lazy on the pink and left the white hard against the cushion for his next red. And there were gasps of dismay in the auditorium. And you knew there were gasps, at that moment too, in millions of homes; that what you were hearing was all of England gasping. ’Cause their boy’d blown it. Only he hadn’t - at least not yet. It went to 16-16 and the strange thing, in review, is that both players went to pieces during the 34th and final frame, thrashing at long pots and hopelessly off radar in safety play.
Both made mistakes but Jimmy’s proved fatal and Davis eventually finished the game with a routine clearance of the colours while White watched on, looking paler and more sleep deprived than ever. It was as though White and Davis knew something about the dark art of snooker: that there was some kind of invisible force field that would prevent White from winning and save Davis from losing. That the gods of the game didn’t really approve of White. “I was so confident that I’d win it the next year or the year after that I was okay losing,” he’d say decades later. But he was wrong about that and I think there was a sense among the millions watching on television that evening that it was never going to be straightforward for the Whirlwind afterwards.
White would go on to lose five more finals; the annual occasion of White not winning at Sheffield became a kind of ritual and could be held up as some genetic flaw: all that brilliance, all the money and adoration but just that certain something that stopped him getting over the line. He was so outrageously talented that never winning the world title is a more fitting legacy than scraping over for the one or two titles that long-forgotten snooker stars have managed.
As the entertainment options deepened, snooker’s influence as a sport capable of gripping ‘the home countries’ receded. Plus, the players changed: the generation White inspired was terrific and flashy and Ronnie O’Sullivan may be the best of them all but the era of snooker as a dominant cultural influence passed.
Years later I came across a piece by the late Jonathan Rendall, himself gifted with a talent as volatile and powerful as that of White, who best captured why it was that White became some kind of folk hero to so many. Here he is explaining how he came to understand what it was that fascinated him about Jimmy White.
“It was the Hurricane Higgins encounter” he wrote in a marvelous Observer piece in 2000 about how he was basically jilted as White’s official biographer (and what a book that would have been).
“At an indeterminate point in the Eighties, Jimmy is on a six-week bender in the Elizabeth Taylor suite at the elegant Gresham Hotel, Dublin, when Hurricane Higgins turns up. Higgins has always stayed in the Elizabeth Taylor suite and asks Jimmy to move. Jimmy, despite their friendship, refuses. Rather than accept another room, Higgins takes up residence in the bathroom for several days. As they drink in the suite’s private bar one evening, Higgins explains why it is imperative that he has the suite and not Jimmy: it’s because he’s an ‘aesthete’ and Jimmy isn’t, and the Gresham is only truly appreciated by aesthetes. ‘Which is why I fit in, Jimmy, and you don’t.’
“It doesn’t really matter what people like Hurricane Higgins and Jimmy do; it’s how they express it. They have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, in the way that great painters, writers, poets and violinists have it. They’re rare. So when they fall, they must be saved. It’s a shame no one thought to save Higgins - although technically there’s still time - but I suppose the same could have been said of Dylan Thomas. That’s my theory, anyway.”
The blessing is that White needed saving by nobody: he is still about, on the fringes of the game, aging, scampish and content with the knowledge that he might have been the best there was. The Rolling Stones played his 50th birthday bash at Grosvenor House, which, as he gleefully noted, is not bad for a kid from Tooting. And it’s not.
He’s one of the enduring faces of the fading era of Arthur Scargill and the miner’s striking and Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the unemployment and when people had all the time in the world to sit down and watch an afternoon or evening ‘session’ at the Crucible, when time both moved slower and flew by, especially when White was up because it felt like anything could happen, anything at all.