Risteárd Cooper: Harking back to when I was snooker loopy

Painted table tennis balls and paper cups on the dining room table created my Crucible

Alex ‘’Hurricane’’ Higgins of Northern Ireland smokes between shots during the 1983 Embassy World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. Photo: Adrian Murrell/Allsport

Alex ‘’Hurricane’’ Higgins of Northern Ireland smokes between shots during the 1983 Embassy World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. Photo: Adrian Murrell/Allsport

 

Snooker loopy nuts are we
Me and him and them and me
We’ll show you what we can do
With a load of balls and a snooker cue

So went the chorus of Chas and Dave’s 1986 smash hit, reaching No 6 in the UK charts and making them regulars on BBC’s prestigious, spangly, extravaganza Top of the Pops, while simultaneously sending yours truly, well...truly snooker loopy.

And you can forget Starsky and Hutch, The Professionals or even Match of the Day on a Saturday, if you hadn’t seen TOTP on Thursday there was no point going to school on Friday. I didn’t need an excuse not to go to school any day, mainly because at that stage I was either playing or watching snooker or ironing my six-foot by three-foot snooker table. You know the way?

Dennis Taylor in action during the famous 1985 final. Taylor beat Steve Davis 18-17 in a dramatic black ball finish. Photo: Adrian Murrell /Allsport
Dennis Taylor in action during the famous 1985 final. Taylor beat Steve Davis 18-17 in a dramatic black ball finish. Photo: Adrian Murrell /Allsport

My obsession with the dimly lit green baise really started with Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, all twitches and nerves, flying around the table with the gait of an Olympic race-walker, lashing down the vodka and tonics as he practically sucked the filter out of another Embassy fag plucked from his brim-full ashtray. Higgins had obtained special dispensation not to wear a bow-tie, claiming it gave him a rash, but it was really the strangulating conformity of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association that gave him the rash. And even though he fully depended on that very association, he was determined to exist outside it. What a hero!

When Higgins was on his way to winning the World Championship in 1982, stalwart commentator Clive Everton observed “Higgins is of course, extremely loyal to the crown”. A fairly bizarre assertion in the middle of a snooker match, made all the more so when Higgins picked up the cue-ball and, as was his wont, licked it thoroughly and methodically, to give the white a proper “clean”. Players can’t do that anymore!

I sat engrossed, at his semi-final with the then 19-year-old Jimmy “Whirlwind” White, awe-struck by the sparkling brilliance of the snooker, the audacity of this expressionless, buck-toothed London bucko, but despite the shirt-frills, there were no frills, these were tough lads in tuxedos performing in a kind of ‘sports theatre’ I hadn’t seen before. This was The Crucible after all. “I’m nervous for him Jack,” croaked John Spencer as Higgins set about a clearance when 15-14 down in a first to 16 match, which still ranks as one of the greatest, heart-pounding moments in the sport.

By the time he had won the title that year, the bockety wooden dining table in our telly room was a a makeshift snooker table. Having painted a few table-tennis balls red, black and white, I sellotaped six polystyrene party cups to the corners and middle which were the pockets and glued a chess pawn (felt-side out) into a white plastic tube which was now my cue. Couldn’t think of anything for cushions – which was a bit of an issue – but as far as I was concerned I was playing at The Crucible. That may have been the moment my ma decided what my next Christmas present should be.

Those were the days when ‘Big’ Bill Webenuik, God rest him, had to exit stage left every five minutes to visit the small room, to relieve himself of all the beer he did be drinking, in order to “calm the nerves” according to whispering Ted Lowe.

Snooker nowadays is a very different ball game. No tobacco sponsors has meant various betting companies have stepped in, but there’s something not quite as romantic about replacing Embassy with Betfred.

The game now is chock-full of young lads who toe the line, but at what cost? The robotic, non-entity image of the players might keep sponsors happy, but with only the very odd flicker of anarchy, you suspect the game has lost its spark. Ronnie O’Sullivan’s clench-fisted will to stop himself flying off the handle represents about the only thing worth watching these days.

Ali Carter and Ronnie O’Sullivan had quite the spat last week. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Ali Carter and Ronnie O’Sullivan had quite the spat last week. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Last week, when Eurosport’s cheeky chappy Colin Murray gleefully described the Rocket’s moment with Ali Carter as a “spat” it wreaked of an event short on headlines, all the more so when he was knocked out,

All the while there’s a deafening silence from the game’s media about the distinct possibility of John Higgins, who served a lengthy ban for match-fixing a few years ago, walking away with this year’s top prize of £425,000.

Perhaps match-fixing is viewed as mild horseplay compared to Kirk Stevens’ wild cocaine nights of the 1980’s, Higgins head-butting a tournament official, or threatening to have Denis Taylor shot. Now those were the days.

It’s certainly a love/hate relationship since my table-ironing days. Taylor’s black ball decider against the Ginger Robot, Steve Davis, aka the Plumstead Potting Machine represented the game at the pinnacle of its powers. Few moments have resonated since, apart from our own Ken Doherty beating arguably the greatest of them all, Stephen Hendry in 1997, while the Rocket’s five minute 147 was like watching a magician potting balls with a wand.

But there have been too many low points of late. Finals between Graeme Dott versus Peter Ebdon for instance, Stuart Bingham versus Shaun Murphy and Nigel Bond versus anyone.

And while I may be looking through rose-tinted Denis Taylor-shaped glasses here, sanitised versions of anything tend not to be as much fun.

It’s hard to see snooker ever reaching the heights of the 80’s again or indeed ever becoming a primetime, prestige sport.

Having seriously thought about doing it for a living (at 15-years-old), I eventually got a break of 87 on a full-size table, realised I preferred wearing tights and wigs and ended up being an actor. Now what’s misspent about that?

Having said all that, I’ll be glued to the final.

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