The year 2020 saw much knocked out of kilter because of Covid-19. Snooker's World Championship was no exception, with the event switched to August from its traditional April/May slot. Normal service, thankfully, has resumed and the quest to find the 2021 champion will begin in earnest this Saturday.
We are creatures of habit; a level of certainty brings reassurance and comfort. Masters Sunday at Augusta is always the second Sunday in April, while the 17 days at the Crucible gets underway on the third Saturday in April, to allow for a finish on the May Bank Holiday.
This year's gathering in Sheffield is being used as a pilot event for the return of crowds to sporting events in the UK. The Crucible Theatre is set to be a third full for the start, and eventually packed to its 980-seat capacity for the final.
Way back when
The game of snooker was created in the Indian town of Jabalpur by a Lieutenant Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain. While playing a game of black pool (a form of billiards with 15 red and one black ball) in the officers' mess of the British Army's 11th Devonshire Regiment, Chamberlain added coloured balls to the game and so snooker came into being. Those present playing the new game were rookie cadets from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, known by the slang-term 'snookers'. The name would stick.
The brothers Davis and 'Pot Black'
It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that snooker became popular in England. 1916 saw the first official event take place and then in 1927 came the Professional Snooker Championship, the precursor of the World Snooker Championship. Joe Davis was the first winner and would go on to win it for 15 consecutive years. His younger brother Fred was world champion on eight occasions. The Davis', no relation of Steve by the way, were snooker's first superstars.
The 1960s saw the emergence of other players, namely John Pulman, John Spencer and Ray 'Dracula' Reardon. At the end of the decade came a TV programme Pot Black, which was instrumental in helping to grow the game.
First broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 and created by then station controller, David Attenborough, Pot Black was looked upon as a means of exploiting what was then the new technology of colour television. The format saw matches decided mainly over one frame to tie in with the programme's 30-minute duration.
Behind the mic describing the action was 'Whispering' Ted Lowe. It was he who famously told viewers: "And for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green." Here's another one that no doubt caused many to gasp: "Fred Davis, the doyen of snooker, now 67 years of age and too old to get his leg over, prefers to use his left hand".
Lowe used silence well in his commentaries and was on hand to describe many of the standout moments in the game until his retirement in 1996.
Here comes the 'Hurricane' and the Worlds has a new home
In 1972, Alex Higgins from Belfast, at the age of 22 became the youngest ever world champion, when beating John Spencer in the final. Higgins, because of his fast play around the table, got the nickname 'Hurricane'. His involvement further increased the popularity of the sport.
Higgins had an unorthodox cueing style and was a master of the swerve shot. He was world champion again in 1982, and images of a tearful Higgins beckoning his young daughter Lauren into his arms beamed around the world and emphasised a star quality which would ultimately transcend his sport.
However, Higgins' well-documented problems with drink would catch up with him. He was banned from five tournaments in 1986 for head-butting a referee, and punched a tournament official after his 1990 World Championship loss to Steve James. In that same year, Higgins threatened to have Dennis Taylor shot when they were teammates during the World Team Cup. It gave added spice to the meeting of the pair at the subsequent Irish Masters.
Higgins' days as a chain-smoking gunslinger were numbered. He squandered millions of pounds of prize money and his final years were spent fighting throat cancer and hustling for money to feed his betting habit. He died in 2010.
Summing up the life of Alex Higgins, Irish Independent journalist David Kelly wrote in 2020: "His entire life seemed like a reckless gamble on the second favourite in the last at Southwell, the kind of bets he would chase in the Boar's Head in Dublin in his final years, under the watchful eye of the benign Hugh Hourican, hidden away in a corner seat.
"Money, women, life itself. Overdoses, falls from windows, axe and knife assaults; he was violent, too; from the snooker officials he hated to the women he loved.
"He hated so because he hated himself and nobody ever taught him it could be another way; had he lived in this more tolerant age, how might his life have been?
"The public were repulsed and enthralled in equal measure but kept their distance; those who got close were never really trusted."
A venue where the genius of Alex Higgins was given full expression was the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield - the home of the World Championship since 1977. It's not the biggest venue in snooker, but it has something "unique and magical", according to World Snooker supremo Barry Hearn.
A number of years back, three-time Crucible winner Mark Williams offered a dissenting voice when describing the venue as a "sh*t hole" and hoped that the championships would be played in China soon. Yes, there was talk about a move to the Far East, but up until 2027, the Steel City will host the sport's flagship event.
John Spencer was the first Crucible winner some 44 years ago. In 1978, the BBC took the decision to broadcast live daily coverage, with the mellifluous tones of David Vine as our guide. Vine, a popular figure amongst all the players, also anchored the Beeb's showjumping coverage and spent numerous winters on the Ski Sunday beat. His versatility extended beyond sport and it was Vine who commentated for the corporation on ABBA's win at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton.
The zenith of its popularity
Following on from the first-time success of Terry Griffiths and Cliff Thorburn, a 23-year old from Romford, Steve Davis, claimed his maiden title in 1981. He would go on to dominate the sport, in terms of prizes won, for the next decade. Davis was one of a large, stellar cast who would elevate snooker to being the most popular sport on telly. It thrived when set against images of mindless thuggery on the football terraces.
A classic world semi-final from 1982 introduced us to the talent of Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White. The nearly man of the Crucible - six final defeats - none more heartbreaking than in 1992 when somehow he couldn't win another frame after being 14-8 up against Stephen Hendry. We've already mentioned the 'Hurricane'. Tony Knowles, Kirk Stevens, Neal Foulds, Willie Thorne, David Taylor and Bill Werbernuik were others to have their status elevated.
Those who emerged in the previous decade - Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths, Doug Mountjoy and Dennis Taylor remained competitive. Speaking of the latter brings us nicely to the 1985 World final - a final decided by the black ball. Steve Davis was 8-0 up in the first session, a cakewalk we thought to a third Crucible crown on the trot for the Londoner. Somehow, Taylor, a grafter, got it together.
He cut the advantage to 9-7 at the end of the first day. Still playing catch-up for most of the next two sessions, the Coalisland native reeled Davis in to make it 17-17. And so the final frame. Referee John Williams "just wanted it to end" as time ticked past midnight. Still, 18.5 million viewers were transfixed as Dennis Taylor composed himself ahead of potting that black. An unlikely winner, but a popular winner. Taylor dedicated the victory to his mother, who died in October 1984.
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A song about snooker was soon in the charts, 'Snooker Loopy' courtesy of Chase & Dave. Steve Davis would go on to win BBC Sports Person of the Year. Into the 1990s and Stephen Hendry exerted his dominance on the sport. He would go on to win seven world crowns and recently came out of retirement to rejoin the tour.
'Rocket' is still firing
With the advent of Sky Sports and football cleaning up its image, snooker's grip on the public consciousness did loosen somewhat. A lack of characters in the game was also given as a reason for a decline.
That said we in Ireland had reason to celebrate Ken Doherty's world title in 1997 and him getting to subsequent finals in '98 and '03.
And while at times controversial, Ronnie O'Sullivan's continued presence at the top end of the sport, is often a reason to tune in. The 'Rocket' won his first ranking title in 1993 and this year is the 20th anniversary of his first Crucible success.
So who will win this year? Well, you could make the case for at least 10 players, with most of the money on O'Sullivan, Judd Trump, Neil Robertson, Mark Selby and Kyren Wilson.
The best bet for who'll be lifting the trophy on 3 May I'm informed is a player in his 30s, seeded in the top 10, played at the Crucible at least eight times, had reached the final before and didn't get past the quarters last year.
Make of that what you will!
Snooker's World Championship has kept its head above water in that key quest for relevance and attention. There is no reason to suggest that it will slip back given that a steady audience will again be watching across those 17 days.