Danny Hall: Saluting Crucible king Steve Davis, the man who dominated snooker and then captured the nation’s hearts

0
Have your say

Steve Davis walked into the press room at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre with thundorous applause still ringing in his ears. When he left, around 20 minutes later to handshakes all round, he was done, as a professional player at least, with his status as a legend of this great game well and truly sealed.

Inbetween, Davis addressed his decision to finally retire, at the age of 58, following his qualifying defeat to Fergal O’Brien. He mimicked tears as he recalled the dark days of the 1990s when, so used to victory, young pretender Stephen Hendry came along and ended his period of dominance. Real tears followed when, with voice cracking, he spoke about the death of his father, Bill, and how defeat to O’Brien was the only game he’d ever played without his father. After almost 38 years as a professional, and with 28 ranking titles and six world championships under his belt, there will be no more.

“I do think I should have retired earlier, in a way,” he admitted.

“The last couple of years have been tough because you don’t get much success and I was definitely doing it for my father then.”

Fittingly, it was at the Crucible - the home of his greatest triumphs - that Davis got to say goodbye to his adoring snooker public. Wheeled out before the afternoon session commenced, Davis enjoyed one last lap of the famous arena - world championship trophy in hand - and savoured every minute of an emotional standing ovation. Ronnie O’Sullivan soon replaced him on the stage floor and when someone usurps the Rocket at the Crucible, they’re usually someone pretty special.

Born in Plumstead, London in 1957, Davis teamed up early with World Snooker’s current supremo Barry Hearn and, together, they took on the world. A first Crucible title in 1981 began a thirst for titles that was quenched five times further in Sheffield, and at countless other venues around the world.

Steve Davis, the six-time snooker world champion

Steve Davis, the six-time snooker world champion

On the baize Davis was intense, severe and earned, if that is the right word, a reputation as, shall we say, one of snooker’s less interesting characters. (Spitting Image satirized him with the nickname ‘Interesting’ and Davis’ autobiography, with just a hint of irony, bears the word on its cover).

In the era of the Whirlwind and the Hurricane, Davis was more the Undertaker character; calmly and systematically working out his opponent, marching around the table at funeral pace before sything them down in cold blood. Calmly and systematically.

Passions of chess and vinyl records from the 1960s did little to dispel the myth but Davis, as he chewed the fat on his illustrious career with those members of the Press lucky enough to have witnessed it first hand, was something of a chameleon; almost schizophrenic-like, with his on and off-table personas that could hardly be more different.

The robotic, formulaic snooker player is easy company in real life. He finished eighth in 2013’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in the Australian jungle and dabbles in DJing, with a radio show and a previous slot at the prestidgous Bloc electronic music festival.

In the era of the Whirlwind and the Hurricane, Davis was more the Undertaker character; calmly and systematically working out his opponent, marching around the table at funeral pace before sything them down in cold blood. Calmly and systematically.

And despite winning six Crucible titles, he is arguably more famous for one of the finals he lost; to Dennis Taylor in 1985, in front of 18.5million viewers when Taylor potted the final black to win 17-16.

Suddenly, Davis’ reign of terror was ended by the arrival of one Stephen Hendry.

“I hated the 1990s with a passion,” he remembers.

“At one point, I was the strongest player in the game and expected to win, so when I didn’t, then people perhaps got a bit excited. I thought I could walk on water and that it’d never stop. Then along came Hendry... Stephen and I say to this day that we miss the days we got booed onto the table!”

Davis at his farewell press conference

Davis at his farewell press conference

Instead, Davis morphed into a national treasure, adored by the public and raising the roof at his occasional, yet seismic, success. In 2010, he made history by beating Mark King in the first round at the Crucible and then beat John Higgins 13-11 in the next. Higgins was defending world champion, and 1/20 with the bookies to win that match. Davis was 54 years old.

That win, Davis revealed at his farewell press conference, was his favourite in Sheffield. After all, he apparently can’t remember his first Crucible title because his memory is going. Davis, self-depreciating to the very end, tagged Anthony McGill as a future world champion but had words of wisdom for the young, flame-haired Scot: “He smiles too much.”

Cue smiles all round and more handshakes, before Davis rode off into the sunset of the BBC studio. Say what you like about the grandfather of snooker, but he’s nothing if not interesting.