The man who gave snooker to city’s theatre of dreams

Mike Watterson at home in Chesterfield, 40 years after bringing the World Snooker Championship to the city
Mike Watterson at home in Chesterfield, 40 years after bringing the World Snooker Championship to the city
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The Crucible is a venue of legends, heroes and champions but, as the World Snooker Championship celebrates 40 years in the heart of the Steel City, it is worth remembering the man who made it all happen in the first place.

Step forward Mike Watterson, the former professional from Chesterfield who took the game out of dingy clubs and pubs and presented it to the world, via live television coverage from the BBC.

Mike Watterson, snooker

Mike Watterson, snooker

He remembers a call from John Pulman, his late best friend who won the championship eight years in a row between 1957 and 1968.

Snooker was venue-less, sponsor-less and all-but penniless. Previous editions of the sport’s blue riband event had been held in Blackpool’s Tower Circus, a basketball hall in Australia and even a British Legion Club in Selly Park, Birmingham. Snooker was in trouble, and Mike was the man who saved it.

“John was one of my best mates, if not my best mate, and he used to come and stay with me in Dronfield for a week or so, and we’d arrange matches,” Mike, now aged 74, remembers.

“And he phoned me in the August of 1976 and said ‘We’re struggling. We’ve got no venue, no promoter, no TV and no sponsors, and no organiser. We don’t even know if there’ll be a championship’.

Mike Watterson and Fred Davis

Mike Watterson and Fred Davis

“He asked me if there was anything I fancied doing to help. And I said I’d give it some thought.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Except the history of the Crucible is a lot more complex than that, with Mike’s late wife Carol having a starring role.

“She’d gone to see a play at the Crucible, and said she thought it’d make a perfect venue for snooker,” adds Mike, from his home in Chesterfield.

“I rang Arnold Eliiman, the manager, and asked him if we could stage the World Snooker Championship there. We measured the stage and it was just big enough to get two snooker tables on – 36 feet, which gave us six feet of leg room on either side of two six-feet wide tables, with a screen down the middle.

“I rented the theatre for £6,600 for two weeks. I made a bid to the snooker association and I guaranteed them £17,000 from the tournament.

“The bank produced a letter saying I was good for the money, it was accepted and away we went.”

A foot smaller, and the Crucible’s now-famous stage would not have hosted a single World Championship match. Now, it is synonymous as the sport’s spiritual home, and the tournament has brought an estimated £100million in revenue to Sheffield since 1977.

“We were all over the world before Sheffield,” adds Mike. “The first one I went to, in 1972, Alex Higgins beat John Spencer in the final at Selly Oak, where seating was two bricks and a plank and matches were played under car headlights because of power strikes.

“In 1974 it went to Manchester and 1975 in Australia, with one-armed bandits and games machines next to the tables.

“Then there was the Wythenshawe Forum. I’ll never forget it – it was bloody awful.

“Imported seating and a stinking tarpaulin sheet around the back. I can still smell it now, it stunk to high heaven.

“But the Crucible was perfect. I knew it as soon as I saw it. I remember thinking, ‘bloody hell, it’s perfect! The kind of place I would want to play and watch snooker’.

“It had all the facilities; a massive bar area, restaurant, loads of car parking. Perfect.”

Mike, a handy player himself who turned professional in 1981, also created another of snooker’s biggest events, the UK Championship, as well as the British Open and the International Open.

He then turned his hand to darts, creating the system of sets and legs to create a thrilling climax every 20 minutes or so and make it appeal to the masses, and breathed new life into bowls, too, by hosting the UK Indoor Bowls Championship at the Preston Guild Hall from 1981.

But he has never forgotten the way he was ousted as promoter of the Crucible championships.

“I’ve done most things there is to be done,” he says with a wry smile.

“But I could have done more, and that still rankles with me.”

n Exclusive: Mike’s bitterness at the snooker world that I helped to create, in tomorrow’s Star.