THROUGHOUT his many difficulties away from the snooker table, there has been one constant in Willie Thorne’s life: Jill Saxby.
As Thorne, one of the most recognisable faces in the boom years of the sport in the mid-1980s, grappled with a chronic gambling addiction and depression, it was Sheffielder Saxby who stood by him.
Nine years ago, Thorne, famed for his bald head and jet black moustache, tried to take his own life.
He had squandered £1.5 million betting on horse racing and snooker and at the casinos.
He was at breaking point. He had told enough white lies to his loved ones. He’d had enough of the secret phone calls to the people he owed money. He wanted an escape from his financial problems so reached for the sleeping pills.
Saxby, Miss Great Britain 1985 and a former librarian in Stocksbridge, discovered Thorne sprawled on the bed at their Leicester home one night and rushed him to hospital. He survived the ordeal. He survived to feel embarrassed and ashamed by his actions, having concealed his financial worries from Saxby.
Thorne was lucky that Saxby rallied behind him and helped bring him back from the depths of despair. Her love and affection did not wane through the dark days as she helped him rebuild his life.
“It was terribly hard on Jill,” said Thorne, now 57. “She must have really loved me to put up with me as I was.
“There were times when I was very moody. When I was winning, she could have what she wanted and when I was losing we couldn’t even go out for dinner.
“Jill was always there for me and I will never forget that.’’
Saxby and Thorne first met in 1994 at the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield.
“She was working at the Crucible as a hospitality hostess,” said Thorne. “We met purely by accident. She had left her husband about eight months before and I was living with a lady called Denise, who I had some fabulous times with in Sheffield. But I met Jill and we fell in love.”
The couple opted to tie the knot a year after Thorne’s brush with death. They now live in Broughton Astley in Leicestershire along with Saxby’s children, Natalie and James.
In his new autobiography, Taking A Punt On My Life, a brutally frank and honest account, Thorne said: “Without the love and support of Jill, I’m not sure what I would have done. She is very intelligent and has the heart of a lion. She was so incredibly understanding and when I needed someone to lean on, she was there for me.”
Thorne first picked up a cue at the age of 10 and was only in his early teens when he started to have a flutter at the bookies. His gambling tendencies gradually escalated out of control, culminating in the break-up of his first marriage.
“Gambling is unfortunately a disease and it is something very difficult to get out of your system,” Thorne admitted.
“It made me want to take my own life. You end up borrowing money that you can’t pay back.
“I didn’t have to get up every day and have a bet. I would only bet occasionally but the figures got astronomical towards the end.
“We earned a lot of money in the 1980s and nobody knew the value of money then.”
The growing popularity of snooker brought fame and fortune to Thorne but also played a part in his downfall. After turning professional at 21, Thorne went on to earn more than a £1m in prize money before being declared bankrupt in 1992.
“I know a top England football player who has had to remortgage his house because of gambling,” said Thorne.
“Some of those players are on £70,000-£80,000 a week so it just goes to show how difficult it can be if you get into a rut.
“The thing is when you have got money, you want to get more money which is totally wrong. You should think about saving it.”
He thinks the rise of credit cards has made it even easier for gamblers to get credit.
“The country would be in a much better state if there were no credit cards,” said Thorne.
“Everybody overspends and when you have got access to that much credit as a professional sportsmen, you get given credit willy nilly.’’
Willie Thorne was fortunate to have some Sheffield steel behind him when it looked like he was snookered by life.
His appreciation of Jill Saxby’s qualities makes his autobiography more than a sporting story, it makes it a story about the support you need to survive when the pressure is on.
n Taking a Punt on my Life by Willie Thorne is published by Vision Sports Publishing, available from Waterstones and Amazon, RRP £18.99.