Saturday, 5 January 2013
Calling the shots
I've been ignoring this blog of late. I've been thinking of other things and so this venue is taking a bit of a back seat. I'm only going to post on designated days.
But just to keep it ticking over I thought I'd let you read this piece that was published a few weeks ago in the Sunday Herald. It's an interview I did with the doyen of snooker writers Clive Everton, about the sport he's been covering for decades. Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor turn up in it. If you like snooker, Everton's book is well worth a read.
The story of snooker is also the story of Clive Everton.
Anyone who knows the sport knows that. Everton is 75 now. He has edited Snooker Scene magazine for 41 years ("man and beast"). He has seen the sport rise from little more than nothing to briefly become one of the biggest sports in Britain three decades ago before falling away again through incompetence and corruption. He has written about snooker, commentated on snooker, played snooker, been sued by snooker (or the sport's governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the WPBSA, at any rate). He has seen the good, the bad and Bill Werbeniuk.
Five years ago he wrote a book about it all. Now he has updated it. In that time the world of snooker has changed dramatically. And for the better, he feels.
"There is a case for saying that the snooker circuit is in the best position that it's ever been, with 10 full ranking tournaments, 13 player tour champions events, plus the Masters," he says. "That's 24 events. So it is actually the busiest and most lucrative the circuit has ever been. There's a better chance for more people to earn a good living from it than ever before."
Since 2009 snooker has been under the control of Barry Hearn, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his in-your-face management style when he was representing Steve Davis in the 1980s. As a result a sport that was on its uppers is now up on its toes again. Earlier this year Hearn even promised that he would make every player a millionaire. Even if this sounds like a typically Hearnian slice of hyperbole the fact that he is able to say it is confirmation of the turnaround the sport has seen. Because, as Everton's book, Black Farce & Cue Ball Wizards, makes clear, the sport has been repeatedly going in off the black for the best part of 30 years.
But first let's rewind a little. Snooker has always been a sport that has veered between feast and famine. More than 1000 people attended the Royal Horticultural Hall in London to watch Joe Davis win the first post-war championship. Yet between 1957 and 1964 no promoter could be persuaded to put on the world championship because there was no interest. The introduction of colour television, and the BBC's consequent low-budget hit programme, Pot Black, first aired in July 1969 "established the potential popularity of snooker," Everton says, adding: "The exposure the game received and the reaction to it was far-reaching in its influence."
But it took the emergence of Alex Higgins to cement the transformation in the sport's standing. Higgins beat John Spencer to win the 1972 World Championship and in doing so he gave snooker an electric shock to its heart. The doyen of sports writers, Hugh McIlvanney, once said of Higgins that he brought "the raw sense of the streets" to the game.
"Definitely, definitely," agrees Everton. "He wasn't like anybody else, to put it mildly. All the other professionals aspired to respectability; Higgins never did. He brought the Stretford End into watching snooker matches. He was their man and they were going to support him."
Higgins also carried the game from the back pages to the front thanks to his chaotic approach to his personal and professional life. Chaos and confrontation were his default setting. How do you pick one example? In the book Everton reports an exchange between Stephen Hendry and Higgins after a match in 1991. Higgins reported that he said "Well done Stephen, you were a wee bit lucky". Hendry's recall of the event is slightly different. As far as he remembers, Higgins' words were more like "Up your arse, you ****".
Indirectly, Higgins' volatility was good for snooker in terms of recognition, but it did set the template for how the game would be reported by the press. "A lot of newspapers don't seem to be able to write about snooker except in terms of colourful off-table lives," Everton says.
No matter. Snooker was about to take over. In 1978 the BBC started to cover the World Championship from first ball to last. A year later, Terry Griffiths won the title, a victory that Everton believes was just as important as Higgins' seven years before. "It was a great story because in not much more than a year he went from selling insurance to winning the world championship." And selling insurance had been one of his better jobs.
Suddenly the media were given a whole new world to report, explains Everton, "an entirely new dramatis personae" and the newspapers made the most of it. "There was Ray Reardon the policeman, Spencer who has basically been a bookie's runner, and Cliff Thorburn who had played for money all over Canada and northern America. When Tony Knowles was shagging everything that moved, he was doing a ghosted column and so was John Parrott, who was set up as the polar opposite, the squeaky clean boy from Liverpool. These players suddenly became television personalities.
" I once said about Terry Griffiths' wife that she married a bus conductor and found out that she was sleeping with a superstar."
This all culminated with Dennis Taylor's victory over Steve Davis on the black ball in the World Championship in 1985, a game that kept more than 18 million people up well after midnight. At that point, Jonathan Martin, then head of BBC Sport, told Everton that snooker was bigger than football.
And that is when everything started to go awry. Everton's book is a litany of public relations disasters, events organised by the WPBSA that somehow lost money, expense abuses and court cases taken out against anyone who dared criticise the board. What went wrong?
"The players tried to run it themselves. They weren't competent enough to run a pretty large business and worse still they weren't that great at bringing people in from outside," Everton says. That pattern continued, he believes, for the best part of three decades: "In those 30 years they tried players who knew nothing about business, or not enough anyway, and they tried businessmen who knew nothing about snooker and who in some ways were even worse."
There is something blackly comic about Everton's revelations. At one point John Spencer was chairman of the WPBSA when he was, as he himself has admitted, clinically insane. And when Everton continually pointed out the many motes in the governing body's eye they tended to sue him, especially when it was under Rex Williams. To do so they used the players' money, he points out.
Meanwhile, the game got dogged by match-fixing claims, and sponsors and tournaments began to fall away.
By the time Hearn put himself forward three years ago to run the sport it was a shadow of where it had been 30 years before. Thankfully, though, the 21st-century Hearn is an altered beast to the 1980s wide boy of his Matchroom days.
"A different character," Everton agrees. "I think Barry used to be the king of the playground in the eighties and now he's the headmaster. To think he would one day be the establishment ... in the eighties he wouldn't have been ready for that because he thought in exclusively commercial terms."
That is not to say he doesn't now, but Hearn has begun to tackle the sport's failings and improve its health. He is also embracing the booming interest in the Far East, as well as encouraging interest in continental Europe. The game that for so long was dismissed as a British pub game (not that Everton can ever remember it being played in pubs) is now becoming a genuine world sport. What hasn't changed, Everton says, is its essential appeal – the way it becomes hushed theatre of the mind.
"At the top level you kind of take the skill for granted. The top 100 are very good players. So you watch for the psychological aspects of it. I find that endlessly fascinating. Watching other people suffer is fascinating."
o Black Farce & Cue Ball Wizards by Clive Everton, £12.99, is published by Mainstream
copyright Sunday Herald