Cliff Thorburn Interview (2/3)

by Roland Cox

Continued from part 1

How much do you remember from your final in 1980 against Alex Higgins? We’ve all heard the stories about how he started to showboat so did that wind you up and make you more determined or were you happy for him to hang himself?
That “showboating” thing… I didn’t notice any showboating! What I remember is that from being 5-1 behind I played pretty good.

So it could be seen as Alex making an excuse to himself for losing?
Well put it this way: I never met anybody, and I mean anybody who would come even close to trying as hard as he did! And for him to throw away chances in the World Championship final especially, why would he just do it against me? If he did it against me then he must’ve been doing it against other people and I didn’t see too much of that going on! I mean in that final I made 15 or 16 breaks over 50 and he made 4 so what does that tell you?

Well clearly you were the better player and that showed in the result because you won! I personally missed out on that final because I first saw snooker in 1981 but the 1980 final has gone down in legend.

If looks could kill... my god!

It was a great match because… we didn’t like each other! I’ve seen a picture I think was taken before the final session, and I mean if looks could kill, my god! I mean we weren’t even talking to each other! The very first day I met Alex it was in 1973 and I’m not going to tell you what happened, but it was my first World Championship and I hadn’t even played and he was defending champion and I had an altercation with him and that was the first day I ever met him back in April ’73. And then it got worse! (laughs)

There must have been some mutual respect going on despite that though?
Yes well certainly I had respect for him as a player. He was a truly wonderful player. My god I wished I could have played like him! But we just never got along from the first five minutes we met and I used to get along with everybody. You know, trouble used to follow us around whenever we were together and I didn’t enjoy being around him, but he was an unbelievable player. You had him and Reardon and Spencer for years and they were the best players. And all three of them had their own style of game, all three were completely different players, and it was wonderful to have them all in the same era.

Cliff is a keen golfer

At that time you had to maintain the integrity of the game and I’m constantly comparing snooker to golf for integrity, and back then the integrity of the game was sometimes jeopardised. Back then snooker was more like an amateur game, so it was even more important to maintain the integrity and the code. You just don’t break the rules.

Can you tell us a bit about mind games and the sorts of things that went on?
Yeah subtle little comments here and there. I remember one time, and this isn’t a bad thing, but one time Bill Werbeniuk was playing Ray Reardon in the World Championships and Ray was leading 4-0 in their first session which was in the morning, and as they walked off for the interval Ray said to Bill “I see you don’t play well in the mornings either!”. And then Bill went off to the washroom and he somehow ended up in the ladies, and then he came back out he saw Ray and said “Gee whizz I went to the wrong washroom” and Ray said “You might as well go in there because you’re playing like one!”.

And I remember another time with Alex and John Spencer in the World Championships in 1974 I think it was, and myself and John were talking to a couple of people and one of them said to John “What’s all this talk about Alex Higgins? He’s kinda different isn’t he?” and John said “No, all these stories get blown up and basically he’s ok” and then a few minutes later as I’m still talking to these people, Spencer comes bursting through the door with Alex in a headlock and they were having a fight right in front of us! It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen!

But going back to integrity I used to joke with a friend of mine before I first came over to Britain that there would be a Beefeater banging his staff and saying “Ladieeees and gentlemen, introducing all the way from Canadaaa….Cliff Thorburn” because I thought that’s how it might be. I used to love the British and the referees and the way they spoke, certainly coming from a Canadian perspective I loved things like (adopts posh Queen’s English accent) “Twentee four” and “Thirtee two” you know, and “Six to John Spensar!”

You know it was all like that and Alex was a little bit different, and he was good for the game and the game needed him that’s for sure, but there was just something called integrity you know? And today I notice it’s changed, not necessarily for the worse but little things like the players don’t wear cuff links any more, just buttoned shirts and things like that. But looking back, thank god that the people involved around that time kept the game going. I mean you had Rex Williams and John Pulman, and Jackie Rea and Fred Davis, and there were only 4 or 5 pros but they kept it going and I want to thank them for that. I guess there was a closed shop in letting some people play, but somehow they kept it going and you ended up with Spencer and Reardon and then Higgins, and that’s when it really went somewhere starting back in 1969. Pot Black came out and that was a big thing. But integrity was maintained even though you had things like John Spencer of all people fighting with Alex Higgins!

Who was your favourite opponent?
Jimmy White. He’s shortened up his cue action a bit now and he’s doing a few things right and it’s really wonderful to see him playing the way he is now. I think if he was doing back then what he’s doing now he would’ve won a couple of World Championships. I remember playing Jimmy in the Benson and Hedges Masters final in 1986 and I was 8-5 ahead and 45 in front or something like that and then I dogged a shot! I left him in the balls and I was walking back to my seat and I was thinking my god he’s going to clear up now, then he’s going to get a century break then it’s going to be 8-8. And I know this is going to happen because it was that bad a shot! And there were 2850 people in there watching and then all of a sudden he gets down on the shot and he stops and gets up and says he’s fouled. You know, he called a foul on himself and none of the audience saw it and the referee didn’t see it and the cameras didn’t see it and I didn’t see it. And I won the game from that point onwards but I mean that…

The 1980 World Professional and Amateur Champions

It speaks volumes for Jimmy doesn’t it?
We’re talking integrity here. That really is what the game is all about. And Jimmy White really is what the game is all about. It should be a joyous fun thing, obviously you’ve got to make a living out of it and be competitive but it’s got to be fun and that is Jimmy White.

Alex gave you the nickname “The Grinder”. Did you prefer to battle against a fellow grinder like Terry Griffiths or Eddie Charlton until the last man was left standing, or a faster player and slow them down? Which gave you more satisfaction?
Well I can tell you something here that some people won’t believe, but I have never in my life deliberately slowed anyone down may god strike me dead! And I hope I don’t get hit by a car tomorrow! But no, never. That was actually me out there. After hearing that can you imagine me actually trying to slow somebody down and how much fun that would be? No, I’d rather play someone like Jimmy, I just loved playing Jimmy White.

And playing Steve Davis, Steve was actually a pretty fast player at one time when he first turned pro. And so was Alex, and both Steve and Alex became slower players as they went along and I actually became a faster player. And I’ve said to people that granted I’m not the slowest of the fast players but I’m definitely the fastest of the slow players! You name anybody that’s a slow player and I was faster than them!

I always enjoyed it if people played shots where you spin the ball around three or four cushions off a red and land you in a spot and you know, the more aggressive safety game. I didn’t enjoy playing people who would just try to get the cue ball back down into touch. I mean sometimes you’ve got to do that, there’s no getting away from it, but I preferred to play somebody who put spin on the ball.

You name anybody that’s a slow player and I was faster than them

The next question I have follows on from the last one so bear with me because it kind of goes against your answer. What is your opinion on the match between Peter Ebdon and Ronnie O’Sullivan in 2005 where Peter used slowing down tactics. Obviously it helped him win but do you see that more as gamesmanship or something you’ve sometimes got to do to win?
Well I never actually saw that match and it’s disappointing if somebody did that. Did Peter Ebdon admit to doing that?

Well no he didn’t admit to doing it and it’s clear he was trying very hard, but from the viewer’s point of view it looked like one player was playing deliberately slower. But with Ebdon as with you, you can see how hard the player is trying, the concentration in his face because he knows he can’t afford to miss so he takes his time more. But when you look at it from Ronnie’s point of view because he’s so fluent he’s getting frustrated and thinking “Why is he taking so long? I could play that shot in 2 seconds.”
Well obviously Ronnie had a tough time dealing with that. He plays faster than everybody else anyway with the exception of Tony Drago, and the thought process is different, I mean he’s more like a computer right? And Peter Ebdon was probably being too careful and I know about that, it’s cost me many matches but as far as deliberately trying to slow somebody down then I think that’s completely wrong but it’s not breaking any rules is it? But then after saying that there’s no proof that he did it on purpose.

No it’s all speculation but it is still a much talked about match. Anyway moving back to your career, which matches are you particularly proud of?
Well winning the Worlds obviously. And I remember playing Dennis Taylor in the final at our Canadian Open which started back in 1974 in Toronto, and it was the first major championship we had and all the overseas players were there, Alex and John Spencer and the rest with the exception of Ray Reardon and Eddie Charlton. And I think Dennis was ahead 5-3 and going into the final session Dennis was introduced, and he got a really wonderful reception from the audience. And I’m thinking my god that’s fantastic, and I started to get really nervous and then I was introduced and the hand I got, I mean the clapping was unbelievable! It was truly one of the great moments of my playing career coming out to that. And I remember wiping down my cue because I felt like if I didn’t do something and just had my hands at my side I’d start fluttering, I was that nervous. And I remember it was my break and I was thinking to myself that I can’t possibly play like this! And then I put my hand on the table and all of a sudden everything was calm…

…and at that moment in time I knew that I was going to be the World Champion.

I ended up beating Dennis something like 9-7 and it was a good match but if there was a real defining moment in my career then that was it right there. That almost equalled my World Championship win if you can believe that?

I can because that was the most pressure you’d felt in your life up to that moment in time and you dealt with it. It must’ve felt good.
I felt that I couldn’t deal with it and when I put my hand on the table all of a sudden I could. And what a moment that was for me! And of course it was the Canadian Open so it was a very special event for me as it was on home turf.

The natural follow up question is: are there any matches that still rankle? Ones that you felt you should have won but didn’t. Possibly the one where you were 9-2 up against Nigel Bond?
Oh I remember that one, I think that we were pulled off twice as well! But I can honestly say that I didn’t want to be there. I mean I was trying like heck, but I was also telling myself that I didn’t want to be there, and I wasn’t enjoying it at all. Even at 9-2. And with being pulled off it was almost like playing in five separate matches. Nigel played well that’s for sure, but that was when I knew that I didn’t want to play anymore. I knew before then, but he gave me the reassurance that I didn’t want to play anymore put it that way.

But I don’t feel bad about it, that’s just the mental state I was in. But as for other matches, I lost to Dene O’Kane in the World Championships from 5-1 up and lost the last 9 frames after my tip came off. But the one against Jimmy White I guess in the Mercantile Credit.

This was the one where in the deciding frame Jimmy needed a snooker on the pink?
Yes and I tell you if he was any good at laying snookers, then he wouldn’t have played it the way he did! It was one of those “Hail Mary 90 yard pass college football” things you know? The cue ball and the pink actually criss-crossed each other which is not the way to play it, and they just missed contact with each other by the smallest of margins and he got a great snooker out of it and I’ll bet he’s never played a snooker like that since. (laughs)

But then again I was 7-0 down to him in the Goya and needed about four snookers or something like that, and got them and ended up winning 12-10 and then a couple of months later there was that incident in the Benson and Hedges where he called a foul on himself, so I guess I had it coming looking back on it. But I wouldn’t mind having that one back but I won 2 out of the 3 so…

In the 1985 Goya Matchroom Trophy, White lead 7-0 before Cliff won his first frame after needing 4 snookers. He pulled it back to 8-6 before winning the match 12-10.

And you can take some consolation from the fact it was Jimmy’s maiden ranking tournament win as well.
Oh was it?

It was!
I was pretty good at that, I lost to Neil Foulds and Willie Thorne and Dennis for their maiden titles as well so I guess I’ll take them back as well!

Speaking of Dennis Taylor, when he is in commentary every time a player plays a ‘dump shot’ whereby he sends the red up to baulk and leaves the white at the black end of the table, the first thing he says is “Cliff Thorburn”!
Well that’s a joke actually because they were playing it long before I started playing, and Dennis was a bit of a master at it and Steve Davis as well. But they joked that I was writing a book about dump shots, and things like one chapter was going to be called ‘Dump Shots Against Left-Handers’, and it really got carried away! (laughs)

In part 3 Cliff talks about the 1970’s, the Crucible Theatre and his love/hate relationship with theatres, hustling, and his opinions of todays top players and the state of the game today.

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