Cliff Thorburn Interview (3/3)

by Roland Cox

continued from part 2

Let’s talk more about the 1970’s. It was the era directly before the television boom and it was just before my time, but I read a lot of snooker books growing up and it’s always intrigued me. You of course featured in the first Crucible final in 1977 losing out to John Spencer. Judging by the score line it was a hard fought match. Do you remember much about the tournament and what was your impression the first time you saw the Crucible Theatre?

John Spencer won the inaugural Crucible World Championship beating Cliff 25-21 in the final

Well I thought it was fantastic! We had just started playing at another theatre, I think it was the Drury Lane Theatre, London for the Benson and Hedges so we had just had our first taste of theatres and it was wonderful. It suited my game more because of the air conditioning the air was drier and coming from Canada that was right up my street. And then we moved up to Sheffield for the World Championships and it was another theatre but it was even better.

I turned professional back in 1973, and one of my problems was I should have set my goals higher. My goal was to reach the World final within 5 years, I mean how dumb is that? So I made the final in ’77 and I met my hero John Spencer and he was also a friend and well, I didn’t have a chance. I was ahead 21-18 and all I heard was that this was “John’s friend” and people were talking about it and I couldn’t get away from it. And then I had a couple of friends who called me up at 3am because they thought that it was the other way around, so I was tired and I’m not using it as an excuse, that’s just how it went. But the big thing was that I just didn’t set my goals high enough. But it was great to be a part of it at that time and I made the final again in ‘80 and ’83 so that was 3 finals in 7 years at the Crucible.

I remember one match in ’77 in which Mountjoy beat Alex Higgins in a last frame decider (13-12) and that was pretty nerve wracking just watching in an ideal setting like that, and that’s when it really became big time. I mean TV was there back in ’77 but that’s when it first happened as far as I was concerned, that’s when I knew it was going to be getting bigger and bigger. But yeah, to be at the Crucible and be a part of it was great.

I know what you mean because I’ve been there myself, obviously as a spectator, and you really can’t beat the atmosphere in there when there’s a big game going on and when the crowd are getting involved. Even though you can fit more people in another venue, there’s something special about the Crucible.
But I always complained about it because I couldn’t get enough tickets for my friends so I wanted it to be moved to the Wembley Conference Centre! I remember playing Alex in the final and he had 20, 21 tickets and I couldn’t even get 3! But I always enjoyed playing there.

But I’m not very good with theatres. I’ve been to a couple of stage shows and concerts but I cannot sit in the middle of all that stuff. I can play in front of 2850 people but I can’t sit in the audience and watch somebody play, I get the heebie jeebies. I remember in 2007 I was going to sit with some of my friends, you know business clients, and I walked into the Crucible and I just walked right out again! I didn’t want to sit there and watch, it was too much for me.

Cliff's ice hockey team

I remember a time when all the World Champions were sat in the front row during the last session, I can’t remember the year but weren’t you there then?
Yep, I was there for about half a frame!

I couldn’t handle it! I couldn’t sweat it out watching those guys play. But I can quite easily sit right in the middle of the ice hockey rink at the Bell Centre watching my team the Montreal Canadiens, going wild and crazy and jumping up and down with 21,000 other people and not worry about it.

Will you go to the Crucible again?
Sure, but I won’t sit in there for long! (laughs)

Another one I want to know about was 1975 when the Worlds were held in Australia. Looking at the results you had a couple of pretty convincing wins in the earlier rounds. I mean 15-2 against Graham Miles who was a good player before losing out narrowly to Eddie Charlton…
And Paddy Morgan the round before.

Yes Pat Morgan 15-6 in round 1.
What happened with Paddy Morgan is he beat me the year before. I remember in ‘74 I won the first frame and Paddy took his tie off. And then I remember going 3-1 in front and he took his waistcoat off and then I went 4-1 in front and he drop kicked his chalk right out of the arena! And I had a hard time settling after that, so if you want to know how to beat me, just do that, it’ll upset me!

I never saw Eddie Charlton play against anybody else the way he played against me... he was playing quickly, and at first I thought he was taking the piss!

Going back to ’75 it was playing in really dry conditions. It was almost like playing in a theatre, it wasn’t damp at all and I really enjoyed that kind of situation. And when I played Eddie it was close, and then he had a session against me and my god, it was as well as anyone’s ever played against me. I mean he played quickly against me and it blew my mind…

Did you just say Eddie Charlton played quickly?

I’m a child from the 80’s so for me Eddie Charlton was the only player who made me turn off because he was so slow! I mean he used to be up and down and up and down several times before he finally addressed the white.
Well trust me he was so full of confidence that tournament and he played some great snooker. If Eddie had have opened his game up a little bit then he would have won a World Championship, but he was a control freak. You know, he’d like to tie you up and kick you, just to give you a bit more pain than you were used to. That was his style of game, to try and grind you into the dirt.

Was he the original “Grinder” then?
I guess so. But I never saw him play against anybody else the way he played against me in the last session of our match in the 1975 World Championship. I mean he was playing quickly, and at first I thought he was taking the piss! But he just kept on doing it, and he was running around the table and I guess he’d just made his mind up, and I was a young guy then with not too much experience… maybe he thought that he couldn’t out-grind me, now that would be flattering wouldn’t it?


The familiar mannerism of Cliff's cue chalking

Where this next question comes from is a piece on the website blog where I transcribed a conversation between Steve Davis and Ray Reardon. Is it true that Eddie Charlton set the conditions up to favour himself that year?
Well I don’t know. I mean nothing stood out that to my mind lead me to think it wasn’t fair. I mean he had the home fans but this was the first time the World Championships had ever been held outside of Britain.

The one I heard was that in the interview I mentioned Ray Reardon hinted that the baulk cushion was a bit dead so it suited Eddie’s safety game and it would give more margin for error so he could hit them a bit harder and still finish safe?
Well Ray knew what Ray knew. I mean Ray Reardon’s safety was that good that you’d think there was a dead baulk cushion only when he played!

How good was Ray Reardon in the 1970’s?
He was the best. He was a wonderful break builder. When I look back he always seemed to lift his head on every shot and his elbow was way out, but he was the best. John Spencer was only marginally behind him and Higgins was only just in 3rd behind that, but Ray was a wonderful tactician and he was very very good at laying snookers. I mean whenever he had to play for a snooker he was perfect weight or it would be fractions away from getting a snooker if he didn’t get it. But yes, a wonderful tactician and he had a spell from I think ’73 to ’76 where he won every World Championship (4 in a row).

When I look back he always seemed to lift his head on every shot and his elbow was way out, but he was the best

He was full of confidence and fun to be around, but he never gave up and when you’re as good as him at laying snookers… he would need 2 or 3 snookers and you had to drag him off the table! And people who were good players didn’t want to play him.

You know I’ve seen Stephen Hendry give up a game needing just one snooker on the colours. Stephen Hendry wasn’t good enough at laying snookers to start off with but he was smart enough to realise that if he got into a battle at the end of a frame, he might end up winning it but it would knock him out of his rhythm. And good luck to him for sorting that out and of course as he went along he became ok at it. But Ray was the best, he was tough. Ray lost like 9-8 or 13-12 like you really had to work to beat him.

If you’re that good at laying snookers it not only puts pressure on the game ball for the opponent but also several balls after that because you’ve got to make sure he’s not going to come back.
Oh yeah Ray was always hanging around, he was tough to beat.

So when did you first become aware of Steve Davis and did you know from an early stage he would become your main rival?
I played him in ’78 at the Canadian Open, and I don’t know if he was a pro then but I beat him 9-7 in the quarter-finals and he looked like he was going to be around for a while and hey, guess what!

But Steve used to play a lot faster. He was a much faster break builder than he ended up being in his prime. But he’s got the best all round game I’ve seen. I mean Hendry’s the best player, you know the saying that the best defence is a great offence and that’s Stephen Hendry right? But Steve is still the best all round player that I’ve ever seen. When Steve showed up you could wait 65 minutes while he won the first frame, he will NOT leave you a shot! And he will not miss an easy shot. And if he didn’t win the first frame then all of a sudden it’s like a danger thing for him. I beat him about 4 or 5 times out of about 15 times we played, something like that but any time I got within a couple of frames of Steve I always won. You know Steve would win like 9-0 against people, he wasn’t used to close matches.

Steve was also very serious and he reminded me of Rocky, you know the scene where he’s pounding the slabs of meat and someone’s there saying “Hey champ you’ve gotta go take a look at this” and he’s like “No no no” and he’s throwing the medicine ball back and forth, and that’s the same kind of a thing with Steve. He thought about fitness a lot.

Then of course since Steve you’ve got Ronnie and Ronnie of course is so much better than Davis and Hendry at doing this and doing that. But Ronnie doesn’t show up all the time and it’s a shame but Davis and Hendry showed up all the time. All the time! You know with Davis it was like… get sick or something will you!

But Steve and Hendry were there all the time and Ronnie’s like a breath of fresh air that’s for sure, but he’s not strong all the time. There are times when you know he’s not there today and some of the players can give him a tough time like Selby.

So who are the players you enjoy watching today?
Obviously Ronnie, Selby, Ding and I really enjoy Neil Robertson. I’ve been following him for the last couple of years and it’s great to see someone from Australia like Eddie Charlton who can pot balls. I’ll be following his progress over the next few years that’s for sure. He was one that I was telling everybody would win the World Championship one day and he’s done that. Mark Williams is another one I enjoy watching play and yes there are a lot of good players out there. I don’t want to leave anybody out…there’s even Graeme Dott, he plays with some tenacity.

Neil Robertson was one that I was telling everybody would win the World Championship one day

He played really well against Selby in the semi-final this year didn’t he?
Yes. You know the World Championship is 5 matches and you can shoot your load and end up tired and that coupled with some personal stuff with management was a shame for him.

As far as Graeme Dott is concerned he seems to get a hard time on internet forums, being labelled the ‘worst World Champion’ and it’s really annoying because he is a quality player.
What is he on now, 3 finals in 6 or 7 years or something? That says it all. But there are so many different players out there who each have their own way of playing the game.

They all have different actions too don’t they? You have people like Joe Swail who is completely unorthodox to Jamie Cope who holds the cue from behind which looks a bit like Ray Reardon…
(laughs) Well you know John Spencer was a real complete player and it saddens me that a lot of people in these times here never got a chance to watch him play. He was one of my heroes and on and off the table he was a real gentleman and he was a wonderful player and break builder, and I’m honestly really surprised that no one has ever mentioned Stephen Hendry because Hendry cues just like John Spencer did.

Really? I’ve never heard that one before! Another question from one of the members. Can you remember your greatest hustle?
I knew that one was coming! I wasn’t a very good hustler. I remember once in the States I was dressed up as a mechanic…

Why were you dressed up as a mechanic?
I was trying to hide that fact that I was a pool player! So anyway I beat this fella and he said “What are you doing in town, do you work here?” and I said “Yes, I’m working at the Mobil 66 on the other side of town” and he said “No you don’t!” and I said “How do you know” and he said “Because I own the f***ing place!”

But he was quite good about it and I still kept the money. But that wasn’t a hustle though. I wasn’t very good at missing on purpose, because I had trouble getting it back. You know, turning it on kind of a thing? But you know I very rarely missed a ball on purpose let alone a match right? I never lost a match on purpose that’s for sure.

Topical but I’ll stay away from that sort of question.
No that’s ok. John Higgins is in that list of players I love to watch play. It’s sad what happened, I’m not going to say too much but it sounds like entrapment, to a certain degree. And if it really happened then I feel sorry for the family. I like John very much and I’ve wanted to give him a call.

Have you spoken to him since the story broke?
No. Well I was never on those terms with him anyway, I just saw him at tournaments.

But you’re Cliff Thorburn!
Well hopefully I can speak to him once it’s all settled down.

What do you think of what Barry Hearn has done since becoming Chairman? And were you tempted to join his stable in the 80’s?
I did join his stable!

You weren’t on any of their records which is why I never knew that!
I signed about 2 months after Snooker Loopy came out. And I was definitely the best singer in that group, trust me! But I enjoyed being around Barry. Anyway, all I want is the integrity of the game maintained, sponsors putting more money in, the players having more tournaments to play in and well, Barry’s the guy. You know you’re only as good as what you make and Barry’s very good at putting money in his pocket but he’s also very good at putting money in other people’s pockets as well.

It seemed that there was a feeling of people asking how much he was going to make of the deal instead of concentrating on how much they were going to make.
Well that’s what has been wrong for such a long time because the game has been run by players and we were all concerned about what the other guy was getting, and you end up with 100% of nothing. I was on the board back in the 80’s for a heartbeat and I didn’t like what I was seeing there so…

Really? Who was the Chairman?

If I'd bothered to check out my bookshelf I would have realised Cliff was indeed part of the Matchroom stable!

(laughs) Well I’m not going to say but there were a lot of different Chairmen around that time and they were all ex-players back then.

Do you read Snookerscene magazine?
I try to stay away from that sort of stuff to be honest with you, it all got a bit too personal for me. But there’s certainly justification for writing about the state of the game that’s for sure. The whole thing is that there were just too many players on the board who weren’t qualified and they didn’t want to give it away to somebody that would do more harm than them, you know? There was a lot of paranoia around then.

But again they did bring a few people in who did some very good things for the association to be honest with you. But had Barry or Ian Doyle been involved 15 years ago I think the game would be much better off. But obviously there was a conflict of interest there because they had a stable of players, but somebody with their business sense I think would’ve really helped. And once you lost the cigarette advertising the game just seemed to go down unfortunately.

Well hopefully now the game is back on the up.
Well now the prize money is back to where it was in the mid 90’s so it’s on the right path.

Do you think it will ever be a truly worldwide sport and which area of the globe do you think it needs to tap in to?
Oh boy, I’ll need a couple of weeks for that one! I really think the game needs a worldwide sponsor, you know somebody like HSBC. I mean in golf they are everywhere, and they can take the game to new places. There are some golf tournaments where there aren’t too many spectators but it’s on TV so the company is getting the worldwide exposure so they need a sponsor like that. And this where I think Barry can actually have the game to get it as a worldwide sport more than anybody that’s been before him.

I know there’s a lot of talk about China and how China’s going to save them and this and that but it’s a lot more of a game than just China, I think personally. And they have to think of that as well. But Barry is probably the guy right now, I don’t think there’s anybody else right now that can do it better than him.

Cliff Thorburn 1980 World Champion

I don’t know if you’re aware of Eurosport but basically it’s a major sports channel broadcast all over Europe and it’s been showing all the ranking events over the last few years and it’s really starting to catch on in places like Germany and Finland and even places like Portugal. So I think snooker has bottomed out.
That’s good but as with anything else the junior development has got to be set up in these countries in Europe because if there’s no junior programme starting from the grass roots then it’s going to be tough. But you have to get it on TV in the first place so the kids can see what they want to be.

Have you heard of Luca Brecel?
Yes I have, he’s supposed to be something else. I’d love to see him play.

I think we’ll get the chance soon, and of course there’s Reanne Evans who has been given a wildcard onto the main tour.
Yes that’s good too.

So before we end do you have a message for the Islanders?
Enjoy what you have here because I never had this when I was younger. And erm… keep up the questions… I don’t know!

And I look forward to meeting some of the members if they come and see me on the Snooker Legends tour.

Cliff thank you, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

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