Interview with Terry Griffiths (part 1 of 2)

by Roland Cox

Terry Griffiths became a household name across the UK back in 1979 when as a debutant at the Crucible he went on to lift the trophy. Given his age, 31 years old, and his strong amateur career up to that point it perhaps shouldn’t be seen in the same shock terms as if the feat was repeated today by a tour rookie, but nonetheless it was one hell of an achievement. Terry reached the final again in 1988 and eventually retired as a player in 1997 to focus on his chosen career path of snooker coach, which has led him to his current role as Director of Coaching at the South West Snooker Academy. I caught up with him during a break in his heavy schedule at PTC7.

Snooker legend Terry Griffiths

When did you start playing snooker?
I started playing when I was 13 years of age in a club in Llanelli with my friend, and fell in love with the game and played ever since.

When did you get your first century?
I was 24 when I made my first century.

Obviously that’s quite old in today’s terms.

Well not then it wasn’t but you’ve got to understand today the balls are lighter and the tables are a lot better to play on but back then at the amateur level the standard of play wasn’t that high. Today they’re all making them but when I started I remember getting a standing ovation against Doug Mountjoy when I had a 71 break! These days if you don’t do a hundred they just laugh at you.

Your highest break in tournament play is registered as 139.
Yes 139 in tournament play.

Did you ever have any maximums in practice?
No I didn’t have any maximums. I didn’t do a century break till I was 24! You can’t really relate it to what others are doing now because the game has changed so much.

When you were in your 20s it was very hard to turn professional because there wasn’t really much of a professional game was there?
Well back then I didn’t even know anything about the professional game, there was no snooker on television so you weren’t aware of what was happening in the professional game. My ambition was to win the Welsh Amateur and get into the Welsh amateur team to play in the home internationals. I think all players were the same in those days; that was their ambition. The professional status was nothing and I hadn’t even considered it.

Were there any players that made an impression on you when you were young?
Ray Reardon obviously in my later amateur years, he was Welsh and 6 times World Champion in the 1960s and 70s and that made him my hero. But that was only because he came to my town to play exhibition games. I didn’t see him play professionally until I was late 20s.

When did you turn professional?
June 1978. There was only the UK Championships and the World Championships, there were no other events. I lost in the UK Championships and then I played in the World and won that, so that set me up in my career.

What led to the decision to turn professional?
I’d played amateur snooker and obviously won big amateur events when there was no prize money. Then the game changed a bit and amateurs were allowed to win prize money but I didn’t really contemplate it until one day I played Clive Everton, who was the editor of Snooker Scene magazine, in the English Championships in London and he said to me I should start thinking about taking it up as a profession. He sowed the seed for me rather than anything else. I was married with two children and had a good job as an insurance agent. But there was nothing to turn professional for, there were only two events and you couldn’t really make money unless you were a face, and then you did exhibition work. So the chances of that were quite slim but after a while I started thinking about the opportunity to play the best players in the world and that was my drive.

Also a lot of the Welsh amateur players had said they wished they turned professional 10 years ago and that always stuck in my mind because I thought I don’t really want to look back and think that. Then when I won the English Championships I was able to put my name forward for professional status, because you had to win something in the amateur game for the committee to allow you to become professional. So my wife and I discussed it for about two years and the reason I went is to see if I could beat them and that was it. I thought I’d give myself 3 years and if I couldn’t afford to do it then I’d have to go back to work and I couldn’t have given a shit! So I looked at it that way and hit the button early on.

A young Terry during his amateur days. You can almost sense from the picture how hard it was to play with the snooker balls of the era

What do you remember from that tournament?
I remember losing a stone in weight in 17 days!

Was that down to nervous energy?
Yes. You just don’t sleep so much and it’s a long time and for me it was just a long period of time to play match snooker. I’d only played amateur snooker up to that point and obviously the long matches were very hard but I’ve got fond memories of what happened that year. The reaction to it was very strange to me obviously with all the people and getting thousands of cards from well-wishers and going back to my home with loads of people out there like the mayor of the town, and it seemed like just the week before I was out there collecting insurance! I was 31 so I suppose I’d lived a bit of life and could accept what had happened, but it still hit me hard that first year of being away. I was booked up for a year with exhibitions.

So it was quite a fruitful time?
Well it was fruitful but that’s not what I turned professional for really, I turned professional so I could beat the other players. Then all of a sudden I was propelled into this world I wasn’t used to, and I was in huge demand because I was suddenly in the public eye and in those days there was a lot of exhibition work for somebody like me. But it was so hard being away from my wife and kids.

Did that have any impact in the 1980 World Championships?
Not really, I don’t think that affected me. I turned professional the same time as Steve Davis, at the same meeting in fact, and after I won the World Championship the only player I couldn’t beat of the qualifiers to be honest with you was Steve Davis, and I drew him. And I lost the match against him. But it wasn’t to do with the year I’d had because I felt very competitive and I enjoyed the match with Davis and was disappointed to lose.

Aside from the World Championships in 1979, what would you say are your career highlights?
Well believe it or not I would probably say they were before that. I won my first ever title as a young boy in my home town which was very special to me and then I won the West Wales when I was 16 and that was very special as well, and then I won the Welsh Amateur. I’ve better memories of my amateur days than professional because the professional was quite harsh and cut throat, whereas the amateur game was to hit shit out of each other and then have a drink afterwards. Turning professional was a bit of culture shock for me.

What was it like to be a household name during the snooker boom years?
I’ll always recall when it first hit me and it was in Paddington station in London which has got to be one of the most impersonal places in the world, and people were coming up to me and saying “Hello Terry” and I was thinking how do they know me?! So this was after the World Championships and I didn’t really realise how many people had seen it because I was just on the snooker table at the Crucible, totally focussed on what I was doing. What happens around you in the outside world you don’t really realise.

I don’t have a problem with people, I don’t mind meeting them and talking to them but I do have a problem with the people who just stare at you and whisper. I know what it’s like now for the woman who walks in front of the builders; it feels like people are stripping you mentally.

You won all the major titles like the UK and the Masters.
I won all the amateur major titles and I won all the professional major titles early on. But then I started at 31 and as the years went on although I kept up with the top players for quite a period of time, I didn’t really win that many tournaments. Then when more tournaments came I was starting to go back a little bit and when I had my glasses my game really went back and as I started to slide towards the bottom of the top 16 I thought if I ever drop out of that I’ll finish so that’s what I did. It was 1996 when I retired but I played in the 1997 World Championships but no other events that year.

Poor old Martin Clark out there (Martin Clark was officiating for World Snooker during PTC7 at the time of the interview); because I decided to finish at the Crucible it pushed him back from 32 to 33 in the rankings so he had to play more qualifiers! His manager argued that I shouldn’t be allowed to play in the Worlds because I’d pushed his player down so he had to play another round. He wasn’t biased of course! But I played Alfie Burden in the qualifier and won that and I lost 10-9 to Mark Williams in my last Crucible match.

Terry in 1986 after winning one of his 3 Welsh Professional titles

Do you have any regrets about that match?
I don’t have regrets no. It was about the worst draw I could have had because I’d known him since he was a little kid, which he still is now let’s be honest! He’d just beaten Stephen Hendry 9-2 in the final of the British Open 2 or 3 weeks before as well so when I saw the draw I thought ‘Oh no!’ But it just goes to show how many mind games there are in snooker because I played the best I’d played at the Crucible for maybe 10 or 15 years. And it’s only because I had nothing to lose, I knew I was going to retire anyway and Mark was under pressure because everyone was telling him Griff doesn’t play, easy game this, and all of a sudden I’m sitting on top of him and I’m 9-7 in front. And then I found it a little difficult to win from there and I lost on the black in the deciding frame.

Was it difficult because you hadn’t played or difficult because it was him?
No it’s because I hadn’t played a match for a year and it is quite an effect when you go into a big arena like the Crucible. I know I’ve been there a million times but if you haven’t played in a year it’s a little bit different, and of course it would have been a huge scalp for me at that time because I was well past my best and that affected Mark. But he played very well towards the end and won on the black. He tells me he retired me!

When you started out as a professional you were very free and flowing which I assume is how you were in your 20s as well, and then throughout the 1980s you seemed to be very deliberate and then in the 1990s you reverted to more attacking. Is that how you see it?
When I was an amateur I was ok like most people, I wasn’t quick but I was normal, and then when I played in the World Championships I’d have people telling me I was quite slow and I’d think ‘Quite slow?’… and then I’d watch the tapes which were obviously Betamax in those days and I couldn’t get over it. I’d done it, and I didn’t realise I was doing it! It became part of me really and in a way I was more famous for being slow than anything else. I have to be honest with you, because of the way I am I played on it a little bit. If someone told me I’m too slow I’d say the trouble is the other players are too quick and that type of thing.

Did you try and speed up and go for your shots a bit more towards the end?
Well I did try to change my game but I struggled with it to be honest. I didn’t speed up all that much and I was always strong on my long potting but you lose 5 per cent of your game when you’re sitting down a lot more, and what I found in my last 5 years or so of my career is that I could beat most of the players but I couldn’t beat the top 8. And a friend of mine who used to be a pro said to me that I never used to miss the easy shots but now I did and I thought ‘Do I?’ and you don’t realise unless somebody tells you.

But I was 49 and I thought I’m not going to carry on doing this, I wanted to coach and I was very lucky in that respect that I got a position straight away in the WSA for a coaching scheme that until then we’d never had. So it wasn’t as if I was going into nothing, and I also had a snooker club so it was a lot easier for me to say that I’m packing it in now because other players thought I must be mad to pack it in.

You had a plan.
Yes I always had a plan and I remember going to a meeting with all the players and I was on the committee at the time and I had somebody warn me that I was going to have a bit of a dig from the players because I was having a job. I won’t say the player involved because it doesn’t matter but he was so narrow minded and he stood up and said:

“How can you possibly retire when you’re on a guarantee of £23,000 with your ranking position?”

And the room went quiet, and I looked at him and said:

“Please don’t take this the wrong way but I’m not going to miss £23,000!”

Terry at the start of his career in the field of coaching (thanks to Janie Watkins for photos)

And he sat down and said how did he ever think of saying that? But it was the truth. It wasn’t so much that they were having a go at me, it had quietened the room because I was vice-chairman at the time or something like that. You do these stupid things like go on committees to try and help and they’re all trying to fire you down!

Do you still play?
No I can’t play because of my back and neck. After I packed it in I was working for the WSA seven days a week, and then when I went back and tried to play it hurt my back so I was bending both my legs and my neck was killing me and I was devastated. I wanted to play amateur you see, my plan was to play in my club for my team.

When did you play your last frame of snooker?

Or in practice.
1998. I hit some balls when I’m coaching but I miss playing every day. Not at this level obviously (the PTC) but I’d certainly enjoy being able to play in my club.

In part 2 of the interview Terry discusses his coaching career and gives his thoughts on the game today compared to how it was when he started out.

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