Steve Davis still snooker loopy after all these years
Snooker's grand old man remembers the night he was defeated by Dennis Taylor in the most memorable world championship finalSteve Davis at his home in Romford, Essex. Photograph: David Levene
It was the best and the worst moment of my career all wrapped up in the same moment," Steve Davis says as he remembers how, 25 years ago this month, he lost the most memorable snooker match of all time on the last ball of the last frame of the 1985 World Championship final to Dennis Taylor. Now, on a quiet afternoon in Essex, at the counter of a small bar in his snooker room, the spotlights burrow down into the deep lines and sagging folds of Davis's face. Those marks of ageing offer a stark reminder of the time that has slipped by since he succumbed to Taylor on a black-ball finish that transfixed 18.5 million viewers long past midnight – at the pinnacle of an era when snooker outstripped football in the ratings.
"My overriding memory is of reaching saturation point with the pressure," Davis says. "No one is immune to that kind of pressure and I was in shock. I remember going to the party afterwards and getting absolutely smashed. It's always depressing when the world championships are over – because it's such an intense event there's bound to be a comedown. It's easier to handle if you've won. Imagine how you feel when you've won it the last two years, you're world No1 and you've just lost on the black ball of the 35th frame?"
Davis smiles ruefully. But he is too amiable and balanced a man to wallow in personal misery. He understands how that unforgettable frame is buried in the British sporting consciousness. "People have called it a JFK moment," Davis quips, as if he cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of comparing a snooker match in Sheffield to the assassination of an American president. "And it still surprises me how often I get stopped by people who want to tell me where they were when they watched it and how it merges into the story of their lives. I'm proud of that. Mind you, I can only say that because I won a lot of tournaments afterwards [including three world championships to match the trio he had secured before 1985]. If I'd never won another world title it would be very different. But I can now look back at it fondly."
At this year's world championships, where Davis will make a remarkable 30th appearance, nostalgia for the 1985 final will veer between the sickly and the ridiculous. Even the famously approachable former champion cannot avoid sounding sardonic. "A girl phoned me from a newspaper and said, 'I hear you're reconstructing the last frame of the 1985 final.' She must have been told that me and Dennis are going to play an exhibition match at the Crucible [on 29 April]. But I was amused she seemed to think we could play exactly the same shots we had done 25 years ago – leaving the balls in the exact same spots. If we could pull that off, then we'd still be at the very top of the game."
Taylor has long since retired from competitive snooker but Davis, aged 52, is still good enough to be ranked 23 in the world. A reason for his continued competitiveness can be heard in the way he describes the pain of losing to Taylor. "I remember the absolute turmoil of being 8-0 up and yet ending that first day only 9-7 ahead – having collapsed. I felt like a long-distance runner who completely stalls. That night, in the hotel, was awful. You remember what [US secretary of state] Colin Powell said [when America were about to declare war on Iraq]? He said, 'I slept like a baby – and woke up screaming every half an hour.' That was me."
Davis shakes his still gingery head as if he can't believe how, being such a remorseless player at his peak, he allowed Taylor back into a match that was eventually deadlocked at 17-17 with just the black ball left. "I can hardly remember anything about the second day because it was such a scramble to the line. But I've seen the whole of the last frame on video and it's shocking how many balls we missed.
"There were quite a few dark moments afterwards. I'd find myself sitting somewhere – and suddenly realise that 10 minutes had passed and I hadn't moved. I'd just been thinking about one of those shots I missed. So it obviously affected me. But it was also quite funny. Soon after the final my manager, Barry Hearn, who is my best mate, told me he'd just signed Dennis Taylor. That really lightened the blow! Barry said, 'It's just business. I need the world champion.' I laughed but a few weeks later I had to do an exhibition in Sheffield – which was the last place I needed to be. I had a lot of beers and I remember hunching over the table and seeing two balls instead of one. I thought, 'Bloody hell, I'd better sober up here.' But I coped OK."
Davis continued to dominate snooker throughout the 1980s and, even now, he has won more professional tournaments than any other player in the game. He has also not forgotten what shaped his extraordinary drive. "You need to be intense, single-minded and angry. It's not necessarily a chip on your shoulder but there is a testosterone-fuelled anger in the best sportsmen. As you get older you get softer in the centre and all you can do is attempt to relight the flame every now and then.
I treat snooker more as a hobby these days. But when I was younger I had the right kind of killer instinct. They used to boo players like me and Stephen Hendry, and that shows how popular snooker was then. You boo football teams, not snooker players. But we regarded it as the ultimate accolade. To get someone you've never met before and make them feel that they can't help themselves while they boo you? Wow – you must have done something right to have that effect on people."
Davis is now an immensely likeable man, regarded with great affection around the country. "I think fallibility comes into it," he says. "If you've been around long enough, you become part of the furniture. You're like a comfy old chair. It also helps if you lose a bit. People don't really like a young winning machine. If it's an older person who wins every now and then, but suffers in between, they really like that. But, as Stephen Hendry said, 'I miss the booing.'"
Davis will be cheered as never before at this year's world championship. And the looming sentimentality has provoked a return to some of his old competitiveness. "The last couple of years I've been like a frightened rabbit in the headlights rather than a seriously competitive animal. My job this year is to be more a killer than a rabbit. My first-round opponent, Mark King, is ranked 16 in the world but we would have probably settled for each other before the draw was made."
There were other players he wanted to avoid more than me outside the top 16 and I definitely wanted to avoid Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins. So we both feel, 'yeah, I could win this one.'"
He pauses when asked if Hearn, returning as chairman of the governing body, can regenerate snooker. "The players are excited and it could reinvigorate the sport. Barry is a great operator and he's dragging snooker into the new world. The long-term problem is that people don't think modern players are 'characters'. It's an unfair perception. If you look at the first Big Brother cast they were quite normal compared to the weirdos they've used since then. But Barry could turn it around by generating much more prize money. If the money goes up, respect for snooker increases, and people will say, 'Bloody hell, let's see them play for that sort of money.'"
In a less cynical age, in 1979, in a first-round match against Taylor, Davis made his Crucible debut. "I lost that one too," Davis says, smiling, "but I also got accused by a bloke from the Daily Star for bringing the game into disrepute. It was a morning game that dragged past lunchtime and a guy came over and said, 'It's going on a bit, Steve. Do you want anything?' I said, 'I wouldn't mind a ham sandwich.' The Daily Star considered it outrageous that I ended up eating it at the table.
"I've only missed two world championships since then, so this will be my 30th. And if you're going to judge how good you've been at something, then longevity is a decent yardstick. We don't have a senior tour like the golfers and so for more than 30 years I've been there or thereabouts. I know that if I drop out of the world's top 64, then it's all over. But I still see myself as a snooker player, even though I started in 1979 and played all through the 80s, 90s and noughties. 2010 marks a new decade – and my fifth at the Crucible. I'm like the last of the Mohicans."
Davis laughs in his self-mocking way. "Imagine what the youngest player this year, Anda Zhang from China, would feel if he had drawn me? He has just turned 18. I was playing at the Crucible 12 years before this kid was even born. His parents were probably still at school when I was eating my ham sandwich at the Crucible. It makes me feel old but, yeah, it also makes me feel very proud."