http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2 ... er-scandal?
Steve Davis interview – 'Some people got angry, I got emotional
When the snooker veteran beat world champion John Higgins two weeks ago, he cried. Days later, when Higgins was caught up in frame-fixing allegations, the tears came again
The Guardian, Saturday 8 May 2010
Steve Davis says of Barry Hearn, chair of World Snooker: 'I'm still thinking if he doesn't end up trying to reform the game, I'll retire.' Photograph: Tom Jenkins of the Guardian
It was one of the great sporting moments. Steve Davis, 52-year-old has-been, face ghostly white, giant bags under his eyes, had to pot four balls to beat the world champion John Higgins. The green left him with a tricky brown. He winced as if he was about to throw-up. Then he did something Davis has never done. He took a chance, and doubled the brown. It went in. Then he did another thing he's never done before. He broke into an involuntary skip – more a spasm, really. He kept his nerve and potted the blue and pink. And then he fell to his knees, looked up to the crowd and repeatedly patted his head in disbelief. The six-times world champion was in the quarter-finals for the first time in 20 years. His eyes were teary, his voice croaky, and he was in pieces.
He got smashed in the next round by eventual champion Neil Robertson, but that didn't matter. It was still the highlight of the tournament. Then a week later, at the start of the final, came the lowlight. This time it involved Davis the commentator: he had to tell the world that Higgins, the man he had so dramatically beaten, had been caught in frame-fixing allegations. It was snooker's darkest day, Davis said.
Five days on we meet in the new snooker headquarters in Essex, which also doubles up as the headquarters for the Professional Darts Corporation, golf's EuroPro Tour and boxing's Matchroom Sport. This is where the sports promoter Barry Hearn runs his empire – a great Georgian mansion which used to be Hearn's house – and from where the new chairman of world snooker had been planning to polish up a sport that had long lost its sheen. Davis is sitting at a table drinking tea and eating toast, watching the election results coming in. He used to be a Tory but says he "can't stand the lot of them now".
He looks pasty again – but this time it's illness, not tension. He spent most of yesterday sleeping or throwing up, he says. Now he's on the road to recovery. Munch, munch, much.
Hearn isn't here today, and we retire to his office. It's crammed with sporting paraphernalia – framed photos of celebrating Orient fans, Muhammad Ali's signed shorts and a fabulous group shot of eight tuxedoed snooker sex bombs, with a youthful Hearn and an even more youthful Davis at its centre.
Hearn helped make Davis what he was, promoting him through his Matchroom outfit. As usual, Davis has a story to tell about those days, and a few facts to hand. He's always had a touch of the Michael Caine about him. "There was a woman snooker player, a bit like me. She had a knitted jumper, and it said 'I love the Matchroom Three.' All of a sudden Barry signed up more players. She had to unpick her jumper and knit in four. In a short space of time, he's gone five, six, seven, eight, and she's had to go up through the numbers, unpicking every time. Then we went from eight back down to three again and she had to unpick it again. Marvellous!"
Those were the Snooker Loopy days when the game dominated TV – 18.5 million people watched Davis's black ball final against Dennis Taylor 25 years ago, a record post-midnight audience. "Barry says he didn't care who won the next year, because he had them all signed up. The song Snooker Loopy got to number six in the charts, and number five in the London charts."
Classic Davis. Only he would know what number the song reached in the London charts. In his heyday, he became known, ironically, as Steve "Interesting" Davis. As a player he was patient, systematic and unflappable – trapping his victims like flies in a web with stultifying safety play, then pouncing. People said his game was boring and that he must be, too. But over the years, he's come to be regarded with enormous warmth – a snooker man with a genuine hinterland, who DJs, plays poker and chess, commentates and knows how to laugh at himself.
He asks where he should sit. Behind the desk? He looks aghast. "No, I can't. I can't." He winces. "It's Barry's. He wouldn't pick up my cue." So we choose chairs facing each other. He sips his tea, and says he can't believe what happened at the world championships. None of it. "I felt like I was playing all right, but if somebody told me I had a chance of beating John Higgins I wouldn't have believed it. Not in my heart."
What made the difference, he says, is that he wasn't over-thinking his game. "It's amazing – if you can play without thinking, you can achieve better than you thought possible because you're not living in the past or the future."
He says it was one of the most satisfying victories of his life. Then he stops to clarify. He always breaks his career into two – the years of domination, and the post-domination years. You can't compare the two, he says. In the first he was expected to win most of the tournaments he entered, and he did; in the latter he was never expected to win. The older a snooker player gets the more trouble they tend to have with eyes, hands, stamina, and their head. More important, they lose that desire.
Davis was once asked what he preferred – good snooker or good sex. Good snooker, he replied. Why pretend otherwise? "It didn't help my boring tag, it dug the hole even deeper," he laughs. "I think it's much easier to say the excitement of a snooker final now. The bottom line is, you could have the latter of those two regularly but you can't get the former when you so desire."
He knows he doesn't have the desire he once had, but that doesn't mean he's given up. Yes, he's middle-aged, has a fine TV career, two boys of 16 and 19 ("They can knock a few balls around – the eldest has made hundreds."), but still nothing beats playing. "One day you wake up and say, I don't like the game. And I've never said that. I know I'm not as effective as I used to be, but I still love the game."
Last Sunday, he was devastated after the News of the World alleged that Higgins had been secretly filmed in Ukraine agreeing to throw a number of frames.
It was a terrible day for snooker? "Yes, it undermines everything for the genuine working-class people who train and train and train. Basically honest people." He looked as if he was on the verge of tears when he was talking about the sting? "Yes there was a moment. Everyone got caught up in it. But it came out in different way. Some people got judgmental, some got angry, I got emotional."
If somebody had told him a snooker player was about to be caught up in a bribe scandal, would he have considered Higgins? "No," he says instantly. "Nobody's ever had a bad word to say about him." Higgins was Honest John, straight as a die – or so they thought. Higgins has claimed he only agreed to throw the frames because he was in fear of his life – he thought he was dealing with the Russian mafia.
Has Davis spoken to him since the allegations were made? "No, no I haven't, and I don't know quite what I'd say if I did. I think there's a consensus in the game that it was stupidity more than anything else."
What would Davis have said if he'd ended up in a room full of hard men asking him to lose frames for money? "Assuming it's come out of the blue? 'Apologies, but I'm a snooker player, I play to win a frame.' I don't see how you could say anything else. But it's very easy to say that in hindsight."
Could he ever defend Higgins? "If he's found guilty, I don't think any player in the game will defend him." They can't afford to, he says – if they were to come out in support of Higgins, it would undermine the sport even further. Did Davis ever consider that Higgins had thrown the match against him? He looks appalled.
"No, no, no, no. Nope." Why not? "If you've got a problem in horse racing, you've got a problem at Plumpton, not at the Gold Cup Cheltenham. If you've got a problem in football, it won't be in the FA Cup final, it will be, say, the Isthmian League."
There have been allegations of match fixing in snooker before. Quenten Hann was banned for eight years, and the Crown Prosecution Service is investigating Stephen Lee, Jamie Burnett and Stephen Maguire, who all deny any wrongdoing. Hearn has appointed former Metropolitan police detective chief superintendent David Douglas to independently investigate corruption in the game, and he will study the video footage of Higgins. Is match-fixing a particular problem in snooker? He shakes his head. "This is not snooker's problem, it's sport's problem – especially as it is now even more linked with the wold of betting than before."
Betting has always been at the heart of sport, he says – who'd be interested in horse racing without the gambling? The problem is the world of betting has become ever more intricate. "In one way, the betting world has created problems by creating more bets: how many yellows you pot, when the first throw-in is." But he does believe there is an extra problem with his game. "The trouble with snooker is people live in their bubble. They think it's a tiny world nobody watches. But the moment something goes wrong, the big world looks in."
Davis does believe that something good will come out of all this. Betting patterns are monitored so closely now that there has never been a better time to stamp out corruption. And the Higgins case has finally alerted players to this.
"This has got to be looked at as the new broom. I'm obviously biased, because Barry Hearn is my mate, but I do believe he's the only person who can clean up the game."
Last week, he said if Hearn was not given a mandate to run the game he would consider quitting, and he stands by that. "I'm still thinking if he doesn't end up trying to reform the game, I'll retire. I can't see how the game can get out of it."
Out of what? "It's got to re-establish its credibility. It needs somebody who those outside the game consider to have a good track record, and somebody who tells it like it is."
Davis says snooker has been too lenient with its stars, too lackadaisical and, yes, too corrupt. Now he wants to see a law banning players betting on snooker and a new certificate introduced for managers.
Time and again he tells me that the game is in shock. And looking at him, it's obvious that he is too. Many sentences go unfinished, and paces up and down the room thinking aloud. "You've asked me," he says, "now what do you think?"
He doesn't want to seem to be prematurely judging Higgins. Make sure the readers know you came to me, not the other way round he says. What makes it more painful is that he'd love to be sitting at home, reliving his victory against Higgins.
I have a theoretical question for him: if he could choose, would he sacrifice the victory against Higgins if it meant there was no snooker scandal. "God!" he says. He screws his eyes up tight. He's struggling. "If you're asking me to say I'd sacrifice a win for the bigger picture, erm, you might be asking too much of me. If I was retiring this season I might say yes, but that victory has inspired me to play next season, and looking to the future is the most important thing. It would be very easy to say I'll sacrifice it, but I don't think I can."
He goes to have his picture taken in Hearn's huge garden, and all the time he's pondering the question. Eventually he returns and says the photographer has had him in all sorts of positions. "My testicles caught either side of the rope …" He returns to my question. "It's the worst question I've been asked, it's just a bucking terrible question."
He paces the floor one more time, and slings his cue over his shoulder. "Don't kick John in the bullocks too hard," he says.
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