Snooker fans are looking forward to a hit of nostalgia this weekend as their old favourites line up in the 2011 World Seniors Championship. Former world champions Dennis Taylor, Joe Johnson and Cliff Thorburn are among the players dusting off their cues to compete against reigning champion Jimmy White in the tournament.
Willie Thorne, one of the sport’s best-loved personalities from the ‘Snooker Loopy’ era, will be commentating on the event at the East of England Showground, Peterborough, which is being screened live on Sky Sports.
“I’m really looking forward to catching up with some old friends,” he says. “I’m sure everyone will want to give a good account of themselves, but they’ll also want to have fun so I’m sure there’ll be a few jokes flying around.”
Thorne won the Seniors Masters, a forerunner of this event, back in 2000. It was another decade before another major seniors event was staged, but Thorne is certain that the Seniors World Championship will now become a fixture in the sporting calendar.
“When I won the Seniors Masters, it was played at the RAC Club in Pall Mall with a black-tie audience. They really did it nicely, but unfortunately it never really got off the ground. It was only in 2010 that Joe Johnson and his business partner revived it. Then my old manager Barry Hearn got involved at the last minute and got the tournament televised.
“I hosted it last year and it was a lot of fun. Jimmy White won, which was important, because he’s still playing some great stuff and so popular — that really put the tournament on the map. This year, there’s a stronger lineup, it’s live on Sky, and I think seniors snooker is only going to grow now.
“Players have become extremely professional to the point where they eat, breathe, sleep snooker,” says Thorne. “Don’t get me wrong when we were playing we worked hard, but we had plenty of fun too."
Thorne points to the successful development of the Snooker Legends tour in the past year as an indicator that there is a real public appetite for seniors events.
“There’s a lot of affection for the stars of the Eighties. The likes of Jimmy, Cliff and Dennis have been taking part in the Snooker Legends over the past couple of years and getting great crowds. Only this week I’ve been in Guernsey, and the lady organising the dinner I was speaking at told me they had 800 people in the auditorium for a Snooker Legends event, whereas a darts event featuring Phil Taylor only pulled in 200 punters. That amazed me because Phil and the other top darts players often draw massive crowds, but it also shows that there is a demand for seniors snooker.”
He reckons the new generation of snooker stars could learn a thing or two from the golden oldies when it comes to showmanship too:
“Players have become extremely professional to the point where they eat, breathe, sleep snooker,” says Thorne. “Don’t get me wrong when we were playing we worked hard, but we had plenty of fun too. With the current crop they don’t look like they are having any fun.”
It will be interesting to see how much fun the old boys have with the 30-second shot clock which kicks in after ten minutes in each frame at the Seniors event to ensure players maintain a brisk-ish pace. Steve Davis tweeted that some players take that long to chalk their cue. Other observers have suggested a sundial might be more appropriate for the likes of Cliff ‘The Grinder’ Thorburn.
Davis and Thorne, of course, were part of the Matchroom Mob who joined Chas And Dave to make the top ten hit single ‘Snooker Loopy’ back in 1986. The song included such lyrical gems as “Old Willie Thorne, ’is ’air’s all gawn’ and glitter was applied to Thorne’s famous bald pate for added shine in the video.
“I don’t think the players in the modern era would ever dream of doing what we did!” he smiles. “They are very one-dimensional and it would be great to see a re-emergence of real characters in the game.”
As well as White and six-time world champion Steve Davis, the sixteen-man field includes Nigel Bond and Tony Drago who also still compete on the world ranking circuit, and Thorne expects the winner of the £18,000 first prize to come from that quartet.
"I once played Dene in New Zealand straight after getting off a 24-hour flight and made a 147 break against him first frame… ”
“The matches are only best of three frames which is a leveller, but I’d be amazed if one of the main tour players doesn’t win it. An outsider to watch out for is Darren Morgan. He’s still competes in a lot of senior competitions in Wales apparently and he knocked out Mike Hallett in the qualifiers, so he can obviously still play.
“But I’m looking forward to seeing how all of the guys perform. People like Neal Foulds, Tony Knowles and New Zealander Dene O’Kane, who was a really good player. I once played Dene in New Zealand straight after getting off a 24-hour flight and made a 147 break against him first frame… ”
Which begs the question why the man known as ‘Mr Maximum’ in his heyday isn’t playing in the event this year himself? As detailed in his recently-released autobiography, Thorne has battled back from gambling addiction and depression in recent years. However, eyesight problems plus the heartache of his brother Malcolm’s death from cancer back earlier this year, have precluded him from joining the Snooker Legends circuit. There is hope that he may pick up his cue again to take on his old rivals, though.
“Since Malc died, I’ve not been in the best frame of mind,” he admits. “But I have had a cataract operation, so in a month’s time maybe I’ll have a game again and see how it goes. I’d love to be playing in this, but I’d only enter if I can play to a reasonable standard.”
In the meantime, Thorne is content to observe the resurgence of snooker under the direction of Hearn, now supremo of World Snooker, and believes that bringing the new generation of young potters together with the stars of yesteryear can only increase interest in the game.
“Barry’s come in pushing forward lots of new ideas, such as the One-Frame Shootout and Power Snooker. There are new tournaments springing up around the world, viewing figures are healthy and we’ve got a great product.
“In future I’d love to see the Seniors World Championship played alongside the regular World Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, with the seniors final played in the free morning session before the main event. It would be great for some of the old legends to walk out at the Crucible again and I think the fans would love that too.”
2011 WORLD SENIORS SNOOKER CHAMPIONSHIP LINEUP
Tony Drago v Steve Davis
Dene O’Kane v Neal Foulds
Karl Townsend v Steve Ventham
John Parrott v Joe Johnson
Jimmy White v Tony Knowles
Nigel Bond v Dennis Taylor
Gary Wilkinson v Darren Morgan
Cliff Thorburn v Doug Mountjoy
‘Willie Thorne: Taking a Punt on My Life’ is available for the special
discount price of £13.49 (plus P&P) from Vision Sports Publishing.
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