Snooker may never quite see another high-watermark like the 1985 World Championship final with its 18.5million BBC viewers at well past midnight – and Dennis Taylor, the man that iconic moment propelled to fame and fortune, celebrates his 73rd birthday today.
There is obviously far more to Taylor’s playing and subsequent media career than that one pot on the final black of the last frame of the Crucible final against world No1 and red-hot favourite Steve Davis to win 18-17 for his only world title – but sometimes it just doesn’t seem that way.
An occasionally overlooked fact is that arguably snooker’s most venerated contest in Sheffield did not feature a single century break, food for the odd cynic to question the quality on show. But for sheer drama and shock value with the underdog Northern Irishman coming back from 8-0 down at one point, it has stood out for decades.
Taylor, born in Coalisland in County Tyrone in 1949, has been and remains a natural-born entertainer born for the stage this triumph granted him. Before the days of handsome prize-money rewards from snooker, the likes of Taylor and John Virgo supplemented their income with exhibitions around the country and beyond.
And the reality was simple and stark. If you put on a good show, engaged and joked with the crowd, and had a decent routine of gags, repartee and trick shots - then it was far more likely you would be asked back, and the word would get round to other venue owners and promoters.
Much like a comedian coming through a baptism of fire in front of small, tough crowds before hitting the big time, having had these experiences left Taylor with a thick hide and courage to go out and perform in front of bigger audiences - and relaxed enough to bring them into the matches.
Speaking about how he came into the sport and started using the trademark upside-down glasses that became a handy personal branding hit, Taylor recounts: “It took me 13 years to become an overnight success! When I moved to England to stay with my aunts in Blackburn, it was to work – I didn’t even bring a snooker cue with me.
“And I didn’t really know how good I was. Back in Coalisland I was the best snooker and billiards player at 14, but I didn’t think I was that good until I moved to England and I was as good as the local amateurs.
“I worked 12-hour shifts in a paper mill and then got the bus to head down to the snooker club to practice. And that is where I met Alex Higgins who also moved to Blackburn, along with Jim Meadowcroft.
“I lost to Cliff Thorburn in the World Championship in 1973, and when he came from Canada he introduced some new shots. And from that day we have been great friends. We had great battles on the table, but were close off it. Cliff is my favourite person in all the world, I love him to bits.
“I first got to the final in 1979 as the game was really taking off, a new name along with Terry Griffiths. I beat Steve Davis and Ray Reardon that year. But I was having trouble with contact lenses after taking my glasses off.
“Jack Karnehm, a professional and BBC commentator, had a family business making spectacles. So I went to Bracknell and he made me a pair of the famous upside down glasses, that he used to wear but before TV. I wore them first in 1983, and without them I wouldn’t have achieved what I did.”
There were many other highs in Taylor’s career, notably at the 1987 Masters where he beat fellow Northern Irishman Higgins 9-8 in the final – claiming the last four frames from 8-5 down for victory, and motivated to do so after hearing that his opponent’s team were ordering in the champagne with the contest far from over.
And he has gone on to become almost as well known via his work as a much-loved commentator for the BBC, and pundit both for the broadcaster and other media outlets. And his exhibition background regularly saw him called on to perform for the audience if a match finished early at the Crucible with a mini-session to spare, leaving punters short-changed. The same skills have made him a valuable member of snooker’s Seniors Tour and Legends events.
But – and I’m sure he won’t mind us mentioning it – Taylor, twice married and with five children, will forever be best known for that incredible night on April 28 in 1985, and a moment that transcended snooker and even sport to become a cultural signpost of the decade.
Remembering the final with its epic 68-minute deciding frame, Taylor says: “People remember me wagging my finger after getting the last black and winning it…but I did the same thing after winning my first frame when I was 8-0 down on day one of the final. Steve missed a green to go 9-0 and then the whole match changes.
“And after coming back to 9-7 even though I was not actually ahead until the end, I never felt out of it, I still though I could win at 15-12 behind. Some Steve fans in the balcony shouting out ‘Come on Steve, my son’ started to annoy me, and things like that spur you on.
“Then anyone watching was sucked in by the drama of the final frame. It went scrappy, both of our heads were in jam jars and anything can go wrong under that pressure, so it was an autopilot job. When I didn’t even get a long black to the green pocket in the jaws I walked away without looking thinking I’d blown it. Only when I turned round did I realise the cut Steve had wasn’t a complete gimme.
“He hit it much too thin, the whiter went all round the table and the next minute I am standing there brandishing the cue above my head.”
It remains one of snooker’s most enduring images.