Snooker’s original ‘Grinder’ Cliff Thorburn admits he is finally ready to pack away his cue for the last time - after a life of turbulence and triumph in cue-sports that probably merits a Hollywood blockbuster biopic to do it justice.
Thorburn enjoyed huge success on the green baize in the 1980s winning a total of 20 titles, and the mustachioed and gravel-voiced Canadian was also one of the most popular and instantly recognisable faces in the game at a time when players acquired almost rock-star celebrity status.
At 73, the man born in British Columbia takes on a player 32 years his junior, former professional Kuldesh Johal, in the UK Seniors Championship in Hull in what may well prove his last hurrah should he fail to progress further.
But with a cue in hand, Thorburn has lived a very full, exciting, glorious and occasionally dangerous life to the full. His early years after leaving school, at 16 were spent travelling across Canada playing money games in pool halls, staking himself with jobs as a bin-man and dishwasher.
Then he moved down the West Coast to Oakland and San Francisco in the late 1960s. Thorburn said: “There were certainly some moments. I played at a place once in Oakland where I was winning and the backer of the other guy opened up his jacket and showed a gun.
“He said ‘Ain’t nobody leaves here with my player’s money’. My friends told me to lose all the money we had won, which I wasn’t happy about. But eventually I saw we had to lose at least some of it - or get robbed. It felt like fun, but something terrible could have happened.
“I didn’t play down in the States much after that. In one place two guys were smashing cues over each other’s backs then started throwing the balls at each other. The whole club hit the floor ducked behind tables, before slowly poking their heads up. After winning money against a guy called Cornbread Red in Detroit backed by a nasty piece of work, we had to be escorted to our car.”
Snooker had become the biggest draw for Thorburn and after performing well against John Spencer in exhibition matches he was recommended for acceptance onto the pro tour in 1973. But if the Canadian had thought things might quieten down a little…he had reckoned without the combustible but brilliant Alex Higgins. A clash of personalities and styles ensured rivalry on the table, and confrontations off it.
On one occasion at the 1983 Irish Open, Thorburn punched the Northern Irishman to the ground, and as peacemakers tried to make the pair shake hands he then kicked Higgins in the groin. It later emerged that Higgins had told his rival: “You’re a Canadian **** who is **** at snooker.”
This rivalry came to a head in the 1980 ‘SAS final’, with Thorburn winning his only world title at the Crucible with an 18-16 victory. TV coverage of the showpiece was interrupted to provide pictures of the storming of the Iranian Embassy in London after a six-day siege. Higgins had a celebratory cake wheeled to his dressing room at 16-16 – Thorburn later planted his face in it.
Thorburn said: “Alex was a heck of player, but he knew what he could get away with and aggravation just seemed to follow him around. I don’t know why he was the way he was, and I still wonder how he could play so well. But I think I bothered him.
“in many ways he was my toughest opponent – I lost a lot of close matches to him, at least it felt like too many. And then of course I would add Steve Davis. But with Steve, he blew so many opponents away and I always felt if I showed some spirit and got close, within two frames, then I could win.”
Another Crucible high for Thorburn came in 1983 in his second-round match against Terry Griffiths, which saw him make the first ever maximum 147 break at the iconic theatre in frame four. Much later, he won the epic match 13-12 at 3.51 am on a Monday morning.
There is no deliberation over his biggest career regret – picking up a £10,000 fine, being docked ranking points and banned for two tournaments by the WPBSA after traces of cocaine were found in a drug sample in 1988. Thorburn said: “People forget that I was world No1 but they sure remember the scandal, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life.”
But these days Thorburn is enjoying a quiet, relaxing and peaceful retirement in the town of Markham, Ontario in Canada – playing some golf in the summer, spending time with family and still doing some snooker coaching.
And watching a lot more snooker now than ever he did as a player, it has given Thorburn time to reflect on a few things – including his trademark mastery of safety play and tactical nous, which he still defends to the hilt.
Thorburn said: “You see a lot of flash shots being played by the kids today, and there were players coming up with those in my day too. That’s great, but you need something to fall back on. There might be the odd exception, but I always felt safety play was rocket science. And I still think it is a prerequisite to first turn pro, and then win things. Throwing a cue at everything wins you nothing.
“And in terms of who I would have loved to play at both our peaks, I really like John Higgins’ game - he is Mr Clearance. It would have been good to take him on in a long match.
“This will be my last tournament. I have loved doing the Seniors and the Legends for almost 25 years now and I will really enjoy meeting with old pals. I lived in the UK twice, once for two years and once for six and as a Canadian I have always been made welcome. And I am honoured and proud my name is still out there and known after first coming here in 1973.”