Crucible champions: Part one of Nick Metcalfe's look at World Snooker Championship winners

Nick Metcalfe's Crucible champions

The World Championship at the Crucible has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. While we wait in hope for the tournament to go ahead later this year, Sporting Life is profiling the players who have gone all the way to glory in Sheffield. Here's the first part of our look at the champions, from Spencer to Johnson.

John Spencer (1977)

Spencer will always occupy a special place in snooker's history. Three times a world champion, Spencer was the first to triumph at the Crucible when the tournament moved there in 1977.

When the Lancastrian first won the title, in 1969, it was a very different event, with the final held at London's Victoria Hall - legend has it that Spencer had to ask his bank for a £100 loan to cover the entry fee. Spencer claimed the title again in 1971, although the tournament was actually played between September and November 1970 in Australia. Answers on a postcard please.

By this time, Spencer was becoming better known to the public, having twice won Pot Black, the special new event shown by the BBC. And snooker was making its first tentative steps into the big time when Spencer, then 41, won at the Crucible. He beat John Pulman 18-16 in a dramatic semi-final, before seeing off Cliff Thorburn 25-21 in the final.

Spencer played on until the nineties, and remained heavily involved with the game. He had a spell as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, and was a commentator with the BBC. Spencer died in 2006 at the age of 70.

Ray Reardon (1978)

Reardon was the dominant player of the seventies and ranks as an all-time great of the sport. The former miner and policeman won six world titles in that decade, including four in a row. The last of those in 1978 was by a distance the most high profile, when the Crucible hosted the tournament for the second time.

With the 1977 tournament being such a resounding success, the BBC greatly increased their coverage to take in the whole of the 1978 event. And millions of viewers were hooked. Welshman Reardon saw off Australian Eddie Charlton 18-14 in a gruelling semi-final, to set up a meeting in the final with South Africa's Perrie Mans. Reardon beat Mans 25-18 in the marathon three-day showpiece to make it a glorious six world crowns - he is still the oldest world champion, at 45 years and six months.

Reardon made his last appearance at the Crucible in 1987, and carried on as a professional until the early nineties. He remained involved with the sport after that, and spent some time coaching Ronnie O'Sullivan. Now aged 87, he still enjoys playing and watching the game.

Terry Griffiths (1979)

It was in so many ways a fairytale victory for Griffiths in 1979. The Welshman had a variety of jobs early in his life, including miner, bus conductor, and postman, while also enjoying a fine amateur career. Griffiths hadn’t even been a professional for a year when he came through qualifying to reach the 1979 World Championship at the Crucible.

A 13-12 victory over Alex Higgins in the quarter-finals gave Griffiths, then 31, belief he could go all the way. And he then edged out Charlton 19-17 in a gruelling semi-final. "I'm in the final now, you know," Griffiths said to the BBC's David Vine, a phrase that would become iconic in the game's history.

He needed one more push in the final against Dennis Taylor, and he performed brilliantly on the final day - which started with the scores level at 15-15 - winning nine of the ten frames played to land a life-defining 24-16 victory.

Griffiths would stay at the top of the game for many years afterwards, reaching another world final in 1988, when he lost 18-11 to Davis. He eventually stopped playing in the late nineties - his final Crucible appearance came in 1997 - but has stayed heavily involved with the game, coaching a number of top players and commentating for the BBC.

Click the image for more from Nick on the history of the Crucible

Cliff Thorburn (1980)

One of those players that fans of a certain age will always associate with snooker’s glory years. Thorburn's nickname was 'The Grinder', reflecting his careful approach to the game, but nobody was ever in any doubt that he was one of the top players of the eighties.

Thorburn became the first overseas player to win the world title when he triumphed at the Crucible in 1980. He enjoyed comfortable wins over Jim Wych and David Taylor in the last eight and four respectively, and came up against the game's great maverick, Alex Higgins, in the final. It was the first of the best-of-35 finals - those are still with us 40 years on. And Thorburn, with the help of some unwise showboating from Higgins, came from behind to win 18-16.

Thorburn went on to shine throughout the decade. He famously became the first player to make a 147 at the Crucible in 1983 - we were all wishing him 'good luck, mate' along with BBC commentator Jack Karnehm. He lost 18-6 in the final that year to Steve Davis. Thorburn also won three Masters titles at Wembley. He retired in the mid-nineties, but to this day adores the game, and is a regular and very welcome visitor to Sheffield for the closing stages of the World Championship.

Steve Davis (1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989)

Simply one of the true greats of snooker, Davis totally dominated the eighties. Such was the sport’s popularity in those boom times, the Londoner wasn't just a well-known snooker player, but one of the most famous people in Britain. He even had his own Spitting Image puppet.

Davis claimed his first world title in 1981, beating Doug Mountjoy 18-12 in the final - remember him being nearly poleaxed by his celebrating manager Barry Hearn?

After a shock first round defeat to Tony Knowles in 1982, Davis made it three world titles with victories in 1983 and 1984 - beating Thorburn and Jimmy White respectively in the finals. He was an unfortunate loser to Dennis Taylor in the most famous snooker match ever played in 1985, and was then stunned by Joe Johnson in the final 12 months later. But Davis dusted himself down to beat Johnson in the 1987 showpiece, before comfortable wins over Griffiths in 1988 and John Parrott in 1989 to make it a magnificent six titles.

Davis soon made way for Stephen Hendry in the nineties, but the Englishman still had his moments, winning the 1997 Masters and even reaching the Crucible quarter-finals in 2010, when he was 52, beating John Higgins along the way. Davis eventually retired in 2016, but is still a commentator and pundit for the BBC at the big events, and is probably the sport’s finest ambassador. Plus of course, there's his unlikely second life as a club DJ. All very interesting, Steve.

Alex Higgins (1982)

Charismatic, mercurial, erratic. There's never been anyone quite like Higgins. His contribution to snooker could never be underplayed - he was quite simply a huge factor in its transformation from pleasant pastime to national obsession.

Higgins won his first world title in 1972, beating John Spencer 37-32 in the final. That match was played at the now demolished Selly Park British Legion in Birmingham, with some fans sitting on upturned beer crates to watch. The Crucible was a very different venue of course, and Higgins had already lost a world final to Thorburn in 1980 when he went all the way in 1982.

The semi-final against Jimmy White that year was a match for the ages, the remarkable Higgins break of 69 in the penultimate frame of his 16-15 win rightly revered by snooker fans of all generations. Higgins beat Reardon 18-15 in the final, his 'baby, my baby' tearful celebrations afterwards giving the sport one of its most vivid ever images.

The Northern Irishman never really got close to those heights again on the table, and his life away from snooker was sadly characterised by chaos and disorder. Higgins died in 2010 at the age of 61.

Dennis Taylor (1985)

Another of those characters that symbolised snooker's arrival in the big time. The whole country recognised those upside down glasses. Taylor had already lost a world final, in 1979 to Griffiths, and been beaten in three other semi-finals, when he took part in a match that captivated a nation six years later.

The Northern Irishman was 8-0 down to Davis in the 1985 final, but superbly fought back to trail only 9-7 after the first day. He kept pace with the Englishman all the way as the match approached its climax and he battled back from 17-15 behind to draw level at 17-17 and set up a deciding frame.

We've all seen the key moments a million times, haven't we? Especially Davis missing with that attempt to cut the black in - 'No', Ted Lowe memorably said in the commentary box - and then Taylor, almost visibly shaking, as red as a beetroot, approaching the table for the biggest shot of his life. He nailed it, and proceeded to bang his cue on the carpet and waggle his finger to say 'I told you so' - it was one of Sheffield's most memorable celebrations.

Taylor carried on playing later than most remember - his last appearance at the Crucible was in 1994, and he didn't retire until 2000. Now 71, Taylor, who started commentating in the eighties, remains a familiar voice for millions of viewers at all the big BBC events.

Joe Johnson (1986)

It's still hard to think there's ever been a bigger shock at the Crucible than Johnson winning in 1986. The Bradford man, who was something of a singer in his spare time, had never won a tournament before, and in his two previous appearances in Sheffield, was knocked out in the first round.

But the 150/1 tournament outsider was a man inspired in 1986. Everyone started to really sit up and take notice when Johnson brilliantly recovered from 12-9 behind to beat Griffiths 13-12 in the quarter-finals. He easily beat Knowles in the semi-finals, to set up a showdown with the great Davis.

Hardly anybody gave Johnson a prayer. But he simply potted Davis into submission in Sheffield that weekend, with one of the finest performances ever seen at that hallowed venue. Johnson fully deserved his 18-12 victory. The sight of him shaking his head in disbelief as he smashed in the colours in the final frame has stayed in the memory. "I hope that we can still be friends," Johnson said across to Davis while talking to Vine after the match.

Johnson actually reached the final again 12 months later, losing 18-14 to Davis. He did win a couple of other tournaments, but his career never got near those heights again - the Crucible in 1986 remained his only ranking success. He eventually retired in 2005, and is now a commentator with Eurosport.

Joe Johnson was king of the world in 1986

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