Thursday 23 November 2017

Sheffield steel revealed a champion behind the smile

As Dennis Taylor enters the Texaco Hall of Fame, John O'Brien recalls his finest hour

THE image comes readily to the mind's eye. He is standing in a packed auditorium, applause ringing in his ears, his eyes dancing through his ridiculous Joe 90 spectacles.

He is waving his cue frantically above his head like some obscure mating ritual, jabbing his finger at somebody or something in the crowd -- his wife Patricia as it happens -- as if to say: "See, I told you we'd do it". Steve Davis sits ashen-faced in his chair. Dennis Taylor, and not the greatest the sport has seen, is champion of the world.

Those images define him as they must. Over 18 million people foregoing precious Sunday night sleep to witness the final shots of what would become known as the "black ball final." Taylor not just beating the seemingly invulnerable Davis, but doing so from the astonishing position of being 8-0 behind. Think Wigan, reduced to 10 men and trailing 3-0 at half-time, fighting back to beat Chelsea on penalties in the Cup final and you are getting warm.

The sheer improbability was breathtaking. Not that Taylor had suddenly appeared from nowhere. He had, after all, started the season ranked No 11 in the world and had a final appearance to his name when losing to Terry Griffiths in 1979. Yet the idea of Taylor following in the footsteps of those like Davis, Alex Higgins, Ray Reardon and Cliff Thorburn and etching his name on the trophy seemed fanciful. Nobody seriously considered it.

The title, by common consent, belonged to one man. Davis was gunning for his third consecutive world crown, a feat not achieved in the 58 years the tournament had been staged. If anyone could stop him, it surely had to be Higgins who had ignited the snooker world and an explosive rivalry by recording three straight wins against the No 1. But Higgins would exit tamely to Griffiths in the second round. The script had an opening for an unlikely hero.

No one believed. Except Taylor himself, of course. In the delirious moments after the final he had sought out the commentator Clive Everton and playfully admonished him. "Will you for once and for all say I don't snatch anymore?" Taylor pleaded. In truth, Everton's harsh assessment wouldn't have bothered him. Wasn't it only what everybody thought? Taylor had always been one of the circuit's most popular characters. But a budding champion? Nobody had ever said that.

That lack of faith spurred him on, just as it would Pádraig Harrington more than two decades later. The comparison is a useful one. Harrington was, perhaps, a touch more highly regarded, but the same impetus drove them both: the urge to drain every last drop from the talent they had as well as a shared distaste for the prospect of finishing their careers celebrated for their personalities rather than their sporting achievements.

By 1985, Taylor had been 13 years on the professional circuit and, in his own words, "had nothing to show for it." He had left Coalisland in 1972 and fetched up in Blackburn with his friend Jim Meadowcroft. A year later, they were joined by Higgins and spent their days travelling the length and breadth of the country, hawking their gifts before working class crowds in smoke-filled halls, eking out an existence until the sponsors arrived carrying the promise of more lucrative paydays.

Taylor, unlike Higgins, hadn't been blessed with wizard-like powers on the table. He needed something else. As Gordon Burn pointed out in his seminal snooker book, Pocket Money, Taylor had developed his popular comedy routine for this reason. He couldn't thrill people with the panache of his potting, but he could make them laugh while he played, a talent that won him friends and better paypackets.

Winning friends was all very well, however, but it couldn't guarantee what Taylor desperately wanted -- major titles. Like Harrington, that was the line he had to cross. From nice guy to major contender. The turning point came when he beat Cliff Thorburn in the final of the Rothmans Grand Prix six months before he stunned Davis in the world final. Proof, at last, that he had what it took to live with the very best.

In his book, Higgins, Taylor and Me, Meadowcroft tells a story of meeting Taylor during the interval of his last-16 encounter with Reardon at the Grand Prix. Taylor was still in shock at the sudden death of his mother, Annie, and feeling he needed reassuring, Meadowcroft told him he would win the match. "Jim," Taylor shot back. "I'm going to win, not just this match, but the whole thing because my mother is watching over me."

If you wanted a truly defining image, though, it is not to Sheffield you need to look, but to the Irish Masters five years later when he squared up to Higgins in their famous grudge match at Goffs. A few weeks earlier, they'd argued during the team World Cup and Higgins, ridiculously, had threatened to have Taylor shot the next time he set foot in Belfast. It was all the motivation Taylor needed.

The picture of them shaking hands before the game tells the story. Higgins offering his hand and smiling awkwardly, Taylor extending his hand and a steely glare that suggested he wasn't for beating that night. In as tense and chilling an atmosphere as any performer is likely to face, Taylor held his nerve and won 5-2. Forget the cheesy one-liners and the casual bonhomie. When the chips were down and it truly mattered, Taylor was as hard-nosed and as determined as they came.

Sunday Independent

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