Sheffield – the city that’s in love with snooker

14:34:00 Ramona Dragomir 0 Comments

Imagine a world map and go on and look for the United Kingdom. Go on, don’t be shy! No, it’s not on the continent; it’s a bit far away from it, to your left. No, that’s the Netherlands. Search for an island! Yes, there you go.

And now that all that has been settled let’s see where we are. Ah, yes at 51° 30′ 0″ North and 0° 7′ 0″ West – we are in England. Let’s zoom-in on one of its nine regions, Yorkshire and the Humber. No, too generic, let’s focus on South Yorkshire. Neah, still too vast … a bit more zooming and here we are – the glorious city of Sheffield.

Although it has managed to amaze and draw tourists through combining avangardist buildings like “The Cheese Grater” Car Park with the old and mysterious Matthew’s Parish Church from Carver Street and greet its visitors with friendly coffee shops and flowers that never seem to leave the city, people tend to remember Sheffield for its history with sports.

Either is the fact that the first ever football club was founded here in 1857, or the constant love affair that the city has had with snooker since the World Championship set foot here in 1977, the strong connexion between Sheffield and sport can’t be denied.

It’s its logo, its surname, its identity, you name it, but one thing it’s for sure: sport has played a major role throughout the life of this beautiful city and will definitely continue to do so in the future.

A history with sports

1857 is a year that would be impossible to forget especially if you are a football fan, for it was the year when the world’s first football club was created: FC Sheffield.

Although various form of football were being played in other parts of the planet, it was in the UK where everything turned official and got a proper name that would capture the hearts and souls of millions of people from all round the world.

Next to football, rugby became another sport played here in Sheffield, in 1984 Gary Hetherington putting together the professional rugby team known as Sheffield Eagles, while in 1991 the city’s Ice Hockey professional team was shaping up under the name of Sheffield Steelers (reminding of the city’s long dated history with manufacturing steel).

The Lord Mayor of Sheffield (Councillor Dr Sylvia Dunkley), confirms the strong connexion between this city and sports:

“Sheffield has seen sport as a key strand of its wider regeneration strategy over the last 20 years. This has included facility investment, major events and public participation programmes. “

“The city has also pioneered innovative management via a charitable trust which combines social objectives with commercial acumen.  There is evidence that the number of Sheffielders who take part in sport and physical activity is continuing to grow.”

But today we are going to focus on a cue sport that has become part of Sheffield’s structure since 1977. And if back then hosting the snooker’s World Championship at The Crucible Theatre meant just a change of venues, over the years this place has turned into the centre around which snooker revolves.

A beautiful snooker love affair

John Spencer
It was 1927 when the first edition of World Snooker Championship took place but 50 years will have to pass for this glorious and prestigious event to reach Sheffield and be staged at the Crucible Theatre.

John Spencer was the first player to conquer the title with the tournament being staged here and although this was his third one (he also won it in 1969 and 1971), his 25-21 victory over “The Grinder” Cliff Thorburn is still remembered with great pleasure by the snooker fans.

It was still not sure that Sheffield’s love affair with snooker was going to turn into something serious, but here we are 35 years later and these two are still going hand in hand.

The relationship has been cemented by the birth of the English Institute of Sport (EIS) in 2003, a great facility not only for playing snooker, but also for other sports, this actually being the place where UK’s Olympic team has been training.

EIS became the home of World Snooker Academy where throughout the years the qualifying rounds for the snooker’s major ranking events have taken place and if the walls of this grand and imposing venue could speak, they would definitely thrill our ears with both amazing and touching snooker scoops.

The English Institute of Sport
After what Barry Hearn took over World Snooker Ltd. and put his “snooker revolution” plan into action, the Academy has staged not only qualifying matches, but also several minor-ranking events, such as the Players Tour Championship.

The Lord Mayor of Sheffield (Councillor Dr Sylvia Dunkley), explains how important snooker has proved to be for this marvellous city:

“Since John Spencer won the World Championship in 1977 snooker has become part of the 'DNA' of Sheffield and is strongly linked to the brand of the Crucible Theatre. “

“Each year, hosting the Championships brings a direct economic impact of approximately £2.5 million through spending on overnight accommodation, food and drink, etc by visitors from both the rest of the UK and overseas. The media exposure through over 100 hours of BBC television coverage (much of which is syndicated internationally) is also of tremendous value to the City.”

“Several years ago we invested in the World Snooker Academy, which you mention, and this facility means that the snooker professionals are playing here throughout the year, not just during the World Championships in April.”

“In fact this year, as the qualifiers for the World Championships are being held in Sheffield in early April, we will effectively be hosting snooker for the whole of April and the early part of May!”

“Several leading players base themselves here, to live or just to practice before the big events, including Ding Junhui, Peter Ebdon and Ronnie O'Sullivan.”

“I think we can therefore justifiably call ourselves the 'City of World Snooker'!”

Living the Crucible dream

55 Norfolk Street – an address where if you are a professional snooker player you want to go to and not just to watch others play, but to get on rocking around the green baize yourself – this is where the magic begins, this is the Crucible Theatre.

Scotland’s Stephen Hendry holds the record for winning no less than seven world titles here, closely followed by Steve Davis who has six.

The whole world cried in 1982 when a tearful and extremely emotional Alex Higgins won the World Championship for the second time, in 1985 Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor kept us awake late in the night as the final’s faith laid on the final black, a year after Joe Johnson broke any odds and won over a high favourite Steve Davis, while in 1997 the snooker fans witnessed a fast and furious 147 made by Ronnie O’Sullivan in just five minutes and 20 seconds.
And these are just a few of the memorable moments that the Crucible holds.

With a name clearly inspired by Benjamin Huntsman’s great invention of a form of crucible steel process in the 1740s, the theatre has become synonym with top quality snooker, the “The Mecca” of this cue sport, if you wish.

Year after year, people from all around the world come to see their favourite players in action and be part of this amazing snooker event that takes place once a year. With 17 days of pure, genuine snooker, one could think many will get bored with it, but ask anyone and their answer will be “Not a chance, we want more”.

From the glassy Winter Garden where BBC’s Hazel Irvine is doing her between-matches programmes along with snooker legends such as Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor, John Virgo, Terry Griffiths or John Parrott, to every coffee shop where people go in for a chat – snooker flows in the air.

Ivan Hirschowitz, spokesman of World Snooker says:

“Crucible’s size and shape give it an intensity which can't be matched in any other venue. “

“Last year, when John Higgins and Judd Trump came into the arena for the last session of the final, the reception they got was extraordinary.”

“The venue has so much snooker history attached to it simply by virtue of having staged the World Championship for 35 years. It was recently refurbished which has made a significant improvement to the facilities both for fans and backstage. The Crucible is to snooker what Wembley is to football or Wimbledon to tennis...the spiritual home of the sport.”

The Crucible though a player’s eyes

Joe Johnson after winning the 1986 World Championship
Until now we’ve seen how the Crucible Theatre’s magic touches the heart of a snooker fan, but how does it feel to actually be there, in the arena, giving it 100 per cent in order to fulfil your dream and lift that shiny trophy at the end?

We often look at the players as mighty gladiators of the green baize, emotionless and impossible to shake. But that’s not how things work.

Joe Johnson, the 1986 world champion who stunned the audience after winning 18-12 over Steve Davis although he was far from being the favourite player (150-1), remembers his first experience at the Crucible:

“I had my first Crucible experience in 1984 losing 10-1 to Dennis Taylor. I remember the experience very well as I had played Dennis earlier that year and beat him quite easily so I was expecting to beat him again at the Crucible on my first time there.”

“Two things happened on that experience. The first was that my mother, who I was very close to, had an heart attack the day before I played. I very nearly pulled out because of my grief at the situation but mother insisted I go as I had been trying to qualify for five years. But when I started to play I found I couldn't concentrate on the match as I was so worried about her.”

“The second thing to hit me about the Crucible was I had watched lots of matches there as a spectator but it was so completely different to be down in the pit as it were with nowhere to hide. I felt the World closing in on me with each frame that I lost and wished I could disappear out of that environment; I was totally overwhelmed by the Crucible and didn't know what to do.”

 “I never felt that way again, but I guess once was enough”.

Still, two years later Joe practically cruised towards victory taking down opponent after opponent, starting with Dave Martin (10-3), continuing with Mike Hallet (13-6), then the 1979 world champion Terry Griffiths (13-12), paired with Tony Knowles in the semis (16-8), only to end with one of the best for the final, Steve Davis.

“When I won there two years later I knew I was on the top of my form and this time I was already seeded as a Top 16 player so I was waiting for a qualifier who happened to be a very good player called Dave Martin.”

“But although he was indeed a good player he was not a top seed, so for the first time I felt comfortable to be playing there at the Crucible. I went on to beat Dave Martin and from that moment I knew I had a chance of winning the title.”

“So I went from being totally intimidated by the Crucible to being totally comfortable and in love with the place.”

The legacy goes on

Sheffield's Winter Garden
We took a walk down memory lane, but the history is far from being over. Sheffield still has a lot of aces in its sleeves and so many more surprises for the years to come for the snooker lovers.

Described so thoroughly by its Lord Mayor (Councillor Dr Sylvia Dunkley), as ” a very compact, safe and friendly city, that it is said to more trees per head of population than any other European city, with a third of its area laying within the glorious countryside of the Peak District National Park, with a strong tradition of independence and radicalism and still associated all over the world with metalworking and sport”, Sheffield’s involvement with snooker has such strong roots that it’s almost impossible to think this sport could be cherished more elsewhere.

“There's something magical about Sheffield when it comes to snooker - even when you drive past the exit for Sheffield on the motorway you get a tingle down your spine!”

“The people of Sheffield love snooker so much; they are passionate and knowledgeable about it. And the atmosphere throughout the city during the World Championship, especially in Tudor Square, where people watch snooker on the big screen in the sunshine, is wonderful. “ adds World Snooker spokesman Ivan Hirschowitz.

But that’s not just the official opinion, many players describing this place and especially The Crucible as “the best place to play snooker”.

Joe Johnson reiterates: “I think that the Crucible should remain as the centre stage for the game’s most prestigious event. I think of Wimbledon for Tennis and associate the Crucible with places like that.”

“I hope with all my heart that the World Championship remains for as long as possible at the Heart breaking and Heart making, Sheffield Crucible arena.”

The people have spoken; the city has agreed … the legacy goes on.