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Snooker great: Steve Davis sees his future in coaching. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Steve Davis is always pinching himself as he thinks how lucky he is. He only wishes Ronnie O’Sullivan would do the same. “To think that I ended up having an incredible, lovely, life through putting balls in a hole with a stick is just unthinkable,” reflects the man who has won more titles in snooker than anyone else, including six World Championships.

We are in the Brentwood office of Barry Hearn, the man who once managed Davis and is now running the game. Davis is speaking to me before heading to the World Championships, where he will be commentating having failed to qualify for either the Crucible or the UK Championships for the first time since 1978.

“If I’m miserable that I’m just going to be sitting in the studio talking for two weeks rather than playing, that would be wrong,” he adds.

“If I don’t pinch myself everyday I’d need a slap really. I think Ronnie should also pinch himself.”

What to do with Ronnie is the talking point of the game. He began his attempt to win in Sheffield against Dominic Dale in good style yesterday, taking a 7-2 lead before resuming action later today.

Davis is initially reluctant to identify himself as a critic of O’Sullivan. But when I ask him whether, as Hearn tries to revive the game, O’Sullivan is a credit to it, his answer is pointed.

“Within snooker plenty of people have criticised what he puts back into the game,” he explains. “No, he’s not helping. We’ve got a non-trier. If Ronnie O’Sullivan was a greyhound you would put him down. You just don’t want somebody like that on your books. Even some of Ronnie’s fans are fed up. If he decides to retire tomorrow, he will not be missed.

“In the long term, there’s never been a player who’s bigger than the game in any sport. I sense that Ronnie has lost the love for the game. Barry’s had a few words with him and I feel a bit sorry for Ronnie. It’s a bit early in his life, he is 35, to have lost the love for snooker.”

Davis may have dropped out of the top 16 but he has not lost his love for the game. He has won 81 titles from 101 finals and during the 1980s was world No1 for seven years.

“I did say a few years back I’d play as long as my ranking was lower than my age,” he adds. “I’m 53, my ranking is 41 so I’m still there. This season hasn’t been very good at all. How long I play will be determined by two things. If I wake up and realise I just don’t enjoy even playing for the fun of it, then I will give up. Or if I dropped down far enough that I’m no longer a professional. Then it’s out of my hands.”

And when he finally hangs up his cue he will not go in to pool. He has played pool to help Hearn, the World Snooker Limited chairman, promote the event on Sky but says he has “no interest in pool”. He sees his future in coaching and “to be as good an ambassador for snooker as I can”. All the more necessary, he feels, to manage the world- wide spread of the game.

“People say the game is dead in the UK and a lot of sports editors don’t even want it on their pages,” he says. “We were quite concerned about that at one stage, but now it doesn’t matter. The UK is going to be nowhere near as important in the grand scheme for snooker the way it was, say, 10 years ago.

“The UK public having been exposed to snooker for 30 years have moved on to other sports. But worldwide it is massive, blossoming like you can’t believe. In Europe, in the ex-iron curtain countries, in Asia, India, Brazil and Australia. There will probably be more people with eyes on this year’s World Championship than ever before in the history of the game. The game has now broken free of the UK.”

Davis accepts that this is a world removed from the 1980s when snooker was one of the most dominant sports on British television. The crowning moment came in the 1985 World Championships when 18.5million viewers sat up until midnight to watch Davis battle Dennis Taylor.

“Despite losing it was my greatest match because it actually is the match that so many people still remember where they were when they were watching it,” he reveals. “To be part of something on television in your chosen sport where so many people can say I was round my uncle’s place and I was sitting on the floor. They reckon the National Grid nearly went down with the amount of kettles that were boiled in between the frames.”

Davis, having won in 1981, 83 and 84 was going for his fourth title and it seemed to be his for the taking.

“I won the first eight on the trot,” he recalls. “Dennis was in pieces. He was just embarrassed to be there. But it was a bit like a long-distance runner who’s that far ahead, you’ve got no direction any more because you’ve got no competition. I lost the next frame and the next minute Dennis started coming back and won seven out of the next nine.

“Overnight I felt as if I’d failed even though I was 9-7 in front. To steal a line from Colin Powell during the Iraq war, I slept like a baby because I woke up screaming every hour. The next day it was a scramble to the line. It went down to the black in the deciding frame and when Dennis potted it my first feeling was relief, I couldn’t do any more.

“When you go the distance, you lose about half a stone in weight – the tension, the nervous energy you’re burning off. But then deflation set in. My world seemed to have collapsed.”

This was made worse when Davis realised that the nation wanted Taylor to win. “When he went back to Ireland the police told him that whilst that final frame was happening the crime rate went down to zero,” he adds.

“The burglars didn’t want to take the television out of the wall because they were watching the snooker. It slowly dawned on me that the underdog won and everybody loves an underdog. Nine out of 10 people wanted Dennis to win. If I’d have been a bystander watching I would have been supporting Dennis.”

With this Davis gives a self-deprecatory laugh, reflecting a man who long ago came to terms with the fact that, for all his triumphs, he was always dismissed as boring. Spitting Image gave him the ironic nickname Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis and Hearn described him as the non-personality who became a personality.

“Yeah,” he laughs. “It’s quite a funny situation because I was able to divorce the competitive part of my life from my normal life. Then I was doing exhibitions, which was the fun side of snooker. I’d go to a club and do some trick shots and entertain a thousand people by telling them jokes.

“At the end of the night I’d have people saying to me, ‘Listen, I’ve got to tell you, you’re not boring, don’t believe what they’re saying about you’. So I had this great position that people didn’t expect much from me. I couldn’t lose.”

Davis accepts his image was shaped by being compared to Alex Higgins.

“He was seen as the ‘wild man’ of snooker, once he finished playing he was off partying. People’s perception of me was once I’d finished playing I was put back in the box and wound up ready for the next match. I wasn’t going past 12 o’clock at night and the glass of hot milk before I went to bed was considered to be my drink of choice.”

Snooker was his sport of choice from the age of 15 and was made possible because his father loved the game.

Davis adds: “I was very fortunate because it was my father’s hobby. Then a kid could not play easily because most places had age limits. But I would go with him to his local working men’s club and play.”

However, even though playing for the clubs Hearn had set up in the mid-70s made him well known in London, he never thought he would earn a living from the game. That happened, he says, because he was in the right place at the right time.

“Barry encouraged me to turn professional in 1978, I was 21 and it proved perfect timing. Six months after I turned professional, Terry Griffiths won the 1979 World Championship. The BBC did a two-week Wimbledon style event on television, the first time they had ever shown two weeks of it. The figures went through the roof. They thought, ‘We’ve got a monster on our hands.’ The next year I beat Terry Griffiths in the first round and became the young kid on the block that had beaten the world champion. That was 1980. Before I knew it I was world champion. Snooker had gone massive and I went massive.”

Hearn was quick to realise that. Davis says: “I’d sit and watch Barry on the phone selling me as a commodity. The figures went up every time and I was doing exhibitions for thousands of pounds. He would basically be making numbers up. One day I said, ‘How are you working out what you should charge for me?’ He said, ‘Well I think of a number and treble it’. From being a snooker player who was very good I became an overnight personality.”

And making so much money, he was soon the game’s first millionaire. But for all that, Davis has never forgotten: “Snooker is still a hobby for me. It is only a game.”

If only Ronnie O’Sullivan could adopt that attitude.

      

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