Heard the one about the 150/1 outsider from Bradford, who had never won a match at the World Snooker Championship, but turned up to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 1986 and shocked the world? A 33-year-old father of six, former gas board labourer, wannabe music star, donning multi-coloured shoes and battling through pain to pull off one of the surprise sporting stories of the 1980s? Introducing Joe Johnson.
Johnson's previous record in Sheffield - a 10-1 defeat to Dennis Taylor in 1984 and a 10-8 loss to Bill Werbeniuk in 1985 - coupled with his poor season in 1985/86, hardly suggested that he was about to claim snooker's greatest prize. In all his years as a professional, he only had a 1983 Grand Prix final and 1985 Mercantile Credit Classic semi-final to show for his efforts, and it appeared as if Johnson was starting to take more interest in his role as lead singer of Preston-based music group Made in Japan. Not many of us knew all of this info at the time of course, but we were soon to learn a lot more about Joe Johnson between April 19 and May 5, 1986.
The 1986 championships had a lot to live up to. After 1985, that final, and a reported audience of 18.5 million people at the conclusion of the event, snooker was enjoying its moment in the spotlight. Such was the popularity of the sport that prior to the 1986 World Championship - and during it at repeated intervals - we were subjected to endless showings of the Chas and Dave classic song Snooker Loopy. Accompanied by Barry Hearn's Matchroom Mob of Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor, Willie Thorne, Terry Griffiths and Tony Meo, the single peaked at number six in the charts, featured on Top of the Pops, and for any young snooker enthusiast, provided the perfect earworm to remind you of what order the colours should be potted in. Heady days indeed.
Of the Matchroom Mob, the undoubted star was still Steve Davis. Ranked world number one, Davis had gained some revenge for his 1985 World Championship defeat by beating Taylor 10-9 in the Rothmans Grand Prix in October of the same year, and had also won the Dulux British Open and the UK Championship. Returning to the scene of his heart breaking loss was bound to be hard for Davis though, and to a certain degree it would be a similar issue for Taylor. After his all-time high, the world number four and number one seed could be excused for an after the Lord Mayor's show kind of feeling, and of course as he also had the Crucible curse to contend with; that no first-time World Champion had successfully defended his title (a fact that still stands to this day).
According to the tune of the day, Barry Hearn didn't really care who won that year, as he had the rest of them signed up. This wasn't totally true obviously. The usual contenders were arriving in Sheffield, some in a much better place psychologically than others. Jimmy White had enjoyed a fine season, winning over £150,000 thus far, as he claimed the Mercantile Credit Classic and, the week before Sheffield, the Irish Masters. Canada's Cliff Thorburn had also kept the money rolling in, his Masters win against White the highlight of his year. But beyond Davis (5/4 favourite), Taylor and Thorburn (5/1), and White (6/1) it was hard to see where a winner could come from.
Alex Higgins was beginning to slip down the world rankings and would have run-ins with referees at the Crucible, his copybook continuing to be blotted throughout the season; Tony Knowles, the pin-up boy of snooker, had suffered from illness and personal problems throughout a turbulent year, brought on by numerous kiss and tell stories appearing in the press; Willie Thorne may have reached four finals in the season, but his record at the World Championships - just one quarter final appearance so far - didn't bode well; Kirk Stevens had earlier in the season admitted to being hooked on cocaine, and although he was trying to rebuild his career, his absence at the Irish Masters due to transport issues did not impress the tournament organisers; Terry Griffiths had at least won the inaugural Belgian Classic and was the Welsh Champion, though a repeat of his 1979 success seemed unlikely.
Round one revolved around Taylor's shock exit to Mike Hallett who, like Johnson, had not previously won a match at the Crucible. Taylor started sluggishly, as if experiencing a 1985 induced hangover, Hallett taking advantage to storm into an 8-1 lead. Although Taylor recovered to 8-6, reviving memories of his comeback against Davis the year before, the damage had been done. As Hallett closed out a shock 10-6 victory, Taylor showed that at least his sense of humour was still intact, placing a white handkerchief on top of his cue in mock surrender. "It has to be the greatest win of my career. I've beaten Steve Davis and Alex Higgins before, but this was a world championship match and now I've beaten the reigning world champion," stated Hallett, who the very next day ensured he would be keeping his feet firmly on the ground by attending a pro-am tournament in Scunthorpe, that he had previously arranged. With the number one seed now gone, the top half of the draw opened up for the likes of Higgins, Griffiths, Stevens and Knowles. And as it would transpire Joe Johnson, the Yorkshireman finally winning a game at the world championships, easily beating Dave Martin 10-3.
Knowles would have to use every bit of his inner strength to see off Neal Foulds. Trailing 3-1 and 8-6 at different points during the match, the number four seed surged ahead to lead 9-8, before Foulds levelled, setting up a sudden death frame which Knowles took to sneak into round two. There would be no such problems for Griffiths, his 10-2 thrashing of Danny Fowler the biggest margin of victory in the first round. Griffiths would meet Higgins in the second round, after the Hurricane defeated John Spencer 10-7, although not surprisingly there was an element of controversy involved. Referee John Williams called a push shot against Higgins in the tenth frame, and although he took the frame to move into an 8-2 lead, Higgins was clearly perturbed by the incident, losing the next four frames in a row, proof enough that he clearly disagreed with Williams' interpretation of events. It wouldn't be the last time Higgins would be embroiled in a refereeing dispute during the championships.
The 1986 championships were also significant for the arrival of a 17-year-old starlet from Scotland, who you may have heard of since: Stephen Hendry. The youngest player in the history of the championships, Hendry already had a burgeoning reputation, his first round opponent Willie Thorne rightfully anxious about the task ahead: "Stephen's going to be some player one day - he'll beat the best. I just hope he doesn't start against me." Thorne narrowly saw off the teenage Hendry 10-8, but there was no doubting that here was someone to watch in the future. Alas for a past great, time was almost up; Ray Reardon's 10-8 defeat to Australian John Campbell was a sign of things to come, and his next appearance in Sheffield in 1987 would be his last.
Tony Meo became the second of Hearn's stable to exit the first round, the number ten seed losing 10-4 to future champion John Parrott. Waiting for Parrott in the next round would be Jimmy White, who survived a comeback from John Virgo, to win through 10-7. Steve Davis inevitably strolled through his match, easily beating Ray Edmonds 10-4 to book a repeat of the 1981 final against Doug Mountjoy, who comfortably dismissed South Africa's Perrie Mans 10-3. David Taylor's 10-7 loss to Ireland's Eugene Hughes meant that Taylor would now be outside the top 16 of the world rankings.
Hughes' next opponent would be the winner of the Battle of Canada between Thorburn and the ever expanding Bill Werbeniuk. According to Tony Stenson of the Daily Mirror, the 19-stone giant had reportedly been told to drink alcohol on medical advice to cure a nervous twitch in his cueing arm, but sinking a pint a frame was probably not very conducive to steady snooker, especially given the potential length of some of the matches at the Crucible. Thorburn on the other hand had turned to golf to get himself into shape, and it appeared to be having a positive effect on the Grinder's game. His 10-5 win over his compatriot saw him join fellow Canadian Stevens in the second round, the latter dispatching Dean Reynolds 10-6.
Elsewhere, Silvino Francisco defeated Rex Williams 10-4, a victory made that much sweeter due to the fact that Williams was the Chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, and the pair had clashed repeatedly over Francisco's claims that Kirk Stevens had been under the influence of drugs during the South African's 1985 British Open win. Eddie Charlton beat Cliff Wilson 10-6, proclaiming bullishly afterwards that "I'm playing well enough to go all the way."
If Mike Hallett had been hoping to build upon his success against Taylor then he was brought back down to earth with a bump. Johnson easily won their second round match 13-6, earning a quarter final place against Griffiths, who won after a dramatic tussle with Higgins. Leading 5-2, Higgins missed a chance to go a frame further in front, and at 7-8 down his mood was not improved after he lost the 16th frame on the black, having led 63-20, his downfall starting when he fouled four times in a row, one of which was called as a deliberate miss by referee John Smyth. A re-rack in the 24th frame also seemed to annoy Higgins, and although he won that frame, his reaction after losing 13-12 was starting to sound familiar: "I have put in a report about the inconsistent decisions of the referee, and I hope the powers that be will take the necessary action." Unfortunately Higgins' slow decline on and off the table was beginning; at the 1986 UK Championships he headbutted WPBSA representative Paul Hatherall after being asked to take a compulsory drugs test. His £12,000 fine and subsequent five tournament ban, along with a £250 fine for assault and criminal damage, just one of many incidents that would involve the genial Irishman throughout his career.
Another snooker bad boy would have more luck than Higgins in a final frame decider. Kirk Stevens squeaked past Eddie Charlton, and would face a struggling Knowles in the last eight, who had been 5-3 down to Francisco, but at 10-10 finally found something near his best to win 13-10. Willie Thorne made it through to only his second quarter final, beating John Campbell 13-9, and there were comfortable wins for Davis (who won seven frames in a row in his 13-5 win over Mountjoy), Thorburn (beat Hughes 13-6), and Jimmy White (who came back from 6-4 down against John Parrott, winning six frames in a row in just 61 minutes, eventually winning 13-8). White's win set up the mouth watering match of the next round, a repeat of the 1984 final against Davis. Many felt it was the final itself, a view shared by Davis: "Whoever wins that one will have given his confidence such a massive boost that he will go all the way. I cannot see anybody stopping either of us after that."
Davis came out of the blocks flying, his 134 break giving him the opening frame as well as the tournament highest break prize of £7000. He also ended the session with a century break, moving 5-3 ahead in the process. Rather surprisingly, that was pretty much it as a contest. Davis won eight of the last ten frames to crush White 13-5, sending out the biggest warning sign to the rest of the field. "I'm the man to beat," noted Davis. It was hard to disagree.
There is often a match that a champion will look back on at the end of the championship that is seen as the key moment towards their ultimate success. An occasion where the competitor involved came back from the brink, or escaped expulsion, either due to their own brilliance (Higgins against White in the 1982 semi-final, for example), or partly due to the relative lack of quality or killer instinct in their opponent (Liverpool coming back from 3-1 down against Luton in the 2006 FA Cup third round). Joe Johnson's tipping point came in his quarter final victory over Terry Griffiths. He didn't only have to dig deep emotionally, but also physically; an ingrowing cyst on his back causing him to almost quit whilst 7-5 in front: "When I was 7—5 up at the interval in the second session I wanted to quit and go home because it was so painful. But we called a doctor who put on some spray and gave me some pain-killing tablets." Johnson shared the final mini-session to lead 9-7 overnight. And then the real drama began.
Griffiths looked to have ended Johnson's hopes when he took the first five frames of the morning to move into a 12-9 lead, three-up with four to play. But Johnson was not going to go down without a fight, his 102 break in the 22nd frame, followed by breaks of 40 and 43 in the 23rd, and 110 in the penultimate frame, set up a final frame shootout. Johnson, armed with momentum, took the decider to cap an incredible comeback. In hindsight it was the most important match of the whole tournament, the time when Johnson surely began to truly believe that he could pull off the impossible dream. With Knowles awaiting in the semi-final - after his 13-9 victory over Stevens - the Crucible was assured of a debutant finalist.
For Cliff Thorburn there was an added bonus after his 13-6 victory over Willie Thorne. His wife Barbara had given birth to their second child during the match - Robert Shane since you ask - and the proud father could be seen on the front page of the Daily Mirror, holding a photo of his newborn son. The paper had organised for the picture to be snapped at the Toronto hospital and, in their words, whizzed it 3500 miles to an obviously delighted Thorburn. Yes kids, no photo messaging, Facebook, Twitter or the like. That is how we rolled in the eighties.
The Johnson-Knowles clash was a repeat of the 1983 Grand Prix final, a dramatic match in which Knowles had led 8-2 before losing six frames in a row and eventually getting over the line in the decider. All seemed to point to a close encounter, and as Johnson edged ahead 4-3 in the first session, it looked as if a marathon lay ahead. But Johnson was now playing on a different plain, an even greater achievement considering that his management team revealed that his cyst had burst (I do hope you're not reading this whilst eating your lunch), and he was swathed in bandages. Despite this, Johnson surged to a 14-8 lead and would return on the Saturday morning to win the first two frames of the session and wrap up a comprehensive 16-8 victory.
Inevitably it would be Davis that now stood between Johnson and his fairytale ending. Davis prevailed in his semi-final against Thorburn, unsurprisingly a war of attrition, with one particular seven frame session taking 3 hours 45 minutes. Davis ended Friday night 8-7 in front and would keep Thorburn at arms length throughout the match. Davis' 16-12 win saw him through to his fifth World Championship final, giving him the chance to right the wrong of the previous year.
Understandably Johnson was a massive underdog for the final, and could little afford a similar start to Taylor's in the previous final when he trailed Davis 8-0. Johnson broke his duck a lot earlier at least, taking the second frame, but when Davis rattled in breaks of 108 and 107 to move 3-1 up, an ominous feeling swept the arena. Undeterred by this, Johnson struck back, winning the final three frames of the session, to go to the interval 4-3 up and giving an early indication that this was not going to be the one-sided event many feared.
Both players then took turns to win a group of frames; Davis took the first four of the next session, allowing Johnson only nine reds as he again sounded warning alarms by taking a 7-4 lead, although Johnson was not going away, hitting back to take the next four and assuring that he would not be trailing Davis overnight. The day would end all square though, Davis' 81 clearance helping to restore a little confidence to the three-time champion, his usually metronomic potting action going awry at various points in the final, a prime example being a relatively straight forward red missed in the 14th frame that gifted Johnson a chance he probably couldn't believe he was given.
As the snooker watching nation settled down on the Bank Holiday Monday to see the final day of the 1986 championships, few would have been surprised to see Davis come flying out of the blocks, yet it was Johnson who made the decisive burst. Another four frame run, this time in 78 minutes, put Johnson firmly in control of the final at 12-8 in front, and although Davis took three of the next four frames, at 13-11 up Johnson could almost see the finishing line.
If Davis' fans hoped that the realisation of what he was about to achieve would get to Johnson then their wishes would be dashed. The first two frames of the evening session were shared, but the 24th frame would be Davis' last of the tournament. Appropriately a nerveless Johnson won the final by reeling off four frames in a row, breaks of 40, 54, 46 and 64 clinching a barely believable title for the likeable outsider. "The most remarkable world final I've ever seen," commented legendary commentator Ted Lowe, perhaps getting slightly caught up in the moment, as Johnson and Davis warmly shook hands, but in terms of upsets Lowe was spot-on. Johnson returned to his chair, the fans making their way down to congratulate him, as the presentation party gathered. The trophy that Johnson had touched at the start of the final - "...I never had visions of winning the world title. That's why I touched the trophy at the start of the match because I didn't think I'd ever get another chance to do it" - would soon be in his hands.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Johnson from Bradford. Snooker champion of the world," announced the incomparable David Vine, as he finally managed to get his voice heard over the din inside the Crucible, the paying spectators demonstrating their appreciation for a popular victor. Johnson was quick to compliment Davis both on and off the table, and after Vine ribbed Davis for his lack of words in 1985, Johnson was handed the world championship trophy and a cheque for £70,000. His wife, Terryll, embraced him as the flash bulbs went off, the very pictures that would be adorning the front and back pages of the papers on the following day. 'Joe's on top of the world', 'Jackpot Joe', and 'King Joe' declared the press, as all of a sudden 'Mr Nobody' (the Daily Mirror's words, not mine) was hot property.
Of course the accusation could be thrown at Johnson that he was a fluke champion, lucky in so much that his form clicked and everything fell into place just at the right time, similar in many ways to Keith Deller winning the World Darts Championship in 1983. But do you know what, who cares? For two weeks in 1986, Johnson was the best player in the world; he proved this in his comeback against Griffiths, and by beating Davis in the final, in lengthy matches, let us not forget, that often sort the wheat from the chaff. He also proved doubters wrong in 1987, when he returned to the Crucible and came closest to crushing the curse of the first-time champion, losing 18-14 to Davis in the final. Better players than Johnson may have failed to win snooker's ultimate prize, but that isn't his concern, and if we're all honest aren't title wins like Johnson's moving, allowing us mere mortals to dream a little, and reaffirm our faith in sport that it doesn't always have to be predictable?
As I finished off filling in my self-made world championship wallchart after the final (sad I know), and put on my smart shoes to pretend to be Johnson on my 4ft 6 inch table (sad I know), I realised that I was in fact snooker loopy. Admittedly my interest began to wane a few weeks later, and I would only ever get that table out once a year around April, but I will always remember fondly that fortnight in 1986, and the delight I took in watching Joe Johnson win the world championship. Judging by the reaction of those in the Crucible on May 5, 1986, I was not the only one.