The Black Ball Final – Thirty Years On

It was 1985, television audiences were snooker loopy, and Northern Ireland's journeyman hero Dennis Taylor had the World Snooker Championship in his sights

For many people, the most dramatic sporting theatre ever witnessed occurred on snooker’s green beige in 1985, when, against all the odds, Coalisland’s Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black to win the World Snooker Championship.

The images of Taylor raising his cue triumphantly over his head and wagging his finger in ‘I told you so’ delight, before kissing the coveted trophy – currently being fought over for the 78th time at the Crucible in Sheffield – have become iconic sporting images forever seared in the memory.

It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed since 18.5 million people, eyes glued to the screen, stayed up past midnight to see Taylor triumph in nerve-wracking, fairy-tale fashion. 

The game of snooker was at the peak of its popularity then, and the top players were as famous as footballers. Snooker players sang naff songs on Top Of The Pops, and the game’s wild boys regularly attracted tabloid headlines, none more so than Belfast’s two-time world champion, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.

Without a doubt, however, the most famous snooker player at the time was Steve Davis. Turning pro in 1978, Davis had subsequently racked up an astonishing 31 individual titles. With back-to-back world crowns, he arrived the Crucible in '85 odds-on favourite to notch up a hatrick of world titles.

Davis was consistency personified. Defeats were rare and always came as a huge shock. You would have bet your house on him winning every time.

Taylor, by contrast, was something of a professional journeyman. A sound tactician and a powerful potter, he didn’t taste major success until the Rothmans Grand Prix the previous year, in 1984, 12 years after turning professional.

By Davis’ ludicrously high standards, he came into the 1985 World Snooker Championship in average form, with only one tournament win that year, in the English Professional Snooker Championship. Just a couple of weeks prior to their Crucible meeting, Taylor, by contrast, had won the Irish Professional Snooker Championship.

Shortly, the English champion and the Irish champion would lock horns in one of sport’s most epic encounters.

The two had some history in the World Championship, with Taylor inflicting a first-round defeat on the 21-year old Davis on his Crucible debut in 1979. Five years later, Davis eliminated Taylor at the semi-final stages. Nobody could have predicted the course of their third Crucible encounter.

Davis had a real tussle with young qualifier Neal Foulds in round one, but thereafter breezed his way into the final, steam-rollering the six-time world champion Ray Reardon 13-5 in the semi-final.

If anything, Taylor’s passage to the final was even easier, and he crushed Tony Knowles 16-5 in the other semi-final. All Taylor’s matches on route to the final, and all bar Davis’ first round match, finished with a session to spare. The tournament was crying out for a final worthy of the name.

In the event, despite not a single century break, the final wrote itself into the history books as the greatest ever.

After Davis edged a cat and mouse opening frame, he tightened the noose, reeling off the next seven frames to build a seemingly insurmountable 8-0 lead. Taylor, ashen-faced and muttering to himself, could only watch as Davis raced away with the match.

When Taylor did get to the table, he was all at sea. Having missed his chance to take the opening frame, he could score only 67 points in the next seven. In his recently published autobiography, Interesting (Ebury Press, 2015), Davis recalled that Taylor was 'struggling to find the end of his tip with the chalk – never mind find the pockets…'

After the match, Taylor revealed what had been going on in his mind during that early annihilation: 'When I was 0-8 down, I began to think of the 1981 Jameson final when Steve beat me 9-0 and I was just pleased this match wasn’t the best of 17 frames.'

The Davis-Taylor final of 1985 came to be dubbed as the Black Ball Final, but for Davis the destiny of the world crown may have rested on a green ball in the ninth frame.

With only the colours on the table, Davis uncharacteristically overstretched to play the green, a shot he would have nailed nine times out of ten with the rest. The ball rattled in the jaws of the pocket but didn’t drop. Taylor cleared up to steal a dramatic frame that had been Davis’ for the taking.

Something thereafter changed in the psychology of both players. Mistakes crept into Davis’ game; Taylor began to believe.

'I reminded myself that I had taken six frames in a row off Tony Knowles in the semi-final and five in a row off Cliff Thorburn in the quarters,' Taylor would say later, 'and thought that if I had done it then, I could do it again.'

Taylor went on to win six of the next seven frames to trail 7-9 overnight. Davis went to bed perhaps thinking of that green ball.

The next day it was nip and tuck the whole way, with Davis always edging ahead and Taylor snapping at his heels. 11-8 became 11-11. Davis slipped the leash once more, establishing a three frame cushion at 15-12 but spurned a glorious chance to open a four-frame lead when he missed a sitter of a red.

Taylor stepped up to clear the table with a chiselled break of 70 that ranks as one of the gutsiest of his career. 15-13 soon became 15-15.

Not for nothing Davis had been the world’s topped ranked player for two years, however, and with steel of his own moved to within one frame of victory at 17-15. Taylor clung on like a dog with a bone, and clawed the match back to all square.

For the first time ever at the Crucible, the final went to a deciding frame. It has since been called the greatest frame of all time, but the epic, 70-minute slug-out was heavily error strewn. 'Had it been the first frame it would have been the worst frame of snooker ever,' Taylor quipped afterwards.

After half an hour of play, Taylor led 29 points to 13. Davis missed a straightforward blue that might have been the key to the match. 'Nerves have now taken over,' observed commentator ‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe. Flukes, fouls and cagey safety were matched by great courage from both players, and after an hour only the black remained.

Perhaps, in the end, fortune favoured the bravest. The first chance Taylor got, he doubled the black across the table, catching the pocket’s angle. With his second chance, he tried a truly audacious double the length of the table, missing comfortably.

A third and easier chance went begging. 'That was the biggest shot of his life,' said commentator Jim Meadowcroft, as Taylor returned utterly deflated to his chair. As fate would have it, it wasn’t.

Davis overcut the black and left Taylor with a relatively straight-forward pot. Taylor duly sank the most important pot of his life and joined the ranks of sporting immortals.

Everyone remembers Taylor’s emotional celebrations and a shell-shocked Davis, unable to adequately articulate his own emotions in the immediate post-match interview. He was generous towards Taylor when both players were later interviewed by the press. 'Dennis played tremendously well,' Davis acknowledged.

Defeat in such cruel manner could have broken Davis. His manager Barry Hearn, however, knew of his client's inner strength: 'If he doesn’t string himself up, we will see a better Steve Davis – he will learn a great deal from this bitter lesson and emerge a better man.'

Prescient words. Davis would win another three world championships and 50 other titles. He remained in the elite top 16 for over 30 years, working his way gradually into the hearts of the sporting public.

As for Taylor, that black ball changed his life, ensuring after-dinner talks to this day.

Neither man can escape the Black Ball Final of 1985. Thirty years on, Davis takes quiet pride in having been part of a match that has entered snooker and sporting folklore. Taylor, well, he has never stopped grinning.

The 2015 World Snooker Championship final takes place on May 4.