30 Years On: The '85 Black Ball Final
It should have been a simple pot – one that legendary commentator Ted Lowe suggested Steve Davis would “knock in 999 times out of a thousand”.
It should have been Davis’ fourth World Championship title in five years, having dominated the field in 1981 and 1983, and narrowly beating Jimmy White in ‘84.
It should have been 18-17 to the Nugget, who would have become the first player to win at the Crucible for three consecutive years.
What transpired, however, was one of the greatest comebacks and one of the most iconic finales in sporting history.
It was April 1985. Snooker, benefiting from a host of charismatic players and the increasingly tarnished reputation of football, was at the zenith of its popularity and Steve Davis, a 27-year-old cueist from Plumstead, who learned his trade competing in snooker halls across the UK, was at the height of his powers. “Steve had set new standards in the game,” said Eurosport commentator David Hendon. “At that point he was widely regarded as the greatest player ever and, at just 27, he clearly had the potential to keep on winning.”
The public, perhaps understandably, expected the three-time world champion to convincingly defeat the bespectacled veteran. Daniel Forster, owner of Belmont Snooker club, said, for example, that “it was simply unthinkable for Dennis to beat Steve. Davis was my hero so perhaps I was biased, but the general feeling was that it would be a very one-sided final indeed!” But Taylor was a fine player himself, particularly in the early and mid-80s. The Ulsterman had finished runner-up in the 1979 tournament and and won his first ranking event in 1984.
A few hours after the final started on Saturday 27 April, however, the situation appeared bleak for the 36-year-old. Davis won all seven frames in the opening session, scoring almost 700 points in the process – Taylor made just 117. “I wanted the Crucible floor to open up and swallow me whole,” the former world number two admitted.
A decisive moment, within a match full of twists and turns, came in frame nine, when Davis missed a green allowing Taylor to snatch the frame. Taylor went on to win six of the next seven frames to claw his way back to 9-7.
Had Davis taken his foot off the gas? Snooker commentator and journalist Hendon doubts so. “It’s hard to believe Steve thought he could lose from there, but 18 months earlier he lost 16-15 to Alex Higgins in the UK Championship final having led 7-0 so the mental scars of that high profile defeat may have played a part. Dennis was a very tough match-player and once he started winning frames I’m sure he still believed he could win.”
Taylor’s confidence, along with his game, continued to improve on Sunday as the score moved to 11-11, but another surge from the Nugget left the favourite one frame away from being crowned champion, with the score 17-15.If you set that shot up now Steve Davis would probably pot it ten times out of ten”
Daniel Forster was one of the 18.5 million people who watched the spectacle – a BBC2 record which still stands today. “My Dad took me to our local club to watch the final session with some of the members. Dennis’ comeback was amazing but at 17-15 we thought it was game over. Little did we know we would still be there, staring at a portable TV sat on table number 2 early into the hours of Monday morning!”
The cueist from County Tyrone claimed the next two frames, setting up the first final-frame decider at the Crucible Theatre.
Davis broke off at 11.15pm. 20 minutes later the score was just 13-7. The tension was palpable. “My legs had gone, my arm couldn’t hold the cue,” the Nugget recalled. Both players wasted countless chances to seal the frame, before a valuable 25 from Davis ensured he only required the brown to win – while Taylor needed to clear the table. “We couldn’t envisage Dennis potting the lot under that pressure,” Daniel commented.
Taylor made a wonderful start, though, potting a long brown and then sinking the blue and pink, meaning the 68-minute final frame, watched by of one-third of the British population, had come down to the black. Taylor missed an attempted double, before Davis played a fine safety – a shot his opponent acknowledged as one of the finest shots ever played under pressure. After squandering another ambitious double and an attainable long pot, Davis was left with a thin cut for the title.
“If you set that shot up now, even at the age of 57 Steve would probably pot it ten times out of ten in a snooker club,” Hendon said.
This was no snooker club, however. This was the biggest black, the biggest frame, the biggest match and the biggest stage of them all. Davis staggered to the table.
“My legs didn’t feel like my legs, my cue didn’t feel like my cue. I was telling myself ‘don’t hit it too thick’, because that’s the way you bottle it.”
Steve didn’t hit it too thick. In fact, he did the exact opposite. Davis overcut the shot, offering his opponent a glorious chance to fulfil his lifetime ambition. “It was like seeing Tiger Woods miss a two-foot putt,” Gary Linekar said. Taylor potted the black, producing one of the most stunning comebacks in the history of snooker. At no stage of the entire match was Taylor ahead of Davis until the final pot of the championship.
The 1985 World Championship Final was an epic encounter which captured the public’s imagination. “It was the perfect storm,” Hendon insists, “the great champion against the bespectacled challenger going down to the last ball of the sport’s biggest event – it doesn’t get any better.” The match propelled the sport to unprecedented heights, both domestically and abroad, and has since entered into legend.
30 years on the ’85 final remains one of the most famous moments in the history of British sport. Dennis Taylor may have potted the black, raised his cue, wagged his finger and lifted the trophy, but snooker was the real winner.