Snooker has a lot to thank Steve Davis for. Imagine if the OBE hadn’t knocked out MBE John Higgins and the News of the World broke its story about his alleged involvement in match-fixing on the morning of the Crucible final — though then again the Scot wouldn’t have been unwittingly chatting to undercover reporters in Kiev if he was still defending the title he’s won three times, most recently 12 months ago.
The sport has been struggling for any sort of publicity for several years. Its greatest exponent Ronnie O’Sullivan comes across as bored by it all and the millions who used watch on TV during the ’80s and ’90s have dwindled due to a lack of excitement and ‘characters’ (though that’s discounting the massive audiences snooker attracts in Asia). Monday’s humdrum final was followed on BBC2 by a retrospective on the 1985 classic. One couldn’t help but contrast the pallid present and the charismatic past.
Claims of dodgy dealings have dogged the sport for decades, with a number of cases proven and pending. In a game of millimetres deliberate misses or overly-loose safety shots are extremely hard to prove. However, no-one thought the world number one — someone seen as a clean-cut hero compared to the bad boys led by his ailing namesake Alex — would be allegedly inclined to accept bribes. (And why would the ‘Screws’ go after him unless they’d been tipped off that he might be bent.)
The fact that the now-suspended Higgins’s manager Pat Mooney, who’s since resigned from the board of the game’s governing body, was damningly recorded talking about, not just rigging matches (for “sweet money”/€300,000), but about how frame scores could be tailored with players’ consent to suit television, is sufficient to suggest that everything isn’t always as it seems.
And that’s the rub. All professionals will be tainted by this, leaving snooker at the top level with a credibility crisis of Brian Cowen proportions. As Davis said: “Everyone is in bits. The players are walking around in a daze. The integrity of the game has effectively evaporated overnight. It’s at the lowest ebb it’s ever been.”
Impresario Barry Hearn, chairman of the WPBSA, had wholesale changes in mind even before last weekend’s revelations, which he responded to swiftly and decisively. He now has a massive task on his hands to try and repair its image, openly acknowledging that if the perception of crooked cueing becomes universal, “snooker dies”.
One of the main problems is where snooker gets its money. It was the BetFred.com World Championship after all. Even Davis, who looked genuinely shattered, reacted to the Higgins scandal by appealing to players to bear in mind that if they threw frames they could well be hurting those close to them who might have had money on them to win. Talk about skewed logic.
Snooker’s image wasn’t great when it was associated with Embassy cigarettes and other tobacco companies. But when the players are openly promoting gambling, it can be little wonder that a black cloud of suspicion surrounds the green baize.