23.6.09

PAST MASTERS#6

Next in our series on former professionals, a likeable Yorkshireman who stood on top of the snooker world.

When Joe Johnson was scraping a living working for the gas board, he may have allowed himself to dream of making it at professional snooker.

Then again, in the 1970s the game had little money and few professionals. Players made most of their cash in exhibitions or money matches.

Johnson built a reputation as one of the leading amateurs from the Yorkshire region but even after reaching the 1978 world amateur final did not want to turn pro.

He didn’t think there was a living in it.

What changed his mind was Terry Griffiths’s 1979 Crucible triumph at his first attempt, which seemed to suggest the old order had been blown away and new players could make their mark.

And so, at the age of 27, Johnson joined the professional circuit, which consisted of only two tournaments open to all.

In 1983, Johnson reached the final of the Professional Players Tournament, a ranking event, where he was edged 9-8 by Tony Knowles.

He was a semi-finalist in the 1985 Mercantile Classic and had quietly made his way into the top 16 by the time of the 1985/86 season.

A comfortable 10-3 defeat of Dave Martin at the Crucible was followed by a 13-6 victory over Mike Hallett, who had beaten the defending champion, Dennis Taylor, in the opening round.

He had a poor record against Griffiths, his quarter-final opponent. When he trailed him 12-9, Johnson’s fairytale run looked set to end but he put together a brilliant four frame spell, including two centuries, to come through a 13-12 winner.

In the semi-finals, he beat Knowles 16-8, earning him a meeting with Steve Davis, who was aiming to make amends for his dramatic black ball defeat to Taylor the previous year.

As an amateur and in money matches, Johnson had the beating of Davis. He also knew that all the pressure was on the former champion whereas he, as the underdog, could go out and enjoy it. He had a career best £42,000 coming his way even if he lost.

Johnson was easy to support: a likeable family man, he was genuinely unassuming and clearly loving his moment in the spotlight.

He wore a distinctive pair of pink and white shoes and enjoyed huge support in his native Yorkshire as he kept pace with Davis, ending the first day of the final level at 8-8.

He led 13-11 going into the final session and then turned it on to complete an 18-12 victory and become champion of the world.

This was at a time when snooker was the no.1 sport on British television and Johnson was thrown headlong from a life of anonymity into the world of celebrity.

He was in demand for exhibitions and personal appearances, was the subject of This Is Your Life and had photographers follow him around the world.

A singer in a local band, he released a record, 'Bradford's Bouncing Back' for the appeal following the Valley Parade fire that claimed the lives of 56 football fans.

There’s something like 20 players who have only won one ranking title but, because Johnson never won another, some people attempt to do down his Crucible victory. But they ignore a number of key points.

Firstly, he reached the final again the next year. Indeed, he came the closest of any first time, Crucible champion to defending the trophy.

He entered the final session of the 1987 final 14-10 down to Steve Davis and pulled back to 14-13 before losing 18-14.

Also, Johnson suffered major health problems, including a number of heart attacks, which seriously affected his career.

But it should also be remembered that he was coming towards the end of his career when he won the world title. He was 33. Most players start declining in their mid 30s.

However, the most important point to make is this: nobody flukes the world title. It has always been difficult to win but Johnson beat two of the best players in the game at that time – Griffiths and Knowles – and then the best player of the entire decade in the final.

His triumph was witnessed by many millions of TV viewers and he still gets recognised to this day. He could not have chosen a better time in snooker history to become world champion.

His other major title victory came at the 1987 Scottish Masters. He also won the 1990 European Grand Prix and reached the semi-finals of the 1987 UK Championship where he missed the pink on 134 with a maximum waiting.

Johnson coached the young Paul Hunter and Shaun Murphy and carried on playing as he slipped down the rankings but his professional career was effectively ended when he broke bones in his foot in 2003.

He won Seniors Pot Black in 1997 and currently commentates for Eurosport where his insight comes from being one of only 22 players to have had their name inscribed on the famous silver trophy since the World Championship began in 1927.

8 comments:

face_in_the_crowd said...

no fluke world champions? i think dott was very lucky myself. Compare the standard he produced to win it, compared to the standards the like of jimmy white produced, only to lose in the final every year. of course, he still had to win the games but his victory reminded of when greece won euro 04

Anonymous said...

i think Dott winning it says more about Ronnie as a player compared to Jimmy who had Hendry to play against.

Dott wouldnt have beaten Hendry the way he played in 2006.

Anonymous said...

So Dott fluked his way to the final in 2004 and then fluked his way to the title in 2006 did he?

There isn't half a load of crap written on internet comments sections by know-it-alls who couldn't tell their arse from their elbow.

Gritty Dott is a natural born winner who fights to the death and as such he deserves more respect for his achievements in the game.

Anonymous said...

dott was a worthy winner during a poor run of World Championships.

during the 90 he wouldnt have got anywhere near a final.

Anonymous said...

Dott was a worthy winner, as was Ebdon, as was Johnson. To say that anyone isn't a worthy world champion is rubbish.

Chris said...

The article was about Joe Johnson, not Graeme Dott.

I don't think that you can fluke a world championship, every winner was worthy of it.

Great article David, keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Jimmy White admits in interview that he drank to excess during 2 of the 6 finals. He has also been cautioned for cocaine possession and many years ago whilst under management with Hearn was accussed by News of World of being cocaine addict. Hearn's succinct response was are going to sue but that seems to be bluster- no case followed.
Dott and/or Johnson may have been 'weak' champions- but they were ultimately mentally stronger than White though not as talented. To lapse into cliche- White beat himself- Dott and Johnson didn't.

Anonymous said...

good article

though Joe is a terrible commentator who gets about 40% of what he comments on completely wrong.

he was a great player on and in his day, but he now completely annoys (being polite) me when commenting as he spoils it by continually guessing wrongly.