24.11.11

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE UK CHAMPIONSHIP: THE 1970s

The countdown to the UK Championship starts here! (apart from all the other places it has started).

In four articles I will provide a brief history of the tournament, divided into four decades: the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

The UK Championship was born in 1977 and first played at the Tower Circus in Blackpool.

Let us pause for a moment to consider what the professional game was like in those days. There were no calls for fewer tournaments or a better structured calendar: there was no calendar, really, to speak of, just a small handful of events for low prize money.

However, the BBC’s interest in tournament snooker was growing. Having already agreed to provide full ball-by-ball coverage of the forthcoming World Championship, they elected to screen the final of the UK Championship.

It was originally solely for players from the UK and Ireland and hence did not become a ranking event until 1984 when it was opened up to all (and renamed the UK Open, incidentally, although it reverted back to its original name in 1992).

That first final was between Patsy Fagan and Doug Mountjoy, who had already won the Masters and beaten John Spencer, Willie Thorne and Alex Higgins to reach the UK final.

Fagan was a talent not long out of the amateur ranks, hardened by money matches and ready to make his way as a professional. He won 12-9. His reward was £2,000.

A year later the tournament relocated to Preston Guild Hall, which would become as synonymous with the UK Championship as the World Championship became with the Crucible.

Fagan lost in the first round to David Taylor, aka the ‘Silver Fox’, who reached the final where he was beaten 15-9 by Mountjoy.

The 1979 UK Championship will be remembered for a bizarre incident which left John Virgo doing an unplanned sprint through the Guild Hall’s adjoining shopping centre.

Virgo was through to the final – the biggest match of his career against the then world champion, Terry Griffiths.

He was doing well, too, leading 11-7 and requiring only three more frames for victory in the final session. However, the BBC’s Grandstand programme had requested a 12pm start rather than 1.45 – as it had been all week – and Virgo had not checked the schedule.

Having failed to show up at the venue he was phoned at his hotel some 15 miles away not long before the start. A manic dash to the Guild Hall ensued by he arrived 31 minutes late and was docked two frames.

Griffiths, always a sporting sort, campaigned on Virgo’s behalf but to no avail. Hardly surprisingly the Welshman won the first two frames and was thus level at 11-11 going to the interval.

Still unhappy that he could win in these circumstances, Griffiths knocked on Virgo’s dressing room door during the break and suggested they split the prize money, a well intentioned gesture that was nevertheless met with a blunt response from Virgo: “you haven’t won it yet.”

Griffiths led 13-12 but Virgo, his composure now restored, won the final two frames for his unlikely 14-13 victory.

The first prize was still only £4,500. Clearly, snooker was still growing in popularity but was yet to receive the huge cash injections that would see the sun shine permanently on the sport and its top players in the decade to follow.

Two men in particular would bask in the riches soon to be on offer. Mountjoy’s title defence had ended in the first round to a 22 year-old ginger-haired lad named Steve Davis, backed by his garrulous manager, Barry Hearn.

As one decade ended and a new one began, they were poised to change snooker forever.

17 comments:

Dzierzgul said...

Oh my, what a cliffhanger! Now I can't wait to learn what happened to that Davis fellow!
Seriously though - great post. It's always fantastic to learn some snooker stories from the 70s. Will you be doing a similar piece on the Masters?
Cheers!

Dave H said...

I may do if people are interested

Anonymous said...

Davis????

never heard of him

Gerard said...

Yes Dave, people are interested!

Looking forward to the UK.
Tough top half of the draw.

kildare cueman said...

The average house price for the UK in 1979 was £13600 so £4500 first prize was a considerable sum of money.

Anonymous said...

I 2nd 10pm! Keep the lookbacks coming.A nice mix of old and new on your blog Dave...good stuff!

Tim Sandle said...

There is a clip of the last frame of the 1977 final on Pasty Fagan's website at: http://www.patsyfagan.com/archives/video.html

Dave H said...

No, the average house price at the end of UK in 1979 was just under £22,000. £4,500 equates to around £20,000 now, a lot of money to many but not what most people would regard as a huge first prize for a televised snooker tournament.

Betty Logan said...

Salaries have outstripped inflation though. If you compare £4500 to average earnings of the time, it would be worth about 35k now: http://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/result.php?use%5B%5D=CPI&use%5B%5D=NOMINALEARN&year_late=1977&typeamount=4500&amount=4500&year_source=1977&year_result=2010. So compared to say what a teacher or a nurse earns today, it would be on par with the Welsh Open or the German Masters. On that basis it would still be a viable prize by today's standards, but what makes it impressive is that from Dave's account only the final was televised, so it was effectively an untelevised tournament; most of that money must have come from sponsorship and ticket sales, because I doubt the BBC would have picked up the whole tab just to show the final.

kildare cueman said...

I googled "average house price uk 1979" and some website gave me that figure.

Fair enough, it was wrong but it still wasnt bad money for an unproven sport, when you consider there were not that many pros and only half a dozen or so were top class.

Higgins only got £480 for winning the world champ's 5 years previously, so the upward curve in prizemoney had already started.

House prices are not necessarily a reliable yardstick either. I started secondary school that year and I can remember a bag of chips was 20p and ten fags 28p (about a tenth and a fifteenth of what they are now).

On the topic of cash, Fagan was a ferocious money player. Anyone anywhere, he took them on and usually won. Willie Thorne says he only lost one money match on his own table and that was to Fagan.
Although Willie could say mass if you gave him a collar, it still reinforces Fagans mental toughness without the imposition of the TV lights.

I always associate the UK with Coral, who sponsored it for 3 years. At first the sponsorship seemed generous but by the 3rd year it was only about half the going rate, such was the level of cash injected by the likes of Jameson, Mercantile Credit and Rothmans.

Anonymous said...

Is there a sponsor for this years' UK Championship?

Anonymous said...

When Patsy Fagan won the UK the speech by Joe Davis was unecessarily long and self indulgent.
This can also be seen on Patsy's website.
Cringeworth and meant to detract from his first major win.

Dave H said...

Yes - it will be announced next week

Dave H said...

Oh, and Coral sponsored the UK for seven years

Unknown said...

Great piece (as always) Dave! Would deffo like to read similar articles about The Masters.

Armbrust said...

UK Open? What's that? According to an e-mail from Chris Turner: "It was known as the UK (or United Kingdom) Professional Snooker Championship up to 1988. In 1989, when Stormseal took over the sponsorship, the word ‘Professional’ was dropped and it was the UK Snooker Championship and a year later (1990) ‘Snooker’ was dropped and it became simply the UK Championship."

Dave H said...

It was called the UK Open when it went open in 1984, until 1992 when the name was changed back