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Past masters#10

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  • Past masters#10

    This week, a TV commentator and former player who remains one of snooker's best known figures...

    Willie Thorne is one of the best talents ever to have played the game but he failed to marshal his ability to become a regular tournament winner.

    In an era where century breaks were far less commonplace than today, Thorne compiled a total of 126. He is still 20th on the all time list, with 29 players having made a century of centuries.

    But he never quite delivered on his considerable potential and ended his career with only one ranking title to his name.

    He was a talented teenager and won the English under 16 title at snooker and billiards in 1970.

    Thorne turned professional in 1974 when the circuit offered few playing opportunities and was one of the original 16 to play at the Crucible when the World Championship moved there in 1977.
    He became established as one of snooker’s biggest names during the boom years of the 1980s. With his bald pate and bushy moustache, he was instantly identifiable and a regular face on TV.

    His best ranking was seventh, which he reached in the 1986/87 season and again in 1993/94, but his form could be erratic and he was relegated from the top 16 on four separate occasions.

    Thorne appeared in seven ranking event semi-finals and converted three of these into appearances in finals, a low return given his obvious ability. Indeed, he only twice reached the World Championship quarter-finals.

    But he had off table distractions, not least a gambling addiction he went on to describe in his entertaining autobiography, ‘Double or Quits.’

    Thorne’s best moment came at the 1985 Mercantile Classic, in which he beat Kirk Stevens, John Virgo, Steve Davis and Cliff Thorburn to register his sole ranking success.

    But he will always be remembered for missing the blue when leading Davis 13-8 in the UK Championship final later the same year.

    Had it gone in, Thorne would surely have gone on to win his biggest ever title and who knows what may have followed?

    But it didn’t go in and Davis fought back to beat him 16-14 and deliver a lethal blow to his future career prospects in a sport where mental scars take a long time to heal.

    Despite this, Thorne did enjoy some success in non ranking events, winning the 1986 Kong Kong Masters, 1987 Kent Cup, 1986 Matchroom League and 1989 New Zealand Masters.

    He was runner-up in the Irish Masters in 1986 and 1987. In 2000, he won the Seniors Masters title.

    He hardly discouraged his nickname of ‘Mr Maximum’ having reputedly made hundreds in practice. His only 147 in tournament play came in the non-televised phase of the 1987 UK Championship.

    Under any definition of the word ‘character,’ Thorne would qualify. He would play up to an image of himself as flash and big headed but was actually self deprecating, with the other players in on the joke.

    For example, it wasn’t unheard of for Willie to enter a practice room at a tournament and say something like, “so, who was the best player in here until I walked in?”

    In the 1993 UK Championship, he led Drew Henry 7-1 at the halfway stage and made great play of making sure everyone knew he had booked a restaurant for 8.30pm following the 7pm start.

    Henry beat him 9-8 at gone 11pm.

    At the Crucible in 1996, he was involved in an argument with referee John Williams, who wanted to re-rack a frame with Thorne around 50 points ahead against Andy Hicks.

    Hicks won the match and afterwards said Thorne may have done better had he not spent his time “huffin’ and puffin’ around the table.”

    He had his disappointments but Thorne, as he always was, remains a friendly, laidback character who played a significant role in the 1980s boom. He even appeared on Chas ‘n’ Dave’s ‘Snooker Loopy’ where he was called upon to sing the immortal line “perhaps I ought to chalk it” (referring to his head).

    Thorne is now the BBC’s principal commentator with a forthright style that divides opinion.

    He has always been conscious of his celebrity status and has maintained his profile in a number of ways, not least by taking part in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing two years ago.

    In the last few months he has appeared on ITV’s Mr and Mrs and on the BBC’s Cash in the Attic.

    Now 55, Thorne is still one of snooker’s most recognisable figures, a regular at charity golf days, sportsman’s dinners and in the media, even though he has not played professionally for seven years.

    Perhaps that is his greatest victory of all.