Richard Her­cock

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - SPORT - ■ Email: richard.her­ ■ Twit­ter: @RHer­cock­YPS­port

WHEN Paul Hunter lost to Ken Do­herty in the semi-fi­nals of the 2003 World Snooker Cham­pi­onship, it seemed to be a case of “when, not if ” that the Leeds cue­man would be crowned Cru­cible cham­pion.

There are few cer­tain­ties in sport but Hunter seemed des­tined to be cham­pion of the world from a young age.

The flam­boy­ant Leeds pot­ter, who turned pro­fes­sional aged just 16, pos­sessed an amaz­ing tal­ent and charisma that made him snooker’s poster boy.

He won the Masters three times, the Bri­tish Open and Welsh Open be­fore his life was trag­i­cally cut short by can­cer a few days be­fore his 28th birth­day in 2006.

But it was that match against Ir­ish­man Do­herty – this year is its 15th an­niver­sary – which was ar­guably one of the best seen in Sh­effield.

It made the fi­nal cut in The Cru­cible’s Great­est Matches the book by snooker jour­nal­ist Hec­tor Nunns, who re­ported on the spec­tac­u­lar rise of Hunter.

The book cel­e­brates 40 years of Cru­cible ac­tion, from the fa­mous black ball fi­nal in 1985 – when Den­nis Tay­lor edged out Steve Davis – to the 1982 semi­fi­nal be­tween Jimmy White and Alex Hig­gins.

Hav­ing first ven­tured to the Cru­cible as a rookie sports reporter in the early Nineties, it is the in­ter­views with Hunter and Do­herty which, for me, cap­tured the mo­ment.

“I re­ally look for­ward to the World Cham­pi­onship, there is so much his­tory at the Cru­cible,” Hunter told Nunns ahead of the 2003 fi­nals. “It might not hap­pen for me this year but I will give it my best shot.

“I just like go­ing down the M1 and see­ing the signs to Sh­effield, it gives me a huge buzz.

“The Cru­cible is where you are judged, nor­mally the bet­ter play­ers come through over the longer dis­tance.

“It is why I get out of bed in the morn­ing, to prac­tice to win the World Cham­pi­onship.

“I don’t think I’d be happy with my ca­reer if I never won it, and I’d rather be the world cham­pion than world No 1.”

York­shire cer­tainly craved an­other world cham­pion, hav­ing cheered on Brad­ford’s Joe John­son to a stun­ning fi­nal vic­tory over Steve Davis in 1986.

For a county which plays host to three of the sport’s big­gest events on UK soil – the World Cham­pi­onship, UK Cham­pi­onship and English Open (in Sh­effield, York and Barns­ley) – York­shire is still wait­ing to pro­duce an­other player to con­quer the 18-day marathon at the Cru­cible.

Ding Junhui, the Chinese star who has lived in Sh­effield since he was a teenager, is yet to win a world ti­tle, fall­ing at the fi­nal hur­dle to Mark Selby two years ago.

Shaun Mur­phy won it in 2005, and be­ing an ‘adopted’ York­shire­man – he lived in Rother­ham at the time of his suc­cess – that was as close to an­other York­shire win­ner as MATCH TO RE­MEM­BER: we have seen over the last three decades.

Yet, 15 years ago – the 2018 tour­na­ment cues off on Satur­day – it was Hunter who was fly­ing the White Rose flag.

The then 24-year-old beat Ali Carter, Matthew Stevens, and Peter Eb­don be­fore his semi­fi­nal show­down with 1997 world cham­pion Do­herty.

“At the be­gin­ning, I just couldn’t keep up with him,” re­vealed Do­herty. “I tried to play good, tac­ti­cal snooker and keep him at bay and un­der pres­sure, but it wasn’t work­ing. He matched or bet­tered me in ev­ery depart­ment.

“In the sec­ond ses­sion, I knocked in a cou­ple of good cen­turies and a 60-odd – but still ended up 11-5 down, and I re­mem­ber Paul get­ting a 135.

“So I have to win the third ses­sion and prob­a­bly 6-2 to have a real chance, but even though I stead­ied the ship we shared those eight frames and it is 15-9 go­ing in to the last ses­sion.”

Hunter needed just two more frames in the fourth and fi­nal ses­sion on the Satur­day to reach his first Cru­cible fi­nal and Do­herty ad­mits he feared the worst.

“At 15-9, I re­ally didn’t think I had much of a chance against a player as good as Paul, and con­sid­ered the re­sult a fore­gone con­clu­sion. But, as a proud pro­fes­sional, you tell your­self to go out and try and win the first frame, and win the first minises­sion be­fore the in­ter­val to keep the match alive.

“I wasn’t go­ing to throw it away. And I did win the first frame, and, as it turned out, the next, then the next – mak­ing it five in a row to get back to 15-14.

“And it was the third frame of the af­ter­noon that made me think there could be some­thing in this for me. Paul missed a frame-ball yel­low that would have put him 16-11 up.

“He was stretch­ing a lit­tle bit, maybe took it a bit too ca­su­ally and missed the yel­low off its spot and that al­lowed me to nick it on the black to close to 15-12, a huge dif­fer­ence at that stage,” added Do­herty, who fluked a blue at 16-14 as he reeled in Hunter to tri­umph 17-16.

The Leeds pot­ter ad­mit­ted: “It is the most hurt I have ever been over a snooker match.”

He re­turned in 2004, los­ing to Stevens in the sec­ond round, be­fore 12 months later Hunter re­vealed to the world he had been di­ag­nosed with a rare form of can­cer, re­quir­ing chemo­ther­apy.

He de­fi­antly bat­tled on play­ing, but his fi­nal game at the Cru­cible was on April 17, 2006, a first-round exit to Neil Robert­son.

For all he achieved in the game – in a ca­reer trag­i­cally cut short – that match against Do­herty will live long in the mem­ory.

Do­herty added: “Be­cause of the prize at stake, and his big lead, and the chance he missed and my good luck and all that, Paul must have been as low as a player can get that day. I know, be­cause I would have been.

“But he still came up to me and shook my hand and said: ‘Well played and I hope you win it now’. It was such a gen­er­ous ges­ture and showed ex­actly what sort of per­son Paul was. I re­ally liked the kid, he is still much missed to­day by those who knew him well and I would have loved him to have won a world ti­tle.”

‘The Cru­cible’s Great­est Matches, Forty Years of Snooker’s World Cham­pi­onship in Sh­effield,’ by Hec­tor Nunns, pub­lished by Pitch Pub­lish­ing.

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