On top of the world covering Shaun Murphy’s big break - best sporting moments series

Continuing our new series of the best sporting moments our correspondents have covered, sports writer Richard Hercock delves into the highs and lows of covering events from the press box.

Reflected glory: World snooker champion Shaun Murphy. Picture: Gareth Copley/PA

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Stephen Hendry’s big break at the Crucible - on this day

IT Is one of those unfathomable sporting quirks that no Sheffield player has ever played at snooker’s World Championship at the Crucible.

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A few have come close, most recently Adam Duffy, but the home of snooker is yet to produce a player to grace the famous Sheffield theatre.

On cue: Shaun Murphy.

Maybe that is why, when asked to recount the best sporting match or event I have covered, my sporting memories drift back to the Spring of 2005.

Having grown up in Sheffield, snooker has always been a family institution. My earliest memories are watching the World Championship with my grandparents on their black and white television.

So to report on a sport which I love has always been more of a guilty pleasure rather than a chore.

That was never more so than in 2005, as I witnessed an extraordinary 17 days culminating in Shaun Murphy – a 150-1 outsider, who had to go through qualifying at a holiday park to simply reach Sheffield – stun the sporting world to lift the famous trophy.

Champion: Shaun Murphy celebrates winning the World Championship. Picture: Gareth Copley/PA

His 18-16 victory over Matthew Stevens will live long in the memory, but the real story began much earlier.

Ever since Bradford’s Joe Johnson was crowned world champion in the Eighties, Yorkshire had been pining for a new snooker hero to call their own.

Paul Hunter, the mercurially talented cueman from Leeds, would surely have tasted Crucible success if his life had not been cruelly cut short by cancer.

So when I got the chance to interview a 22-year-old Murphy, having recently moved to neighbouring Whiston in South Yorkshire, ahead of the 2005 World Championship, it was a welcome chance to fly the White Rose flag.

Murphy may hail from Northamptonshire, but this county is never slow in welcoming an adopted Yorkshireman.

What I recall about the interview was how confident Murphy sounded. In sport, the line between confidence and arrogance is so thin that VAR is sometimes needed.

So, for a snooker player to talk about winning the World Championship – Ronnie O’Sullivan was the defending champion that year – I had to take it with a pinch of salt.

Murphy had been tagged as a future star, after turning professional in 1998, aged just 15.

But after first-round defeats on his first two visits to the Crucible in 2002 and 2003 – to Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty – Murphy arrived in Sheffield with little media fanfare.

That he would become only the second qualifier to win the world title at the Crucible – Terry Griffiths was the first in 1979 – shocked everyone, apart from probably Murphy himself.

Debutants in 2005 became future world champions – Neil Robertson and Mark Selby – but Murphy’s opening win came against Scotland’s Chris Small.

It was hardly an upset, but when Murphy accounted for former world champions John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon on his way to the final, the media bandwagon began to gather pace.

In a corridor tucked away from the spotlights, which you occasionally glimpse when the BBC cameras go backstage at the Crucible, all the newspaper clippings are pinned to the wall outside of the Green Room, which is transformed into the media centre.

Starting from the opening day, they chronicle the marathon 17 days of newspaper coverage, and I remember my Murphy feature at the start line.

The final itself was a tight affair.

Stevens actually led 10-6 overnight, and 12-11 by the end of the third session.

But locked at 16-16, it was a real test of Murphy’s nerves.

He had stunned the Crucible crowds – and millions watching on TV – with an array of long-range potting during the previous 16 days.

So why would the rookie change his cavalier approach in the biggest moment of his life?

Playing without the fear, which wiser heads carry around with them like airport baggage, Murphy got down to an opening long red in frame 33.

It was a tough shot, but Murphy delivered once again, striking the cue ball so cleanly. For Stevens, he had seen this before, as Murphy edged 17-16 ahead. The Welshman was first in the points in the next frame, leading 28-0, but left 11 reds still on the table. An 83 break proved decisive, as Murphy’s prediction of Crucible glory was finally realised.

“The first thing that’s astounded me is I can’t believe I’ve been allowed to take home the real World Championship trophy,” said Murphy.

“I mean this thing has got Joe Davis’s name on it, it’s from 1927 and I got up this morning and there she was sitting in the middle of the lounge floor. I can’t believe it.

“I haven’t realised what it means yet and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me, but I’m sure I will do.

“As for what else it means, I’m sure it’s the epitome of our sport,” he said.

“It’s like the Open Championship at golf and Wimbledon for tennis, it is the epitome.

“I’ve got other hopes and dreams that I want to fulfil, this is certainly one of them. I didn’t expect to fulfil it at 22,” added Murphy, who would go on to complete snooker’s Triple Crown by winning the UK Championship and Masters.

Now £250,000 richer, after his Crucible success, I caught up with Murphy at his Sheffield hotel the day after his 2005 success.

He had gone from the sports pages to front page news, and The Yorkshire Post sent a news reporter along to accompany me, highlighting the magnitude of the achievement.

Having been forced to go through the qualifying rounds at Pontin’s at Prestatyn, Murphy’s journey was complete.

Now like many modern sportsmen and women, Murphy was well-trained in dealing with the media.

After each win, in his post-match interview, Murphy always seemed to offer up a nice ‘news line’ for the waiting journalists. Something a little bit different from the usual mundane mutterings.

So when the newly-crowned world champion started to play the piano in the hotel lobby, it was just another hook to the story.

“We need to buy a bigger mantelpiece,” was his famous line, when hugging the World Championship trophy.

But it completed a memorable tournament, and to have witnessed Murphy’s incredible journey – from qualifier to world champion – from table-side, will live long in the memory.

Best of the rest

The first newspaper I worked for was the Sutton Coldfield Observer, a weekly in Birmingham.

While sport was not really front page news there, The Belfry Golf Club was on the patch, and I was fortunate enough to bag a highly coveted media pass for the 1993 Ryder Cup.

I was just a rookie – had only been in the job for two years – so to cover one of the biggest sports events in the world was so memorable. Okay, Europe lost to USA, but the atmosphere was amazing and the Ryder Cup – that was my first and only one I covered – is always a special weekend in our house.

Purely as a sports fan, being at Wembley for the 1993 FA Cup semi-final, alongside 75,000 Sheffield football fans for the ultimate in Steel City derbies is a game which will probably never be surpassed.

I have been fortunate enough to cover some top-class sporting events in my job.

From the Ryder Cup to the US Open tennis, from Wembley Cup finals in both rugby league and football, to the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Sat in the press tent at The Belfry, or the media suite at Flushing Meadows, you get to live the sporting journey.

But after all the globe-trotting, it was in my home town of Sheffield, and that Spring of 2005, which will go down as one of my favourite sporting moments.

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