Sporting bygones: Tragic star Paul Hunter's part in Crucible classic

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.

Classic encounter: Paul Hunter during his Embassy World Snooker semi-final match against Ireland's Ken Doherty.

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.

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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.

Ken Doherty

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 semi-final 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.

Paul Hunter

“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.

Ken Doherty

“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.

Paul Hunter

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 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 semi-final 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 mini-session 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.