Weekend interview: Crucible crying out for new local hero to emerge, says former champion Joe Johnson

When Danny Willett holed his final putt on the 18th green at Augusta last Sunday his Masters success saw him join a growing list of sporting superstars from Sheffield.

on top of the world: Bradfords Joe Johnson says of his 1986 world snooker title triumph over Steve Davis in Sheffield: I would not swap my win at the Crucible for 10 other titles." Picture: Chris Holt.

From Olympic gold medal heroine Jessica Ennis-Hill to cricketing hero Joe Root, from Jamie Vardy – on the cusp of firing unfashionable Leicester City to the Premier League title – to world boxing champion Kell Brook.

They all hail from the Steel City.

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Yet when it comes to the sport which has become synonymous with Sheffield since the late Seventies, snooker has yet to produce a real Steel City champion.

In fact, no Sheffield player has even competed at the Crucible for the coveted world title since the finals moved to South Yorkshire in 1977.

When Sheffield duo Adam Duffy and Joel Walker fell in qualifying at Ponds Forge last week, it meant another year without a local hero ahead of the Betfred World Championship cueing off today.

A then unknown Shaun Murphy, living in nearby Rotherham, came closest to breaking that curse in 2005 when he scooped the biggest prize in snooker.

Of course, Sheffield referee Brendan Moore – a former bus driver in the city – has officiated in a Crucible final.

This year marks the 30th anniversary since Bradford’s Joe Johnson shocked the sporting world by beating Steve Davis in his pomp to win the world title.

The 63-year-old runs a snooker academy in Bradford, and owns a club in Barnsley, and is surprised at the lack of top White Rose players.

“Yorkshire used to be a hot-bed of snooker, especially when I was an amateur,” Johnson told The Yorkshire Post. “There were so many great players.

“I don’t understand why there hasn’t been more top players.

“We had a fantastic potential world champion in Paul Hunter, from Leeds, who sadly died a few years ago.

“I mentored him for eight years, he was outstanding and undoubtedly would have won the World Championship at some stage.

“He was a beautiful person and a great snooker player. He was like the David Beckham of snooker, great for the sport. He would do anything for anybody, friends and family, and he was absolutely special.”

Leeds potter Oliver Lines, 20, is arguably the best young Yorkshire player on the circuit, coming out of the Northern Snooker Centre.

Johnson said: “There’s Oliver Lines, he may get to be a great player. He’s got a great mentor in his father (fellow professional Peter Lines).

“Northern Snooker Centre does more for snooker than any club in the country, apart from maybe Willie Thorne’s in Leicester. They run tournaments all the time, help the kids, run coaching academies. I played there, the first week it opened – what a fantastic place to play.

“We used to have a fantastic amateur game, strength in the roots of the game. We don’t seem to have that now, we miss the people who used to run the amateur game, to help promote it. The talent is not there, because the grass-roots system isn’t there. Snooker used to have a lot of officials who did the hard work for nothing.

“A lot of those people have passed away, and people aren’t willing to do it for free like the old guys. They did it for the love of the sport. It’s difficult.

“When we got involved in snooker there was no money it, so we had to do it for love. Now, it’s all money-orientated.”

Not even Ding Junhui – the former UK and Masters champion from China – who has become an adopted son of Sheffield, having lived in the city since he was a teenager, has got further than the semi-finals at the Crucible.

He fell out of the world’s top 16 and was forced to win three qualifiers just to reach the Crucible this year.

Johnson believes the 29-year-old could be a dark horse for this year’s title.

“There are so many great players who haven’t won the World Championship, people like Jimmy White, who lost in six finals,” he said. “You have Judd Trump, who hasn’t won it, Stephen Maguire, Ding Junhui.

“Coming through the qualifiers could help Ding, absolutely. Who out of the top 16 will want to play Ding Junhui?”

If Stuart Bingham’s world title win last year was a shock, it was no more seismic than what Johnson achieved 30 years ago.

After a long amateur career, he turned professional aged 27 in 1979. He had never won a game at the Crucible and was a 150-1 outsider when he turned up in 1986.

But after beating Terry Griffiths 13-12 in the quarter-finals, he knocked out Tony Knowles 16-8 to set up a final showdown with Davis, a player who dominated the sport in the Eighties. Johnson won 18-12 to complete a stunning victory, and would return 12 months later to reach the final, only this time Davis gained his revenge.

“I had never won a match at the Crucible, so winning it in 1986 never came into my mind,” he said. “It wasn’t until I potted the last red in the final, that left Steve Davis needing snookers, that, truthfully, I allowed winning the title to enter my mind.

“Or losing for that matter. I was so focussed, I wasn’t thinking about winning or losing, or what it entailed.

“After playing six hours a day for 20 years, you get into a kind of groove where it is just you at the table with the balls.”

His 1986 triumph would mean he would never go short of work, and 30 years later is still involved in coaching, exhibitions, as well as a snooker commentator for Eurosport.

“I did win other titles in my career, but that was the only ranking event,” said Johnson. “I would not swap my win at the Crucible for 10 other titles. I am working because of that day. I still do exhibitions, and work for Eurosport, because I am a former world champion.

“It’s something that will always stay with me. If it had been any other tournament I am sure I wouldn’t have been remembered in the same way.

“With that comes the respect of people, too, especially getting to the final the year after.

“I have earned that respect from people outside snooker. People inside the sport always knew I was a good player, because I had beaten them all at some stage or another during my amateur career.

“To get that respect from outside the sport was fantastic, you cannot buy that.

“I have two coaching academies in Bradford, I commentate on 22 tournaments a year for Eurosport, which I love. There is nothing better than to talk about snooker, live on television.

“I still do exhibitions, too, run a snooker club in Barnsley, so I am very much still involved.”

Watch the World Championship live on Eurosport, with Colin Murray and analysis from Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan.