Snooker

'I spent 45 years laughing all around the world with Willie' – Dennis Taylor pays tribute to Thorne

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Willie Thorne, Jimmy White, Dennis Taylor, Neal Foulds, Terry Griffiths, Tony Meo and Steve Davis on 22nd September 1986.

Image credit: Eurosport

ByDesmond Kane
17/06/2020 at 16:51 | Updated 17/06/2020 at 17:47

1985 world champion Dennis Taylor discusses his long friendship with snooker rival Willie Thorne – and admits his tragic death is a painful loss to both himself and the sport.

Dennis Taylor had been steeling himself for the dreaded news about his close friend Willie Thorne's deteriorating condition on Tuesday night, but it was still a painful blow when his death was confirmed early on Wednesday morning.

The man known as the Great W.T. – Taylor's golf partner, fishing buddy, TV commentary colleague, snooker rival and even fellow pop band member for almost half a century – had slipped away after being placed in an induced coma in a Spanish hospital. He was only 66.

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Thorne had been diagnosed with the blood cancer leukaemia in March and was taken to hospital in Alicante last week with low blood pressure as his health rapidly declined amid a brave fight for survival.

Taylor is still coming to terms with Thorne's tragic death, but paid an emotional tribute to the popular Leicester professional, who he feels will always be celebrated as one of snooker's greatest characters.

"I'm just so sad. I knew Willie from back in the 1970s. We'd go to countries like Canada and couldn't afford a room so we'd double up together," the Northern Irish icon told Eurosport. "We've remained great friends throughout our careers.

Tony Meo, Terry Griffiths, Willie Thorne, Cliff Thorburn, Steve Davis, Neal Foulds, Jimmy White and Dennis Taylor in 1988.

Image credit: Eurosport

"We thought he'd be back playing again as he had recently got an eye problem sorted out.

"We thought he'd get back playing on the Seniors Tour again and that would have given him a new lease of life, but obviously this illness he had in Spain was just a bit too much for him.

"I heard yesterday that he was very poorly and I was expecting the worst. I was hoping he was going to make a recovery, but then we got the news that he was in an induced coma and feared the worst.

"It's so sad because he is one of the sport's great characters. He was always easily recognisable. When we were out together it was always my big glasses and his bald head! We were golf partners too.

Willie Thorne has died at the age of 66.

Image credit: Eurosport

"We worked out that we must have travelled 10,000 miles together playing in charity golf events back in the late 1980s and 1990s."

Taylor remains the winner of snooker's most memorable match when he defeated Steve Davis in front of a UK TV audience of 18.5 million in 1985 to bring the world title back to Coalisland.

He first met Thorne a decade earlier with snooker set to become a popular mainstream sport on terrestrial TV that would see its leading players become household names.

Easily as recognisable as Premier League footballers are today.

"Willie got an invite into the BBC's Pot Black series in the year he turned professional in 1975. We have remained firm friends since then," said Taylor.

"We went abroad for the first time to Toronto in Canada. We shared a room and played in a big tournament organised by (1980 world champion) Cliff Thorburn out there.

"I spent 45 years laughing all around the world with Willie. We had so much fun together. "

Taylor recalled the time Thorne almost landed a 50lb salmon during a fishing trip while they were playing an exhibition match in Prince Rupert, a city in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

"People ask me where is the most unusual place you have done exhibitions," said Taylor.

"It must have been about 20 years ago now, but we were over in a fishing village up at Prince Rupert which is right up near Alaska.

"They took us out in a small fishing boat. It was the only time I've ever been seasick, but Willie spent 45 minutes with a 50lb salmon on the line.

"He's hooked it in the tail and he couldn't get this huge fish into the boat.

"After about 45 minutes, the fish managed to get away and that night Willie was telling everybody about the 50lb salmon. Nobody believed him, but I was there when he almost got that salmon into the boat.

"That was a very unusual place to play an exhibition."

Such was the mass market popularity of the sport in the 1980s, top professionals Taylor, Thorne, Davis, Terry Griffiths and Tony Meo – aka the Matchroom Mob managed by World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn – combined forces with cockney pop duo Chas & Dave to sing Snooker Loopy.

It was a ditty that reached number six in the UK singles charts in May 1986. Thorne made fun of his trademark looks by singing "perhaps I ought to chalk it" as he pointed to his head.

"We would be playing in a charity golf day and you would see singers and different celebrities there," joked Taylor.

"He reminded everybody that it got to number six in the charts with Snooker Loopy.

"Occasionally, we'd burst into song and we'd sing our own version of Snooker Loopy together. He was just a lot of fun to be around."

Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor after their iconic final in 1985.

Image credit: Eurosport

Thorne – a two-times World Championship quarter-finalist – fought depression after his 26-year career ended in 2001 and also battled a serious gambling addiction that saw him declared bankrupt in 2016 while running up debts of £1 million.

A former world number seven, he became only the third player to reach over 100 centuries in the sport and made a 147 break during the 1987 UK Championship, contributing to his legend as the sport's self-styled 'Mr Maximum'.

Thorne won the Mercantile Credit Classic in 1985 with a 13-8 win over Thorburn in the final while he missed a blue leading Steve Davis 13-8 in the 1985 UK Championship final when he looked on the cusp of a 14-8 lead at the Preston Guild Hall.

Davis recovered to win the final 16-14 in one of the all time classic UK finals.

"The gambling was an addiction for Willie and it caused a lot of problems for him, but even through all that he still retained his sense of humour," said Taylor.

"He should have won a lot more. He was very talented. He was called 'Mr Maximum' because he used to knock them in with ease, but would then latterly joke to people: 'I'm now Mr Minimum'.

"I think in 1985 he should have beaten Davis. I remember he said to me: 'Wouldn't it have been great if I [Taylor] was world champion and he was UK champion in the same year'.

"We used to travel around the world and he would have loved that. He should have won more than he did because he was a very talented player.

"He did so much work for charity with various dinners and golf days. A lot of people will have a lot of fond memories of Willie."

Snooker legend Willie Thorne at the Crucible

Image credit: Imago

Taylor is hoping the sport can pay a fitting tribute to Thorne at the delayed Tour Championship in Milton Keynes next week and the 44th staging of the World Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield next month.

"I'd imagine the BBC and Eurosport will be doing some nice tributes to him," added Taylor.

"It's just a shame the way things are with the terrible times we are in, but I'm sure something will be organised and he fully deserves that recognition for his contribution to the sport."

Desmond Kane

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