Back to the future. Snooker’s UK Championship final hopped in a Steve Davis DeLorean and returned to another era in the early hours of Monday morning. On a weekend when Michael J Fox – Marty McFly in the iconic 1985 movie Back to the Future – appeared on The Graham Norton Show and world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan bemoaned the lack of characters in the game compared to the 1980s golden years, it was perhaps fitting that the sport’s in-form duo Judd Trump and Neil Robertson paid homage to its most memorable match.
Amid the impending festive season, this was a final from the ghosts of green baize past as the pair invoked the nerve-shredding spirit of '85 on snooker's Super Sunday.
The World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis – famously dubbed the Black Ball final – concluded at 12.23am on Monday 29 April 1985 with Taylor sinking the final black before a record terrestrial TV audience on BBC2 of 18.5 million in an 18-17 triumph that still prompts discussions of thesis proportions five decades on regarding what constitutes greatness in sport: does untold drama and human error make for better viewing than unerring quality and consistency?
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Some 35 years on, the UK Championship final between Trump and Robertson finished at 12.55am on Monday 7 December 2020 with Robertson sinking the final pink to claim his third UK trophy to add to his victories in 2013 and 2015. It was a 10-9 win that was both terrific and turgid and sometimes terrifically turgid. “To quote (three-times world champion) Mark Williams, it almost got so bad it was good,” commented a regal Robertson in his final summation.
For the purist, it was first-rate theatre that paid a fitting tribute to the ongoing difficulties of mastering the toughest of all cue sports when tension takes over the cue arm, no matter how elevated the progression has been in the ensuing years of professional dedication.
While Davis and Taylor totted up a record 14 hours and 50 minutes to work their way through 35 frames, way back before the Triple Crown series was invented by marketing bods, Trump and Robertson locked cues for over seven hours and 20 minutes in clawing their way to a 19-frame conclusion in the 44th UK final. It was old school snooker from the new green baize breed of attack dogs. At one point in the final frame, Robertson took over four minutes weighing up a possible pot on a pink before deciding to play safe off the blue.
The parallels with both finales were uncanny: Davis – the impeccable, undisputed world number one – had a golden opportunity to win the fourth of his six world titles, but missed a cutback on a black to a blind pocket to allow Taylor to return to the table and claim his one and only Crucible title after a fraught 68-minute decider.
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Trump – the outstanding talent of his generation and a dominant tournament winner since 2017 having won a record six ranking events last season – required only two balls for victory, but somehow missed a routine pink with the black there for the potting as Robertson pounced to hole the penultimate ball for glory after a fierce 66-minute joust.
“There was more drama in that last frame than what there was in the Dennis Taylor v Steve Davis final,” said Robertson. “We were both coming out of snookers, fluking snookers back. We were both thinking ‘I’ve won, I’ve lost, I’ve won, I’ve lost.’ I’ve never been involved in a match that went that long.”
While Northern Irishman Taylor – fittingly commentating on the closing drama for the BBC this time – famously wagged his finger in his huge trademark goggles as if to say “I told you so” from 8-0 behind in 1985, four years before Trump was born in Bristol, Robertson slumped in his chair, exhausted by the elation before breaking down in tears after dedicating his win to a late friend.
“We were both gladiators out there even without a crowd. We tried so hard to win,” said the 2010 world champion. “A really good friend of mine who had an impact on my career sadly passed away a few months ago.
“He was a big one for stats and he would say to me: ‘Make sure you win a tournament every year like you have done since 2006'. This is for Peter Worth and his family back home. I couldn’t do it the previous two, but I am really happy I was able to do it this time.”
It was relief more than revelry that adorned the mood of Australian's greatest player as he clasped the trophy and a £200,000 winner’s cheque, but Trump was in no doubt about the self-sabotage that contributed to his own scarring downfall.
Steve Davis often recalls approaching the cutback on the black like he was no longer in charge of his system in the twilight zone faced with such a heavy burden of opportunity and a hushed crowd inside the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
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“I remember that walk was surreal, an out-of-body experience. My legs had gone. It did not feel as if any part of my anatomy was playing that shot,” said Davis.
One wonders the sensation Trump was feeling as he lined up the pink in Milton Keynes knowing his second UK victory was certain if he sunk pink and black. With no fans in the venue, it merely added to his mental malaise with both players looking visibly drained from the fairly gnarled goings after the final session broke off around 7pm and neither player ever more than one frame ahead.
To fail so late in the day was the equivalent of the undefeated British boxer Frank Bruno being KO’d in the final round by James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith on the cusp of a world title shot in May 1984, the same month Davis lifted his third world title with victory over Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White.
“It was an epic battle. It's tough to take and I bottled it really. I was under pressure and ended up messing up,” admitted the 2019 world champion. "I would never have missed from there normally but the whole length of the frame got to me, as well as the pressure, and I was trying too hard.
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"It would have made for good viewing, but it's devastating for me."
Unlike the 1985 final that failed to produce a century, this one was laced with break-building of the highest quality and it would be churlish to suggest Robertson was not a time-served winner having lost 9-8 to Trump in the English Open final and a 10-6 defeat to an inspired Mark Allen in the Champion of Champions final this season. All good things come to those who wait. Even for long periods in a match when you struggle to see the next shot.
Robertson: 'It almost got so bad, it was good!'
The Melburnian enjoyed breaks of 103, 110 and 115 and six breaks over 50 as he became the first player to record 13 centuries in a single UK Championship with Trump running in 128 and four 50-plus breaks in an agonising defeat that was also a magnificent example of surefooted safety play between two long potting perfectionists.
The pivotal knock of the match saw Robertson compile 72 when 9-8 behind that saw him sink an unbelievable make-or-break brown to a middle pocket after Trump had broken down on 48 trying to hole a red with awkward bridging.
Robertson’s bravery in holing the key balls displayed greater character than picking gems in the scorching heat of Coober Pedy in his native Australia, and illustrated why he was a heroic winner of the sport’s second biggest ranking tournament.
Neil Robertson celebrates with the UK Championship trophy
Image credit: Eurosport
It should be noted that characters in snooker are found these days in their commitment to perfection rather than their ability to enjoy a few pints of confidence away from the table. That is the world of professional sport, not just snooker.
The classic nature of the final proved there is nothing like the old green baize to continue to provide an element of unique despair, euphoria and drama like no other sport in the world.
The same is as true in 2020 as it was back in 1985. Rather than bottle it, like Davis back in his prime, Trump merely discovered the game can be gruesomely unforgiving when tiredness creeps in.