Willie Thorne: Snooker idol’s tragic death must leave a legacy

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English snooker players Willie Thorne (left) and John Virgo during their first round match at the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, April 1983.

Image credit: Eurosport

ByDesmond Kane
19/06/2020 at 08:58 | Updated 22/06/2020 at 05:21

The sad passing of Willie Thorne – one of snooker's finest sons – should encourage professional sport to redouble its efforts against the dangers of gambling addiction, writes Desmond Kane.

"Credit and credit cards have ruined this country, and obviously have ruined me," said Willie Thorne during a revelatory interview discussing his overpowering and life-defining gambling addiction on ITV chat show This Morning in 2015.

For a man whose solitary ranking victory came at an event sponsored by Mercantile Credit in 1985, such gloomy words were laced with irony.

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While the dark pall of literally betting away your house stalked the great W.T. with more foreboding than Dick Francis riding Devon Loch at the 1956 Grand National, it did not alter his prized reputation as one of the most talented – and latterly deeply tormented – figures in snooker folklore.

Nor did it ruin the perception of Thorne or his popularity among the Great British public, who have always held close to their bosom the belief that snooker professionals from the 1980s generated a level of interest in the game that has never been nor will ever be replicated in modern times.

For such an affable, charming, thoughtful and well-groomed character, Thorne had much in common with traditional sporting hell-raisers such as Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, George Best and his after-dinner speaking chum Paul Gascoigne. The difference being his principal drug came in gambling his shirt away rather than obscuring reality with a bottle.

He was very much a product of the times.

Thorne’s personal life was more chaotic and perilous than any challenges he faced down in 26 years as a snooker professional between 1975 and 2001.

His desire to gamble saw him declared bankrupt in 2016. He regretted being an unfaithful partner, fought depression, contemplated suicide, was threatened by money lenders and saw his £475,000 house repossessed. As he tragically battled leukaemia in Alicante he relied on donations from a GoFundMe page to finance health treatment.

A flawed character? Very much so. A loveable character? Very much so. In a world of machismo that defined snooker culture in the 1980s, he was viewed as a man’s man, a stellar geezer and a fabulous raconteur, but battled a plethora of personal demons.

Willie Thorne at the Crucible Theatre in 1983.

Image credit: Eurosport

For all the stories of his iconic moments in the sport and his penchant for making 147s that saw him become the self-styled ‘Mr Maximum’ rising to world number seven and reaching two World Championship quarter-finals, there are numerous tragic tales of an individual with a destructive streak due to the disease of compulsive gambling. He estimated that he splurged £3.5m on betting and was once banned from British racecourses due to the debts he owed.

“Snooker and horse racing had become the twin obsessions of my life," he said in his autobiography, the aptly titled Taking A Punt On My Life. "The former helped me make a lot of money, while the latter ensured that an awful lot of it was wasted."

My own dad, no stranger to the seduction of the gee-gees, bumped into Thorne in a local bookmakers during a break from his commentary stint when the sport's old Premier League was staged in Scotland in 2004. “He wasn’t holding back,” was the message that was sadly in keeping with the theme of the crippling gaming debts that blighted him.

The grim, deceptive fact of gambling is that it can also be done in private.

"I suffered from depression most of my life," he said. "It's the limelight. Snooker players have a lot of free time and footballers have a lot of free time that's why so many footballers are involved in gambling."

The death of Thorne marks the passing of an era from a time when professional sport seemed more innocent and less serious. The only problem being it was a myth. What went on behind closed doors back then still exists today. It is just that there was no social media or 24-hour news channels to invade personal thought processes.

"I think you are born with it," said Paul Merson, the former Arsenal and England midfielder, who blew an estimated £7m, "you go insane. As soon as the bet goes on, you think what did I do that for? The self-worth comes in and you hate yourself."

The ticking time bomb of mental health was not the overriding issue back in the day which is an indictment really on how society should have been conducted. Thorne could and should have been helped long before he hurtled into the abyss.

Thorne came from an era when cigarettes and alcohol were endorsed by snooker. Gambling should come with a government health warning as strong as smoking.

Did professional snooker do enough to educate and help hardened professionals such as Thorne back in the 1980s when the leading protagonists were revelling in largesse? Has professional sport managed to detonate such a ticking time bomb of human self-destruction? Does society have the mechanisms in place to help such flawed individuals?

The answer is a resounding no and must be used as motivation to ward off future generations from the disease. The road to perdition needed not only be a one-way track to ruin especially when young men are wallowing in amounts of the folding stuff that they clearly cannot handle.

Born in Leicester in 1954, Thorne turned professional in 1975 and lifted one ranking event when he defeated Cliff Thorburn 13-8 to carry off the Mercantile Credit Classic at the Bournemouth International Centre.

In the same year, he should have become UK champion. Leading then three-times world champion Steve Davis 13-8 at the Guild Hall in Preston, he missed a simple blue to a centre pocket that would have seen move six clear with a possible nine frames remaining.

He was forced to sit and suffer as Davis hit back strongly to snag the title with a 16-14 win.

At the age of 66, Thorne seemed timeless, elegant, evergreen and effervescent. He did not change much over the years with or without cue in hand.

It is fair to say Thorne brought a touch of showbusiness to snooker beyond the sport that continued years beyond his shelf life as a player.

A regular pundit for the BBC, ITV and Sky Sports over two decades, he wound up on light entertainment programmes Strictly Come Dancing and Mr and Mrs. He was a natural in the spotlight, once earning a contestant a record £540 on the excellent 1990s BBC favourite Big Break in a quickfire exhibition that would have left Ronnie O'Sullivan drooling.

If you did a snap survey asking snooker diehards what they remember most warmly about the game in the 1980s, the boom televised period when it was introduced to living rooms up and down the country, many will remember Thorne's trademark bald head and moustache with as much warmth as the Hurricane sinking pints of confidence.

Thorne used to describe Steve Davis as the game's greatest ambassador. Thorne should be celebrated as one of snooker's most memorable characters, a uniquely stylish player, pundit and professor of the old green baize.

The sport of snooker has lost one of its finest sons, but his tragic demise should not be in vain. His passing should leave a greater legacy on the clear and present dangers of gambling.

Desmond Kane

Professional snooker player Willie Thorne, posing in front of a building in 1976.

Image credit: Eurosport

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