The career of one of the biggest names in British sport may have come to an end last week.
It probably passed you by – barely troubling mainstream media – but the days of Jimmy White as a professional snooker player could well be over.
Defeat in the qualifying tournament for the World Championship means White has dropped out of the tour’s top 64.
For his 37-year career as a pro to continue, he’ll need to go to snooker’s version of Q school – or rely on a wildcard for events from a benevolent Barry Hearn, the sport’s supremo.
As it stands, it’s up to ‘The Whirlwind’ to decide if lugging his cue to a backwater to face off with hungry young whippersnappers desperate for a slice of the action he has enjoyed for so long is an ordeal he’s prepared to put himself through.
What’s not in dispute is White’s contribution to the popularity of a sport whose 80s heyday rode on the back of his unparalleled connection with the public.
Streetwise and self taught, White was the antithesis of his nemesis Steve Davis. Practice, abstinence and mineral water weren’t part of White’s pre-match routine.
Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol and – as he admitted in latter years – worse, fuelled a wildly talented player who followed in the footsteps of his idol Alex Higgins.
Safety play was simply ignored. White backed himself to pot his way out of any trouble he found himself in – and invariably did.
The careful, considered play of stalwarts Eddie Charlton, Cliff Thorburn and Ray Reardon won many a-title. But it was deadly dull. Ice Ages came and went while they pored over safety exchanges with the baulk cushion their location of choice.
White in full flow in the early 80s was as talented and attacking a player as the game has ever seen.
Left-handed, intuitive – he had the ability to assess a table and make decisions before his latest Embassy Regal had barely settled in its ashtray.
I remember seeing White play for the first time against Steve Davis in the first round of the 1981 World Championship. His all-out potting, anti-establishment style captured me and my mates absorbed in a sport enjoying wall-to-wall BBC TV coverage.
White should have put Higgins to the sword in their epic World Championship semi-final the following year. Leading 15-14, he broke down on 59 with a final spot all but secured.
An inspired Higgins though produced what is widely regarded in the game – and by White – as the greatest pressure clearance in the sport’s history.
The 69 break crushed a 20-year-old White who lost the deciding frame, but established himself as the hottest property in the UK’s hottest sport.
White took the game to new heights in his 1984 Benson and Hedges Masters semi-final against Kirk Stevens.
An evening session at the old Wembley Conference Centre was a home fixture for the Tooting boy.
A century from White was answered by a 147 from Stevens who somehow wrestled the cue ball around awkwardly positioned final colours to complete a stunning maximum.
Up breezed White for frame ten, unfazed. He promptly knocked in a quick-fire 119 featuring two baize searing ‘flair’ shots in dispatching the final pink and black.
White landed his first major crown the following day, seeing off Griffiths and officially announcing himself as Davis’ main rival for the world title.
A Davis in his pomp though pipped him three months later at the Crucible 18-16. ‘The Nugget’, as White called him, always seemed to have his number in the crunch encounters between snooker’s two heavyweights.
White didn’t do easy. Winning was always fraught. Ripping the Mercantile Credit Classic from a devastated Thorburn in 1986 when needing a snooker on the pink and black, was a case in point.
Losing was equally dramatic. Being a sport’s ‘best never to have’ player is a huge burden to carry.
Sergio Garcia managed to rid himself of that monkey after 70-odd Major attempts and 18 years of trying at last weekend’s US Masters.
Millions willed White to do likewise at The Crucible for two decades.
To have watched a dominant Davis at the table would have been challenge enough. But then to see him replaced in the 90s by Stephen Hendry was just plain cruel.
Out of his six world finals, White realistically should have won two. His 18-14 defeat to Hendry in 1992 saw him sat ashen-faced for a couple of hours, helpless as the Scot reeled off ten frames on the bounce.
Two years later, when in prime position, he cracked and missed a black off its spot in a final frame decider, handing victory to Hendry and with it, his last chance of lifting the game’s biggest prize.
There’ve been flashes of his old brilliance since. A ranking title in 2004. Victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan. He’s won all the sport’s glittering prizes – bar the big one.
Longevity is a barometer of sporting greatness. White has been at the top of his for the thick end of four decades.
He was a pioneer of an attacking game now taken on by a fresh generation to its ultimate conclusion of one knockout blow per frame. Potting taking precedence over strategy.
The new breed owe much to a man who always did things his way.
Great writing Mr Arnott. I have to confess that I was always a Davis fan. I found his apparent dullness just as compelling as the flamboyance of White, Higgins et al. In fact, I think that it made him a more ‘interesting’ character (to coin another nickname that he was given). However, I never warmed to Hendry, possibly because at least Davis was self aware enough to also be self deprecating at times. As for the Whirlwind, he was always very entertaining to watch, especially when the yin of his flair and natural talent came up against the yang of the likes of Charlton or Thorburn. It was always fascinating when he wasn’t at the table and the camera panned to him, barely sitting in his chair. He reminded me of Michael Palin’s beggar in the Life of Brian – always, always on the move, even when he wasn’t.
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Cheers Chris, very kind of you! I was too young to understand Davis’ self deprecation at the time. But listening to him now, it’s easy to see that he never took himself quite as seriously as he looked in his prime. I hated him when he played White, mainly because he was so good and virtually unbeatable in the early/mid 80s. White got the better of him as they moved into the 90s – but then Hendry appeared and swallowed up everything going. Hope he gets a wildcard to keep on going for a little while yet. Cheers Chris.
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