Crucible – (noun) A place or occasion of severe test or trial. The World Snooker Championships drew to a close this year for the 37th time at the Crucible Theatre. Snooker is massive all over the world and many of the top players, Ding Junhui among them, now live and practise in Sheffield, getting to […]

Crucible – (noun) A place or occasion of severe test or trial.

The World Snooker Championships drew to a close this year for the 37th time at the Crucible Theatre. Snooker is massive all over the world and many of the top players, Ding Junhui among them, now live and practise in Sheffield, getting to know first-hand the city, the arena and the people, all in preparation for that chance of winning the main event.

The World Championship is the most important tournament in the snooker calendar. It’s the hardest event to win, not just because it’s the best players competing, but because the format is that much longer. The UK Championship, the second biggest event, concludes with a first to ten frames final. By comparison, the Crucible hosts an event that has a first to ten match in the first round. From there, it builds to a first to 18 frames potentially marathon final. Many finals have gone on into the early hours, not least Dennis Taylor’s famous victory over Steve Davis in 1985. The crowd are so important in this arena, and the atmosphere within it maintains the gladiatorial feel from which the great theatre took its name from. Over the years the people of Sheffield have carried players over the line or watched them fall at the final hurdle time and time again.

There is something unique about this sport which makes it so appealing. Snooker is a game played as much in the mind as it is on the table, and it’s no surprise that it’s attracted such an eclectic cast of characters over the years. Stephen Fry, a keen Snooker fan, said this year that he lived for “the moment when that realisation hits a player’s face”. It can be from a fluke, a near miss or a key pot, but in no other sport can you get so close to the competitors and witness in such detail the moment that dreams are made or broken. If you’re lucky to get a front row seat you could reach over and put something in a player’s pocket. You often see players chatting to members of the audience between shots – something which is unheard of in other sports.

Sheffield and snooker now go hand in hand and there are many factors that make the relationship so special. One of the key things that represents the inimitable nature of this relationship isn’t actually anything to do with the sport itself. It was the decision by the BBC a few years back to set up its studio in the Winter Gardens. I can’t think of a similar example of this in another sport. The gardens, located opposite the main arena, are a public place in the heart of Sheffield and for two weeks every year the BBC broadcasts its punditry and analysis live from the centre of it. The gardens aren’t closed down, but in fact operate as normal, with the public invited to learn more about the sport, watch interviews and take part in exhibition frames with the stars. Steve Davis, Willie Thorne, Dennis Taylor, Stephen Hendry – all the people I grew up watching on TV – wander around the city happily in a way you can’t quite imagine elsewhere. Sheffield is a very un-starstruck city. It’s down to earth and friendly, and it’s because of this that the World Championships has been able to develop in the way it has.

Snooker is firmly part of Sheffield’s culture, but one thing the tournament has always lacked is a truly local champion. Joe Johnson, hailing from Bradford, remains the only Yorkshireman to hold the trophy aloft, although Fred Davis, who helped pull the game into the modern era, grew up in Chesterfield.

The city is now the snooker capital of the world and as long as that is the case the hope remains that the next Ronnie O’Sullivan will one day come from our very own streets.

Phill James.