Nearly 33 years on from his finest moment in the sport there, Joe Johnson defied the odds once again by producing another title winning performance at the Crucible Theatre to win the 2019 ROKiT World Seniors Sheffield Masters in April.
The eight-man one-day extravaganza at the home of snooker was the latest leg on this season’s ROKiT World Seniors Snooker Tour (WSST). Yorkshire native Johnson was one of five former world champions in the draw, and he perhaps drew on his own past glories at the famous venue to roll back the years and lift the John Spencer Trophy.
His quest for the title began with a clash against Jimmy White, who was playing his first competitive match at the Crucible since 2006. White was looking for his third consecutive triumph on the seniors scene following victories at the Seniors Irish Masters and Seniors World 6-Red Championship since the turn of the year. A warm favourite to advance, a break of 59 aided The Whirlwind as he took the opening frame.
However, in this unique short format, Eurosport colleague Johnson levelled affairs via a disjointed second frame to force the now customary black-ball shoot out, and when White botched a safety during the subsequent tie-breaker, the 66-year-old pounced to sink the black and progress to the last four.
The 1986 world champion returned for the evening session to face Aaron Canavan, the reigning world seniors champion. Jersey’s Canavan was fulfilling a lifelong ambition by competing at the Crucible Theatre but had to wait a little longer for his debut as his first-round opponent John Parrott pulled out due to a suspected case of food poisoning. Both frames were shared with Johnson edging the first and Canavan comprehensively notching up the second, although it was the older of the two – by some twenty-three years – who came through courtesy of a black ball again.
Johnson’s opponent in the final was qualifier Barry Pinches, a fellow ex-professional who had three previous World Championship Crucible appearances under his belt from 1991, 2004 and 2005.
The Norwich based cueman was the last player to make the draw after coming through a difficult seventy-plus player qualifying event at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds the month before. A winner on this season’s Challenge Tour, Pinches was clearly relishing and making the most of his return on the main stage. In the quarters he crafted classy breaks of 64 and 75 to eliminate pre-tournament favourite Ken Doherty, 2-0, and then repeated the dose against Stephen Hendry in the semis, albeit scrappier black and pink ball finishes. Seven-time world champion Hendry had earlier opened the tournament with a 2-0 win over defending champion Cliff Thorburn.
Aiming to dispatch a third world champion in as many matches, Pinches’ plans did not start well when Johnson – a beneficiary of a decisive fluke on the final red – went one up. The qualifier did regroup in the second frame, though, once more showing his matchplay sharpness with a run of 72.
After a long day of entertaining snooker, the £7,500 first prize hinged on yet another black-ball; for Johnson it was his third consecutive tie-breaker of the day. What followed was pure sporting drama, befitting of an iconic arena that has seen so many instances of such in the past.
An incredible, prolonged sequence of shots was played by the pair – as well as telling safeties, both attempted pots with varying degrees of difficulty and received elements of luck in their outcomes.
Later, Pinches had another opportunity for the game with a very thin cut into a middle pocket, but perhaps perturbated by the pace he had to play it at, his effort ended off target. Far from easy, Johnson was left a chance for glory; he stepped up and clattered the black into the green pocket to complete one of the most breathtaking of climaxes.
Johnson won a one-off seniors version of Pot Black in 1997, but this was his maiden title on the structured ROKiT World Seniors circuit. It was maybe sweeter than usual, as twelve months previously he was forced to withdraw from this event due to ill-health.
“It’s so long since I last lifted a trophy and it’s incredible to do so at the Crucible,” said a jubilant Johnson. “It was nerve-wracking – I won three black-ball games. I’ve been a little fortunate, but it was nice to pot a good shot on the final black. I didn’t think I’d lift another important one like that again.”
“The tour is going from strength to strength, you’ve just got to look at the crowd out there earlier. It’s giving senior players the opportunity to play competitive snooker again, whereas otherwise they may have put their cues away. I’ve been practicing a lot recently and only a few weeks ago I made a 147.”
In regards his upcoming media work for the World Championship Johnson quipped “I won’t mention it, but I’ll make sure they ask me about the victory on commentary!”
Prior to the tournament an important announcement was made regarding the Crucible Theatre and its ongoing involvement with the WSST.
Starting this August, a three-year deal has been signed with the venue to host the ROKiT World Seniors Championship, confirming its second major annual snooker event alongside the Betfred World Professional Championship. Legends will make up a field of 20 players from 16 countries to battle it out for the most prestigious title on the seniors tour.
Also, for the very first time, within their four-day stay, a session will be dedicated to showcase the talents of the World Women’s Snooker Tour and the World Disability Billiards and Snooker Tour.
Jason Ferguson, Chairman of the WPBSA said: “It’s great news to place the World Seniors Championship in the venue where our legends created their legacy.
“Being able to use the event to also showcase the talents of the women’s and the disability tours sends an important message for our sport and also opens up the dream of playing in the Crucible Theatre for everyone.”
The event takes place from 15-18 August 2019 and tickets are available now HERE.