Eurosport commentator David Hendon pays tribute to snooker great Willie Thorne after his death aged 66.
There’s a story about Willie Thorne which, like many stories from the snooker circuit, could be apocryphal but may as well be true.
The tale goes that Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan were each honing their skills on separate tables in the practice room at a tournament when Willie breezily entered and declared: “Who was the best player in here before I walked in?”
The anecdote, true or not, perfectly sums up Willie’s ebullient persona and a sense of humour which mixed overstated confidence and self-deprecation. He was a charismatic figure whose celebrity reached far beyond snooker. He suffered from well documented problems associated with gambling but had an irrepressible nature. Often, you just had to laugh.
So many stories involving him seem to revolve around misfortune he had almost invited in. And he loved telling them, even when he was the butt of the joke.
One year at the UK Championship he led Drew Henry 7-1 after the first session, needing two more frames for victory. The match resumed at 7pm. As he walked into the arena, Willie loudly instructed master of ceremonies Alan Hughes to book a local restaurant for 8pm as the contest would be done and dusted in no time. Four hours later Henry beat him 9-8.
Shortly before the Scottish Masters in 1996, word went round that John Parrott’s cue had gone missing in the post. Parrott was due to play Ken Doherty in Motherwell, a tough enough match anyway without having to borrow a cue. Willie managed to raise £38,000 to put on Doherty. Parrott won 6-3. Worse still, Willie was commentating, although his remarks became more and more limited as the match approached its conclusion and catastrophe loomed.
Tony Meo, Terry Griffiths, Willie Thorne, Cliff Thorburn, Steve Davis, Neal Foulds, Jimmy White and Dennis Taylor in 1988.
Image credit: Eurosport
He hated flukes with a passion, largely because he believed he never got any and that all the good luck was enjoyed by players who didn’t need it because they were already successful. He was once playing Stephen Hendry and a few shots into the opening frame, Hendry fluked a red. Willie looked up from his chair and merely said, “So soon?”
He occasionally messaged me when I was commentating for Eurosport with observations about the match in progress. As a commentator himself he was never afraid to give opinions and would front up if a player had a problem with anything he had said. Usually, it was all resolved with a chat and some typically disarming humour.
As an analyst, his technical explanations of the art of break-building helped to move commentary forwards. Never stuck for a word, he was the perfect studio guest. He was easy to interview. He liked people. He liked company and was himself good company.
Willie didn’t take himself too seriously. He enjoyed being part of the snooker scene. He was a natural at corporate dinners and charity auctions. He is far better known than many players with bigger trophy collections.
Moreover, he had a big heart. When Mark Selby, his young protégé, won the world title for the first time in 2014, Willie stood in the Crucible and cried his eyes out, perhaps also remembering his own brother, Malcolm, who ran Willie Thorne’s Snooker Centre in Leicester where Selby learned his trade. Malcolm had passed away in 2011.
He was devoted to his mother, Nancy, who right until the end of his playing career, when he was mired in qualifiers in some non-descript leisure centre, would ring the press room for frame by frame updates. Nancy died in 2013.
Willie was a warm, gregarious man. It’s painfully sad to think of him in Spain in his final days, all alone save for the kind Julie O’Neill, who cared for him while he was in hospital.
As he slipped away she read messages from fans wishing him well. They were heartfelt. People recognised Willie’s human frailties but also his genuine likability.
You don’t need to become world champion to leave a mark. Willie Thorne won’t be walking into any more practice rooms, announcing his presence with some amusingly provocative statement, but I get the feeling stories about him will be told at tournaments for many years to come.
There’s a line from The Way We Were, the song which accompanied perhaps the BBC’s best known and most cherished musical montage in the 1980s – an unforgettably vibrant era in which Willie played a starring role – which perfectly sums up what he has meant to so many in the snooker world: