Marco Fu interview: How legacy of legendary snooker boozer ‘Big Bill’ Werbeniuk lives on
Before his World Championship quarter-final got under way against Barry Hawkins at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, Marco Fu told Desmond Kane about how fans' favourite Bill Werbeniuk helped him learn the game of snooker in his formative years back in Canada.
Gone but not forgotten, the glorious ghosts of the Crucible Theatre remain with us in spirit. Or spirits.
It was once joked that ‘Big Bill’ Werbeniuk drank Canada Dry. Yet the legacy of the late Werbeniuk, a snooker player who infamously sank copious amounts of extra strong lager and double vodkas to conquer an arm tremor that threatened his career three decades ago, lives on at this World Championship in the form of Marco Fu, a svelte figure of some contentment fighting out of the aptly titled Happy Valley in Hong Kong.
A full 28 years after a full ‘Big Bill’ last attempted a session in Sheffield, and also played some snooker, Fu meets Barry Hawkins upon his return to the quarter-finals for the first time in a decade. He cites Werbeniuk and fellow Canadian Cliff ‘The Grinder’ Thorburn as key influences on his early career as he learned the nuances of the game in Vancouver.
Bill WerbeniukPA Photos
Werbeniuk, born in Winnipeg, was a figure who infamously and astonishingly swallowed up to 50 pints a day at one point to help his game for medicinal purposes, a ploy that led to him topping 20 stones, apparently breaking wind on TV and splitting his trousers during one match as his strides finally caved in.
Of course, while the clichés about snooker no longer having any characters is trotted out with as much regularity as ‘Big Bill’ basked in beer, one tends to forget that most of those antiheroes were really just sodden, pitiful blokes who sadly enjoyed drinking as much as potting when there was time to.
Men such as Werbeniuk and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins – both of whom ended up bankrupt, crushed and on disability after the harvest years - were also walking emblems of alcoholism being played out before millions on live television. Snooker, booze and snouts regale us of tales of snooker players behaving badly from a different era, as much at odds with the vocational nature of the modern game as a relic of the Raj that led to the sport’s invention by British soldiers in India in the 19th century.
Yet amid the fug of cigarette smoke back in the Crucible glory days, men like Werbeniuk, who sadly died aged 56 in 2003 due to heart complications, were also fine examples of how to play the game when the wit was in and there was even a hint of sobriety in the air. Werbeniuk was a player who reached number eight in the rankings and lost a final to Steve Davis in 1983.
It is pleasant to hear the mild-mannered, courteous and dedicated Fu, a technician and artisan who has made over 400 centuries to lie sixth on the all-time list of break-builders, reflect on matches against Werbeniuk in Vancouver in his formative years with some fondness.
"I was in Canada for five or six years and played Bill Werbeniuk. I practised with him too for a little while, said Fu. "It was always enjoyable playing against Bill because he had obviously been a professional who had done well in the UK. He was a very good player. "
While watching the 1980 champion Thorburn, the first non-UK player to win the world title before Australia's Neil Robertson repeated the dose in 2010, sounds about as appealing to some as being walloped across the head by the butt of a snooker cue, Fu fairly rejoices in the memories of learning from the methodical Thorburn, who would fly from Ontario to the other side of Canada for regular exhibitions.
“I was in Vancouver at the time. I also played Cliff in a few exhibitions matches,” says Fu.
" It was a really good standard and these guys helped me a lot by coaching. "
“Those were really good times. I was 15 or 16 at the time. It was a vital part of my development for me at the time because you always wanted to play better players, and Canada had a tradition for producing some fine players when you think of Bill, Cliff, Brady Golan, Kirk Stevens and Alain Robidoux.
Cliff Thorburn in Sheffield.Eurosport
“There were loads of players, and I could always learn from them. When they were back in Canada, the standard was very high even though some of them struggled in the UK.
“They had pro-am and tournaments like the Canadian Open and the Canadian Championship which I’ve never won.
“I was practising in the club, and the owner of the club was keen to get all the best players to play in the club. “
Fu hopes to catch up with the former world champion Thorburn, who usually washes up at the Crucible in the second week to meet old chum the ‘black-ball final’ winner Dennis Taylor, who usually informs viewers on the BBC when Cliff is about to touch down in Blighty, after going beyond the last 16 for the first time in a decade with wins over Ebdon and Anthony McGill.
“I’ve never bumped into Cliff because I always lose in the second round..that’s my problem. But hopefully this year, I can see him,” admits Fu.
“We don’t keep in touch, but I’m still a big fan of him when he plays in the trick-shot tournaments and the seniors events.
"He is very clever. His safety play is very good. And you can always learn something new about the game from Cliff, even at the age of 70. I love watching him play."
Like every sport, snooker is one that is dominated by ifs, buts and maybes. Fu should probably be facing Ronnie O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals on Tuesday and Wednesday after the five-times champion made 12 frame-winning contributions yet still lost 13-12 to Barry Hawkins on Monday evening in the second round. It is unlikely Fu will be too dismayed about avoiding O’Sullivan.
Fu knows himself the fine line of success at this level having coming up agonisingly short in the semi-finals a decade ago when he lost 17-16 in the final frame to Ebdon in the semi-finals.
“I can’t believe it has been 10 years since I played Peter in the semi-finals. It still remains one of my most memorable matches. Losing 17-16 was tough,” said Fu.
“I was 15-9 down, and almost pulled it out of the fire. There was a just a little bit missing.
Marco Fu won the Australian Open in 2013.Imago
Coached by Wayne Griffiths, the son of another world champion in Terry, this onlooker remembers interviewing Fu in Stirling in 1999 when he moved to the UK to practice with Stephen Hendry, then on the cusp of a seventh world title, and Stephen Maguire.
“I learned a lot from the Stephens..I can’t believe I’ve been a professional for almost 20 years now.”
Fu is based in London these days with wife and two kids, but admits it would be huge in Hong Kong if he can become the first Asian player to reach the final.
“Snooker is very much loved by Hong Kong fans. All the tournaments are shown live on television,“ says Fu. “It would be huge back home if I reached the final, but I get a bit scared even thinking about it. I don’t want to look that far ahead.
“There is a huge prestige winning this tournament.”
There remains the possibility that he could meet Ding Junhui in an all-Asian final, a match that would attract sweltering viewing audiences in the Far East after 100m watched them contest the Masters final five years ago.
A bit like a rampant ‘Big Bill’ in his stride, snooker would have known nothing like it.
From Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre