Snooker news: ‘He showed true class at Hurricane funeral’ – Jimmy White on Stephen Hendry reunion
Jimmy White tells Desmond Kane why his respect for fellow snooker icon Stephen Hendry goes beyond the green baize ahead of their 60th competitive meeting in the first round of qualifying for the World Championship on Monday (LIVE on eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app at 19:30 BST), an astonishing 35 years after their first professional joust in Glasgow.
Jimmy White of England (seated) and Stephen Hendry of Scotland (playing) during the World Snooker Championship Final at the Crucible in Sheffield on 2nd May 1994. Hendry defeated White 18-17.
It has been 20 years since Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White’s snooker career was given a knowing nod in the 2001 romantic blockbuster Bridget Jones’s Diary. As shoes and an assortment of garments are seen strewn across a bedroom floor with the voice of Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver character heard bellowing “Yeah baby, do it for daddy..” in eager anticipation, the camera suddenly cuts comically to the two main protagonists watching White on TV at the World Championship.
Much to the chagrin of Cleaver, he misses a key long pot, but the hilarity of the deleted scene perhaps illustrates best the fandom, fascination, frustration and agonising failure to translate desire into fulfilment which has perhaps unfairly stalked White’s rousing achievements on the green baize since he turned professional in 1980, a year after Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister.
It was a time when snooker ruled Britannia. If not the world then certainly the airwaves. When working class blokes like the six-times world champion Steve Davis and White, the sport’s eternal crowd pleaser, spent more time on the small screen than Thatcher, England footballers or Ken Barlow in Coronation Street.
"In the 1980s when there were only four channels, everybody thought they knew you. It was like you were in EastEnders," said White.
Snooker in itself was a soap opera with White cast as the young rebel with a cause. Millions of people up and down Blighty and beyond willed and wished the People’s Champion to become world champion for so, so long, but the Hollywood ending never came. Certainly not at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, a dream-crushing cauldron for hundreds of hopeful cue artists since 1977, but arguably none more so than the free-wheeling, much-loved Whirlwind of old London town, a figure who lost half a dozen world finals in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways between 1984 and 1994.
'Jimmy White curse'
White succumbed in finals to Steve Davis in 1984, John Parrott in 1991 and most memorably Stephen Hendry in 1990, 1992, 1993 and of course 1994, the most agonising of his six defeats when he was among the balls in the deciding frame only to "twitch" a black off its spot when finally poised for an 18-17 victory over the heavy-scoring Scotsman.
On the day he turned 32 some 27 years ago, White was rueful in defeat, telling a sarcastically well-wishing David ‘The Governor’ Vine in the post-match interview: “he’s beginning to annoy me”. White never returned to the sport’s blue-chip match, but his epic failure acted as a totem for others to avoid foundering on the rocks of their own great expectations.
“Admittedly, the Jimmy White curse was weighing on my mind,” said Ronnie O’Sullivan after lifting the first of six world titles 18-14 against John Higgins twenty years ago.
You think about what happened to him and you wonder how he ever went back into that arena after losing the final six times.
"I was really feeling it from a mental point of view. I have never felt anything like it, but you can guarantee I will be the happiest man in Sheffield tonight.”
That the iconic, stylish left-hander has landed the seven-times champion Hendry in the first round of qualifying for the 45th staging of the tournament in Sheffield is as bizarre as it is beautiful, a match with more stats than the Domesday Book and a greater sporting narrative than Benn v Eubank in the boxing ring or Coe v Ovett on the track.
Oddly enough, he discovered news of their latest tête à tête from his time-honoured tormentor.
'Why would I?' - Hendry has no regrets over finals wins ahead of White showdown
“As soon as the draw came out, I had two missed calls from Stephen Hendry,” said White. “I was playing another professional so my phone was off. I got in my car and saw loads of missed calls from different journalists, but had two from Stephen Hendry.
I phoned Stephen. And he answered saying: ‘Can you believe it?’ I worked it out from that I was playing him. Which was completely bizarre.
“We just have to prepare for it and hopefully it is an entertaining and quality match.”
'First out of the hat'
Quality has never been a problem for a duo with 1097 centuries between them. A re-enlivened Hendry faces White in only his second match back after retiring in 2012 (he lost 4-1 to his close friend Matthew Selt at the Gibraltar Open last month despite making a 107, his 776th career ton) only to return nine years later via a two-year invitational tour card courtesy of World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn. It is a popular manoeuvre that has enabled Hendry's second coming at the age of 53 and White to extend his playing privileges having failed to qualify for the Crucible since 2006.
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White is not yet ready to take a trip down memory frame despite being aware of the significance of the occasion against a figure who arguably shaped his life and times as much as his native Tooting.
“It’s completely unbelievable. So bizarre,” said White. “We’ve been practising together for the last three months.
“I know the draw wasn’t fixed as it was done in a live office. Out of the all the players, we were the first two names out of the hat.
“He’s come back to play in the Gibraltar Open and the World Championship this season and we’ve come out in the first round of his second event back.
Barry Hearn said to me he couldn’t believe that draw. It is what it is, but it is exciting. It’s just unfortunate that it is not at the Crucible, but at least it is going to be live on TV.
White and Hendry will meet for the 60th time as professionals stretching back 35 years since the Whirlwind enjoyed a 5-1 win in the 1986 Scottish Masters in Glasgow that included a 129 break, but the narrative is dominated by their jousts at the World Championship.
Hendry won all of their Crucible finals, famously knocking off 10 straight frames from 14-8 behind as White prepared his winner's speech in 1992, and running in a 147 in one semi-final in 1995, but White also toppled the Scotsman in the first and second rounds at the Crucible in 1988 and 1998 respectively. It is small beer compared to the champagne moments binged on by Hendry, who remains the sport's most dominant number one of all time.
This gives White the chance to revisit his dream dungeon for "unfinished business" as it has been heralded in a billing more suited to big Frank Bruno. A reunion with Hendry reminds White of what he could have won, but fate remains a curious bedfellow. As White himself has previously pointed out, perhaps it was all written in the stars, or at the very least the Crucible lightbulbs. If White had become world champion, would he have reached this juncture?
In 1979 and 1980, I went to Australia to play in the amateur World Championship which cost me two years of experience at the Crucible. Who knows? Maybe it was meant to be because I'm still playing now.
Perhaps this is the way it was meant to be with two gnarled, weathered and wistful potters set for a resurrection of sorts at the English Institute of Sport on Easter Monday in armed combat with cues. Whatever they lack in consistency will be covered by unerring commitment to their craft.
It must be said, whisper it, but White starts a warm favourite this time at 9/13 on with his opponent 6/5 against. He has remained dedicated to his vocation and still copes with the very best when the mood takes him. He recently compiled a break of 140, his highest in competition for over a decade, at the WST Pro Series event before completing a 4-2 win over the 2015 world champion Stuart Bingham in the Gibraltar Open.
Stephen Hendry and Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins in 1987.
Image credit: Eurosport
White and his close friend, the former world champion Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, practised with Hendry in his early teenage years before he turned professional at the age of 16.
His respect for the man formerly known as the ‘Wonder Bairn’ was enhanced when Hendry travelled to Belfast in 2010 for the funeral of Higgins, who tragically died of malnutrition at the age of 61 following a long and fateful battle against alcoholism.
Like plenty of others, Davis and Cliff 'The Grinder' Thorburn included, Hendry endured a vexed relationship with the unpredictable, ultimate sporting hell-raiser in Higgins as his career blossomed, but was aware of the wider influence the Northern Irishman had on snooker’s popularity.
"I realised what Alex had done for our game and I felt it was important to be there,” said Hendry, who neatly bookended his seven world gongs between 1990 and 1999.
I was actually disappointed with the low turnout of top snooker players at the funeral. I think a lot of them don't appreciate how good he was and what he did for our sport.
Hendry and White embraced the foundations which Higgins laid in the 1980s in making the sport an advert for the attack-minded rather than the methodical. And how the UK lapped it all up. The norm today was ground-breaking back then.
“I think I first played him in the Lang’s Supreme in Glasgow,” recalls White, who lost 9-8 to Hendry in their last meeting on tour in the last 32 of the 2010 UK Championship.
“When he was only 13 or 14, he came to practice with me and Alex Higgins. We knew then that he was a going to be about for a long time. Even at that age, you could tell he was a character with a special talent
"I’ve always had the highest respect for him as a man because he went to Higgins’ funeral.
Unfortunately for me, I had to face Steve Davis in the 1980s, who was a very good safety player and then along came Stephen Hendry, who was the modern day attacking player and played snooker the way I liked it to be played.
“Once you’ve potted a ball, getting in and clearing up. The way snooker should be played.
“Alex always had great respect for him. We always knew what a talent he was going to be.”
White enjoyed a 4-2 win over Hendry in the semi-finals of the World Seniors Championship at the Crucible last August before recovering from 4-0 behind against Ken Doherty to complete a 5-4 victory in the final that was pure Whirlwind despite the frazzled army of "Go on Jimmy" diehards absent due to the pandemic.
Stephen Hendry (left) of Scotland and Jimmy White (right) of England shake hands
Image credit: Getty Images
White cites his 18-9 victory over Hendry at the 1990 World Matchplay as his fondest memory of their jousts, but is expecting an exacting test against a figure who he feels will have lost none of the desire that catapulted him to the summit of the sport as the game's youngest world champion at 21.
“I beat him over four sessions at the World Matchplay which was a memorable victory. I also beat him in the first and seconds round of the World Championship outside of the finals,” said White.
We had some incredible battles, incredible battles. Stephen Hendry is a player who always gives it 100 percent.
“I said to my friend in practice, his concentration is as good as it ever was. It is unfortunate we have to play each other in the first round, but it is what it is. We just have to get on with it.”
Ranked 83 in the world these days, White needs to beat Hendry otherwise he will relinquish his playing rights on the main tour unless he is granted another invitational tour card, a scenario that is hardly outlandish given Hearn’s ability to spot a marketing opportunity.
‘That is absolutely brilliant!’ – White shows his class against Bingham
“When I watch the old school snooker, how this bloke didn't win a world title is beyond me. I keep watching it still expecting him to win,” said Hearn. “He's in positions where you wonder: 'how can you fail Jim?'
He's got solid technique and a sound temperament, but when he saw the land of milk and honey and Moses was leading you across the river bed in the greatest scene in the movie, he stayed a bit too long there and the water crashed down on you.
"I think I'm being kind, but the game owes him because he was such an amazing, exciting player. He's a great bloke and a true ambassador for snooker.”
Hearn nor Hendry will want to be the figure who retires the Whirlwind if he is keen to continue especially given White’s ongoing contribution to the sport as a player and a pundit on Eurosport, but he would prefer to keep his destiny within his own grasp.
“I need to win to stay on tour, but I needed to win whoever I was facing so that gives it extra incentive,” he commented.
“I knew after Gibraltar that I had to win one or two matches to guarantee my tour card.
“Whether it was Stephen Hendry or someone else, it doesn’t make any difference.
“I’m enjoying playing, I’m practising good, but it is just unfortunate that I have to play him.”
It is a minor miracle White is still operating at all when you consider his well-documented issues with drugs, booze and gambling addiction that he cited in his 2014 autobiography Second Wind and is recited a million times elsewhere.
While Hendry is dubbed the 'King of the Crucible' for his single-minded exploits of yore, the Whirlwind was once apparently asked by the Queen why snooker highlights were broadcast so late when he collected an MBE for services to the sport at Buckingham Palace in 1999. For a man who infamously did not care for morning sessions with a particular penchant for London's West End back in the day, perhaps he wondered why they were on so early. This era of sobering reality when the Wind blows at a more genteel place will surely suit any watching nobility.
It will be a sting in the tail laced with large lashings of irony if Hendry emerges from the shadows to deliver another cruel cut. What happens if White loses? What is the next move in a career that seems to have ran longer than the Marathon des Sables, delivering 10 ranking titles between 1986 and 2004, including the 1984 Masters and 1992 UK Championship, earned him over £4.8m in prize money and saw him make the second 147 at the Crucible in 1992. Retirement is not on his mind.
“I’m not thinking about losing so I can’t answer that.”
A pointless answer perhaps but it was the popular BBC quiz show Pointless that recently succinctly summed up the life and times of White when his surname came up on a round about snooker players to have contested the world final. Of course, Jimmy was given as a high scorer on 55. Everybody it seems knows Jimmy.
“Recently won the World Seniors, but six world finals without a trophy,” said presenter Richard Osman.
“That’s annoying,” responded co-host Alexander Armstrong.
“It kind of is, but I suppose it makes you even more legendary in a way" said Osman. "To be the best loser ever.”
Second place is nowhere in sport, but perhaps Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White is the exception to the rule. Despite seemingly being to hell and back via the Crucible, White has endured come hell or high water. He has also gleaned more golden memories from his game than it was ever possible to lose. The latest won't be his last.