World snooker finals didn’t always take place in the familiar plush surroundings of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – as John Spencer can attest.
As defending champion in 1972, the Bury-born master potter took on snooker phenomenon Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins at a very different venue.
The British Legion Club in Selly Oak, Birmingham!
Hundreds of spectators crammed round the snooker table to watch the week-long final, many of them perched on beer crates!
The lighting, so crucial to accurate cue work, was provided by emergency generators!
As if that wasn’t enough, Spencer had come into the final straight after an exhausting Canadian tour. He’d also been involved in a minor car crash and – to cap it all – got stuck in a lift before one of the sessions!
Spencer eventually lost by 37 frames to 32 after Higgins won the Thursday evening session 6-0. He made no excuses for his defeat.
The match ignited nationwide interest in snooker which had already benefited from the exposure of the popular BBC TV programme Pot Black.
Broadcasting in colour had helped snooker enormously. Distinguishing different coloured balls on black-and-white TV had previously been a nightmare for commentators.
It led to one of the most memorable quotes in sport when commentator Ted Lowe said: ‘For those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green’.
First aired in 1969, Pot Black made Spencer a household name along with the likes of Ray Reardon, John Pulman, Terry Griffiths, Fred Davis and Jimmy White.
The usually one-frame matches were recorded in a single day at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham.
Spencer lost the first Pot Black final to Reardon, but won the next two tournaments in 1970 and 1971. He was champion again in 1976.
In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Spencer was notching up a whole series of firsts.
He won the world professional title at his first attempt in 1969, and was the first winner of both the Masters and Irish Masters’ tournaments.
Putting Selly Oak behind him, he was also the inaugural winner of the World Championships when they moved to the Crucible Theatre in 1977. He beat Canadian Cliff Thorburn 25-21 in the final.
On top of all that, in 1979 he became the first player to make a maximum 147 break at the Holsten Lager International – long before Thorburn’s televised 147 in 1983.
The bad news for Spencer, however, was that the break was not officially recorded as the Holsten tournament was played on untemplated tables.
Born in Radcliffe, Bury, in September 1935, Spencer attended Stand Grammar School for Boys in Whitfield and started playing serious snooker on local tables at the age of 15.
As snooker was in decline during the 1950s and early 1960s, Spencer did not turn professional until 1966 when he was 31.
In the meantime, he was runner-up to Ray Reardon in the English Amateur Snooker Championships in 1964 and to Pat Houlihan in 1965.
He finally claimed the trophy in 1966, beating Marcus Owen by 11 frames to five in the final.
Spencer won his first World Championship in 1969, but very nearly missed the whole competition. He only took part when his bank loaned him the £100 entry fee!
He lost the 1970 semi-final 37 frames to 33 to eventual winner Reardon, but beat Warren Simpson 37-29 in the 1971 final.
He was also the victor at the first Irish Masters, beating Doug Mountjoy 5-3 in the final round at Goffs’ Sales Room, County Kildare.
One of Spencer’s most unusual triumphs came in the Norwich Union pro-am tournament of 1974. He broke his cue in four places just before the event, but still managed to beat Reardon 10-9 in the final.
Spencer was actually the first professional player to use a two-piece cue, presented to him by the Dufferin Cue Company at the 1976 Canadian Open.
Towards the end of his playing career, Spencer was afflicted with the eye disease myasthenia gravis, which caused double vision.
Although he kept playing, his form never recovered. He made his final TV appearance in 1997 in a Seniors’ version of Pot Black.
When he heard about his fellow player’s illness, Alex Higgins arrived at Spencer’s house with a bottle of Bacardi. It’s said he had to drink it himself as Spencer was not allowed any alcohol.
Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2003, Spencer died in Bolton at the age of 70 in July 2006.
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