There’s something peculiar about Steve Davis becoming one of the most popular figures that snooker has ever seen.
For his now undeniable appeal hasn’t derived from charisma, wowing crowds, or off-table loveable rogue type antics. It can’t even be attributed to the tag of being a six-time world champion.
Instead, central to the perceived character that so many now admire is a long-standing reputation for being one thing.
Indeed, during the 1980s, when Davis made eight World Championship finals, winning six of them, he cemented his place as one of the game’s all time great players. Whilst doing so, he inadvertently became a resented figure.
By 1988, much of that disdain had perhaps softened, but when that year he became the first – and to date only – snooker player to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year, many cruelly noted the irony in the title.
For Davis was everything that snooker’s folk heroes of that era decade weren’t. He lacked the dynamism of a Jimmy White, the rock star persona of an Alex Higgins, and even the bubbly outlook of a Dennis Taylor. Instead he was dedicated, steady, focussed, mechanical, practical, consistent, and here’s perhaps the critical bit, hugely successful.
As well as being dubbed ‘Nugget’ in reference to his ginger hair, he was known as the ‘Romford Robot’, a term as complimentary about his play as it was derogatory to his character. Accusations of ruining the sport, tagged by that word boring, derived from fans growing tired of seeing the same face on the big occasion.
Furthermore, his often monotonous interview style led to the Spitting Image programme nicknaming him ‘Interesting’ – but to his credit, Davis took his unpopularity, and crowd tendencies to back whoever happened to be his opponent, as a compliment.
Perhaps the peculiar attitudes the British public hold towards relentless winners, a notion that currently plagues Lewis Hamilton, is aptly summed up by what initially shifted perception on Davis.
He was already a three-time champion by the time he faced Taylor in 1985 in a Crucible final that went down in folklore. Leading 8-0, Davis’ clinical touch deserted him, although at 17-15 he stood just one frame away from another crown.
Taylor battled back to force a decider, where Davis, in front of 18.5 million BBC viewers, over-cut a seemingly routine black to hand the Northern Irishman the title. The gracious manner in which Davis took the devastating defeat, served to thaw the indifference of many. The ‘Robot’ at last, was humanised.
Davis would also lose the 1986 final to Joe Johnson before bouncing back to take the title three years in succession, and as well as his world haul would also capture three Masters and three UK Championships in his career. As he entered the 90s he remained a force, just no longer a dominant one.
And yet, the longer his playing days went on, the more his popularity soared. Davis was no longer the winning machine spoiling the fun for others, but a likeable underdog, a man now appreciated for his humble persona and dry sense of humour.
He would even play on his ‘boring’ reputation, starring in one food-based television advert where his punchline was “it must be nice to be interesting.” Prior to that, he co-authored a book titled How to Be Really Interesting.
It was a reputation actually undermined in 1995, when a national newspaper published a ‘kiss and tell’ story from a 19-year-old girl claiming to have spent a passionate night with Davis, with the father-of-two married (since divorced) at the time.
He remained in professional competition into his 50s, becoming the oldest player to make a World Championship quarter-final in 2010. He eventually retired in 2016 after 38 seasons, by which time the worm had long turned to the extent where a crowd usually supported Davis regardless of his opponent, as opposed to the other way around.
At 64, he’s still active in the game now as a commentator and analyst for the BBC, but in another puncture to his previous caricature, goes by the alias of ‘DJ Thundermuscle’ in clubs, continuing a lifelong association with music by entertaining audiences.
Perhaps the most poignant comment on Davis can be attributed to ‘Whirlwind’ White, who he beat in the 1984 world final and with whom he was embroiled in an apparent rivalry with – a notion White denies.
“I quite liked it, me and Steve Davis, I was sort of wasting me time partying and he was practicing, so I never had any problems with Steve,” he said.
Davis never hit the popularity heights White did when playing, and yet you sense given his time again, the latter would have settled for being a little more ‘boring’ too. Of that era, he won’t be the only one.
And now Davis sits in the top echelons of both the game’s great players – and great characters. Upon reflection, he really wasn’t that boring.
He was actually just a nice guy, finishing first.