A DECADE HAS now passed since Shaun Murphy’s astonishing capture of the world title as a qualifier but the memories remain fresh in his mind.
Murphy was just 22 and ranked 48th in the world when he went all the way to the title in 2005, beating Matthew Stevens 18-16 in a pulsating final. It was both his greatest moment and a last throw of the dice for a player frustrated not have made faster progress through the ranks.
The lead-in to the 2005 World Championship was not a happy one for Murphy. He had made a breakthrough earlier in the season by reaching the semi-finals of the British Open but his results then started to dry up.
As a boy he had been fascinated by snooker but he was now starting to think the unthinkable – maybe this wasn’t the life for him after all.
Murphy had a job interview with a car dealership but had paid his entry fee into the World Championship and so played. He qualified and then began one of snooker’s most remarkable journeys from virtual unknown to top of the world, the second qualifier after Terry Griffiths in 1979 to triumph at the Crucible.
“It’s unbelievable to think it was ten years ago,” Murphy told Inside Snooker.
“I can remember things as if they were yesterday. I remember getting ready for the qualifiers and being disappointed with how things were going for me. Myself and my coach, Steve Prest, weren’t seeing the fruits of our efforts and weren’t going anywhere snooker-wise.
“I went into the qualifiers because I’d paid my entry fee. I’d lost a qualifier in the China Open and was so disheartened after the match I just though, what’s the point in this?
“I decided to jack snooker in. I was tired of being a touring pro, that wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t making any headway at all and had reached the end of my tether. I only played in the tournament because to have not done would have been a waste of money. Out of respect for my family and the way I was brought up I played.”
Murphy had played twice at the Crucible before without success. But his first round opponent in 2005, Chris Small, was suffering from a degenerative spinal disease and not at full health.
Murphy beat him but then faced one of snooker’s modern greats, with the full knowledge that it wasn’t going to get any easier.
“I got past Chris Small in the first round and walked into John Higgins,” he said. “That was massive because Higgins had pretty much been my nemesis. Any time I got to a career best stage of a tournament I seemed to get beaten by him. I threw all my efforts into the match and once I got through to play Steve Davis, keeping a close eye on Peter Ebdon coming back to beat Ronnie O’Sullivan in their quarter-final, I suddenly thought, well, I’m still here and somebody has to win the tournament.
“I didn’t mind playing Steve or Peter and I thought as long as I was still there, someone would have to beat me. At that time I was completely fearless, I had nothing to lose. I was the local lad then, going for my shots. The crowd liked how I was playing and I felt like I was on a bit of a roll.”
With Higgins, Davis and Ebdon dispatched, Murphy found himself in the final against Matthew Stevens, who had been runner-up to Mark Williams five years earlier.
This was an even more special occasion than usual. It was long time sponsor Embassy’s swansong, having been forced out by government legislation, and many of the great champions who had won the title took part in a parade on the final night.
“When the final started I was so nervous and overcome with what it all meant,” Murphy said.
“I was so caught up in the last Embassy sponsored world final, that this was what my whole career had been about, that I found it hard to concentrate on playing snooker in the first session.
“I was 10-6 down after the first day. I was just so nervous. But the next day I came back with the attitude that, OK, this is the world final, but it’s also a game of snooker. I was determined that Matthew would have to scrape me off the table. I’d have to be removed by security to leave the Crucible without that trophy.
“I dug in and got ahead in the night session. From then on it was a mad dash to the finish line. We both played well the closer we got to the winning line. I know I’m biased but I think it was one of the best, if not the best, world final of the last ten years.
“Before the final session I had a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits upstairs and I got changed in my dressing room. We didn’t have long between the sessions. And then all the legends turned up. They were all milling around backstage, swapping stories. I was like a rabbit in the headlights. As a historian of the game, being in their company was just unbelievable.
“When we walked out after watching the procession of champions, my hair was standing up on the back of my neck. It was then very difficult to shake hands and get down to the business of playing the final – knowing that they were all watching.
“The first person to my dressing room when I won the tournament was John Spencer. He wanted to congratulate me and he wished me all the best for my career. He was such a gent.”
“The world went mad,” Murphy said. “It was very strange going from complete anonymity to being known. With snooker on around the world, you forget how powerful the TV is. You could be filling your car up at the petrol station, going to the shops, looking at a house, whatever. It seemed everywhere I went I ran into a snooker fan.
“But snooker isn’t tribal like football. I’ve never had anyone be negative when we’ve met. People have always been nice and polite. They seem to genuinely enjoy the skill of snooker.
“My following year as world champion I tried to do as much as I could to promote and represent the sport. I probably took my eye off the ball of playing. I didn’t practise as much as I should have done but I felt it was important to attend every event I was invited to. Maybe I wasn’t selfish enough.
“When I did turn up to tournaments I didn’t feel I was particularly ready for them. I got to the final of the Welsh Open the following year but apart from that it wasn’t until the World Championship that I started to play a bit.
“The defending champion gets there early. The buzz and the feel around the place was electric. I played James Wattana. Walking out to open the event was amazing and I played quite well. I got to the quarter-finals but walked into Peter Ebdon, who was having a renaissance in his game. I had no answer for him.
“Losing that game, I was devastated. It took me a long time to take the positives and accept not being champion any more. But nobody can ever take my name off the trophy.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos.