There’s a peculiarity to the legacy left by the late Willie Thorne.
To the causal snooker fan, perhaps more reliant on stats and facts than knowledge or intricate detail, his perceived place amongst snooker’s most popular characters would be understandably questionable.
Indeed, one solitary ranking title and two World Championship quarter-final ventures in a professional career that spanned 26 years, appears a somewhat meagre platform to launch the portrayal of an icon.
Throw in a gambling addiction that forced him to eventually file for bankruptcy, and it’s also futile arguing that his behavioural traits amounted to flawless.
And yet, fans loved Willie Thorne. Fellow players did too. They loved his cheerful persona, his ability to build breaks, his handling of the television limelight, his marriage to a former Miss Great Britain winner, and his wry BBC commentary. They even loved his role in Chas ‘n’ Dave’s ‘Matchroom Mob’, which hit the charts with the ‘Snooker Loopy’ song that referenced Thorne’s balding head.
And yet, fans loved Willie Thorne. Fellow players did too. They loved his cheerful persona, his ability to build breaks, his handling of the television limelight, his marriage to a former Miss Great Britain winner in Jill Saxby, and his wry BBC commentary. They even loved his role in Chas ‘n’ Dave’s ‘Matchroom Mob’, which hit the charts with the ‘Snooker Loopy’ song that referenced Thorne’s balding head.
Thorne was a player who never fulfilled his early potential, and yet was so likeable that you always really wanted him too. The 1985 Mercantile Credit Classic represented his sole title success, but it was his UK Championship final that year that ultimately defined him on the big stage.
Leading Steve Davis 13-8 in a race to 16 frames, he missed a routine blue off its spot. It proved fatal to his chances, with Davis eventually prevailing 16-14.
The lack of career silverware defied an ability to rack up century breaks, and the nickname ‘Mr Maximum’ was anything but ironic. He notched 126 tons, although perhaps a further signal of unfulfilled talent was that the number is closer to 200 when inclusive of practice matches.
His ability to entertain was underlined by amassing the all-time record in the ‘Pocket Money’ round of BBC TV show Big Break, and by the time he retired in 2001, his popularity had long been utilised in commentary boxes.
Indeed, his use of the word ‘careless’, which he would willingly band about in response to missed pots and poor positional play, became renowned.
An appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2007, albeit an unsuccessful one, further emphasised Thorne’s celebrity status.
Throughout it all though, personal demons plagued him. Demons that came in the form of an obsession with betting, which once led to him putting £38,000 on John Parrott to lose a match in which he was without his first-choice cue. For the record, Parrott won.
That particular sum would merely prove a drop in the ocean. Thorne, who also embraced being dubbed the ‘Homer Simpson of snooker’ due to his distinct hairline, would later admit to losing £1million to gambling during his career.
His two autobiographies, aptly titled Double or Quits and Taking A Punt On My Life, were honest, and yet difficult reads for the many who held Thorne in high regard.
The eventual bankruptcy in 2016 came just a year after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was perhaps here where his popularity with snooker personnel shone through.
Fans raised £20,000 to help pay for his care, and Thorne would later move to Spain before he died aged 66 in June 2020, having suffered respiratory failure following on from a diagnosis of leukaemia earlier in the year.
He was however, able to enjoy a seismic sporting moment in his later years, albeit one outside of snooker, when his beloved Leicester City won the 2015/16 Premiership title. It was a moment he could share with close friend Gary Lineker, who along with Ken Doherty, would four years later lead a long list of high-profile figures to pay tribute to Thorne following his death.
But whilst Thorne made mistakes away from the table, and never hit the heights he could have on it, his status as a revered snooker character speaks volumes. It’s also reflected in another title by which he is now commonly referred to, ‘The Great Willie Thorne.’
Not everyone is defined by success. And such was the stature of Willie Thorne, he didn’t need it in abundance to do down as a snooker legend.
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