Willie Thorne, popular snooker player in the vanguard of the sport’s 1980s boom – obituary

Willie Thorne - PA Wire
Willie Thorne - PA Wire

Willie Thorne, who has died in Spain aged 66, was one of Britain’s foremost snooker players during the 1980s, when the game became more popular than football or cricket; after retiring from the sport in 2002, he commentated on it for the BBC and Sky.

In snooker’s heyday, Thorne’s shiny balding pate and magnificent moustache became as familiar to television viewers as Dennis Taylor’s specs, Steve Davis’s mop of red hair or Alex “Hurricane” Higgins’s ever-present cigarette.

Such was the high profile of snooker and its stars at the time that Thorne, Davis and others featured in a 1986 novelty hit by Chas & Dave, Snooker Loopy, which reached No 6 in the charts. (“But old Willie Thorne, his hair’s all gawn / And his mates all take the rise / His opponent said, cover up his head / Cos it’s shining in my eyes / When the light shines down on his bare crown / It’s a cert he’s gonna walk it. / It’s just not fair giving off that glare: / ‘Perhaps I ought to chalk it’.”)

The Snooker Loopy crew in 1986, l-r, Thorne, Tony Meo, Terry Griffiths, Dave Peacock and Chas Hodges – Chas and Dave – Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis   - PA/PA Wire
The Snooker Loopy crew in 1986, l-r, Thorne, Tony Meo, Terry Griffiths, Dave Peacock and Chas Hodges – Chas and Dave – Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis - PA/PA Wire

In later life, however, the apparently happy-go-lucky, jovial Thorne, the man who, in 2007, grinned his way through humiliation on Strictly Come Dancing, revealed that he had fought long-running battles with debt, depression and broken relationships which became so bad that on two occasions he had tried to take his own life.

William Joseph Thorne was born at home in Anstey, Leicestershire, on March 4 1954 and educated at the Thomas Rawlins School, Quorn. His earliest memories were of going watch Leicester City with his father, but he grew out of football when he discovered snooker aged 14.

His father had been made redundant and took a job as a steward at Anstey Conservative Club, which had a snooker hall. Within six months, young Willie was the best player in the club and he became so fanatical that he skived off school (and later from his job as an estimator for a building firm) to practise. He won the junior national billiards championship for six years in a row and in 1970 became under-16 champion in snooker.

When Thorne turned professional in 1976, aged 21, he was the youngest professional player in the world. But his early promise was never really translated into all-out glory on the baize: he would win only one ranking tournament, the Classic in 1985, when he beat Cliff Thorburn in the final.

That year, he was also on course for victory in the UK Championship final against Steve Davis, establishing a commanding 13–8 lead with sure-footed potting. But it was Davis who won the title, after Thorne missed a straightforward shot in the first frame of the final session, to gasps of astonishment from the crowd at the Guild Hall in Preston.

After that mistake, he was unable to regroup, his confidence shaken. “I went back to my seat and the doubts kicked in straightaway,” Thorne recalled. “I was still 13-9 in front but all I could think about was the way I’d failed in big games in the past.”

Thorne with his good friend and fellow Leicester man Gary Lineker - ITV/Shutterstock
Thorne with his good friend and fellow Leicester man Gary Lineker - ITV/Shutterstock

Thorne reached the quarter-finals of the World Championships in 1982 and 1986, peaking at seventh place in the rankings at around the same time.

Much of his success came from his seldom-matched ability to build a break, and he stood somewhere between the patient, old-school game of percentages and the more aggressive potting that came to characterise modern snooker. He entered the record books by making more maximum 147 breaks (198 in total – 33 of them against his friend and fellow Leicester man Gary Lineker) than anyone else in the game.

But as he recalled later, the more successful he got the less he practised, and although he continued to play professionally for many more years, his form in the 1990s was not what it had been.

As he revealed in later interviews, and in his autobiography Taking A Punt On My Life (2011), throughout his career Thorne had been struggling with an addiction to gambling, begun in his teens before he ever picked up a cue. In his prime, he could pull in £300,000 a year, place a few bets on the horses (or on the game) and laugh all the way to the bank. But as his earnings and winnings declined, he fell into debt.

“I lived for years with 20-odd accounts and credit cards, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he recalled in 2011. “When the cheques came in I’d pay the losing ones, endlessly covering my back. For years I got away with it. But eventually it caught up with me.”

At the 1992 World Championship in Sheffield - Colorsport/Shutterstock
At the 1992 World Championship in Sheffield - Colorsport/Shutterstock

His gambling (and womanising) cost him his first marriage and later his house, and his dealings with money lenders became increasingly fraught. On one occasion two thugs turned up at his house demanding £300,000 in cash. On another he received a phone message to the effect that unless he paid up, they would come round to his house and chop off the fingers of his second wife Jill, to get her diamond rings. For a time the couple even went into hiding: “I kept saying to friends ‘I’ll sort it out, I’ll sort it out’. But I knew I couldn’t.”

In one famous incident, Thorne bet £38,000 on a match involving John Parrott, betting that Parrott would lose after the Liverpudlian informed him that he had lost his personal cue and had to use one supplied by the venue. Much to Thorne’s dismay (not least because he was commentating on the match), Parrott went on to win, plunging Thorne into even deeper financial trouble.

In 2002, drowning in debt, Thorne tried to take his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. Luckily the bottle was only half full and he woke up 36 hours later in the Leicester Royal Infirmary. “I felt awful. But worse than that, I was so embarrassed … I couldn’t even get the suicide right.”

With the tabloids circling, he hired a publicist to spread a story that he had merely had a reaction to a pill, and, after a brief hiatus, he was back gambling.

In June 2014 he grabbed a knife and drove to a hotel where he wrote letters of farewell and apology to family and friends. This time he was saved by his wife, who became alarmed when he did not turn up for a pre-arranged business meeting and tracked him down before he could do himself any damage.

The strain took its toll on Thorne’s health. He put on a lot of weight and in 2010 suffered a mild stroke, for which he was treated in hospital. In May 2015 he declared bankruptcy and the following month was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

That September he suffered another stroke. “As if a crap year couldn’t get worse, had a stroke – life sometimes is a bitch,” he tweeted. In March this year he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

“People think because I’m Willie Thorne, the guy off the TV, I must have loads of money,” he once told an interviewer. “Nothing could be further from the truth … There is nothing left – and I’ve no one to blame but myself.”

Last year he moved to the Costa Blanca in Spain.

By his first wife, Fiona, Willie Thorne had twin sons and a daughter. They survive him along with two stepchildren; he had recently split from his second wife Jill Saxby, a former Miss Great Britain.

Willie Thorne, born March 4 1954, died June 17 2020