Sometimes in sport, a player comes along whose story you could not make up- one whose career follows a very different path to the norm, and yet still makes it to the top echelon of their game. Cliff Wilson was such a player. It was not, however, just his back story that made Cliff Wilson’s relatively short career memorable- it was the free-spirited and brilliant way he played the game. If I knew Cliff was going to be on TV, I would cancel all other engagements, as I knew I would see something amazing, win or lose- and I think I also realised that he was not likely to be around for too long.
Cliff’s snooker story started in Tredegar in South Wales in the 1950’s. Snooker did not have a big professional circuit in those days, but in Tredegar they had two young amateurs who were as good as anyone in the country- Cliff and a certain Ray Reardon. Cliff was based at the gas-lit Lucania Billiard Hall, whereas Reardon played at the slightly more up-market Miners’ Institute. Each had plenty of supporters, and when they played it was always a big match. Reardon tended to win in the Welsh amateur championship, whilst Cliff generally emerged victorious in the Welsh qualifier for the English Amateur championships. These days, they would both have turned pro and enjoyed lucrative careers, but in the mid-50’s there was no such option. Cliff displayed a dynamic, fast-potting style which could have made him a legend and helped to popularise the game, but instead, a combination of factors pushed him away from snooker. Reardon moved away from the area as his family left for England. This, combined with the death of Cliff’s father, and the fact that he was newly-married, led to a change in Cliff’s priorities. At the age of 23 he put his cue away for 15 years.
Whilst he was away from the game, Cliff worked in the steel industry. His health was gradually worsening, and in later years he would have ongoing issues with knee, back and hip, as well as heart trouble and awful eyesight. Nonetheless, in the 1970s Cliff started to play again. His enthusiasm returned, and by 1978 he was good enough to win the World Amateur Championship. He finally turned professional the following year, aged 45. This was certainly not the same brilliant youngster who had entertained the people of Tredegar in the 1950s. His eyes were causing him all sorts of problems. He tried playing with an eye-patch, and used various types of glasses. The bright TV lighting made it very difficult for him to see the balls. He was also overweight and looked older than his years. He had had to change his technique to reflect his physical capabilities. All of this, at first sight, made you think that he was going to be a cautious, negative player. It took only a few minutes for you to realise how wrong that was!
There is unfortunately not too much video of Cliff on YouTube. What little there is does not portray how good he was. First of all, he was a very fast player still. Although he would have struggled to beat Bill Werbeniuk (younger readers may need to look Bill up, but a fairly large man!) in a foot race, he wasted no time in playing his shots. Secondly, he was a great potter- Neal Foulds has said that Cliff was the greatest potter he had seen when he was playing professionally in the 1980s. But there were other players who were quick and potted well: Cliff was different because he was almost completely fearless. If you ever watch snooker either live or on TV, you’ll realise that when you are watching a frame, the first question you ask yourself is: ‘Is there a ball they can pot?’ The second question, which the commentators will pontificate upon, is: ‘’Should they take the risk?’ Modern snooker players normally carry out a kind of cost-benefit analysis before they play a shot. Cliff never seemed to do this. Once he had theorised that a ball was pottable, however unlikely this might appear, no further questions were needed- he would inevitably attempt to prove his theory immediately! If there was a double on, he would go for it. However fine a cut-shot might appear, as long as the angle was over 90 degrees, he would attempt it- whatever the situation. A re-spotted black simply gave Cliff the opportunity to play more unlikely-looking shots until he either won or left an easy pot.
Why was Cliff able to play this way? Clearly he did want to win, but he stated very clearly that he regarded snooker as a game, not a sport, and that it should be enjoyed rather than taken too seriously. He did have success, breaking into the top 16 in 1988/9, and winning the World Seniors Championship in 1991. The weakness of the way he played was that he missed a lot of ‘routine’ pots- but then again he made more unbelievable shots than anyone before or since. The joy of watching him was that you would find yourself (normally more than once) saying: ‘Surely he won’t go for that?!’ He would then proceed to go for it, and often make it! Knowing Cliff’s story, and his health background, made it all the sweeter when he did beat some dour young professional. He played for enjoyment: he knew his professional career would probably be short: it was impossible not to want him to win, or to take your eyes off the game while he was playing.
Cliff was a likeable man- an affable, rotund figure, whom you could imagine as an old Welsh uncle regaling you with stories of his misspent youth. He said that by the time he turned professional, his eyes were so bad that he couldn’t see the far end of the table- he claimed that a good memory was what enabled him to play! Whatever the truth of this, his eyes were undoubtedly very poor, which makes the precision of some of his more ambitious shots all the more remarkable!
By 1994, Cliff’s health was deteriorating further, although he was still playing tournaments when he could. He died, aged 60, in May of that year. Snooker had lost its greatest entertainer.
Is there anything we can learn from Cliff in terms of sport psychology? His is a very unusual story, so few people will ever find themselves in a similar position. Nonetheless, he made more near-impossible shots than anyone I have ever seen, and had more success as a professional than many who turn pro 25 years younger, don’t have 15 years out of the game, and, indeed, can see the other end of the table! Of course he had natural ability, and he could be very careless with less difficult shots, but the real key point for me is that he played without fear. Despite all the disadvantages he was working under, Cliff was not afraid to take chances and was not afraid to lose- and often this enabled him to win. Learning to play with less fear can help many sportspeople, and this is where sport psychology can help.