Review: Let Me Tell You About Alex by John Virgo
John Blake, €19.99, hardback
The year was 1972. Alex Higgins had just been crowned World Snooker Champion and his friend John Virgo went to visit him at his digs in Manchester.
Virgo -- himself a snooker player of some repute -- will never forget what he saw. Far from living in the sort of luxury one might expect of a world champion, Higgins was residing in a crummy flat. Hundreds of congratulatory telegraphs were strewn all over the floor and the World Championship trophy was sitting in the sideboard, like an afterthought.
But it was a saucer bearing a small piece of cheese that was left on the ground which attracted Virgo's attention more than anything. Higgins explained that he didn't want the flat's resident mice population to starve.
Such anecdotes pepper John Virgo's affectionate account of life in Alex Higgins's slipstream. "He was one of my best friends," he says, "and I wanted to capture what he was like, warts and all. Every day, people ask me about Alex -- he captured the imagination in a way that no other snooker player, or other sports star ever has."
Today, Virgo is best known as one of the BBC's snooker commentators, but he believes his entire career -- and that of all snooker players since -- owes a great deal to the man from Belfast dubbed 'The Hurricane', whose death last year robbed the sport of its most indelible character.
"He transformed the game thanks to his lightning fast style of playing and also because he was such a character," Virgo says. "He arrived on the scene just as snooker was getting a lease of life thanks to the widespread popularity of colour television in the late 1960s, but I'm convinced that snooker wouldn't have become so big in the 1970s and 1980s if Alex hadn't played. He truly was the people's champion.
"I don't know if there's another sport that owes its popularity to one man like snooker does to Alex. Maybe Seve Ballesteros had that impact on golf when he first came on the scene, but Alex effectively turned snooker from a fringe sport to one with huge, widespread appeal. A lot of people -- myself included -- did very well thanks to him, but not everyone in the game will acknowledge the debt they owe to Alex."
Right from the off, Virgo says, Higgins polarised opinion. He charmed the masses, but many who got close to him could be subjected to a fearsome temper. "Alex could be a very difficult person to be around. He was his own worst enemy, but then that was all part of the personality that he took to the snooker table too. There was a recklessness there, and when you think about it that was a huge part of his appeal. Nothing was ever predictable with Alex and that's why people loved watching him so much. It was the same with John McEnroe -- even those who wouldn't normally watch tennis were glued to their screens. What would he do next?"
Although Virgo paints Higgins in a more flattering light than others might have, Let Me Tell You About Alex doesn't shy away from his dark side. "It wouldn't be honest to write a book that didn't capture that as well," Virgo says. "Everybody knows he had a problem with drink, and I saw that from the beginning, and there were some awful fights, not least with his wife Lynn."
But there were many tender times too. "One of snooker's most enduring memories is when Alex won the World Championship in 1982 after a gap of 10 years. He was incredibly emotional at the end and there's that lovely moment where he embraced Lynn and Lauren (his 18-month-old daughter) and the tears were streaming down his face.
"And he had a real connection with his audience too. Unlike other top sports people, Alex wasn't surrounded by minders. He took his chances in the bars, for instance, where you might find someone who'd spot him and would want to make their name."
Considering his wild lifestyle and unwillingness to properly harness his talent, there was something horribly predictable about Higgins's grim final years which saw him penniless and grappling with illness while living in a caravan.
"He was effectively destitute. The man who had given so much for the sport, only made a fraction of the money that lesser talents achieved. But there was really no one to blame for that but Alex himself. Time and again he lost out on big commercial earnings simply because he would storm out of a meeting in a huff. That devil-may-care attitude would try the patience of even his closest friends, and it was hardly surprising that he made a lot of enemies."
There was a cruel irony to the fact that he died from throat cancer. A 60-a-day smoker, his flamboyance with a cue made his sport an attractive sponsorship opportunity for tobacco companies.
"The simple fact of the matter is that snooker doesn't capture the public's imagination in the way it did in Alex's heyday," Virgo says. "It's lost its characters, and without people like Alex the casual viewer just doesn't want to know. But for those of us who love the game, watching him pot impossible shots or fight back in matches when his back was against the wall are the reasons we will never forget him. He was a one-off."