Friday 28 April 2017

Happy ending to snooker's story of shame

John Higgins overcame many obstacles to reclaim his world title, writes John O'Brien

IN beating Judd Trump to secure his fourth World title at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield last weekend, John Higgins had to overcome more than the brilliant potting and stunning fearlessness the 21-year-old from Bristol brought to the table. More too than the recent death of a father who for close on 20 years had been his mentor and constant companion on the annual trawl around Britain's snooker venues.

That burden on its own would have done for lesser players. But Higgins had much more than that to contend with. A heckler during his semi-final victory over World No 1 Mark Williams had provided a snapshot of a cynical but widespread mood. "How did you swallow £300,000 John?" the man shouted before being led out of the arena. "You're a disgrace to snooker."

At least he had the courage, if that is the appropriate word, to confront Higgins in public. Most of the vilification was channelled through social network vehicles where the tendency was to be less restrained than the Crucible heckler. In those arenas Trump was built up into some kind of white knight fighting the forces of darkness and shame led by Higgins, a representation that was brutally unfair on both players.

Because here was the thing: Higgins' gritty triumph told us little about him that we didn't already know -- that there are more naturally talented players out there, but none superior when it boiled down to the question of character and resolve. Of his accusers, however, it told us plenty. It painted a portrait of a herd mentality utterly willing to bury a player's reputation on the basis of a tabloid sting that was shown to be flimsy and deeply manipulative at best.

A little bit of history is required here. On the morning of the 2010 World Championship final, the News of the World ran a front page story alleging that, at a meeting in Kiev, Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney had agreed to throw a number of frames in return for £300,000. The meeting was an elaborate plot staged by reporters posing as Russian businessmen. Higgins and his manager were being set up by the "fake sheikh" Mahzer Mahmood.

On the surface it looked grim for Higgins. His claim that he had been "spooked" and had merely gone along with the corrupt scheme in order to make a quick escape sounded implausible in the face of video evidence that showed him and Mooney smiling and quaffing champagne, their lucrative deal apparently concluded. There was only one problem with this so-called conclusive evidence, though. It was about as reliable as an Irish financial regulator.

So it boiled down to which side you wanted to believe. A newspaper so desperate for a scoop that it based its case on footage that was significantly edited and in which certain details, however trivial, were shown to have been altered, presumably not to make Higgins look better than he was? Or an independent tribunal which after a four-month investigation and access to the full, unedited video decided that, in relation to match-fixing, Higgins had no case to answer?

It was shocking, therefore, to observe how many remained willing to swallow the newspaper's version of events and condemn Higgins on the basis of things he said for which no context was provided. And while he was found guilty of bringing his sport into disrepute -- mainly for not reporting the incident -- the sad reality for Higgins is that his reputation has suffered more serious and, likely, irreparable damage. In that respect the newspaper struck its target.

The shame was that it detracted somewhat from what was one of the best world championships in many years. As well as Williams and the mesmerising Trump, Higgins' victims had included Ronnie O'Sullivan, inspiring Steve Davis to label him, somewhat controversially, as the "greatest ever."

As for Trump? That snooker had witnessed the flowering of one of the most exciting talents ever, one that might possibly save the game from decline, was a premise that could be forwarded with much greater certainty.

There was a moment last Monday that will live long in the memory. The players had returned for the final session, Higgins leading 13-12, and an electric current shot through the arena that left even hardened Crucible veterans swooning. Trump stood and looked around him, a broad smile creasing his boyish features, a Messi-like innocence in his eyes, as if away from all the nonsense and the cynicism this was where you had to be, the place where all the magic happened.

"I've tried to make the game more popular with younger people," he said magnificently in defeat. "There are a lot of people who don't really watch snooker and have started watching because of me in these last two weeks. So I've got to keep doing my thing and keep a new generation coming through and making kids want to play the game."

Ultimately, the anti-Higgins boorishness couldn't prevent a happy ending. A worthy champion and the promise of a bright future to come. The sport couldn't have asked for a better outcome.

Sunday Indo Sport

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