Wednesday 22 January 2020

Hurricane swept all before him

With a gift for trouble and a genius for snooker, Alex Higgins will be remembered forever, writes Jerome Reilly

THE Hurricane. It was a sobriquet which reflected both Alex Higgins' flamboyant snooker style and his turbulent private life.

The 61-year-old who was born in Belfast was famed for his speed on the green baize and was, in the view of many, a true genius.

But his antics off the table made the front pages of the tabloids long after he had faded from the sports section.

His heavy drinking and smoking combined with his rapid fire potting and exuberance for the game he first began playing in the jampot club in Sandy Row at the age of 11 quickly endeared him to fans who have always loved a rough diamond.

That appeal was perfectly summed up by the player most people view as Higgins' natural successor, Ronnie O'Sullivan. Asked which of the current roster of players excited him, O'Sullivan commented "There ain't no one. No one's coming through who you watch and get a buzz off. They don't excite you like Alex Higgins -- you watched him and it was like watching a thriller. But you watch Steve Davis or Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, amazing players, the greatest players ever to have picked a cue up, and you feel like you're watching Countdown. I like Countdown, but I'm not on the edge of my seat. When you watched Higgins, anything could happen and snooker needs that. It's like Usain Bolt, anything can happen, Tiger Woods, Messi exactly the same. They've got that something about them."

Steve Davis considered Higgins "the one true genius snooker has produced".

As well as winning the world championships in 1972 and 1982, Higgins also won numerous other tournaments over the years.

He claimed his world champion's crown at his first attempt, aged 22, and took it back again 10 years later from Ray Reardon at the Crucible in Sheffield.

The scenes of him then, weeping in triumph, one arm round wife Lynn and the other cradling his baby daughter, are among the most famous and moving images in snooker history.

But Higgins was also a deeply troubled man with a hair-trigger temper. At the UK Championships in 1986 he headbutted a referee which brought him a hefty £12,000 fine and he was banned from five tournaments.

There were some unsavoury incidents of boorish behaviour. They included the night he was caught urinating in a flower pot in Sheffield. On a tour to India his exhibition was abruptly cut short when he allegedly put his hand up an old man's dhoti.

Then there was an ugly incident involving Denis Taylor. The two Ulstermen were representing the North at the 1990 World Cup event when at a team meeting Higgins allegedly threatened to have Taylor killed.

Taylor recalled later: "He said: 'I am from the Shankill, and you are from Coalisland. Next time you are in Northern Ireland, I will have you shot.'"

Higgins denied the charge claiming, "It's bollocks. What I said to him was: 'If I had a gun I would shoot you.'"

Most of those incidents were fuelled by alcohol and they led him to be summoned to more disciplinary hearings of his sport's governing body than all his fellow professionals combined.

Higgins' life was a chaotic whirlwind of drink, womanising, fights, illness and debt.

He earned millions in the years when snooker was a national obsession both here and in Britain, but blew it all in a long and turbulent descent into drink and homelessness.

His career disintegrated in a blizzard of fines, bans and court cases and he was left penniless after losing his luxury house in Cheshire to the taxman. He was divorced by two wives, Cara and Lynn, and was at one stage stopped from seeing his two children, Lauren and Jordan.

Despite this, Higgins was the father of modern snooker and the man who made it into a popular TV sport. The professionals who came after him can thank Alex Higgins for the millionaire lifestyles they now enjoy playing the game that was once a hallmark of a mis-spent youth.

When Higgins won his first world championship at his first attempt in 1972, he transformed the game overnight. Comparisons with another Belfast wunderkind, Georgie Best, were inevitable. Both were prone to press the self-destruct button at anytime and both, in the view of many, squandered outrageous talent. He played his last match at the Crucible, the Sheffield theatre which plays host to the World Championships, in 1990. He was eliminated in the first round after allegedly downing some 27 vodkas.

But most fans would prefer to remember Higgins in his pomp. Despite their run-ins Denis Taylor remained an ardent admirer of Higgins recalling one frame in particular. It occurred in the semi-final of the World Championships in 1982 when Higgins was playing Jimmy White. Trailing 59-0 in the penultimate frame, Higgins was one pot away from losing the match when he came to the table. Although he was never truly in position until he reached the colours, Higgins pulled off an array of outrageous pots to clear the table with a break of 69, going on to win the match.

It was, according to Taylor, the finest piece of snooker he had ever seen.

Sunday Independent

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