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Fitting tribute to a snooker legend

"Hurricane Higgins, the quiet man, the shy man -- you'd hardly notice him in a crowd," intoned the plummy BBC narrator as we watched footage of the late Alex Higgins posing moodily at a train station, cigarette in his mouth, snooker cue slung over his shoulder like a movie cowboy's rifle.

It hardly needs pointing out that what we were looking at was a piece of film from a long time ago -- 1970 or '71, I'm guessing -- when Higgins, who died aged 61 in July, had just burst on to the professional snooker scene, but had yet to win the first of his two world titles.

The first of those victories came in 1972, in a gloomy English billiard hall, while a scattering of hardcore snooker enthusiasts looked on from tiered seats cobbled together from planks and beer kegs.

Higgins demolished his friend John Spencer, the man who had urged him to turn professional, and walked away with the £400 prize money. By all accounts, it was a stunning performance.

"It's just a shame there was no telly," said Clive Everton, the veteran snooker commentator and author, in Alex Higgins: The People's Champion.

Telly was very much around when Higgins took his second title, in 1982, beating Ray Reardon at the Crucible in Sheffield. The cameras captured not just a great victory, but also one of sport's most iconic moments: a tearful Higgins, overcome with emotion, calling into the audience for his wife to bring their baby daughter to him.

By then, snooker was big business, and Higgins was its biggest and most controversial star. This splendid documentary recalled the highs and lows of Higgins' career, both between those two historic moments and in the tumultuous years that followed, and it did so without stooping to the kind of hysterical tabloid sensationalism that always followed Higgins around.

Friends (Jimmy White), foes (Steve Davis) and one man, Dennis Taylor, who was friend, then foe (after Higgins, ludicrously, threatened to have him shot in Belfast), then friend again, paid tribute to the most electrifying player the sport has ever had.

Reardon, a man whose twinkling sense of humour and affection for Higgins wasn't always obvious, recalled winning his first world title and finding a young Higgins hovering at his shoulder. "I'm playing you in three months' time -- and I'm gonna thump ya!" Higgins whispered cockily into his ear.

Taylor first played Higgins when the two of them were 18 and was simply amazed at his talent. "It was clear he was a bit special," he said.

Davis, for years Higgins' nemesis and a man who could be forgiven for being less than forgiving towards his old rival, was gracious: "Three words about Alex: great snooker player. That's all that has to be said, really."

But it didn't skirt around its subject's darkest and most self-destructive moments: the punching of one official and the head-butting of another; the embarrassing press conference at which a very drunk Higgins announced his retirement by snarling: "You can shove your snooker up your jacksy."

That earned him a 12-month ban. "That was the finish of him trying to play competitive snooker," said Jimmy White, sadly.

Throat cancer reduced the always wiry Higgins to a wisp of his former self, his teeth destroyed by radiation treatment, but it didn't kill him. He beat the cancer, said his sister Ann -- it was his refusal to look after himself afterwards that finished him off.

The parallels with another Belfast sporting hero, George Best, are obvious. To its great credit, this excellent film refused to play up to them.

STACEY'S STARS

Alex Higgins: The people's champion ****


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