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Eamon Carr: As talented as Hendrix or Pele, but darkness lurked below the surface

Since I heard the wretched news that Alex Higgins had died, one question has been bothering me. What was it about Welsh snooker player Ray Reardon that infuriated the Hurricane so much? I'll tell you why I fret in a minute.

One thing I know for sure is that Higgins, the self-confessed bad boy of snooker, became the much-loved People's Champion in the 1970s. A passionate man of immense skill and drama who, when he kicked the sport into the TV ratings, made millions for people at the expense of signing his own death warrant.

His second World Cup title victory in 1982, when he clutched his wife and baby daughter and broke down in tears, was the high point of both his life and the life of snooker.

We all know the handy thumbnail sketch of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins. The kid from the Shankill Road who wanted to be a jockey but went on to blaze a trail across the green baize before torching his reputation, fortune and health in a conflagration of excess, disillusionment and bad grace.

When Higgins boasted, "Nobody's as fast as me. Nobody's as attractive as me to watch. I'm the Cassius Clay of snooker. I'm phenomenal, baby," he was damn right. He had a natural gift and he knew it.

Higgins loved to play. Loved to express himself with the cue. His biggest thrill was to play himself out of an impossible situation in a match. He did the unexpected, usually at lightning speed, shocked his opponents and dazzled his supporters.

It was a two-way street.

The spectators loved Alex. They loved the underdog runt who'd fight back and, maybe, win gloriously. And Alex? Well, he just loved to put on a show for the fans.

He was an artist. A skilled mastercraftsman. As talented in his field as Caravaggio, Jimi Hendrix or Pele.

Like them, he was also a spectacular showman.

Snooker had long been a smoky backroom sport. Associated with shady characters and kids who'd bunked off school. In some circles, it had a dissolute glamour.

When snooker hit colour TV with Pot Black at the end of the Swinging Sixties, the organisers planned to bring the game up-market and insisted on the players wearing evening-dress. The marketing men wanted a clean-cut product to push.

As Alex got into his stride, he became a bogeyman to the sport's authorities.

I mean, he had himself a doctor's cert (!) to prove he didn't have to wear a tie.

No wonder Liam Gallagher of Oasis reckons he's a perfect role model. Alex was the anti-hero. The outlaw with a heart of gold.

Vodka

He became the youngest player to win the World Championship at 22 in 1972. After a tempestuous decade he won it for the second time in 1982. Soon after that historic win, a mutual friend, PR guru Mike O'Hare, invited me along to meet Alex.

When he'd checked into the hotel the previous evening, the concierge asked Alex if he'd like some help with his bags. Alex had scowled and picked up a duty free carrier bag that rattled with vodka bottles. That was the extent of his luggage.

It was around then that he asked me to join the musicians he had jamming at his mansion.

"We're going to be on Top of The Pops," Alex enthused.

"Sure," said I. "I'll play the drums." But Alex already had a drummer. His friend and neighbour Cozy Powell, the heavy rock superstar who'd had a solo hit with Dance With The Devil.

Alex was a mercurial character. And tales of his explosive temper abound.

But I only ever knew him to be alright. A bit of a wildman but essentially okay.

Sure, from 1982 onwards you rarely heard anything but lurid stories about him.

Marriage separation, suicide attempts, violent outbursts, drug scandals, bannings and health scares as his career spiralled downwards into a giant black hole that eventually saw him as a human wreck scuffling about in backstreet snooker halls playing all-comers for a tenner.

But I'll never forget the day in 1982 when Alex walked into a room and found me watching a video tape of his title-winning match against Ray Reardon, the Dracula-like figure who'd been his Nemesis over the years.

I said something about a shot Alex had played and then experienced a truly remarkable thing.

Shark

Higgins, the crazy party animal, focused on the screen and engaged me in a personalised running commentary about how he played each shot.

I wish I could have taped the conversation because Alex was professorial, in the zone, a proper champion with precise recall of his objectives. This was Higgins the World Champion. Engaging. Lucid. Competitive. Charming. Entertaining. I was in the presence of snooker greatness.

But I also knew that something dark lurked, shark-like, beneath the surface.

When I mumbled something consolatory about his vanquished opponent, Ray Reardon, Alex let rip with a torrent of insults about the player who'd once been a policeman.

There was no love lost between them. The grudge was personal.

And it was obvious then that Alex Higgins played for keeps.


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