Sunday 19 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: A heavenly talent with Dante's anger in his head

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

THERE is a corner of Heaven today getting pulled, kicking and screaming, down to the local Jam Pot.

Now you won't be alone if you doubt the possibility of Alex Higgins ever clapping eyes on Saint Peter, let alone getting beyond the padlocked gate.

He led an often sinful life and, to be perfectly honest, wasn't always the most gracious of men. But every mother loved him and, I suspect, the weight of female prayer will probably swing the deal now.

Which means the Almighty better be ready to go to war on house rules. Because Alex will defy no-smoking signs, his language will be coarse, he'll probably drink when he shouldn't and neglect to come down for breakfast when he should. Chances are, he'll break the stipulations on gambling, women and prayer.

And if there's a tie to be worn to dinner, well it's just not going to happen.

Alex's death feels a bit like a line drawn under a glorious era. When he was king, snooker was a book you couldn't put down. The game's main stars had more behavioural issues than the Royles and there wasn't a week went by that they failed to give the tabloids a front-page lead.

Tastes varied from cocaine to women's underwear to vast quantities of alcohol, consumed – in some cases – at the table. And they could be so waspish to one another, they ought really have gone to work in bee-keeper hats. Tuning into The Crucible every April was like watching an episode of ‘Shameless'.

Then again, with Higgins, it was never really snooker we were drawn to. It was a communion of poetry, war, sex – maybe an addiction even. He didn't enter an auditorium, he invaded it. Alex would arrive at the table like a man who was double-parked, his game plan eschewing safety (or even pausing for breath). He played so fast, he was in perpetual danger of striking a still-moving ball. Referees looked in terror of him.

So, you watched this skinny, electric figure go to work noisily, slapping his cue aggressively off the table, murmuring private oaths and – routinely – hosing down enough vodka to knock out a horse. By rights, he shouldn't have been able to stand at the end of an evening session. Yet, Alex could almost levitate.

Where others were deliberate to the point of being mechanical, Higgins had a dysfunctional relationship with the cue ball. His critical break of 69 against Jimmy White in the penultimate frame of the '82 World Championship semi-final maybe caught that genius in microcosm. For he pulled it off without even once appearing to have control of the white.

It was like seeing the British Open won by someone with chronic vertigo. I once requested an interview at Goffs and he looked at me as if I was asking for a date. In fact, briefly, I half expected to take a punch in the face. But it turned out Alex really just wanted to make a point of principle.

The front page of that morning's Irish Independent had carried a photograph of him at the races, with trademark cigarette cupped in hand. It was, according to Alex, an image that depicted him “in a bad light.” This waif-thin man, who'd lain waste to just about every moral code imaginable, refused to be interviewed because we'd just ‘outed' him as a smoker.

Back then, the Irish Masters was just gathering steam and the players were all billeted in the old Green Isle Hotel. One of them told me that his room was directly next to Higgins' and he would be woken at exactly the same time each morning by the sound of vomiting in the next toilet.

Forensic

Everyone knew the obnoxious, unpleasant side to a man who once christened himself “the Cassius Clay of snooker.” Yet, they knew too that he brought something to their sport that flew beyond technical forensic.

Remember, the snooker world Higgins first conquered in '72 pre-dated plump prize-funds and even the faintest curiosity of media. His monetary reward for defeating John Spencer in a final stretching to 12 sessions over six days was a paltry £480. He stayed in an attic room at The Pebbles boarding house, directly opposite the British Legion club where the final took place.

It is said that, during the final, he received a letter from a girl back home in Belfast, declaring him the father of her new baby. The tenor of his life at the time is captured beautifully in Gordon Burn's wonderful book, ‘Pocket Money'. “He will celebrate the title by traveling to Australia, where he will be thrown out of one club for rubbishing a senior player and out of a hotel for demolishing his room,” wrote Burns.

“He will move on to India, where he will be escorted onto a return flight less than 24 hours after arriving, for getting drunk, stripping off and sticking his hand up an old man's dhoti.”

Ten years later, a sports magazine reported that Alex was “lying in a private clinic in Lancashire, incapable of holding down food, moaning that his talent had been thrown down the drain and that he had been exploited, talking of crying himself to sleep in lonely hotel rooms and of the consolation of vodka.”

Four months after that article appeared, he was again champion of the world. No question, when the big money came into snooker, the suits hated having Alex as big box office. He was too unmanageable and unpredictable. He couldn't be trusted to sing politely for the corporate shilling. They saw in him a flawed product. Maybe the rest of us saw a dream.

Personally, I never watched him play a game of snooker that I didn't want him to win. He was beautiful in a rotten way. A Heavenly talent with Dante's anger in his head. So, sleep well Alex, and go easy on the cursing. My dear old mother won't approve.

And she had you down as an angel.

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