Monday 18 December 2017

Snooker: Betrayed by the beast within

Eamonn Sweeney

This is a sad story. One of the saddest in sport, because there is so little consolation to be found there. It is one of pretty much unmitigated dysfunction, despair and darkness, the moments of glory soon followed by another plunge into the abyss. Nobody should have had to live such a life.

I'd wager that when most of us heard of Alex Higgins' death the first image which came to mind was not of a frame won from an impossible position or a miracle recovery shot executed with trademark elan. Instead, we were transported back to 1982 in the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield at a moment when things had never been any better for the Hurricane.

Alex Higgins has just beaten Ray Reardon in the world snooker championship final. And he is crying. This was a time, pre-Thirtysomething, pre-Gazza at Italia 90, when you just didn't see men crying in public. But Alex is blubbering, the composure of his face disintegrating under the weight of emotion. He beckons to the crowd, insistently, cajolingly, and his wife Lynn emerges, holding their 18-month-old daughter Lauren to join the new champ as he holds the trophy.

Why is it such an unforgettable moment? Many, many sportsmen have wrapped their family around them at the moment of triumph, it's something of a cliché at this stage. Yet there is something different about the tableau presented by Alex, Lynn and Lauren. It packs an emotional punch which still renders it difficult to watch. These moments are normally reassuring, they awaken in us a comforting feeling of identification. This one doesn't, there's a suggestion of turbulence there which makes it both compelling and disturbing.

Perhaps that's because those tears and that matrimonial summons may be rooted in something other than the usual desire of a successful sportsman to thank his family for their help by letting them share publicly in the moment of triumph. One can only ever guess about the inner emotional states of other people but I think it's likely that the gesture towards Lynn is motivated by a sense of compensation. "Didn't I tell you if you stuck with me, there would be great days?" Higgins seems to be saying, "I know there have been rough times but I told you they'd be worth it. Who else could give you a moment like this one?"

And the tears? There may be as much relief as joy in them. Because for a man who lived life like Alex Higgins did, a major victory was not just proof that he was a great snooker player, it was also proof that things had not gone out of control. He may have felt engulfed by chaos, may have suspected that he was not a particularly good man, but if he could still win a world title, wasn't that proof that he was doing something right and that his life wasn't a mess after all? He cried because he thought the title proved he could make his life OK, that this was the first day of the rest of his life.

The awful truth was that there wasn't much for the Hurricane to be happy about after 1982. Within three years, he was divorced from Lynn. The marriage was gone, and the form deteriorated catastrophically. The headlines he made had nothing to do with what happened on the baize. Instead, there is a sordid catalogue of petty misdemeanour. Alex headbutts an official. Alex punches a press officer. Alex fractures his girlfriend's cheekbone. Alex wallops his girlfriend with a hairdryer. Alex falls 25 feet out of a window. Alex is stabbed by another girlfriend. Alex, covered in blood, is led away by police from a girlfriend's caravan. Alex, on a book tour to promote his autobiography, manhandles a PR woman and calls her a "stupid fucking c**t," in front of a journalist. Alex assaults a 14-year-old boy. Alex insults the late mother of Dennis Taylor and threatens to have his Catholic rival shot by Loyalist paramilitaries. And always, Alex drinks. Alex, basically, puts himself and everyone around him through Hell. It really is the saddest story. George Best, by comparison, lived a life of monastic dignity.

The tragedy of the story is that there was a better Alex Higgins being held prisoner by his brutal alter ego. The jazz historian James Lincoln Collier once wrote that all the goodness hidden in Charlie Parker leaked out through his fingers when he played a solo. Higgins played snooker in the same way Parker played the sax, his jerky nervousness feeding into his performances, enabling him to conjure up flights of inspiration which nobody else could have imagined and reimagine, remake and remodel the form in which he worked. He was a genius. But he was also an addict. And the latter of those always eventually trumps the former and makes it meaningless.

Alex Higgins might have been okay if he had been allowed to stay at a snooker table all his life. The qualities of self-discipline, persistence, patience and intelligence which were so conspicuously absent in the personal realm were there in abundance when he took a cue in his hand. Because the caricature of Higgins as a million miles an hour perpetrator of impossible shots masks the fact that he usually wasn't able to play the game on his own terms. Snooker at the top level simply isn't played like that, major championship games are epics of concentration and strategy.

At his best, Higgins could calm himself sufficiently to hang in there with men lucky enough to have been born with temperaments which made them more naturally suited to big tournament showdowns which have more in common with Test cricket than football matches.

That was why he was still there to make the 69 break when he was 59-0 and 17-16 down in the 1982 semi-final against Jimmy White and why he outlasted that toughest of

competitors, Ray Reardon, to win the last three frames of the subsequent final after they had been level at 15 apiece. It was why he made such a massive contribution to the 1980 decider which he lost 18-16 to Cliff Thorburn in a match which tends to be forgotten now but remains one of the greatest of all-time. Why he won the 1972 world final 37-32 against John Spencer, back in the era when big snooker games lasted as long as War and Peace, and were considerably less interesting.

And why his most satisfying victory of all, when he came from 7-0 down to beat Steve Davis in the 1983 UK Championship final, scotching any idea that the previous year's world title had only come about because of Davis's shock first-round defeat by Tony Knowles.

Those victories required powers of concentration and discipline which most of us wouldn't be able to summon up. In his heart of hearts, their architect must have believed they showed the true Alex Higgins, and that the sorry figure the world increasingly came to know as drink did what drink always does in the end was merely an imposter.

He died on his own. In sheltered housing. With hardly a bob to his name. Near the end, he talked about thoughts of suicide. What stopped him, he said, was the bible. He'd read it as a child and he'd turned back to it in his final years, racked by throat cancer which he battled for over a decade. You'd hope he found something there. Because by the end the bible was all Alex Higgins had left. I told you it was a sad story.

Sunday Independent

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