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Hurricane's legacy still burns bright a decade after his passing

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Wind of change: Alex Higgins played a key role in making snooker the multi-million pound TV sport it is today

Wind of change: Alex Higgins played a key role in making snooker the multi-million pound TV sport it is today

Wind of change: Alex Higgins played a key role in making snooker the multi-million pound TV sport it is today

Alex Higgins passed away 10 years ago today and it seems fitting that the occasion coincides with the World Championship bizarrely taking place in the middle of the summer.

The Hurricane's great pal and fellow one-time hellraiser Jimmy White was in action in yesterday's qualifiers ahead of the main event starting next Friday at the famous Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, moved back from the usual April-May slot due to the pandemic.

A genius on the table and a troubled soul off it, Higgins was World champion in 1972 and 1982, interspersed with numerous spats with the game's authorities and plenty of bust-ups in his not-so-private life.

He is widely credited with having played a key role in making snooker the multi-million pound TV sport it is today, ironic given that the 61-year-old Belfast legend died penniless in his home city.

Whoever is crowned world champion next month will pocket a cool £500,000 plus endorsements. Higgins collected £400 for the first of his two World titles 48 years ago, becoming, at 22, the youngest ever champion.

In fairness, it is estimated that Higgins racked up nearly £4m during his glittering, if highly controversial, career. But for a man who loved bets and booze - both in a big way - even that sort of money only goes so far.

Higgins is credited with the most brilliant - and outrageous - break in the game's history.

At 15-14 and 59-0 down in the first-to-16-frame 1982 World Championship semi-final against White, he conjured up a magical 69 clearance to clinch the frame before winning the decider and going on to beat Ray Reardon in the final, a match best remembered for an emotional Higgins pleading for his infant daughter Lauren to be passed into his arms.

Higgins' runs-in with the game's authorities and fellow players are the stuff of legend.

The game's greatest player, seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry, revealed last year that he made a point of going to meet Higgins when he knew the end was drawing near.

Emerged

"When I first emerged as a young pro, Alex took me under his wing. But when I started winning tournaments I sort of became his new hate figure, following on from Steve Davis. But I will always remember the kindness Alex showed me in my early days," said Hendry.

Davis won the world title six times but will ironically always be best remembered for the one that got away, the dramatic black-ball final against Higgins' fellow Ulsterman Dennis Taylor in 1985 which drew an audience of 18.5 million on the BBC after midnight.

The Londoner was top dog in the 1980s, keeping Higgins at bay, before Hendry took over that role in the 1990s.

Even Taylor was not immune when Higgins cranked up the rage, threatening to have the Tyrone man shot during a rant in 1990. Taylor graciously plays down the incident. "A storm in a teacup, water under the bridge," as he puts it today.

Cliff Thorburn was often a Higgins hate figure too, the Canadian ending one particular row with a kick to Higgins' groin area.

An estimated 50-plus brushes with the game's authorities were topped by the headbutting of a tournament official in 1986, with a lengthy ban to follow.

Higgins' suspensions, coupled with the onset of time, saw him tumble down the rankings and his latter years were not kind to him.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997, he later moved back to Belfast and continued his career at a more local level.

Higgins played in the 2007 Irish Championship in Dublin, where he had agreed to a one-to-one interview with the Belfast Telegraph.

When he got into an argument with a photographer, claiming he had been disturbed when playing a shot and brandishing the butt of his cue at the startled snapper, it appeared that the interview was in major doubt.

But a short time later, and despite a heavy defeat, Higgins appeared at the appointed time and waxed lyrical about the state of the game for well over an hour, sipping a large vodka and orange in the process.

He was a regular visitor to Down Royal racecourse and on one occasion a band playing in one of the hospitality tents, on spotting Higgins, struck up the famous snooker theme tune much to the delight of guests and Higgins himself.

By this stage of his life Higgins no longer cut the magnetic figure of his pomp and just before his death in 2010 he weighed just six and a half stone, reducing his old foe Thorburn to tears at a legends event at the Crucible.

"He was so frail I just wanted to hug him," said Thorburn.

Despite his Jekyll and Hyde persona, Higgins remained the 'People's Champion' right to the end and as the snooker merry-go-round continues to spin, his legacy still burns bright.

Irish Independent