THIS SPORTING LIFE After a tough apprenticeship in Belfast snooker halls, Alex Higgins was ready to take on the world. MYLES MCWEENEY looks at the man behind the cue
During his turbulent and often troubled career Alex Higgins is reckoned to have earned and lost more than ?5m. As one of his most fervent fans, Oasis star Liam Gallagher, said of him, with somewhat misplaced admiration "What about that Alex Higgins? All that money and fame and he's blown the lot. What a way to go. I hope that happens to me. One big blow-out."
Love, loathe or pity the shambling physical and mental wreck his chaotic lifestyle, gambling habits and alcoholism has reduced him to today, no one can deny that Alex Higgins's impact on the world of snooker has been nothing but extraordinary.
Belfast had four billiard halls by the time Higgins was tall enough to visit one. Snooker, before he revolutionised the game, was a sport like boxing, appealing to both extremes of the social spectrum while leaving the middle classes cold. Stately homes had billiard rooms and working-class districts had snooker halls.
The professional and middle classes, however, thought, like 19th-century economist Herbert Spencer, that "dexterity at games of skill" were a sign of a "misspent youth." A loner in school, Alex became obsessed by the game at the age of 11, scoring games for older players in a local snooker hall nicknamed 'the Jampot'. Despairing wives called it 'the glue pot'.
"I was in there morning, noon and night. You'd go in there with your pocket money, two and sixpence or 50p or whatever it was, and lose it. I was a kid, but the older players would take my money, no qualms. You might be boiling inside, waiting to play and there you'd be, scribbling the scores on the back of a cigarette packet. Still, it was a good way to learn. I was watching their mistakes. I was taking it all in."
By the time he was about 13 or 14 he could beat everyone in the hall. The older men hated handing over their hard-earned money to a scrawny kid and Higgins has always claimed that his 'Hurricane' style of play derived from the need to avoid the violent impulses of the men he was beating with accomplished ease. "I'd be around the table and down the stairs before the balls stopped rolling," he recalled.
At 17 he won the Northern Ireland and All Ireland snooker championships. His fast, fluent and all-action style of play at the table was being noted with some justifiable concern by the grandees in the then closed ranks of the professional game.
But they had a few years grace before Alex would turn their cosy world upside down. Immersed in a gambling culture his father introduced him to horse racing and the bookie's shop and determined to become a jockey like his hero, Lester Piggott, Alex became a stable lad at Eddie Reavey's stables in Berkshire. However, "shovelling out horseshit at 6am on a cold morning", was not part of Alex's life plan. As the Belfast-born trainer's wife Jocelyn put it, "The problem was that Alex's ambition was to clean out the local bookie and not the stables."
Somehow, though, he stuck it out for two years before deciding hustling at snooker would give him a better lifestyle. And it would have had he not handed over just about every penny he won on the table to bookies and the barkeepers. In later years he once lost £13,000 in a single day at Wolverhampton races. Like all heavy gamblers, he claimed he won it back the next day.
Alex Higgins achieved national prominence when he won the World Championship in 1972, beating the holder John Spenser 37 frames to 32. He had arrived, the youngest ever champion at just 22, but wasn't very welcome as he'd beaten all the cream of the professional game on the way to the title. It was as if he'd gatecrashed a wedding, goosed one of the bridesmaids, molested the groom's mother and succeeded in taking the bride home.
Over the next few years his growing fame ensured Higgins was asked everywhere to play lucrative exhibitions. On a lengthy visit to Australia in 1974 he fell head over heels for Cara Hasler, the daughter of a prominent Australian racehorse trainer. The couple got married in April 1975 in Sydney. Higgins later said Cara had "talked him" into marrying her and "I hadn't the heart to do a runner."
Even though the couple had a child, Christel, the relationship was not happy. Higgins referred to it as his "long distance international affair," and a friend of Cara's says that he's only seen the child once and has never acknowledged her existence in either of his authorised autobiographies. When he appeared on This is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews in 1980, no mention was made of Cara or Christel Higgins even though his two-month-old daughter by his second wife, Lynn, was given a starring role in the show.
Among the stars who paraded that night on This is Your Life were Suzi Quatro, DJ Dave Lee Travis and Dickie Henderson, as well as snooker players Jackie Rea, John Virgo and Steve Davis, the new kid on snooker's block who terrified Higgins. Actor Oliver Reed made a pre-recorded appearance taking off a very drunk Alex playing snooker.
Reed and Higgins had been close if intensely competitive friends since the early 1970s. A typical couple of days for them would begin in the bar Ollie had in his house, then a few games of snooker for money and then arm-wrestling or one-arm push-ups or whatever they could think of to play for money or a forfeit. They were also prodigious drinkers.
One weekend, having drunk the house dry, Reed poured a bottle of his wife's Giorgio perfume into a glass and dared Alex to drink it. Naturally, he obliged and was violently ill for two days. When he had recovered he made the film star a cocktail of creme de menthe and Fairy Liquid which left Reed burping bubbles for a week.
Although Higgins adored his daughter Lauren, his lifestyle did not make for a happy marriage. A typical day between tournaments would involve a couple of pints of Guinness before noon and a half-dozen vodka-oranges in the bar while studying the racing papers with the unwavering application of a tax lawyer looking for a loophole. Then he would walk or be driven by a friend to the bookies where he would cause mayhem by arguing about the odds. If anyone looked crooked at him, his mantra was, "Do you know who I am?". It used to drive him crazy when the manager would ask the rest of the shop, "We've got a fella here who doesn't know who he is, anybody else got a clue?" He had no time for practice, and his game was falling apart.
But when Alex Higgins had his back against the wall, sometimes something amazing happened. He had an extraordinary knack of rescuing games from impossible positions and so it was in 1982 when against all the odds he slaughtered Jimmy White in the semi-finals of the World Championships in the Crucible, setting up a showdown with Ray Reardon, the six times champion.
It was pure Hollywood. Twitching, grimacing, jigging, biting his nails to the quick and chain-smoking, Alex Higgins traded the cool and collected Reardon frame for frame until he edged ahead 17-15, needing just one frame to win. Ever the showman, Higgins kept his best play for the end. Somehow, from an unpromising position he constructed an incredible break first 30 points and then 60 and then 78. At 100 the crowd in the Crucible exploded Alex Higgins couldn't lose and everyone knew it.
Alex played to the gallery and hit an extraordinary 135-point break before turning to his vanquished opponent and embracing him. Anyone of the 900-strong audience in the Crucible or the 14 million television viewers who saw that win will never forget it. Physically and emotionally shattered by the strain, Alex, tears pouring down his sallow and sunken cheeks, ignored the sponsor trying to give him his trophy and a cheque for £25,000, held his arms out to his wife in the crowd and mouthed the words, "Bring my baby, bring me my baby." It was a hugely emotional moment.
The trouble was that Alex rapidly became even more tired and emotional at the celebration party and Lynn left with little Lauren, accusing her husband of being hopelessly drunk. Others suggest that he was coked out of his mind. Whichever it was, Lynn and her baby were on a plane to Portugal the next day.
That was the high point of Higgins' snooker career. The battles left ahead of him were with alcohol abuse, gambling and the authorities in the shape of both snooker's ruling body and the police. Lynn left him, he was put into financial administration, one step away from bankruptcy, and he got cancer of the throat.
His life was in free fall, and it's been a painful fall from grace to watch. He now lives on charity and handouts. And for all the trouble he's caused, many people still admire the impact he has had on snooker. He brought colour, excitement and, most importantly, big sponsorship money into what was a staid sport. He's also inspired many of today's top players, including the also troubled Jimmy White, Scotland's Stephen Hendry and our own Ken Doherty. In fact, just days after he took the world title in 1997 Ken Doherty, who owned a part share with footballer Niall Quinn in a racehorse called Hopping Higgins named after his performance in the 1988 Benson and Hedges tournament when he limped around the table having fallen out of a window announced he would hold a benefit for Alex Higgins.
"It's important we lift him up again," the laid-back Dubliner said. "He's the man who made a fortune for the rest of us." In June that year Higgins appeared in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast before a capacity crowd of 2,300, played fantastic snooker, only going down 5-4 to Doherty. He received a much-needed £10,000.
The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins by Bill Borrows. Atlantic Books stg£16.99.