Alex Higgins: Hurricane who blew the game wide open

IT WAS just another Saturday of humdrum summer sport. A few football friendlies, grand prix qualifying, the latest transfer gossip, cricket matches aplenty and golf tournaments reaching the end of their penultimate day.

Then at about 5.30pm, a paper boy in Belfast voiced his concerns about the welfare of one of his frail and prematurely elderly clients. Police and ambulances raced to a flat in the city, and shortly afterwards the dread news emerged.

Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins was dead. He was 61. For a few seconds, the sporting universe stood still.

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Everyone knew it was coming. Those awful pictures of his withered face, toothless skull-like grin and wasted hands told the story of advanced cancer winning its way to dusty death. Yet still the news was a visceral shock, a moment when sporting practitioners and public alike caught their breaths and felt emotion for someone we never knew personally, but we felt we knew intimately.

Here was the first true superstar of snooker passing on, the final black potted in a game of life lived stupendously, and quite madly and badly at times.

For a generation, it is as if part of ourselves has gone. We who crowded round televisions to see the wonders of Pot Black with balls in real living colour will feel bereft this morning. Younger people can go to Youtube, but it won't even start to convey the magnificence, and the lunacy, of Higgins.

Just as there were those who worshipped George Best for his legend of extraordinary skill and precipitous decline, so there were millions for whom Hurricane Higgins was the man who transformed snooker and their viewing habits, though watching Higgins' fall was never anything but painful as he never had the charm and looks of Best.

Yet he was a massive figure in sport, for he made snooker watchable, and in the process created a demon for himself called celebrity, which duly arrived in headlines that dominated the front pages and told of his latest drunken outrage.

Like his fellow Belfast man Best, at first Higgins seemed comfortable with the bright lights but in truth he was a painfully shy man who eventually needed that most insidious of crutches – alcohol – to function in public.

There will be many obituaries today which will ponder on Higgins' long fall from grace, and this one is no different because you have to tell the whole story of his life. But for a few moments at least, let us ponder the transcendent genius that effectively created the modern snooker world.

Trying to tell someone what Higgins was like at the table is like attempting to say why Best, or Pele, or Muhammad Ali was so great. Like them we can see the pictures, but you cannot explain the sheer buzz, the electric atmosphere that crackled even in the practice rooms when Higgins strolled forward, chalking his cue and checking the balls, playing out the next 20 shots in his mind with the dexterity of a chess grand master.

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Then he would bend over and zip, zap and zoom – ball after ball would crack into a pocket, or else he would craft a deliciously slow drop to place the white bang in line for the next shot.

It was mesmeric stuff. You could not take your eyes off him as he compiled break after break, and it was all the product of the greatest natural talent snooker has ever seen, save perhaps for Rocket Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Steve Davis was boring, our own Golden Bairn, Stephen Hendry, was unsmilingly flawless, Cliff Thorburn was the grinder, Terry Griffiths was just too damn slow. Higgins was there first and foremost, blasting opponents off the table, and that, and not the pernicious headlines, is why he is a legend.

He was not the best of all time, but with his blend of skill and showmanship, he was the first to make his sport a national obsession, and the pictures of him in tears after winning his second world title in 1982 are as iconic as any in sport.

That he only won two world titles is a mystery, because for most of the 1970s and early 1980s he was the most brilliant player in the world.

He had already started to hit the bottle, however, and the failed marriages and the battles with officialdom, not to mention the threat to have his fellow Ulsterman Dennis Taylor shot, all followed as he jumped into the spirit bottle and found, like so many, that it is impossible to squeeze back out once you're past the neck and drowning in the booze.

Former player turned commentator John Virgo, speaking in most moving terms on TALKsport shortly after the announcement that Higgins had died, articulated what most followers of the sport will feel today.

"I used to practise with him a lot and I know that the word genius is used too much," said Virgo, "but I have never seen a sportsman with that much skill. The game really started in 1969 with Pot Black, but in 1970, along came Alex Higgins and the game took off.

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"When he got out of his seat he was going to his stage, he was going to perform, and it takes a lot of courage to do that, to have that much belief in yourself.

"He did split opinion, there were people who thought he represented a part of snooker that was unacceptable, so not everyone will think he was the greatest thing that happened to the game. But without him there would not have been the game, and there would certainly not have been the money in the game."

The cancer that killed Higgins started in his throat, not the liver as some people presumed – perhaps his death was caused by smoking free cartons of a sponsor's product.

It was a prolonged and painful way to go. Like so much in Higgins' life, he sowed the wind and reaped the hurricane.

But he was, and is, unforgettable.

Davis pays tribute to the maverick who inspired him

Steve Davis has led the tributes to Alex Higgins after the two-time world champion died after a long battle with cancer. Higgins, the 1972 and 1982 champion, was a hugely popular figure with fans of the game and Davis, himself a six-time world champion, believes it was the Northern Irishman's competitive nature that so endeared him to the public.

Speaking to Sky Sports News, Davis said: "I only knew him professionally not personally, but as a player he had so much fascination for the crowd and fans that watched him because he was such a competitive animal, and you always knew how he was feeling.

"In a game that is reserved and we wear bow ties and suits you could read what Alex Higgins was thinking. He had that magnetism that is rare in sport and he was demonstrative around the table. He drew people who would not necessarily have watched snooker to the game.

"Ray Reardon and John Spencer were great champions of the 70s but the person who dragged the game further was Alex Higgins. He use to wear this awful garb, he wore white trousers and a tank top for the World Championship and the authorities were always trying to pin him down to wear a bow tie but he always took it off. He would even bring bottles of champagne in for the board. He had that cheek in him.

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"It caused problems within the game, upsetting all and sundry at an official level and the crowd loved him for it. He was a genius and along with Ronnie (O'Sullivan) and Jimmy (White), they are the three players who have had more shots that they could play. My memories are of what a clever player on a snooker table he was. He was a player I had so many battles with, it was a pleasure to play against the man."

Davis also said his favourite memory of Higgins, nicknamed 'Hurricane' for his playing style, would be the break he made to win the deciding frame of the 1982 World Championship semi-final against Jimmy White. Trailing 59-0, Higgins produced an astonishing break of 69 where he was rarely able to find ideal position to seal a place in the final, which he went on to win.

"To this day he has the accolade of the most amazing clearance against Jimmy White to salvage the semi-final in 1982," said Davis.

"In that clearance you could see the skill of the man and the bottle he had."

Ken Smith.

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