Killing time while waiting for John Higgins, I’m watching the five best shots from his last match on my phone. The pick of them is a thwack from the far end of the table which brings two reds into play. The reds had been skulking by the right-hand cushion like they were shilpit characters from snooker halls of the past, shuffling around in the back lane, fags stuck to bottom lips and very possibly up to no good.
What is Higgins doing, though, but hanging round York’s Barbican, venue for the Betway UK Championship? He doesn’t have a game today, or the day after. And yet here he is, cue in its box, and dressed down in chinos, trainers and a sweat-top with a big zippered pocket at the back which may or may not contain a complete set of balls.
He explains that he might be hitting a few frames with one of the tournament’s Chinese players. If Zhou Yuelong isn’t around then he’ll play on his own. Like Zhou’s countrymen in York this week, the 18-year-old has been slightly in awe of the four-times world champion. “Not wanting to blow my own trumpet,” says Higgins, but they keep coming up to me and asking: ‘How did you do that?’”
How did he do that? The question could be asked about the 41-year-old Higgins’ current sparkling form. His winnings for November, scooping the China Championship and the Champion of Champions, totalled £350,000. In 2010, emerging from a ban from the sport, he gave himself five more years. Yet here he is in 2016 extending his stay in some style, with next year’s 25th anniversary as a pro on the near horizon.
“My game couldn’t be better right now,” he says when he climbed into a quiet attic room in the Barbican. “I don’t know the secret but maybe it’s because I’m happy in life. The family’s growing up good. Everything’s good.”
Family is important to Higgins. They stood by him when others didn’t after he ended up in the middle of snooker’s biggest match-fixing scandal. The Wizard of Wishaw seemed to have been denuded of his powers in far-off Kiev as a News of the World sting claimed frames would be thrown which was enough for Steve Davis to gravely intone about the sport suffering its “darkest day”. But Higgins, who was lured to the Ukraine by his then manager Pat Mooney, the latter having fallen for the tabloid’s entrapment, was cleared of the most serious charges. His character was exonerated in striking detail by the chairman of the disciplinary hearing, although his naivety would cost him six months’ absence from the tables and a £75,000 fine.
Higgins was unsure about doing this interview for fear of the events of 2010 being dredged up yet again but there seems a valid reason for going back there. “Now that the perpetrator is enjoying himself at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, you mean,” he says, referring to undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood having been jailed for 15 months after being found guilty of tampering with court evidence.
Notorious for his “Fake Sheikh” alter-ego, Mahmood dressed up as a wealthy Gulf Arab to lure famous folk into indiscretions and land a string of scoops with other victims, including the Countess of Wessex, Sven-Goran Eriksson and various Pakistani cricketers. How did Higgins feel on learning of his downfall? “I must admit I had a smile on my face,” he says. “I’ve tried to put what happened behind me and move on. There will come a time when I’ll say my piece about it but just not yet.”
Will he write a book? “Maybe. I’ve had offers.” He says his expert lawyers have tried to contact him while he’s been racking up the victories. Might they have a damages action in mind similar to the one now being sought by another of Mahmood’s victims, the Duchess of York? “Perhaps, and I will speak to them, but right now I’m just trying to win some snooker matches.”
Six years ago he said he thought the allegations, even though they proved unfounded, would follow him to the grave. Is he less burdened by them now? “Well, if I’d kept thinking about what happened I would have driven myself insane.” Has he ever bumped into Mooney? “No,” he adds firmly. “Most of the people in snooker have always been pretty good and a lot of the boys stood by me. Some didn’t but I’m not one to hold grudges. Life’s too short. I did a lot of soul-searching during the ban. I decided I wasn’t going to let this eat away at me.”
Okay, let’s move on. Higgins tells me about his sons, Pierce and Oliver, who he was unsure about having follow him into snooker, possibly because the game spirited him away before he could sit his school exams. “Pierce, who’s 15, plays on the table we have at home in Bothwell, although that’s usually to dodge the household chores his mother has set him, but interestingly both boys have got into acting.
“They were in the  Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, Pierce as a golfer and Oliver as a – wait for it – Tunnock’s Teacake. I know the ceremony was quite camp and got a bit of a slagging but it was mad and Scottish and that was okay, wasn’t it? Pierce, bless him, took a swing of his club and fell over. My wife, Denise, and I were in the stand at Celtic Park and a billion people were watching on TV, including some of his mates who were on holiday and wound him up with texts. He was a bit mortified but he got over it. I told him I’d never have had the guts to do what they did. I’d have been petrified. My boys are much braver than me.”
It’s hard enough for Higgins having to walk to the snooker table to the beat of his favourite song, a gimmick borrowed from darts and one of many to attempt to jazz up his sport. “It’s all right for darts players. They can have a few beers before they go on and that might encourage them to do a wee dance. Big Bill Werbeniuk maybe had a couple of pints before playing and the same with Alex Higgins, but no one does that in snooker anymore.”
When Higgins was ten years old, the same age as Oliver the Teacake, he was discovering snooker. His father, John Snr, home from the oil rigs, had a favourite howff where there was a table. When Higgins was 13, the same age as the golfing Pierce, he was starting to outgrow Wishaw’s snooker possibilities. “So Dad took me to the Masters club in Dennistoun and asked if I could do odd jobs in return for being allowed to practice. I restocked the bar and brushed and ironed the 30 tables and got to play with Alan McManus, who was turning pro.”
Higgins talks a lot about his father and how his words have carried him through this snooker life. “It was the World Under-16s Championships and the headmistress at St Aidan’s High in Wishaw wasn’t going to let me off school. ‘Aye that’ll be right,’ said Dad, ‘my boy’s only going to get one chance in life. He’s going.’ When I won – the prize-money was £5,000 – the headmistress was delighted when the Daily Record came to take my photograph.”
John Snr was his son’s biggest fan but lost his fight with cancer just before Higgins claimed his fourth world crown. At the time Higgins was dreadfully worried that the match-fixing controversy had hastened the end for his father. At Sheffield’s Crucible that spring he walked on to John Snr’s favourite song, Needles and Pins by The Searchers and, for once, wasn’t self-conscious. “It was a hugely emotional time. I was grieving but I was putting everything into my snooker, as I had done since the end of the ban, and I think that flattened me.” For the next two years he couldn’t recover his form. “But,” he adds, “I needed to win that championship for Dad.
“He had an interesting life. He used to say that Tommy Gemmell couldn’t get in his football team! Dad was captain of the North Lanarkshire Select when it was full of good boys from Craigneuk, including Joe and Gerry Baker. He got a trial with Motherwell and Tommy said to my old man: ‘Can I carry your boots down to Fir Park?’
“To Dad, Tommy was ‘Hamper Boy’. I’m a big Celtic fan and, when we were heading to Seville for the Uefa Cup final, the Lisbon Lions were at the airport and I got talking to big John Hughes, introducing Dad to him. Dad said: ‘Where’s Gemmell? Where’s Hamper Boy?’ Tommy got called that the whole trip. He wasn’t too chuffed!”
“Dad played left-half for Motherwell’s reserves. In those days you made more money from a good trade than football and he was an electrician. That took him to London after he married my mum and then on to New York. They found the Big Apple a bit quiet after London – this was the Swingin’ Sixties – although I dare say it was busier than Craigneuk. They might have stayed if Dad hadn’t got deported. So who knows, I could have ended up a pitcher for the Yankees instead.”
Higgins has made a good living from snooker but where does the sport find itself right now? He’s always amused by these questions for, while it’s true that 18.5 million Brits may never again tune in for a match as they did for Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis to become world champ in 1985, the worldwide audience for the last final topped 300 million. Nevertheless, Ronnie O’Sullivan has just likened snooker to a car-boot sale – a “nothing sport”.
“Ronnie can’t help himself, can he?” says Higgins. “I can’t slate snooker given the money I’ve just made but we’ve always been behind the likes of Formula 1 and golf. He’s got a point, though, when he complains about how little snooker figures in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. We’ll be lucky if we get ten seconds.” Some might argue that personalities are lacking compared with the 18.5 million heyday. “Ronnie’s the only one who gets column inches and that’s as much for the baggage that comes with him. I just don’t think we’re trendy enough for the BBC now.”
But a new event has been added to the snooker calendar and it’s bringing Higgins home. The Scottish Open is the latest incarnation of a tournament which put him in front of the TV cameras for the first time. “It was the old Regal Masters in Motherwell and I was a wild card having just turned pro. The whole clan – aunts, uncles, brothers, friends – came down to see Steve Davis hammer me. I just had to sit there and take it.”
So if the Higgins of today was to come up against his 22-year-old self what would happen? I’m expecting him to say he’d be met by youthful fearlessness but his answer is surprising. “I don’t think that player believed in himself. That might sound strange considering I went on to become world champion but I reckon I’m probably the same now: always thinking the worst, not believing I’m good enough.”
An example was when he won that under-16s title, surprising Stephen Hendry, who thought Ronnie O’Sullivan was a stick-on for it. Right away, Hendry’s mentor Ian Doyle wanted to sign up Higgins and take him to England and his parents urged him to go. “That caused ructions. I was happy in Glasgow. I was going to stay with an auntie so I could carry on playing there. But in the end moving was the right thing.”
The 22-year-old Higgins had already won a car – a Mercedes from the Sweater Shop International, although not the model specified. “Dad complained, tried to get me the leather interiors!” His mum Josephine packed his bag for those tournaments. “Fourteen pairs of boxers in case I got to the final!” He says the young Chinese brigade appear to look up to him the way he did Hendry and Davis. But Higgins is a different player from these two. “They were winning machines, completely zoned into snooker, and on the Monday morning after another win they’d be straight back on the table practising. It was as if they never had a life but I wasn’t like that. When I won a tournament I always partied for a couple of days.”
Nevertheless, Higgins currently stands alongside Davis and O’Sullivan on 28 ranked titles, while Hendry remains out in front with 36. The latter has given his name to the trophy for the Scottish Open and Higgins says of Hendry: “He’s still a hero and I’m sure he could still be playing. I think he misses it and I’ve a wee feeling he might just make a comeback at some point.”
Regarding Davis, he mentions a key piece of advice which had stood him in good stead. “Steve once asked me: ‘Have you ever had a coach?’ I told him I knew my faults and that I thought they could be reduced to a minimum the more I practised. ‘Keep it that way,’ he said. ‘You don’t want these guys getting inside your head. Snooker’s a hard enough game as it is.’ So I’ve never had a coach, or a psychologist. Lots of players have and I’ve had lots of offers. These head doctors don’t quite drop leaflets through your door but they’ll say: ‘I’ve noticed this flaw in your game. I can get rid of it.’”
So Higgins continues as before – the quarter-finals of this tournament now and fancying another tilt at the World Championship – by depending on those closest to him for support, including his mum, now retired from boxers-packing duties, and his eight-year-old daughter, who attended her first final the other week and saw her father beat O’Sullivan to become Champion of Champions. “It’s come full circle. Once there was my dad in the wings and now there’s Claudia. Before I went on she gave me a kiss and said: ‘Good luck, Dad.’ I welled up.” Rocket Ronnie probably thought: “Snooker might be a car-boot sale but I’m winning this one.” He didn’t, though.
l The Scottish Open takes place at the Emirates Arena, Glasgow from 12-18 December.