Tragic figure 'Hurricane Higgins' remained an inspiration

Alex Higgins is likely to remain an inspiration to future generations of snooker players looking to emulate the 'Hurricane' and reach the very top of the game.

Higgins - world champion in 1972 and 1982 - died on Saturday after a long battle with throat cancer in his home city of Belfast, aged 61.

However, the images of the Northern Irishman at his flamboyant best remain as colourful now as they did when first broadcast.

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Ronnie O'Sullivan, the three-time world champion and, like Higgins, regarded as the most naturally gifted snooker player of his generation, was moved to pursue a career in the sport after witnessing the Hurricane's quickfire approach.

"Alex was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker," said the 34-year-old, who like Higgins has often been a controversial figure within the sport. "He is a true legend and should be forever remembered."

Irishman Ken Doherty, 40, was world champion in 1997 and also paid tribute to the influence of Higgins.

"He certainly was an inspiration to me," Doherty said. "Nobody could emulate what he did. He was such a one-off. He was so charismatic, unpredictable, the way he played the game, his character, he was just a genius."

Scottish player John Higgins, 35, also followed in the footsteps of his namesake, winning the world title in 1998, 2007 and 2009.

"As a youngster it was the magical play of players like Hurricane Higgins that inspired me and many of my generation to fall in love with snooker," said John Higgins, the world No 1 who was suspended by World Snooker in May this year following allegations of match-fixing, which the player denies.

"During one tournament I remember my father and Hurricane sitting in our hotel talking about snooker into the early hours.

"The next morning the concierge knocked on my door with a present from Hurricane; it was a beautiful blue snooker suit made by a top Irish tailor. It was a lovely gesture that meant so much to me and my dad. This will be a sad time for Hurricane's close family and friends and also sad for the wider snooker community. When people write about the history of snooker they will have to devote many pages to the skills of Hurricane Higgins."

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While Higgins, who in claiming the 1972 title became the youngest World Championship winner at his first attempt, helped raise the profile of the sport, there was also a darker side to his personality. Higgins was banned from five tournaments and fined 12,000 in 1986 when he headbutted UK Championship tournament director Paul Hatherell.

In 1990, Higgins threatened to have fellow player Dennis Taylor shot and he was banned for the rest of the season after he punched a tournament director at the World Championships.

Higgins underwent surgery to treat cancer of the throat in 1998.


1949: Born in Belfast.

1960: Starts playing snooker at the age of 11.

1963: Leaves Northern Ireland to be a jockey in England, but is released and returns to Belfast.

1968: Wins the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur snooker championships.

1972: Wins World Championship at the first attempt, beating John Spencer 37-32 in the final.

1976: Reaches a second World Championship final but loses to Ray Reardon 27-16.

1978: Wins The Masters, beating Cliff Thorburn 7-5.

1980: Loses to Thorburn 18-16 in the World Championship final.

1981: Beats Terry Griffiths to win second Masters title.

1982: Wins his second world title by beating Reardon 18-15.

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1983: Wins the UK Championship by beating Steve Davis 16-15.

1984: Loses UK Championship final to Davis.

1986: Fined 12,000 and banned from five tournaments for headbutting Paul Hatherell.

1987: Loses Masters final to Dennis Taylor.

1990: Threatens to have Taylor shot and then punches a tournament director at the World Championship, he is banned for the rest of the season.

1998: Undergoes surgery to remove cancer from his throat.

2010: Dies at the age of 61.


Friends who witnessed star's rise and fall say they'll never forget him


A DRINKING pal of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins clasped a handwritten note from the snooker ace yesterday as he toasted his friend and hero.

Scribbled on the back of a crumpled betting docket, it was a list of shopping the ailing star had asked Noel Cairns to get for him only days before he died.

"Close to the end he couldn't speak, he had to write everything down," said his childhood friend, tears welling in his eyes.

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"He signed the note 'Your pal Alex'. This will always be very special to me now."

Noel joined other locals inside the Royal Bar to raise a glass by the empty seat where Higgins spent so many nights. The pub is in the heart of the Sandy Row area of Belfast where the mercurial legend of the game grew up and stands opposite the sheltered housing block where he was found dead on Saturday.

Those inside knew the controversial Higgins through the good times and the bad.

"He will be remembered as the greatest snooker player that ever lived," said 65-year-old Noel, who used to play snooker with him in the old Jampot club off the Donegall Road before he hit the big time.

"He was a great friend of mine, a great friend."

Ravaged by cancer and faded to around seven stone, Higgins still signed autographs for young and old as he drank in the Royal on the traditional 'Twelfth of July' holiday less than two weeks ago. Darren Betty, another local, said the troubled champ deserved to go down as an all-time sporting great.

"He was George Best with a snooker cue," he said.

"I remember the only time I was allowed to stay up late as a child was to see Alex win the world championship in 1982, I will always remember that night."

Higgins grew up half a mile down the Donegall Road on Abingdon Drive. A mural of the two-time world champion in his flamboyant pomp now adorns a gable wall at the top of the quiet street.

David Brown lived two doors down from Higgins as a child and the pair went to school together at nearby Linfield Intermediate School.

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"I remember he would always be down the Jampot club playing," he said. "He loved the game. He was a great player and it's very sad he's gone."

Like so many in Sandy Row, Alan McCormick witnessed Higgins' star fade as the cancer took hold over the last decade.

But he said he will always remember him when he shone brightest.

"He was a miracle maker," he said. "Some of the shots he played, you couldn't believe. And he played with such flamboyance – there's no one that will ever be like him.

"He changed so much in the last few years, he was like a walking skeleton towards the end. But you know he would always acknowledge you and say hello. People will remember him for that and he will always be respected in Sandy Row."


A flawed genius, people's champion always lived up to his nickname


Sobriquets in sport can so often be cliches but in the case of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins it could not have been more appropriate.

Higgins, who has died at the age of 61, played his snooker and led his life at reckless speed. At times thrilling and wonderfully entertaining. At others hopelessly destructive.

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A flawed genius, you might say, like George Best, that other Belfast boy who did not know the meaning of moderation and drank himself to an early grave.

Higgins had his problems with the drink too. A nasty drunk. A man who got into fights too copious to list and who resented officialdom.

He was fined 12,000 and banned from five tournaments for butting an official at the UK championship in 1986.

At the 1990 world championship, after losing his first round match to Steve James, he punched tournament official Colin Randle in the stomach, an incident which came soon after he had threatened to have 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor "shot".

That was the demonic side of Higgins. But many hooked on television snooker during the late 1970s and 1980s will also remember why the sport became the attraction which drew 18.5 million viewers when Taylor beat Steve Davis way past midnight on the final black in that 1985 final.

Much of it was down to Higgins. Flamboyant, irreverent, spontaneous, dynamic. A natural potter who played on the edge of his talent. A player who put cavalier above caution. The nation of late-night snooker junkies loved him for it.

Higgins, with his body swerving style and gunslinger demeanour, dragged the staid old world of Fred Davies, Ray Reardon and John Spencer into an era where snooker stars became genuine celebrities. He also chain-smoked his way around the table which doubtless contributed to the throat cancer he developed ten years ago which ravaged his already emaciated physique.

By then the good days were long consigned to history. The 1972 world championship final he won at his first attempt at the age of 25 was a distant memory. So was the 1982 final in which he beat Reardon 18-15, prompting tearful scenes as he beckoned his then wife Lynn and baby out of the audience to celebrate with him.

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His snooker legacy, however, can be gauged by all the players who live to pot who followed him. Men such as Jimmy White, Ken Doherty and arguably the most natural talent of them all in Ronnie O'Sullivan. The sport's great entertainers.

They have all professed their debt to Alexander Gordon Higgins, who took to the green baize after his dreams of becoming a jockey were dashed but went on to captivate a nation and amass a 3 million fortune, yet ended up hustling for the next meal in sheltered housing on Belfast's Donegall Road. A man whose meteoric rise matched his spectacular fall.

Truly, 'Hurricane' could not have been more apt. By then he was a heavy drinker and smoker, with both addictions seriously affecting his health.

World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn reflected: "You remember his genius, but also there was the other side. There was one occasion when he and I squared off against each other in my office when he said he was not coming back to finish a game I had paid him for. It's refreshing that we can remember both the good bits and the bad bits."

Hearn, who mentored six-time champion Steve Davis, continued: "Alex asked me to manage him several times, but I said ‘you would be a nightmare, mate, we would end up rolling around in a backstreet killing each other'.

"But he never said a bad word against me, we had a mutual respect. Alex never let me down - he almost did a lot, but he never actually did."

Hearn also paid tribute to Higgins' unique approach to the game.

"Alex was a fabulous player and played shots which had not even been thought of at the time - people gasped," he said. "He helped to take the game from the working-class background of misspent youths into more global entertainment during his period.

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"But Alex rewrote the book on misspent adulthood. He was a dreadful gambler and I cannot remember him winning one bet - he would go through his pockets and bet every single penny, and the evening would always finish with him asking ‘you could not lend me 50 for my train fare home?', and you would obviously never see that again."

Some 10,000 raised to help Higgins receive medical treatment prior to his death will go towards his funeral, which will be delayed to allow friend and former player Jimmy White to return from Thailand to attend.

Higgins' former personal assistant Will Robinson said: "There's two things that made snooker what it is today - one is colour television and the second thing is Alex Higgins."

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