DATELINE 24 JULY 2010 – and the news breaks that Alex Higgins, the greatest genius snooker has ever had, is dead.
Born in Belfast on 18th March 1949 Alexander Gordon Higgins grew up the only brother among three sisters. At school age he drifted into snooker playing at the Jampot Club off the Donegal Road. Swiftly earning a reputation as a hustler on the table, his family didn’t for one moment think that when a gypsy fortold his mother that a member of her family would go on to acclaim, that she was referring to Alex. In fact her reaction when she heard the forecast assumed it would be his sister Ann, who had won a singing contest.
But the gypsy was to be proved correct when she insisted that the famous Higgins would be male, and already Alex’s reputation and prowess with a snooker cue was developing as he won money matches in droves. Quickly the Jampot regulars knew better than to play him – as they would be saying goodbye to their hard earned cash that Higgins was earning in minutes with his quickfire style of play.
Leaving school officially in 1964, Higgins had to find a trade – there was no ready made route into snooker that there is today. In fact Alex had to take a detour as he left for England to work as a stable lad at racehorse stables in Berkshire. He stayed at the job for two years before moving on. He found a flat in Leytonstone, and worked in a papermill. But Higgins was also homesick and soon returned to Belfast.
Back in his native Northern Ireland Alex continued playing money matches and in 1968 claimed the Northern Ireland Amateur title and then completed the double with the All Amateur Ireland title. The genius had developed, and soon afterwards and anxious to see how far he could go in the game, he moved to Lancashire in England.
No-one in England was ready for the events of 1972 as Alex entered the World Championships. His first round opponent was Jackie Rea, a man who owned the Irish professional championship for the previous twenty years. Rea managed to stick with Alex for three sessions before falling to a 19-11 defeat. The legendary John Pullman was his next victim, but he was swiftly dismissed 31-23. His semi final against Rex Williams went all the way to a decider, where Williams missed a blue to let Alex in, and with that the match was decided as Higgins squeezed home 31-30 to arrive in the final against the defending world champion, John Spencer.
The final was contested over four days in Birmingham, but the final session lasted all of 15 minutes as Higgins wrapped up a 37-32 victory. Many assumed this was to be the prelude in his career and he would be world champion for years to come. In fact Alex had to wait a full ten years for his next world title.
Why was that? The re-emergence of Ray Reardon as the dominant figure in the sport. It was Reardon and Spencer who just about shared the world title for the rest of the 1970s with only Terry Griffiths breaking the chain with his win in 1979, followed by Cliff Thorburn edging past Alex in the 1980 world final at the Crucible. The game was expanding, and also emerging was a young man from South London who was to be Alex’s Waterloo.
That man was Steve Davis. Davis and Higgins faced off in the quarter finals of the 1980 World Championships at the Crucible – and it was Higgins who saw off the threat of Davis on that occasion but history was to tell us that Davis would be calling the shots over the countless occasions they were to meet. It was like watching Borg and McEnroe facing off on a snooker table as Steve exacted his revenge on Alex in the UK final in 1980 by thrashing the Ulsterman 16-6 in the final, and then sent him packing 13-9 in the second round of the Crucible in 1981 en-route to claiming the world title.
As the rivalry developed throughout the early eighties, many were doubting would Alex ever win a big title again. The answer was as emotional response as you could ever wish to see as Alex arrived at the Crucible in 1982 for the World Championships. He was not expected to win but as Davis fell to Tony Knowles and Terry Griffiths to Willie Thorne, Alex may have started to wonder if the fates were conspiring for him. He eliminated Jim Meadowcroft, and the vanquished 1981 finalist Doug Mountjoy to arrive in the quarter finals against Willie Thorne. Thorne, a prolific maker of 147’s, saw his dreams ended in a 13-10 reverse. Lying in wait in the semi finals was Jimmy White.
A match which will never be forgotten, especially that 30th frame. White, on a break of 41 and leading 59-0 in the frame, missed a black off its spot. The balls were hardly in ideal position but Alex by some miracle was able to string together a break of 69. It was to break Jimmy’s heart as Alex levelled at 15-15 and claimed the deciding frame with ease to win 16-15. As Jimmy left the tournament, the stage was set for a showdown with Ray Reardon.
As both players entered the final stages of the final they were locked at 15-15. Higgins though was not to be beaten by the Welshman as he went 17-15 up and then ended the final in style as he fired in a break of 135, finishing with a simple black to the corner as the Crucible erupted. What followed was the famous sight of Higgins then wife Lynn entering the arena with baby Lauren to embrace Alex as he sobbed in celebration.
Alex then went on to complete the double with victory in the Coral UK Open, an event he had never won. He eliminated Murdo MacLeod, Paul Medati, Tony Knowles and Terry Griffiths to face Davis in the final. As Steve led 7-0 it looked as theough the Nugget was after an early night but Higgins roared on by his fans at the Preston Guild Hall, closed to 7-8 and then levelled at 11-11 and eventually ran out a 16-15 winner over the Londoner.
Aside from the titles he claimed, probably one that meant a lot to the Hurricane was the 1989 Irish Masters title when he battled back to defeat Stephen Hendry in the final 9-8. Alex though while being the most naturally gifted player of his generation often found himself in hot water with the games governing body, the cases are numerous but without doubt the most notorious instance was at the World Team Cup when he threatened to have Dennis Taylor shot. Throw in punching the then WPBSA Press Officer Colin Randle at the Crucible, bringing the game into disrepute and abusing WPBSA chairman John Spencer, and Higgins was lucky not to be expelled from the game. The eventual resolution was virtually doing that as it was to cost Alex a year’s ban and 25 ranking points. Effectively it was the beginning of the end.
The years had taken their toll on Alex as he continued to battle in the qualifying rounds of events, but the Hurricane’s health was failing and being diagnosed with throat cancer left Alex looking increasingly frail. The man who had set snooker alight with his style of play was enduring an horrific time. News of his death today at the age of 61 has robbed snooker of one of it’s legendary characters but one who will never be forgotten.
RIP Alexander Higgins – 1949-2010