John Higgins: 'It's the hardest thing – people doubting me'
The three-times world snooker champion talks about the tabloid sting, family turmoil and his plans for the future
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 September 2010
John Higgins wants to win a fourth world snooker title after being cleared of agreeing to fix matches. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
I'm probably going to get a bit emotional here," John Higgins says on a quiet morning in Bothwell, a plush and pretty town on the fringes of Glasgow, where he is trying to rebuild his life after five shattering months. There is an autumnal chill in the air, and murky drizzle all around, as Higgins looks up.
His eyes are glazed when, almost on cue, church bells ring out from across the street and he starts to explain how he ended up at the centre of snooker's worst match-fixing scandal before, 12 days ago, he was finally cleared of the most serious charges.
"It's been a horrible time," Higgins says, his voice sounding thick and gravelly. The reasons are obvious. After the elation of being found innocent of corruption at the end of a two-day tribunal, and having his character exonerated in striking detail by the chairman of the disciplinary hearing, Ian Mill QC, Higgins' world collapsed around him again. The day after he was cleared he heard that his father's long battle against cancer had reached its final stage. John Higgins Sr has been released from hospital so that he can spend the time he has left at home.
"Sometimes, when you're lying in bed at night, and you can't sleep," Higgins says, "you ask yourself: 'Is this the reason why my dad is so ill?' He's been battling cancer for five years but he went downhill around the time this [scandal] started. He seemed to lose a little of his determination to fight on – and I don't know if my situation was the reason for that.
"I've been discussing it with my mum and the strange thing is that dad maybe feels it's his fault. He used to manage me and he tried to shield me, but the last five years he's not been able to travel to tournaments. But of course your dad can't shield you from everything and I'm 35 now."
In early May, on the morning of the World Championship final, the News of the World broke the story that it had video footage which apparently proved that Higgins, the defending champion, had agreed to throw frames at some future tournaments in eastern Europe. Higgins was ranked world No1 and at the centre of the promoter Barry Hearn's plans to revitalise a sport that had lost much of its popular appeal. Steve Davis, who had defeated Higgins so memorably 10 days before at the Crucible, described it as snooker's "darkest day".
It would be the first in the News of the World's string of exposes that have had such a profound impact on sport this summer. Higgins, trapped in a skillfully woven web of deceit and intrigue, reacted with hopeless naivety and crass stupidity when he was taken to Kiev by his now disgraced former manager, Pat Mooney.
"The game had been in trouble," Higgins says, "and we all felt we should try open it up to different countries. Snooker has just been a British-based sport for such a long time and when I started at 18 the furthest you'd go would be London. Lately, we've been playing more in the Far East – but we've also had invitations to play in Europe and going somewhere new like Russia or Ukraine is a bit daunting."
In Kiev, Mooney suggested his new business contacts were keen to sponsor four more tournaments. Yet just before they entered a meeting with these unknown men, Mooney told Higgins he might be asked to throw the occasional frame. Higgins has now been instructed by his lawyers not to discuss the specific machinations surrounding that infamous videotape – for the possibility of him taking legal action has not been discounted. But he conveys his own confusion.
"I was bewildered. I'm not the sort to start screaming and shouting but I couldn't believe he had said this so flippantly. Once we were inside a few more things were said that didn't add up. It was pretty intimidating and I thought let's get out of here as quickly as possible. That's all I was thinking."
Higgins was hardly thinking at all. He not only appeared to agree to the suggestions of the supposedly dangerous men in front of him but, more seriously, he failed to report their illegal approach to the snooker authorities when he returned to Britain. "I came back late on the Friday night," Higgins says, "and there was just time for me to help Denise [his wife] put the kids to bed. I was still getting my head around everything. Denise had to go to Glasgow early the next morning as her sister was getting fitted for her wedding dress. So I was running all over the place with the kids. At the same time Mooney had left messages for me but I didn't want to speak to him.
"He then left another message saying it was really important I called back. He said the News of the World had videotaped our meeting in Kiev. I just put the phone down. My whole world was in a spin. I had to go pick up Denise in Glasgow. When Denise and her mum got in the car she saw I was chalk-white. She said: 'What is it?' But I couldn't speak because the kids were in the back. When we got home the reporters were already waiting for us in the drive."
How did his wife react? "Denise faced the same emotions as me. She was mad, angry and hurting inside. And that night I had to phone my parents. They were devastated."
Higgins has also witnessed the impact on his children. "I sat down with my eldest boy, Pierce, because he's eight and, at school, kids can be cruel. We had to tell him people are saying bad things about daddy but they're not true. He said: 'Well, daddy, if they come here and say those things I'll punch them.' He's seen a lot of emotion in our house. Even the smaller kids, Oliver and Claudia, would be thinking why is daddy or mummy or granny upset? But my family has been really strong."
That strength seemed to be draining away 12 days ago, as Higgins waited for the outcome of the tribunal in London. "It really hit home five minutes before the verdict. I noticed how quiet everyone around me had become. I had to go to the toilet then because I thought the worst could happen. People have been to jail when they're innocent. I knew I would never miss a single ball on a snooker table on purpose and, until then, I was sure the evidence would support me. But that was a terrible moment. I came out of the toilet and they said: 'We're going in now.' I knew I was about to hear my fate."
Higgins was cleared unequivocally of agreeing to fix matches – but he was suspended for six months and fined £75,000 for failing to report an illegal approach and for bringing snooker into disrepute. In his ruling Ian Mill QC said Higgins was guilty only of making a poor choice of manager and for acting in an "extremely foolish" manner. But he praised Higgins's "truthful" account and his otherwise admirable character.
"It was important to me," Higgins says, "that someone who had looked so closely at the evidence, and the video, said such nice words about me. Ian Mill went a long way to helping me clear my name. It's the hardest thing I'm going to have to overcome in the future – people doubting me. When you can't sleep at night you click on certain blogs. A lot of nasty and untrue things have been said about me."
The opinion of his father matters most of all to him. His dad, after all, introduced Higgins to the game he loves. "A lot of the time he would be working offshore, out on the oil rigs. And when he was home he'd take me and my brother to this club in Wishaw. I was nine and my brother was 12 and I think the reason he put us on the snooker table was so that he could have a few quiet pints. It was one way of keeping us out of mischief."
What did he tell his father on that memorable Thursday he was exonerated? "I said: 'Dad, stop lying about in hospital and get yourself up. I'm playing again in November and I want you there.' I don't know if dad was crying or laughing because the cancer and the radiotherapy has affected his speech. You have to be up close to hear what he's saying. But he was delighted.
"I was on such a high myself that Thursday night. I woke up the next morning and said to Denise: 'I can't believe it's over.' But that's when I called my mum and she told me the news they had just got about dad. There was no point in him having more chemotherapy. She broke down on the phone – and nothing else seemed to matter."
Higgins has not picked up a snooker cue since the News of the World story erupted on 2 May. But yesterday he took a symbolic step forward when a couple of men arrived at his home in Bothwell to re-cover his snooker table with fresh baize. "You don't realise what you've got in life until it looks like it's going to be taken away from you. My wife keeps telling me things happen for a reason. Maybe she's right. Snooker players go into steady decline and lose their intensity after a while. But I will have real purpose the next five years. I want to prove people wrong and win a lot more tournaments."
Darkness draws in early on these autumn days in Bothwell and Higgins looks weary as we near the end. "These last five months will shape me for the rest of my life," he says. "It will make me a better person, and a stronger person. When my dad came out of hospital he didn't seem in a good place. But in the last day or two he's perked up.
"He has a bed downstairs now and he can walk over to the TV and sit in his normal place and take charge of the remote again. There's been snooker in Glasgow this weekend and he's watched it. He couldn't have done that if his boy had not been cleared. So that's given me a goal. I want people to believe in me again and I want to become world champion next May. I've won three world titles and I've dedicated them to my three children. I'd like to win a fourth – and dedicate it to my dad. Before he goes I'd like to win it for him."
I must say I've been among the doubters, but this I do believe.
Good luck for the future John. 8)