He looks markedly older than when I last saw him; paler, greyer and tired around the eyes.
We meet at the Telford International Centre where he will return for his first televised event since the end of his six month suspension. His media ‘handler’ wastes no time in laying down the ground rules: there are to be no questions about the specifics of what happened in the Ukraine for legal reasons.
John Higgins must be sick of talking about it, sick of trying to persuade people of his innocence. He says those he has met in the street have been supportive – indeed at Telford this is much in evidence – but he knows that there will always be some who will point the finger.
The events that brought about his fall from grace are like a permanent stain on his career: the surprise defeat to Steve Davis at the Crucible enlivened the World Championship but the newspaper account of Higgins’s subsequent visit to Kiev overshadowed the final and delivered a universal kick to the shins of everyone involved in the sport.
The record will show that Higgins was fined £75,000 and served out a six month ban. In Germany earlier this month he faced his fellow players for the first time at an event in the European Players Tour Championship. All were friendly but the three times world champion, mentally bruised by the whole affair, now finds it difficult to take even his friends at face value.
“I was nervous about how players would treat me but they were all fine – to my face anyway,” Higgins said.
“Nobody has said anything to my face. If they do then I can answer them. If they come up to me and say, ‘great to see you back’ what am I supposed to say? That they are lying? That they should tell me what they really think?”
So are some players being two-faced?
“Of course they are,” Higgins said. “I’d be naive if I didn’t think that. There’s jealous people in every walk of life. All I can say is that when I was growing up and practising with the likes of Stephen Hendry I was never jealous of them for the success they’d had. I wanted to try and replicate what they’d done. It was admiration, not jealousy. Sometimes in our sport maybe people are jealous when they should be getting their cues out and practising more.”
I cut to the chase. How does he feel about Pat Mooney, his former manager who has since been banned from ever playing any further part in snooker after the tribunal found him guilty of “an egregious betrayal of trust?”
At this, his media ‘handler’ bristles. Higgins shakes his head. “What’s done is done but if it didn’t make me more wary I’d be stupid,” is all he will say on the broken relationship.
Alas, this amiable man and legend of the game was pretty stupid to have said the things he did in that hotel room, even if you accept his explanation as to why he behaved in that way.
Even when he was cleared to return to the circuit he could not celebrate: his father, a popular figure in the game and hugely supportive of his son, had just been told his cancer was terminal.
Inside, Higgins must be wondering how it all came to this. From the age of nine, snooker was his life. Suddenly without it, he rattled around the house, waiting for the verdict. “I filled my days by helping out with the kids and normal things like that,” he said.
“People were asking me why I didn’t go to the club to practise but I didn’t want to do that when I didn’t know if there’d be an end goal to it. When the judgement came through it got me fired up again.
“I didn’t know what to think about what the judgement would be. I knew I’d have to take whatever it was on the chin. I did contemplate not playing again but I don’t have to think those thoughts now.”
The strength of his game has never been questioned but Higgins will also need mental toughness to shut out the whispering and suspicions of others and begin the process of rehabilitating his image. The forthcoming 12bet.com UK Championship in Telford, which he won in 1998 and 2000, marks the start of that journey.
He heads into it placed second in the rankings behind Neil Robertson, determined but anxious too.
“It’s my first time back playing in Britain so I’m nervous,” Higgins said. “People who’ve seen me grow up playing snooker on TV will have their own views. That’s just something I will have to accept. All I can do is my best.
“I’d like to get back to world no.1. It’s something to aim for. Neil Robertson is a great player. He’s grown in recent years and I've watched how he's changed his game. Now he’s world champion and he’s the man to beat.”
That status once belonged to John Higgins. Perhaps it will again but, right now, his main task will be to restore his battered reputation.
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