It is a reaction that has followed Alex Higgins ever since he was photographed at the funeral of his great friend, Oliver Reed, in 1999, first showing the public signs of throat cancer. The assumption then was that he was living on borrowed time, with the debt soon to be called.
Yet, defying odds that would not tempt even a gambler as inveterate as he, the greatest snooker player ever to address the black is still with us more than a decade on, at the age of 60. Though in truth he is not looking well. The disease that assaulted him may be in remission, but he remains Hollywood thin. His once thick, lustrous hair is patchy and limp. His voice, after his vocal chords were damaged in a fight, is a rasping wheeze.
But the thing is, when you look him in the eyes, you can see he is alive all right. The mischievous fire that has long driven him is still there, his gaze defiant, issuing an unspoken challenge.
"Cigarettes? Don't talk to me about cigarettes," he says, when I ask him how his long-running class action against the tobacco companies he claims gave him cancer is faring. "This is what I'm here to talk about. Just this. Nothing else."
He taps his forefinger on a leaflet, sitting on the bar table next to his pint of Guinness and his pouch of tobacco (yes, he is still smoking). The flier details the "Snooker Legends tour of Britain".
Largely driven by Jimmy White, who has long looked out for his old mate, the tour takes in 18 dates, starting at the Crucible in Sheffield on April 8. At each date, Higgins will play White, John Parrott and Cliff Thorburn. For a man perpetually strapped for cash, this could be a lifeline. Though typically of Higgins, he reckons it is not him who will benefit most, it is the game he has not played competitively for a dozen years.
"I think I was the most natural, charismatic player who ever lifted a cue," he rasps. "I think my presence around the table was mesmerising at times. It captured people. I'm not telling you this to bolster my own ego. It's what people tell me. People stop me in the street every day and say 'when you coming back Alex, when you going to show these so-and-sos who claim to be snooker players how to play the game?' I say I'm not healthy enough as yet. But I'd love to."
So does he still think he could beat the so-and-sos?
"Yes I do," he says, his look one of bafflement that anyone would even entertain doubt. "The cancer robbed me of my teeth. I would need to have proper teeth, then I could eat properly, I need to gain 2½ stone in weight, get that power back in my arm. And I would need to play with fellow professionals I like and get on with, people who enjoy playing. But given the right conditions, I could be at least as good as anybody in the top 32."
That is brave talk, given that Higgins' fall from the top was Greek in its tragic scale. The finest talent ever to play the game, he drew thousands to the table, mesmerised by his speed and agility. At his peak he was one of the biggest earners in British sport, a man synonymous with a cue, a breaking, potting perpetual news story.
But his off-table appetites made John Terry look like a Trappist and it was all gone within a decade, lost as wave after wave of misfortune broke over his head, leaving him scratching around for a few quid to finance his next bet, his next pint, his next smoke.
Now living in sheltered housing on the Donegal Road in Belfast, he is still belligerently refusing to be cowed by the cancer that has racked his body, or by those he claims have robbed him, or by the jealousies and pettiness he blames for his predicament.
His eyes insist he is still the man. As if to prove it, he is keen to play some snooker. There is no table in the hotel, so arrangements are made and we meet up at the home of the hotel's owner, some 20 miles outside Dublin. It is a huge pile, beautifully preserved as if in aspic from its Edwardian heyday. Downstairs, through the wine cellar, is the snooker room. And here, like a fish thrown back into the water after too long on the deck, Higgins is in his element again, pulling a cue from the rack, popping his glasses to the end of his nose, peering, owlishly across the baize. Then, snap, he breaks and has the first red down before any of us watching have taken in the significance of what we have just seen: Alex Higgins back at a table.
If he is a little rusty, he explains, it is because he hasn't played in an age.
"Unfortunately a few stalwarts of the game in the north [of Ireland] have died. The tables have gone to the dogs. Modern youth is not really interested. They're into computers and all these hi-tech toys. There's not the tables there used to be."
Never mind, back at last, Higgins shakes off the cobwebs and soon notches a break of 65. And still – despite the predations of illness and self-destruction – he doesn't walk round the table, he dances. Constantly on tiptoe, delicate, elegant, he spins off after every shot as if engaged in a waltz with the cue.
"It all comes from the feet," he says. "Every sport's the same. Snooker's no different. It's all about balance. And I could stretch. I'm five eight, five nine, but I could get there. I'd lean across the table and make those shots. Nowadays they add all sorts of bits to the cue, make them longer, use the rests. To me, that's taking the challenge out of it."
And as if to prove his point, he cockerels one leg up on to the table and, the toes of the other foot barely dusting the floor, stretches forward to pot an impossible blue. As he plays, as the feel returns, so he begins to speed up.
"My record? I once made a 118 break in two minutes and four seconds," he says. "The reason I was so quick, I was impatient. I couldn't wait to hit the next shot. I could think six shots ahead. It's no different than chess. That was me, I was more or less a chess player."
Afterwards, back at the bar, with another Guinness ordered, I ask him who of the current players he enjoys watching.
"It's not a case of who I like," he says. "The game is in decline. You listen to various commentators, they keep on saying the pockets are tighter now. They're not. Tables used to be squared off. Now they're smoothed off round the pocket. It's the law of gravity. It's easier to pot. I refuse to play on easy tables. I'd never play on one, it makes you sloppy. It makes you chastise yourself for being sloppy. I grew up believing it was a discipline. Just like gymnastics. But they ------ it up. And they hated me. With hindsight, I think they were jealous. There was a lot of jealousy. I was very good for them. I was a good winner. I lost graciously. Yet still the establishment hated me because I'd endeared myself so much to the audience."
If he is nothing else, Higgins is the master of post-rationalisation. A good winner? A gracious loser? But one thing is beyond question: he had a relationship with the fans. And still it exists. The opening evening of his tour is already sold out, the other dates are selling fast. It's not just because people are buying a ticket to a car crash – though there might be an element of that. They want to relive a moment with the master. They want to see him dance again. And he seems delighted when I tell him that is what he does round a table: dance.
"You know I used to live in Manchester," he says. "I knew the cast of Coronation Street well and we were having a drink one day and the old girl who played Maude [Elizabeth Bradley] she said to me: 'Alex, don't ever stop playing. You bring grace to the snooker table.' And she a Shakespearean actress in her younger days. But she knew what she saw. Grace."
And with that, needing to lubricate his battered throat, he draws on his pint. Then he quickly tries to hide under his chair the cue he has taken from the snooker room, just as he sees the owner of the hotel walking across the lobby to greet him.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/others ... avado.html
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