We need more Hurricanes in modern-day sport
Alex Higgins stood out in an era when sportsmen tend to have every crease of personality ironed out of them.
When I was a kid, we had a book in our house called How I Play Snooker, by Joe Davis. Written by the 15-time (yes, 15-time) world champion, it explained how to do it proper: head still, eyes either side of the cue (except that Davis was a bit one-eyed, so he didn’t practice what he preached), bow tie, calm manner, take your time. It was pretty much the bible of snooker players back in the Seventies and Eighties. Judging by the way he played, I doubt Alex Higgins ever read it.
The ‘Hurricane’, who died at the weekend, never played like that. He never really got his head down to look along the line of the shot. He twitched and fidgeted and would stand up almost immediately after hitting the ball. He hated wearing ties and got into plenty of trouble for refusing to do so. He smoke and drank at the table (admittedly, so did a lot of players back in the day). But he also played bloody fast.
Higgins was in stark contrast to most of his fellow professionals who were, it must be said, downright square. The morbidly obese and heavy-drinking Canadian Bill Werbeniuk aside, snooker players seemed a pretty grey lot. Quiet, modest, unassuming blokes who didn’t say anything interesting and played a game that nobody watched or cared about.
Things started to change in 1969 when David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, was fishing around for something to show off the channel’s latest whizzy innovation: colour. The BBC’s head of sport, Bryan Cowgill, suggested they put snooker on TV. The result was Pot Black, which ran from 1969 to 1986. The rise of snooker was thus a piece of sheer luck: a sport that involved lots of colour produced for a channel that wanted to show off colour. But it needed colourful characters as well as colourful images, and no one was more colourful than Alex Higgins.
Higgins, a slip of a lad, originally left his native Belfast at the age of 14 in an attempt to become a jockey, but he liked beer and chocolate too much to stay skinny enough to make it on the horses (though he blew a lot of cash betting on them over the years). He turned to snooker, and became All-Ireland amateur champion in 1968. In 1972, aged 22 and in his first season as a professional, he won his first professional world championship, the youngest player to achieve that feat until Stephen Hendry beat the record in 1990. But back in those days, despite the success of Pot Black, the world championship was not televised and the final went on a lot longer than it does today. In 1972, Higgins beat John Spencer by 37 frames to 32.
Higgins, often compared to his contemporary George Best in this regard, was a noisy, hard-drinking and impulsively brilliant player. He also had the capacity to cock it up, losing two subsequent finals to Ray Reardon and Cliff Thorburn before regaining the title in emotional circumstances in 1982. With Higgins around, you didn’t know what was going to happen, whether he was going to be brilliant or awful. If it wasn’t great snooker, it was going to be a car crash.
As another former world champion, Terry Griffiths, noted: ‘Playing Alex, more than any other player, you just never knew what the next frame would be like. There was something about the way he played that got you on his side.’ Whether he was potting or missing, it was worth watching, which is why Higgins had a fanbase like no one else.
Yet for all the polite commentary this week about how he was the only real ‘genius’ the sport has produced – did everyone forget Ronnie O’Sullivan all of a sudden? – it must also be admitted that this genius was often wasted. In fact, ‘pissed up against the wall’ would be a better phrase. Like George Best, Higgins had bags of charisma but also liked his drink too much. When snooker’s popularity brought a new wave of players into the game in the Eighties – Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry et al – Higgins was outgunned. His natural heir – Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White – was also a brilliant player, but never won the world championship, despite reaching the final six times.
Higgins in the Eighties was also a man out of time. Snooker cleaned up from being a working man’s game to being a TV sport. No more boozing at the table, no more smoking – even when the world championships were still sponsored by Embassy cigarettes. Now the sports authorities were demanding nice, clean-cut role models. Higgins, the personification of the fighting Irish (well, fighting Ulsterman), didn’t fit in. He once got into a lot of trouble for threatening to set that loyalist mob, the UVF, on another Irish snooker player, Dennis Taylor.
So Higgins faded away, always popular but no longer any good. He always played a bit like a hustler and in later years was reduced to hustling for small bets in pubs and snooker halls. The real story of his life is of a talent not quite fulfilled. But Higgins also highlights the trouble with sports that flatten out personality in the effort to be squeaky clean. The result is boredom. Writing this, I had to think long and hard to remember who the current snooker world champion is, despite having watched him win a ding-dong final earlier this year. (It’s Australian Neil Robertson, since you ask.)
Even O’Sullivan, the nearest thing to Higgins these days, is reduced to therapy sessions and the occasional off-colour remark. Maybe snooker – indeed, sport in general – needs to make a bit more room for personalities like the Hurricane.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
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