Alex Higgins, “The Hurricane”, the “Peoples Champ” , when he was at the table you took note.
Snooker is shit. Boring cunts playing a mind numbing game. Old men watching from afar, whispering while inertia kicks in. Nobody watching on the Beeb, hoping that China will bring life to a game that should get with the times. Players that look like if they had a good shit it might be an accomplishment in their life, coming out to jazzy music cause that’s what will get the young ones tuning in, in it! Nah, you can shove your fucking “Jester from Leicester” Mark Selby and all the other very uninteresting zombie players up your arse, snooker is dead. D.E.A.D
But it wasn’t always like that. There was once a player called Alex Higgins, “The Hurricane”, the “Peoples Champ” , when he was at the table you took note. You cared, here was a man who played the game like you’d do in your dreams, and played it like it should……pot the ball and no fucking around, in you go, I have a pint to finish….and a party to attend to, so hurry up, this game better be finished soon….
Alex Higgins was born on the 18th of March, 1949 on a tough council estate in south Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is remembered as one of the most iconic figures in the game of snooker and nicknamed “Hurricane Higgins” because of his rapid and attacking style. He was World Champion in 1972 and 1982, and runner-up in 1976 and 1980.
Higgins came to be known as the “People’s Champion” because of his popularity, and is often credited with having brought the game of snooker to a wider audience, contributing to its peak in popularity in the 1980’s. The game’s first superstar, but he was also snookers ultimate bad boy where a routine of booze, drugs, and a rock n roll lifestyle had him dominating the front pages as much as the back.
By the age of 10 he started hustling at a local billiard hall called the Jampot in his native Sandy Row area of south Belfast. Soon he was beating the older boys and men, holding his own and gaining a reputation. The reason he was so fast around a table, as the legend goes, is that he needed to be fast to avoid a few clips around the ear after beating an older opponent.
Left school at 15 and, like so many Irish at the time, got the ferry to England. Was lucky enough to find work as a stable hand, at the Reavey Stables in Berkshire, and spent two happy years of his life here. But due to weight problems and a lack of work ethic he would never make it as a jockey. I guess shoveling shit at 5 in the morning wasn’t to be for the young Higgins, that and the fact that Guinness and Mars Bars isn’t probably the best diet for competitive riding.
A year later he returned home to Belfast in 1967, and just over a year he had won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur championships in 1968, by the age of 17.
After turning professional in 1972, at the age of 22 he became the youngest World Championship winner, at his first attempt, against John Spencer winning 37–32. The record was only beaten in 1990 when Stephen Hendry won the trophy at 21.
The 1972 World Snooker Championship was a world away from what we know of snooker today. Set in the long gone British Legion in Birmingham, where the crowd sat around the table on stacked up beer crates, the best of 73 frames final was played out over a week. And for winning the World Championship Higgins got a cheque for £480! But his win sent shock-waves through the sport. Here was a player with panache and style, had charisma, was charming, and with an unorthodox playing style he knew how to play snooker at levels that hadn’t been previously seen. And boy was he fast, flying around the table, often not given the ref enough time to replace the balls, potting balls from every conceivable angle with a furious intensity and in a manner that had the audience captivated. Snooker had finally got its own Georgie Best, someone who could transform the game from old men in dark halls to the dizzy heights it reached in the 80’s. Overnight Higgins changed the sport, bringing it kicking and screaming into the modern age, and as he said so himself……“Snooker was bollocks before I came along, pure bollix you had nothing to inspire you. You had Joe Davis. He was champion for twenty fucking years!”
In April 1976, Higgins reached the final again and faced Ray Reardon, but this time he lost out, to an embattled Reardon who made four centuries and seven breaks over 60 to pull away and win the title for the fifth time with the score of 27–16. Another final was in 1980, but this was the one that got away. Against Mr Coke head himself, Cliff Thorburn, Higgins was winning comfortably, 10–6, but then he started playing to the gallery. Thorburn capitalized on some silly errors in Higgins game to win out 18–16. To say Higgins was mad after this game was an understatement!
That was the thing about Alex Higgins. If he played a solid game he might have won much more in his career. But that wasn’t who he was. He was a maverick, who liked to play with style. He played the shots that would get the crowd on their feet. That is why he was the peoples champion, it was all or nothing for Higgins, and the crowd adored him for it. Attack was the only game he played. A safe slow game wasn’t in his nature, it wasn’t who he was. His speed game and ability to pot balls at a rapid rate and from seemingly impossible angles, was why got him the nickname “Hurricane Higgins”. All things considered, it was pretty good for a player who had a nervous tick, and couldn’t stand still for more than 5 seconds.
A good example of this style is best remembered when looking at his semi-final victory over, his good friend, Jimmy White in the 1982 World Championship. It was the penultimate frame, where Higgins was 0–59 down, and came to the table knowing that White only needed one more chance to clinch the game. What happened next will go down in the annals of snooker as one of the best breaks of all time in snooker. Higgins got a break of 69 to win the frame, but it was the manner in which he did it. Every shot was tough, not just in technicality but also with the added pressure of knowing there were no margins for error. There was a memorable blue that had an amazing screw back that split the reds that left the audience wondering how the heck he managed to pull it off. Poor Jimmy White was so shell shocked he went on to lose the next frame and the match!
From that win, Alex went on to lift his second World title, a gap of ten years between his first and second crown, beating Ray Reardon 18–15, at the Crucible in Sheffield in a final filled with emotion. In tears beckoning his wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren to join him on stage with the trophy. A tearful Higgins just about holding onto the baby in one hand and the trophy on the other is an iconic image imprinted on the British public’s collective consciousness. Not bad considering he started the year in a nursing home, trying to detox, with no manager and a serious lack of table time!
Another memorable performance was the final of the 1983 Coral UK Championship in Preston, against Steve Davis. Trailing 0–7, Higgins produced a famous comeback to win 16–15 in the end.
Steve Davis was a name that made Alex Higgins cringe on sight, “I hate Steve Davis”. By the 80’s many players had worked out that by playing a rather unhurried and sluggish game they could slow the “hurricane” right down, make him lose concentration, make him fidgety, and sometimes lose the plot, by playing long winded safety play and taking their time to play shots. The master of this was Steve Davis, Higgins nemesis. Higgins and Davis were like chalk and cheese, both fiercely competitive and they had such an intense rivalry that it gripped the game of snooker. Davis, “the nugget”, cool and clinical, the robot, while Higgins was the madcap snooker genius, usually with a beer or a glass of God knows what, the charismatic flair player. Davis practiced every hour, every day producing a game that was complete and difficult to beat. Higgins, on the other hand, was still practicing in the clubs and pubs of Britain and Ireland, for sport and with all its distractions not an ideal place to hone his skills. This complete clash of styles and personalities enthralled the nation. More often than not Davis came out on top, in fact virtually all the time, but there were times when the Hurricane did manage to eke out a win, and those moments were special….
Higgins and the way he played, his rivalry with Davis and the advent of colour TV put snooker into the mainstream. Snooker players were the footballers of their day, household names, all with cool nicknames. Nearly 19 million people tuned in until the early hours to watch the World Snooker Championship Final, to see Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in a dramatic last black ball final frame. Nowadays if Ronnie isn’t playing the viewing figures in the UK do well to get 2 and a half million viewers. Big in China, sure, but so is dog meat. Snooker players were doing TV ads, promoting computer games, making hit songs, and regularly on the chat show circuit on TV. It is always important to remember it was Alex which started all this interest back in the day, when snooker was king, and the “hurricane” was regularly in the papers, front and back page, filling out venues up and down the country. Snooker owes him a massive depth, no doubt about it.
But of course it wasn’t just his playing style that fans turned up to see. there was all the extra baggage Higgins brought. How would Alex react to his opponent, would he bark at the referee, was their going to be any shenanigans today from the Hurricane? Always a show when Alex was on the box, the rebel, the anti hero, life on the edge…….
He came out to the crowd waving his hat in the air, often licking the white ball for luck, and always entertaining, and controversial. Coming out to crowds that resembled more like football supporters than the quite gentle fan that snooker was more used to, this was the atmosphere created by Alex Higgins. Higgins also drank, a cigarette in one hand and a strong drink in the other, during tournaments, as did many of his contemporaries, that was the way it was back then. He once told an experienced referee to “read the fucking rule book”. He refused to wear the proper snooker attire, the all black suit with bow tie, often preferring to throw the dickie bow to the crowd. He was banned from going on the popular snooker TV show, Pot Black, for pissing in a sink. Not the only time he had a tricky mickey, once caught urinating into a flower pot at the crucible! Constantly falling out with the authorities, that was Alex.
Representing himself at a disciplinary hearing, he arrived with a trolley full of Moet & Chandon and a jug of orange juice to soften up his accusers. it didn’t work, he still got his usual hefty fine. In 1986 he headbutted a tournament official after he was asked to provide a drugs test, at the UK Championship, leading to a £12,000 and banned from 5 tournaments. On another occasion he punched a tournament press officer for having the temerity to ask him to attend a pre arranged press conference. He also threatened to have rival snooker player fellow Northern Irishman Dennis Taylor shot next time he returned home, not the best thing to say during the “troubles”, and he was playing on the same team with him!
Higgins played fast and lived faster, and had all the important vices to his name…..women, gambling, drugs, the booze. Chucking TV’s through the window….check. A grand a week cocaine habit, check. Blowing 13 grand on bad horses in exotic Wolverhampton, check. Getting stabbed by an ex girlfriend check…..yeah old Alex was the rock n roll of snooker.
Hanging out with Oliver Reed probably didn’t help. The equally manic and heavy drinker, Reed and Higgins together got up to all sorts of shenanigans. Reed once chased him naked with an axe in his mansion, and then there was the infamous downed half-pint of Chanel No5.
Higgins reputation for causing trouble was well known…….he was more unwelcome at more hotels in every part of the globe than any other person in the whole of Britain. When Alex was around there was always an air of menace, the threat of violence never far away…..his volatile personality got him into frequent fights and arguments, both on and off the green baize.
Higgins never quite recaptured the heights of his 1982 World Championship win and 1983 UK win over Davis, slipping down the rankings, retiring a few times, getting banned the other times, all affecting his ability to get a good run on the professional circuit. There was a stand out win in the non ranking Irish Benson & Hedges Masters win in 1989, where a 40 year old Higgins, on crutches (fell out of a window, as you do) and hobbling around the table, beat a young Stephen Hendry in what was to be his last tournament victory, “The Hurricane’s Last Hurrah”.
But it all caught up with Alex in the end. The drink, the drugs, the hectic lifestyle, the smoking…….Higgins smoked as much as 60 cigarettes a day……he got throat cancer which he successfully had beaten, but it took a lot of out of him. His teeth were ruined due to the intensive radiotherapy and he was forced to eat liquid food to stay alive.
It is estimated that Higgins had earned about £4 million in his career, but which he frittered away on drink, cocaine and gambling, so when he needed to buy teeth implants for £20,000 he couldn’t afford them. The result was that he couldn’t stomach solid food, and lost a lot of weight, down to about 6 stone in the end. So when friends did raise £20,000 for the new teeth he was just too frail to have surgery. Despite all this he continued to smoke cigarettes and drink heavily, with Guinness a substitute for some of the nourishment he should have been getting from food.
His beloved sisters had looked after him in his final days, and he survived on a £200-a-week disability allowance with any extra money he had hard earned from playing all comers in the pubs and clubs of Belfast. He died of multiple causes, aged 61, at his Belfast home on 24 July 2010. The cause of death was a devastating combination of malnutrition, pneumonia, a bronchial condition and the lasting affects of throat cancer.
Higgins’ funeral service was held in Belfast on 2 August 2010. Following a funeral in the family home in Roden Street in the south of the city, a cortege led by a horse drawn carriage wound its way through the centre of the city, the street lined by hundreds of people paying their respects. A tearful Jimmy White helped carry the coffin.
His legacy on the game? Well without Alex and the attacking game he brought to the masses, perhaps we wouldn’t have had a Jimmy White or a Ronnie O Sullivan (“one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker in the first place”)….Alex inspired these players with his all round attacking game. and gung ho style of play.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses with Alex, yes that’s for sure. He had a terrible temper, wasn’t nice to be around when he was angry and he could be unpleasant and intimidating, and made a good few enemies along the road. But a player who comes along and changes the way we look at a sport, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and plays his life out in the tabloids and the press, well we, the sporting public, can cut him some slack for that I think. As someone said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”
And whatever you think about Alex, few players could still command £1000 pound night fees in expedition matches, or £10,00 interviews for “tell all” newspaper pieces, when he was in his 50’s.
Alex, the maverick snooker genius, a one off to the game, we will not see his like again…..It was always death or glory both on and off the table…….we salute you the peoples champion Alex Hurricane Higgins.
A BBC comedy drama that tells the story of Alex Higgins and his tense rivalry with Steve Davis and the birth of modern-day snooker.
Well worth a look, particularly for the acting, Luke Treadaway who plays Alex giving an excellent performance.