After almost 10 years in remission, Alex Higgins’ throat cancer has returned to claim his life. To see Higgins in later years was painful beyond belief, so reduced and ravaged by disease had he become. Better then to remember the good times as Alex himself would surely have wanted.
He always was a strange man, in some ways a product of the Belfast backstreets, but also slightly fey, slightly touched by the hand of genius – or maybe madness. It is, as they say, a fine line. One thing is for sure, in an era of ruffled shirts and lugubrious conformity, Higgins was the maverick who threatened to upset the apple cart and drag snooker back to its scuffling, scruffy roots in dingy clubs and pubs. Darts, the other traditional pub game that has latterly sought to escape into the leisure suites and – to quote John Cooper Clarke – the ‘ersatz bodega bars’ of modern-day Britain, has somehow learned to embrace the mavericks it produces. It was Higgins’ misfortune to spend many of his years as a top player kicking against snooker’s rulemakers and their attempts to make the sport ‘respectable’.
His frequent brushes with authority just cemented his reputation as snooker’s rebel and like his near contemporaries in other sports – John McEnroe and -another Ulsterman – George Best – he seemed to draw to him those who were otherwise repelled by the dreary norms that the bureaucrats were trying to impose. It might be an exaggeration to say that you either loved or loathed him, but among people I knew, few were indifferent.
Belfast bred him, but Manchester was his town and in his pomp, there was no hiding away behind electric gates and security guards. No matter how good or bad his health or his career at the time, Alex could often be seen out and about – drinking in the private upstairs room at The Circus in Whitworth Street with numerous United players (part of what Fergie later referred to as the ‘drinking culture’ he discovered when he arrived in 1986) , donating one of his spangly waistcoats to a charity auction at The Boardwalk around the time of Live Aid, dropping into the Chorlton Snooker Club of which I was a member and taking on anyone who fancied a pop at £50 a frame (he always won) and memorably, drunkenly haranguing some blowsy and equally plastered blonde at a bus stop close to his Cheadle home, never letting go of the fish & chips parcel he was clutching in his right hand and which he brandished in her face like a truncheon. We raised our eyebrows – great snooker player but fundamentally as daft as a brush.
Genius at work……
Even then, as his talent faded, he could still produce interludes of breathtaking skill, but the showman’s instincts ran too strong in him and he wilted in the face of the monotonous pragmatists that came to dominate the game in the 80’s. He would try crazy shots that left an atmosphere of disbelief around the auditorium, then had to sit in frustration as automata like Steve Davis and Cliff Thorburn hoovered up the mess he had left for them. Increasingly, as the years passed, the frequency with which he could get away with his quixotic swashbuckling style became less and less. He slipped down the rankings and into an oblivion of divorce, alcoholism and ultimately, illness. Those who disliked him – and there were many of them, particularly in the media ; Alex could polarise opinions like few others in those days – nodded sagely, as if to say they had seen this coming. Those of us who had cheered him on shook our heads sadly and got on with our lives.
Strange character though he undoubtedly was, I feel sure that Alex would want us to remember him at his best – those extraordinary moments where the whole audience held its collective breath as we wondered what outrageous piece of skill he would attempt next or how he would rescue himself from the brink of disaster this time. And then he would pull out some ludicrous shot and the place would explode – he would barely acknowledge the crowd, but you just knew that something inside him must have been glowing with pleasure at the entertainment he was providing.
When Alex had his run-ins (and they were regular) with the snooker authorities, he would complain about how they were stifling the life out of the sport and how they just wanted an elite corps of robots to represent them. Higgins never looked like one of the gang – his slightly distracted glare, his weird multi-hued and ruffle-free shirts – all of these things positively screamed ‘maverick’ and ‘outsider’. Well, the powers-that-be got what they wanted and in terms of popularity and marketability, snooker has been going backwards ever since. Not even Alex’s heirs – White and O’Sullivan – have been able to rescue it. In his twilight years, I wonder if being so right gave him pleasure or whether he was sad to see the game diminish in the way it has. He may have been a hustler at heart but one thing is for sure, Alex Higgins was part of a Golden Era for snooker that may well never return. He brought to the table all the frailties and twitchy idiosyncracies that were part of his off-table personality. When he failed we shared his anguish and when he won we exulted on his behalf. He made a game born out of physics and mathematics and mechanics seem just a little more human. We should all be grateful to him for that.