As the Christmas break continues and there is action on the baize – not for the pros at least – Worldsnooker is publishing more articles of general interest for the fans of snooker. The last one is about Alex Higgins.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alex Higgins winning the Northern Ireland Amateur Championship. By beating Maurice Gill in the final in 1968, the teenage genius from Belfast gave a clear indication that he was ready to make his mark on snooker. The Hurricane went on to win two World Championship titles and establish himself as one of Northern Ireland’s all-time great sportsmen and most extraordinary characters. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 61. We asked a few of those who knew him best to give us their favourite memories of a true legend…
“Alex was the reason I took up snooker. I first saw him play on TV on Pot Black, whizzing around the table potting balls. It drew me into the game, I was so excited to watch him. He was a true inspiration to a lot of kids in the 1970s and 80s. He was a real hero. I was the last person to play Alex at the Crucible, in 1994. During the match he had an argument with the referee John Williams. Alex was trying to tell him where to stand, and John replied: ‘I have been standing in the same place all day, I’m not in your line of sight.’ Alex turned around as quick as flash and said: ‘No, but you’re in my line of thought.’ Whatever that meant I don’t know, but it cracked me up! He was great to be around. When I was 14 I used to work as an usher at the Goffs venue in Ireland, fetching drinks for the players. He used to say to me: ‘Hey kid, if I ask you for an orange juice, that means a vodka and orange. If I ask for a vodka and orange, that means a double.’ That was the first time I met him. I knew he was something else.”
“I was playing an exhibition with Alex in Aberdeen and there was a girl in a wheelchair watching. Afterwards Alex went to talk to her and her family. The next night, we were playing another exhibition in Edinburgh, and the same girl turned up again. And again Alex went to speak to her afterwards. We got chatting to her parents and we all ended up going out together for fish and chips. I could see how made up the girl was. I’m sure it’s something she has never forgotten. Alex had a big heart and did a lot of that kind of thing which was never mentioned. He was very unpredictable.”
“Alex has gone down in history as being one of the greatest sportsmen from Northern Ireland. I didn’t get to appreciate him in his time, but I have watched plenty of videos and heard all the stories and I consider him a hero. He did wonders for snooker. Alex and Jimmy White more or less carried the sport for many years in the sense that they had a pop-star image.”
“At the 1992 UK Championship I was playing Stephen Hendry. Before the match, Alex came up to me and gave me badge to put on my waistcoat. It was silver, in the shape of a pig. He told me it was his lucky charm which he had always carried with him, and he wanted me to have it. I can’t repeat the exact words he said, but he told me he wanted me to go out and beat Hendry. It didn’t work because I lost 9-8! But it was a very nice thing for me, at the age of only 17, to be given a gift like that by him. I never expected it and I’m still not sure why he wanted me to have it. I wore it on my waistcoat for many years and I’ve still got it in my house. I never got to see Alex play when he was at his best. I only played him once towards the end of his career. But I’ve watched videos of him and there is no one like him any more, the style he played with.”
“My favourite moment involving Alex is playing him in the final of the Masters in 1980. It was my first Masters, staged at the old Wembley Conference Centre, which was a fabulous venue. The players had to walk up some stairs to get into the arena, and I remember coming out to 2,700 people cheering and shouting. I went to sit in my seat, looked around and just thought: ‘This is the best place I could ever hope to be.’ I was absolutely buzzing. Then Alex was introduced and the roar went to a new level. It was incredible, the reception he got. My body was tingling all over. It was an amazing experience. That’s why I always loved playing Alex, because of the atmosphere he generated. And when you were playing him you never knew whether you’d be sitting in your chair for three frames because he couldn’t miss, or at the table for three frames because he couldn’t pot a ball. It was always exciting. He did so much for snooker – not all of it good! But he was a wonderful asset for the sport as we went into the 1980s.”
“Alex was an absolute idol of mine when I was growing up. So the first time I met him will always stay in my memory. I was 14 and playing in a pro-am event in Cork. I went up to the bar to get an orange juice, and Alex was sitting there doing a crossword. He turned around and saw me and I could see he was struggling with one of the clues and he wanted to ask me if I knew the answer. But he must have known who I was because he just said ‘There’s no point asking you, you’re from Belfast as well,’ then he turned his back on me! Years later I got to know him well and had some great times with him. He was one of a kind.’
Phil Yates – snooker journalist
“I was covering snooker for national newspapers as Higgins was coming towards the end of his career. There were times when he lost matches and the journalists didn’t want to speak to him afterwards because we knew he would be in a foul mood. I remember one occasion at the Norbreck Castle when he was playing in a qualifying event. Myself and one of the other writers, Trevor Baxter, already had a story that day because someone had made a 147. So when Higgins lost and the tournament director, Ann Yates, asked us if we wanted to speak to him, we said no. She replied: ‘Well, he’s definitely going to want to speak to you.’ So Trevor and I went to hide in a toilet next to the press room. We heard Alex come into the press room and say he wanted to speak to us. He was shouting: ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are’ as we were cowering in the toilet! We stayed in there until we were sure he had gone. Another time I recall at the same venue, he played a Thai called Tai Pichit in the World Championship qualifiers. In one frame Higgins made a century, a break of 137 which was one of the highest of his career. As he cleared the colours he was actually crying in between shots. In the end he lost 10-5. I spoke to Tai after the match and he said simply: ‘I don’t want to play him again. He’s crazy.’”
I must admit that I don’t feel much admiration for Alex. Having read his autobiography, as well as Jason Francis books about the origins of the Snooker Legends shows and his involvement with Alex, my perception of Alex as a person is not exactly positive: in both books he comes across as a spoiled brat grown into a selfish, obnoxious, prone to violence and dishonest adult. Watching “The Rack Pack” (BBC2) hasn’t changed that perception either. Of course, I am aware of his huge influence on snooker as a sport, and of the fact that he was key to snooker booming popularity in the 80th. I have watched some footage, and I can see how different he was from the rest at the time and why he was exciting. I can see why young boys aspiring to become snooker players were attracted by his style and flair. He definitely did change snooker forever. But I wasn’t around at the time and that probably explains why I’m not really “caught” into the fascination he seems to have exerted on fans and fellow pros alike in the days. I am also well aware of the issues he had, with alcohol and gambling and many in the sport have said that he didn’t get the help and support he needed and deserved. But then again, when people did try to help him, and there were quite a few who certainly did try – Ken Doherty, Jimmy White, Jason Francis, Ronnie, even fans doing crowdfunding before the word existed … – he always managed to sabotage their efforts somehow. He never seemed to accept that his behaviour was the main problem, not the others, and that he had to change for things to improve. That he died the way he did – from malnutrition – is terrible. The state he was in was in part a consequence of his fight against cancer, but it was also largely a consequence of a life ruined by severe alcoholism. It’s extremely difficult to help and save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
BTW if you haven’t watched “The Rack Pack”, it’s very well filmed and interesting, albeit not 100% in accordance with the historical truth.
Here is the trailer