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Hurricane Sandy

02/03/2013

Alex Higgins

I dozed off during Newsnight a few weeks ago. It’s either a sign that I’m knocking on a bit or my desire to understand the world around us is waning. Hopefully it’s the former. Anyway, I came round about half an hour later and peered somewhat fuzzily at the now mostly green screen. Snooker was on. And the scoreline at the bottom of the screen indicated that Higgins was playing Davis. For a few seconds I imagined I’d been transported back to the 1980s when a snooker contest pitting Higgins against Davis would have set the pulse racing. A Manchester United v Liverpool of the green baize. Sadly, it turned out it wasn’t Alex versus Steve in 1982, but John against Mark in the 2012 UK Championship in York. I watched for a few minutes before heading to bed.

It’s easy to forget how popular snooker was in the 1980s. Television audiences regularly exceeded ten million viewers even for lesser tournaments such as the World Doubles. Everyone had their favourite players; the Canadian Bill Werbeniuk and his diet of lager and beta blockers, a youthful Steve Davis, the avuncular Ray Reardon or the ex-postman Terry Griffiths who won the World Championship at his first attempt in 1979, to name but a few. But snooker owed much of its popularity to Alex Higgins and the excitement that he brought to the game. Sadly he died, almost penniless, in July 2010 after a long fight against throat cancer.

Last year was 30 years since Alex won the World Snooker Championship for the second time beating Ray Reardon in the final, a decade after becoming the youngest player to win it, aged 22. The emotional scenes as he tearfully lifted the trophy with wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren remain some of the most iconic in sport. Apart from Ronnie O’Sullivan’s admirable attempt to get the sport’s governing body to recognise this anniversary, it passed with barely a mention in the press or on television. I guess Alex never really fitted in with the modern obsession with sporting “role models”.

Higgins was certainly no angel and had frequent battles with snooker officials and fellow players and was banned for a whole season after threatening to have Dennis Taylor shot in 1990. His career never recovered from this ban. Snooker had become a young man’s game and Alex was by then the wrong side of forty and drink and gambling were getting the better of him.

I prefer to remember Alex in his prime; charismatic, fast, flamboyant, stylish and exciting. Snooker’s McEnroe, Ballesteros and Maradona all rolled into one. A waif-like figure scurrying round the table, constantly twitching and perpetually in motion. When addressing the cue ball his head always seemed to jerk rather than remaining still over the shot as he rushed on to the next one. Famously open-necked, his energy and nonconformity made for a complete contrast with the sober, bow-tied, besuited gentlemen the game had been used to before his arrival.

Alex was the first snooker star of the modern era and the only reason I ever became interested in the game. Unable to afford one of the nice looking six foot tables in the Co-op’s sports department, our next door neighbour put his woodworking skills into action and made us a table. The cloth was a bit hairier than that of a standard table, and shots played gently would often see balls veering off a straight line, but it gave us chance to pretend we were the Hurricane.

Apart from the speed at which he played the game, one of Alex’s other notable characteristics was his ability to read the game and see and execute shots that were beyond most players. His knowledge of the angles of a table was second to none and would often see him escaping a tricky position with a shot of breathtaking audacity. This ability was never better demonstrated than during his semi-final with a young Jimmy White in the 1982 world championship.

Alex’s break of 69 in the penultimate frame of that match is widely regarded as the greatest break in snooker history. If you’ve not seen it before, put the kettle on, make a brew, click on the link below and sit back and treat yourself to six minutes of sporting genius. In a sporting world where anything rising above mediocrity is all too often labelled as “sensational”, they haven’t printed a dictionary with enough superlatives in it yet to do justice to this particular piece of action.

For this young Red it was up there with Jimmy Greenhoff’s late winner, in another semi-final, at Goodison Park in 1979. The stylish underdog fighting back against those who preached consistency, machine-like efficiency and playing the percentages. One for those who think that sport is much more than trophies and statistics.

Higgins comes to the table 16-15 down and trailing by 59 points with six reds left. Jimmy only needs to take this frame to win the match and make it to his first final. There follows a sequence of eighteen shots under intense pressure that, to my mind, are as good as anything else in modern sport. The late Jack Karnehm and the former world champion John Spencer are the commentators and as the break develops it is clear they are aware that they’re witnessing something very special. At one point, Karnehm suggests that it will be “the break of the tournament” if Alex clears the table. Sporting hyperbole wasn’t as prevalent in 1982 as it is now. Meanwhile Spencer intones that “I’m feeling nervous for him Jack” as Alex lines up another shot.

The commentators and television audience may have been feeling the tension but Alex appears calm throughout the break. He even has time for a smile towards the commentary box after a tremendous long pot on the black into the bottom right hand pocket. It appears that everything is clicking and there’s almost a sense that he’s playing so well that he simply can’t miss. The shot on the blue into the top right hand corner, midway through the break, played with enough check side to bring the cue ball back down the table for the reds is simply astonishing.

Sadly, this was the pinnacle of Alex’s career. There should have been so much more. There were other moments to remember such as the tremendous fightback against Steve Davis in the 1983 UK Championship when he recovered from 0-7 down to win the final. And winning the World Doubles with his mate Jimmy White in 1984. But that was pretty much it bar the odd glimpse of his supreme natural talent. The statistics don’t do him justice at all. In his pomp he was a magnificent and mesmerising sight.

The last word goes to Ronnie O’Sullivan, perhaps the natural successor to Alex in the modern game; “the way he played at his best is the way that I believe the game should be played. It was on the edge, keeping the crowd entertained and glued to the action”.

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One Comment
  1. Ian Scott permalink

    That Was The Era That Was: Dennis Taylor, Patsy Fagan, Tony Knowles, Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Tony Meo, Perry Mans, Eddie Charlton, Terry Griffiths, Ray Reardon, Graham Miles, Jon Spencer, ‘Big’ Bill Werbeniuk, Kirk Stevens, Jim Wych, Cliff “The Grinder” Thorburn (although that seems to mean something else nowadays), Doug Mountjoy, Neal Foulds, Dean Reynolds, Dene O’Kane, David Taylor, Mike Hallett, John Parrott. All remembered from my Pot Black book

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