Former snooker world champion Alex Higgins died last month after, as the newspapers routinely and rather predictably put it, ‘a long battle with throat cancer’. This is a rather odd way of expressing it, since Higgins carried on smoking tobacco and drinking copious amounts of Guinness during his chemotherapy treatment. It’s a mystery how the battle managed to last so long.
Higgins soared like a meteor across the world of snooker in the 70s and early 80s. Some say he was the greatest player ever, despite the fact that he won very few major tournaments. With his audacious style, astonishing ability and frantic high-speed approach to this sedate game, he was big box office at the time when the sport was becoming a TV attraction.
I learnt to play snooker at university and was reasonably good at it by the time I started watching Higgins on TV in the 1970s. When you can play a bit, you recognise gob-smacking talent. He was the kind of player who brought crowds to their feet.
A unique showman and genius has therefore passed away.
Higgins was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, famous for his temper tantrums and violent behaviour towards other players (and to his various partners). He even threatened to have an opponent shot.
Here are some of the details of his tempestuous life, as related by Clive Everton in The Observer and The Guardian.
In 1986, when asked to take a drugs test during the UK Championship, Higgins head-butted the official who made the request, which earned him a £12,000 fine and five-tournament ban as well as a court appearance, where he was handed a £250 fine for assault and criminal damage.
Money worries were escalating as Higgins’s gambling continued unchecked, and he was banned for an entire season after punching another official in the stomach in 1990 after losing a second-round match in the World Championship. Around the same time, he threatened to have his Northern Irish Catholic rival Dennis Taylor killed, saying: “I come from Shankill and you come from Coalisland, and the next time you are in Northern Ireland, I will have you shot.”
On his return from suspension, he was again in the news after a row with his girlfriend, Siobhan Kidd, a psychology graduate he had met while she was working as a waitress. When she locked him inside her flat, he attempted to crawl round her building on a ledge, only to plunge 25 feet to the pavement, breaking bones in his foot.
A couple of weeks later, on crutches, he displayed farcical courage in getting through a round of the 1989 European Open and, as his condition improved, won the Irish Championship shortly afterwards. No longer hopping but limping, he won the Irish Masters by beating Stephen Hendry, who was to win seven world titles in the 1990s, 9-8 in the final. It was the last title he ever won.
His last match on the circuit was in August 1997 in a qualifying event in Plymouth. He lost 5-1, became truculent, was escorted from the venue by police and was found at 4am sprawled on the ground outside a nightclub, the victim, so he claimed, of an unprovoked assault with an iron bar. Quickly discharging himself from hospital, he made his way to the Manchester home of a girlfriend, Holly Hayse, who stabbed him with a kitchen knife when an altercation broke out. Higgins declined to give evidence against her.
Many people have compared Higgins to another Protestant Northern Irishman, Manchester United footballer George Best, the greatest-ever football player from these islands.
As someone who grew up marveling at Best’s talents (despite the fact I supported the other Manchester team), I find the comparisons between Best and Higgins a bit of a problem.
Best was certainly troubled and had alcohol and relationship problems, but as far as I know, he only resorted to violence on the field, and against other players who had tried to maim him with a crippling tackle.
Reading the obituaries about Higgins, I fear that we’re in another of those ‘let’s forgive him – after all, he was a genius’ situations. The fact is, Alex Higgins was a violent alcoholic and gambler, who caused mayhem to people around him, including his close family. If he hadn’t been one of the best snooker players in the world, what would people have thought about him?
Unfortunately, the comparison that comes to my mind is not with George Best, but with Roman Polanski, guilty of a terrible crime against a young girl, but ‘forgiven’ by all and sundry. Yet another ‘flawed genius’.
If you want to read a candid report of the Polanski case, the following link is journalist Johann Hari’s article about it.