I didn’t see George Best at his peak, and while I consider Muhammad Ali to be the most charismatic sportsperson who ever lived, for any fan invested in the Belfast man’s fate, watching snooker star Alex Higgins play live on TV was the most nerve-wracking and tantalising experience. He was mesmerising.
It dawned on me this week that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Higgins’ first world title win, in 1972. It’s also the 40th anniversary of his second world championship, won in such memorable style against Ray Reardon in 1982.
Higgins, who died in 2010, won’t top too many ‘Greatest of all time’ polls, but Alex was almost certainly the most entertaining and compelling player to ever lift a cue. He changed the sport, dragging it from smoky halls into the TV age, into the hearts of millions of people.
Even if he’s not the greatest player of all time – Ronnie O’Sullivan probably deserves that accolade – Higgins was one of the best ever, a genius who revolutionised the game. In that sense, he is probably the biggest star snooker has ever seen.
Before Higgins exploded on to the scene, snooker was a gentleman’s game played in (mostly) dingy halls, the outside world oblivious. From Belfast came a Hurricane. Higgins’ jerky body movements and amazing speed around the table electrified snooker halls. He potted balls with startling pace and power, displaying brilliantly inventive shot-making that introduced a now wide-eyed old guard to new possibilities. Nobody had ever seen snooker played this way.
The public loved the brash kid from Belfast, this moody entertainer who played with such extraordinary flair and style. In 1972, competing in the World Championship for the first time, he won it outright. Crowds followed Higgins everywhere, while the other players flocked to see him – and learn from him. The TV companies soon got in on the act. Snooker would never be the same again.
‘Hurricane Higgins’ – also known as ‘The People’s Champion’ – was also compelling because of his often outrageous behaviour. There were many scrapes with other players and officials, and his not very private life was often a sorry mess. Shadowed by personal demons, the man who made snooker the mass appeal sport it became could not save himself.
On the 40th and 50th anniversaries of his two world title wins, I fondly remember the controversial and brilliant Alex Higgins. While he was certainly volatile and wayward, he was a unique sportsman who gave pleasure to millions of people.
*There’s some great footage of Higgins on YouTube.