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A brilliant snooker player but an often cruel person… The Jekyll and Hyde life of Alex Higgins

The Whirlwind is remembering the Hurricane. It’s nearly 10 years since Alex Higgins finally blew himself out, but his one true mate has a tale of when it seemed like the madness would never end. When even death didn’t fancy the aggravation of dealing with that riddle from Belfast.

‘I’d been given this Mini Metro car by a sponsor for a photo shoot,’ Jimmy White tells Sportsmail. His story dates to the early Nineties.

‘I had a driver for the day but after six hours of whatever Alex and me were up to, he sacked himself. We were obviously drinking and I’m not proud to admit it but at the end of the night we go to drive home. I lived in Oxshott in Surrey at that time. Countryside.  

It's nearly 10 years since 'The Hurricane' Alex Higgins finally blew himself out

It’s nearly 10 years since ‘The Hurricane’ Alex Higgins finally blew himself out

The Hurricane died penniless in sheltered housing from malnutrition in Belfast aged 61

The Hurricane died penniless in sheltered housing from malnutrition in Belfast aged 61

The Hurricane died penniless in sheltered housing from malnutrition in Belfast aged 61

‘On the way I skid into a little wall. Higgins didn’t have a seatbelt on and pops straight through the windscreen and lands the other side of the bonnet, facing me. He’s covered in rubble and then he starts shouting, ‘I have nine lives, baby, nine lives’.’

That’s not the end of the yarn — with Higgins there’s always more. White continues: ‘I was like, ‘Get in the f****** car’. We finally got home but I can’t relax because the tax disc on the window has my name on it. I’m arranging for someone to get it from the crash site but I’ve got Alex saying, ‘Let’s play snooker for money, £300 a frame, babes’. It’s 2am or something and I say, ‘Are you f****** mad? We nearly died’.

‘He won’t let it go and I won’t play, so he storms off angry. Anyway, he knew I’d been arguing with a neighbour who wanted a tree cut down. Next thing I know, he wakes him and says I was going to beat him up. F****** hell, Higgins. I think he actually talked the guy into giving him a lift to Reading in the middle of the night as well.

‘Funny thing, next time I saw Alex he acted like nothing happened. And that is the way he was. I miss him dearly.’

Ten years on, the mysteries of that man are as baffling as ever.

Jimmy White carried Higgins' coffin at his funeral and has opened up to Sportsmail about him

Jimmy White carried Higgins' coffin at his funeral and has opened up to Sportsmail about him

Jimmy White carried Higgins’ coffin at his funeral and has opened up to Sportsmail about him

Sportsmail has spoken to some of those who knew him best, and some who merely fell in his path, from White to Steve Davis, John Virgo, Cliff Thorburn, Ray Reardon and Barry Hearn.

They have admired him, cowered from him, tried to save him and, in Thorburn’s case, given in to the urge to kick him in the testicles.

They talk of a guy who in parts was a genius, an under-achiever, a nasty drinker and a trailblazer who changed a sport. Someone who could do The Times crossword in 15 minutes and could thrill and poison a room even quicker.

A mural of the former snooker champion exists near his home located in south Belfast

A mural of the former snooker champion exists near his home located in south Belfast

A mural of the former snooker champion exists near his home located in south Belfast

He was a conundrum from whichever angle you attempted the pot.

A man who couldn’t be without a woman and a bully who fractured a girlfriend’s jaw; a bloke who once threatened to have Dennis Taylor shot and emptied countless bullets into his own feet. He made others rich and on July 24, 2010 he died penniless in sheltered housing from malnutrition, aged 61. 

One of the greats of British sport? By some measures, yes. The most complicated? Certainly. Nine lives? It was the only known time he talked himself down.

It’s 1982 and Higgins has reached the World Championship semi-finals at the Crucible. Ten years had passed since he became the youngest champion, aged 22, and then loudly declared he’d win the next five or six. Turns out he was wrong by five or six.

He could get over the line in non-ranking events, taking 17 titles in that decade after his breakthrough, but on the highest stage the closest he came were defeats in the world finals of 1976 and 1980.

The first because ‘he was drunk for three sessions’, according to Ray Reardon, who beat him in the final, and the second because he couldn’t resist a punt. Never could — be it on bad horses, which once cost him £13,000 in a day, or risky, crowd-pleasing shots, which cost him a big lead against Cliff Thorburn in 1980.

Higgins held his baby daughter Lauren after winning the world championship again in 1982

Higgins held his baby daughter Lauren after winning the world championship again in 1982

Higgins held his baby daughter Lauren after winning the world championship again in 1982

By 1982, he had made a muddled reputation for himself. A player of truly great shots, but a truly great player? He too rarely had the consistency and he almost never had the lifestyle, with one tale relating to the BBC’s popular show, Pot Black.

The story goes that when Higgins was invited in the early Seventies he upset a few important people. ‘I believe he urinated in a sink,’ John Virgo tells Sportsmail.

He was only sporadically asked back thereafter and perhaps that served as the neatest visual of a career trickling down the drain, picking fights on his way. Virgo tells of a flight home from Canada in 1974 when Higgins twice almost came to blows with Willie Thorne ‘because of a row about a giant teddy’.

But those World Championships of ’82 were offering a remarkable rebuttal to the established wisdoms around Higgins. He was a reformed character, apparently, and he reached the last four against White. At 15-14, 59-0 down in a best of 31, Higgins came up with a 69 clearance that even today is considered among the best in history.

Higgins twice almost came to blows with Willie Thorne 'because of a row about a giant teddy'

Higgins twice almost came to blows with Willie Thorne 'because of a row about a giant teddy'

Higgins twice almost came to blows with Willie Thorne ‘because of a row about a giant teddy’

Like so many numerical aspects of Higgins’ career, it wasn’t the size of the break but the manner of it.

The challenges caused by some loose positional shots and the pots that rescued him. There is a long blue and swerving white at 59-13 that could be a Federer backhand or a Messi chip. There were more conservative ways of saving the frame, but no one beyond Higgins at that time could set such high tariffs of difficulty and stick the landing.

‘It was art,’ says Virgo. Higgins would go on to win the decider and then beat Reardon in the final. In addition to the career-resuscitating victory, Higgins’ tearful call to have his infant daughter Lauren brought to him at the trophy presentation — ‘My baby, give me my baby’ — helped change the face of snooker. It also set the backdrop to a truly remarkable story that would occur in the next 24 hours.

John Virgo is chuckling. It is a matter of record that Higgins followed his second world title by receiving a fine and a suspension over an earlier incident. Less well known is exactly how the disciplinary meeting played out.

The discussion point related to a late-night practice session at the Crucible partway through the tournament. Higgins had been told by security that it was closing time, to which the guard was not-so-politely instructed by the player to leave him be. Fearing a toilet break would see the doors locked behind him, Higgins later urinated in a plant pot and was caught in the act by the guard, prompting a scuffle.

Virgo, who was on the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association board, was among those tasked with discussing the matter the morning after Higgins’ big win. He takes up the story.

‘We were just settling down when we have a knock on the door,’ says Virgo. ‘In comes a waiter with six bottles of champagne, ‘Compliments of Mr Higgins’. Oh, thank you.

‘Moments later, there’s another knock. It’s Alex, saying, ‘Look the press are waiting for me. Any decision?’ We say, ‘Not yet Alex, you go home and you’ll be first to know’. But it is looking good for him. Minutes later, another knock.

John Virgo recounts how Higgins received a fine and suspension following a second world title

John Virgo recounts how Higgins received a fine and suspension following a second world title

John Virgo recounts how Higgins received a fine and suspension following a second world title

‘This time he has his baby. He says he is a changed man, will be good for the game. We give him a hint he will be OK and he leaves. Then it gets interesting.

‘Eddie Charlton, the Australian player, raises an issue that Alex won’t be able to play an upcoming tournament in Australia because there was an incident last time he played it. Suggestion a gun may have been pulled. That’s trickier.

‘Suddenly the door bursts open and it’s Alex. He must have had his ear against the door. He shouts, ‘This is ridiculous. I don’t even want to go to Australia, Charlton. Shove it up your ****’. He goes berserk, ‘You can’t live without me’, all sorts. He leaves and this silence hangs over the room. I think he went from a slap on the wrist to banned for months in the blink of an eye and it was all his own fault.’

Without the suspension, he was almost certain to become world No 1 for the first time in the coming weeks. He never did get there.

There is little doubting that Higgins changed snooker. The regret is he couldn’t change himself.

‘Look at how the game developed with him,’ says Steve Davis. ‘His win in 1972, the worlds were played in front of blokes on crates. Suddenly, you had this guy in a fedora with an edge, barely pausing between shots, exciting, massive for the game.’

By 1985, the sport was able to command a TV audience of 18.5million for the final between Davis and Dennis Taylor. Higgins arguably played the single biggest role in that growth. And yet the same forces of personality that made him so alluring to the public often meant he was truly horrible for those in closer orbit.

Some of it we can laugh about. Some of it we can even wish for in today’s more sterile sporting environment. Like the time Higgins took exception to being given golfing tips during a pro-am and called his pro a ‘c***’. The golfer was Greg Norman.

Higgins changed snooker, however the regret remains that he couldn't change himself

Higgins changed snooker, however the regret remains that he couldn't change himself

Higgins changed snooker, however the regret remains that he couldn’t change himself

In a fascinating book written shortly after Higgins’ death, Virgo also wrote about him rolling a joint in front of a policeman and how, during a visit to his house shortly after that 1972 world title, he found a barely habitable chaos, in which the trophy sat adjacent to a plate of cheese put out for a mouse who shared his digs.

‘What people don’t understand about Alex is he was a sweetheart,’ says White. There are stories that back White up — in 1983, for instance, he would regularly send audio recordings to a sick child in Manchester who was a fan.

Davis himself could see a softer side, even though he was the rival who dominated Higgins with six world titles in the Eighties. ‘I was always a bit scared of Alex,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘People would use my boring image as a stick to hit him with. For that reason I was on tenterhooks around him.

‘I still remember being seated next to him on a flight to Canada in the early Eighties and I was a gibbering wreck about how he might behave — I tipped a can of beer on my lap in nerves. But he was absolutely charming.’

At this juncture, it would be too revisionist, too easy, to excuse Higgins as a tale of the misunderstood. A regrettable truth is he frequently went far beyond the quirks of a lovable rogue and could be outright awful, usually via whisky. One time he viciously mocked Virgo over not seeing his son after a break-up.

Steve Davis could see a softer side, even though he was the rival who dominated Higgins

Steve Davis could see a softer side, even though he was the rival who dominated Higgins

Steve Davis could see a softer side, even though he was the rival who dominated Higgins

Another appalling episode involved him breaking the jaw of girlfriend Siobhan Kidd with a hairdryer in 1989. Indeed, his domestic existence was every bit as volatile as his professional world, through two marriages and a relationship with Holly Haise, in whose garden he lived in a caravan for a part of the Nineties.

She apparently kept a voodoo doll of him and once stabbed the actual man three times.

HIGGINS FACTFILE 

Born: 18 March 1949

Died: 24 July 2010

Professional career: 1971-97

World champion: 1972, 1982

Century breaks: 82

Career earnings: £711,999 

Higgins just had a way of inciting fury. Thorburn once reacted to being called a ‘Canadian c***’ by punching Higgins to the ground. When they were brought together to shake hands, he downed him again with a kick to the crotch.

The best estimate is he faced around 50 disciplinary hearings in all, from wardrobe infractions to headbutting an official in 1986 to his threat in 1990 to have his fellow Northern Irishman Dennis Taylor shot. ‘He could drive you mad,’ says Barry Hearn, Davis’s manager and chairman of World Snooker.

‘He came to play an exhibition with Steve at Romford over four days in the 70s. On the third day the fans were giving him abuse so he stormed out. We had a terrible argument and I pinned him against my wall. The following morning he couldn’t have been nicer and in the first frame he made 135. Jekyll and Hyde.’

Virgo revered Higgins as a player and socialised with him more than most. ‘One minute he would be happy, bathing in the adulation he craved and then he would turn on a sixpence,’ he says.

Davis also claims that Higgins had as much ability as current star Ronnie O'Sullivan

Davis also claims that Higgins had as much ability as current star Ronnie O'Sullivan

Davis also claims that Higgins had as much ability as current star Ronnie O’Sullivan

Why? That’s the mystery. A plausible theory has tended to be that Higgins simply needed attention, to feel adored as the open-collared bohemian in a room of stuffed shirts. When that love faded and his results declined, his behaviour became more erratic. His incidents seemed to get more extreme in the Eighties and Nineties with the arrival of more reliable players.

If his technique was better — ‘He had as much ability as Ronnie O’Sullivan but too much body movement,’ says Davis — maybe results would have kept the worst rage at bay.

But maybe his many vices would have brought him down anyway. Maybe, and quite possibly, the biggest factor of all was the breakdown of his second marriage to Lynn Avison in the mid-Eighties. Maybe some puzzles are not meant to be solved.

The first time Thorburn met Alex Higgins, the latter threatened to throw a snooker ball at his head after claiming the Canadian hustled him. The final time Thorburn just wanted to hug him.

‘It was a couple of months before he died,’ Thorburn recalls. ‘It was a Snooker Legends event at the Crucible and he was… it was sad.’

Higgins was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997 and while he had received the all-clear by the late Noughties, he was a sorry sight. He blew all his money after earning in excess of £3million and radiotherapy had destroyed his teeth, forcing him to live off baby food. He would play for £5 bets in Belfast, blag a Guinness where he could, and at night returned to sheltered accommodation.

His family and White did what they could for him — White in particular was tireless in trying to spin cash for his old mate. But by then, Higgins was long beyond help. By most accounts, that was a theme of his life.

White in particular was tireless in trying to spin cash for his old mate after he blew all his own

White in particular was tireless in trying to spin cash for his old mate after he blew all his own

White in particular was tireless in trying to spin cash for his old mate after he blew all his own

‘There were times people tried to help him,’ says Reardon, a six-time world champion. ‘I remember we once tried to set up a tournament in his name, long before he was unwell. He’d have made a fortune for doing nothing. But he kept asking for more and in the end it never happened. He kept getting in his own way.’

By the time Higgins rocked up to the Crucible in 2010, after a life of tripping himself up, he was barely six-and-a-half stone. ‘He was so frail I just wanted to hug him,’ says Thorburn. ‘In his eyes you could see he still wanted to beat me but I saw him and any desire to play just went.’

Higgins died alone three months later. He lay undiscovered in his bed for a few days after succumbing to malnutrition, pneumonia, tooth decay and a bronchial condition.

Ten years on, it still feels tragic. You have to wonder, and doubt, if British sport will ever again know a storm like it.

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