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Ssb - uk championship stories part 1: Alex higgins

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  • Ssb - uk championship stories part 1: Alex higgins

    Any sport would have been grateful for one Alex Higgins but there were times when snooker felt as if even a single Hurricane was one too many.

    A combustible genius, Higgins lurched between brilliance and excess, leaving a trail of wreckage, both metaphorical and real, throughout his memorable life.

    The UK Championship provided a stage for one of the greatest highs of his career as well as some regrettable lows.

    On table, he was a leading contender for the early UK Championship titles. The tournament was first staged in 1977 when there was only a small number of professionals. Higgins had already been world champion and, though unpredictable, was at the peak of his playing powers.

    He reached his first UK final in 1980, losing 16-6 to Steve Davis, and then another in 1982, a few months after he had triumphed at the Crucible. Terry Griffiths, as different a character as it would be possible to meet, edged him 16-15.

    Higgins wrote in his autobiography that he practised ten hours a day for the 1983 UK Championship, sponsored by Coral.

    He was pitted in the final against Davis once again. The first session went about as badly as it could for Higgins. He had the crowd support but mustered a highest break of only 34 and lost all seven frames played.

    Higgins and Davis were opposites in every sense. Higgins was volatile and self destructive whereas Davis was dedicated and controlled. Ice cool, he would surely not lose from such a promising position.

    But Higgins, for all his faults off table, was always a fighter in the arena and dug his heels into the second session, winning seven of the eight frames to trail only 8-7. Going into the final night they were level at 11-11.

    This was now a battle for the line and the audience had to choose between the clean-cut and the flawed. Most, though by no means all, chose Higgins, who led 14-12, trailed 15-14 but dominated the last two frames.

    As Clive Everton wrote in Snooker Scene at the time, “perhaps he was like a man drawing comfort from the fact that the firing squad could only kill him once. At that stage, pride of performance could only be all that realistically remained but, as he at first contained Davis and then accrued one frame after another, hope dawned like a new day.

    “The death or glory finish for which he hungers stimulated one last surge which left him the only man standing when the shooting was done.”

    In other words, this high profile, BBC televised victory over snooker’s top dog reinforced in Higgins the image of a champion against the odds. Though blessed with considerable talent, nothing seemed to come easy to him. If he was going to do it, it would have to be the hard way.

    The two were not friends – far from it – and the words afterwards were not especially warm. Higgins wrote in his book: "I remember looking across at Steve during the presentation and thinking he looked like a little boy lost. He stood there, chalking his cue, bemused by the scenes of joy around him."

    The rematch in the 1984 UK final petered out: Davis won 16-8. Normal service was resumed.

    Higgins was the darling of the tabloids, though this is about a poisoned a chalice as can be imagined.

    On the back pages, on the front pages, Higgins was public property and the pressure was building. Something had to give, and it did.

    Even without the media, Higgins had always been a bustling, bristling fireball of nervous energy, anger and emotion. At the 1986 UK Championship it exploded like never before in one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the tournament.

    Higgins had beaten a second season professional called Stephen Hendry 9-8 in the last 64. In the last 16 he defeated Mike Hallett 9-7 before launching into a scathing but obviously impassioned critique of the size of the pockets.

    “We’re playing pool, not snooker,” said Higgins, giving the assembled press what they believed would be their story for the night.

    He then went downstairs to his dressing room but was asked to give a urine sample as part of the WPBSA’s relatively new drugs testing policy.

    And then it all kicked off. This was long before my time on the circuit but I’ve spoken to a WPBSA official who was present that night, who told me: “Higgins was snarling like a dog. There was a ball of foam coming out of his mouth. He started picking up plates and throwing them at anyone in his way, like he was in a Greek restaurant. He was mad as hell.”

    This unpleasantness ended with Higgins head-butting Paul Hatherell, the tournament director.

    Higgins, of course, recalled it all differently, writing in his book: "I went to find [David] Harrison (a WPBSA official) and as I walked out I lost my footing and tripped, spilling my pint over someone."

    There was a media storm, as there always was with Higgins. And he was, as always, unrepentant, giving a press conference outside his house wearing a fur hat and ankle length coat and holding one of the earliest mobile phones in existence, which was the size of several house-bricks.

    Asked by a reporter if he could survive without snooker, Higgins shot back: “can snooker survive without me?”

    This was typical of many of Higgins’s comments: smart, self-important and with an uncomfortable underlying level of truth.

    Higgins was beaten in the 1986 semi-finals by Davis. Snooker Scene’s account of this match was that Higgins was roundly cheered on the way in and out of the arena but that it was only 50% full, and this for a match featuring the self-styled ‘people’s champion.’

    He was subsequently banned for six tournaments but would return to create excitement and trouble in almost equal measure.

    One such incident came at the 1991 UK Championship when Higgins greeted Hendry before their first round match with the words, “hello, I’m the devil.”

    Hendry won 9-3 after which there was a difference in recollection as to what Higgins had said at the contest’s conclusion.

    The Northern Irishman claimed it had been, “well done, Stephen, you were a little bit lucky.” Hendry’s memory was of Higgins telling him, “up your a*** you c***.”

    Higgins’s last great hurrah in the tournament came in 1994, when he was sliding down the rankings. He beat Nigel Bond and reached the last 16 but was beaten by Dave Harold. This was his last appearance in a BBC tournament.

    He ended his professional career lying bleeding on the ground at the Plymouth qualifiers three years later after being stabbed by a girlfriend. His life ended in unbearably sad circumstances in 2010.

    To answer Higgins’s own question when he bestrode the sport like a malevolent colossus a generation ago, snooker did survive without him. In fact it flourished with new stars setting new standards. The UK Championship would enjoy many great moments in which he did not feature.

    But for all his faults, and he had many, there was something special about Alex Higgins which is impossible to manufacture or replicate.

    In 1983 he had won snooker’s gunfight at the UK Coral and he kept the game in the news in the years which followed through a career best summed up as the good, the bad and the ugly.