Alex Higgins

Introduction

Alex ‘The Hurricane’ Higgins was born in Belfast on Friday 18th March 1949. He went on to win 24 professional snooker titles over 19 years, including the World Championship twice. For many snooker players that information alone would be enough to paint a picture of the sort of life and career that they led, but not Higgins. The titles won were simply the tip of the iceberg in a career that has been controversial, emotional and nothing short of remarkable.

A storm is brewing

Alex Higgins grew up in Belfast where he lived with his mother, father and three sisters. He took an interest in snooker from an early age and used to earn a few pence by keeping score in money games played at his local snooker club, The Jampot. All the while Alex was quietly picking up on the players strengths and weaknesses and decided that, with a bit of practice, he could earn much more money by playing himself.

Unlike many sportsmen, he was a good student and rarely skipped school to indulge in his love of snooker, although he did spend almost every other waking hour watching and practising the game until he felt ready to risk his own hard earned cash. Not that there was ever too much chance of him ending up penniless. Even though he was playing players much older than himself he still emerged victorious more often than not.

Before long it was time to move onto bigger and better things and Alex progressed to The Shaftesbury snooker club, home to some of Belfast’s best players. Then in 1968, Higgins took the decision to enter the Northern Ireland amateur championship. He breezed through to the final and in front of a capacity crowd took the title. The world of snooker sat up and took note.

Hurricane warning

The Northern Ireland Championship gave Higgins the platform he needed and offers of exhibitions started to flood in. On top of this he entered two tournaments that would see him gain the confidence and experience needed to turn professional.

The first of these was the All-Ireland amateur championship which rather like the Northern Irish version he won fairly comfortably. The next and arguably most influential event of his fledgling career was the John Player UK Team Championship, which Higgins entered as captain of his local YMCA team. The tournament was played in Bolton and, with the help of his team mates Billy Caughey and Jacky Shannon, the title and £300 first prize went to the boys from Belfast. This was big news back in Ireland and The Belfast Telegraph did a major piece on the event, singling Higgins out as the player who had made the difference. The reporters covering the event were not the only ones to think so either, as just a few months later Higgins accepted an offer to return to Bolton to play in a series of exhibition matches with the then world champion John Spencer.

The final step for Alex was to turn professional and he did this in time to enter the 1972 World Championship. It was here that ‘The Hurricane’ was born and here that Alex Higgins re-wrote the record books.

The eye of the storm

Back in 1972 the World Championship was a very different event to nowadays. It spanned 11 months and the final was an epic best of 73 frame affair. The tournament was so long in fact that Higgins had time to win the Irish Professional title in-between the first and second round. This was Alex’s first professional title and came courtesy of a 28-12 victory over Jack Rea who, prior to the match, had been the holder for an incredible 19 years.

That win may have been impressive but it was the World Championship that really mattered and it was also Jack Rea that had come a cropper against ‘The Hurricane’ in the first round losing 19-11.

Higgins was on a roll and successive victories against John Pulman and Rex Williams followed to set up a mouth-watering final against the holder John Spencer. The event took place at a British Legion club in Birmingham and lasted 6 days with the momentum swinging back and forth until finally, with the score at 36-32, ‘The Hurricane’ had the chance to finish Spencer off, which he did with a magnificent break of 94. As a result, at the tender age of 22, Alex Higgins became snooker’s youngest ever World Champion.

The occasional lull but never a dull moment

As might have been expected following such a sensational victory, Higgins fame and popularity soared. He was seen by many as the people’s champion and was dubbed ‘The Hurricane’ by fans and the press for his speed around the table and powerful playing style. In fact, it is probably fair to say that he had single-handedly rejuvenated a sport that over the previous 20 years or so had been very much in decline.

Perhaps the pressure got to him or perhaps he was just enjoying himself too much, but whatever the reason it wasn’t until 1974 that he picked up his next professional title and pickings remained slim for a few years after that, with a final defeat to Ray Reardon in 1976 the only real moment of note on the table. Away from the snooker, however, things were rather more eventful as Higgins got married for the first time and also had the first of many run-ins with snooker’s governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA).

It was perhaps unsurprising that Alex and the WPBSA never saw eye to eye, given Higgins personality and his reputed love of drink, gambling and women. Their first coming together arose in the 1973 World Championship where he was fined for turning up late to his match and wearing clothes unbecoming of a professional (white trousers). It was to be the first of many fines, as Higgins continued to inadvertently provide the WPBSA with a steady income over the following years.

Force of nature

One of Alex Higgins’ great strengths was his ability to bounce back and put a run of bad form behind him. This was first demonstrated in the late 70s when, just as people were beginning to question whether he’d ever return to the top of the game, Higgins entered the most successful period of his career. It was not without controversy of course but, nevertheless, between 1978 and 1983 Alex won 12 professional titles, including the holy grail; the Embassy World Championship.

The period got off to an explosive start when, early in 1978, Alex was charged with the assault of a women by the name of Wendy Dring. He was acquitted at the court hearing but the huge press coverage wouldn’t exactly have pleased the WPBSA and was yet another example of Higgins making the front pages rather than the back. However, that soon changed as Alex put the incident behind him to win four titles over the next two years, including the prestigious Benson and Hedges Masters in 1978.

The Hurricane’s career was starting to pick up again and he was helped by some increased stability in his personal life when, in 1980, he got married for a second time to an English woman called Lynn Avison. On the table, Higgins enjoyed the busiest year of his career as he won four tournaments and finished as runner up in four others including the World Championship, where he lost a riveting final 18-16 to Cliff Thorburn.

1981 saw Higgins pick up where he had left off with another victory, this time in the Masters, but all the work and effort he had put in over the last 18 months or so had started to take its toll and, towards the end of the year, Alex booked himself into the Highfield Nursing Home in Rochdale for a well earned rest. He returned refreshed and raring to go and after narrowly missing out on the Irish Professional Championship, losing a closely fought final to Dennis Taylor, he entered the Embassy World Championship ready to blow away the opposition and reclaim the crown that meant so much to him.

A trail of destruction

Alex had finally found his focus and, with his wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren backing him all the way, he stormed through to the semi-finals of the Championship. Here he came up against his good friend Jimmy White and it was during this match that one of the greatest frames of snooker ever witnessed took place.

The match seemed to be slipping away from Higgins with White leading 15 frames to 14 and 59 points to 0, when suddenly the pressure got to Jimmy and he missed, just a few pots from reaching the final. Higgins got to his feet and surveyed the table and proceeded to make a clearance of 69 to win the frame. It’s difficult to put into words just how good a clearance it was, especially when taking into account the pressure of the situation, but needless to say it will never be forgotten by anybody lucky enough to witness it.

From that moment there could only ever be one World Champion and, sure enough, Higgins won the deciding frame against Jimmy White before going on to defeat Ray Reardon in the final 18-15 (a victory that was sealed in typical Hurricane fashion with a break of 135). For a second time, Alex Higgins was on top of the world, but unfortunately for him and his loyal fans, the victory did not signal the start of a bright new era, but simply a peak that, no matter how hard he tried, he would never reach again.

The downward spiral

1983 started well enough for Alex when his second child Jordan was born in March. However, despite this good news, cracks were beginning to show in his marriage and, whilst on holiday in Majorca, Higgins overdosed on sleeping tablets following a row with Lynn. For most people a near death experience such as that would have had a huge impact on their lives but not for ‘The Hurricane’, who simply went home, booked himself into rehab for four days at a nearby hospital (The Cheadle Royal) and prepared for the UK Championship.

As with his previous stint in rehab, the break must have done Higgins some good as he went on to win the UK Championship, pulling off one of the great snooker comebacks to beat Steve Davis in the final 16-15 after earlier trailing 7-0. Unfortunately, this was to be Higgins last major tournament victory and what followed over the next 15 years was far more a series of off the table incidents than on the table successes.

Higgins was becoming increasingly volatile and his relationship with Lynn had reached breaking point. The marriage finally collapsed in 1985 after a huge row resulted in Higgins making another court appearance where he admitted to offensive behaviour. Then, the following year, after a match at the UK Championship he was involved in an argument with a WPBSA representative, Paul Hatherell, after being asked to take a drugs test. The red mist descended and Hatherell felt the full force, finding himself on the receiving end of a Higgins head butt.

Alex had many comings together with the WPBSA over the years, some of which he could argue did not deserve punishment but not this time. He was fined £12,000 by the WPBSA and banned for five tournaments. On top of this, he also found himself back in the now familiar surroundings of a courtroom where he was charged with assault and criminal damage, resulting in a £250 fine.

Higgins just couldn’t seem to keep himself out of trouble and 1989 proved to be another problematic year when he broke multiple bones in his foot falling out of a flat window. He had had a row with his then girlfriend Siobhan Kidd and was trying to escape back to one of his favourite places of refuge – the casino. Alex still loved snooker though and even that injury wasn’t enough to stop him from playing. Just as well too, as it was snooker that stopped the year from being a complete disaster when he won the Irish Professional Championship.

Despite this victory, The Hurricane’s life was fast descending into chaos and, by the end of the year, money concerns were added to his list of problems when his management team at the time, Framework, were declared bankrupt whilst owing Higgins and other parties a combined total of £460,000. Something had to give and unfortunately it was Higgins snooker that suffered most when he was fined £5000, docked 25 ranking points and banned for the majority of the 1990/91 season after overstepping the mark once again when he threatened Dennis Taylor during a heated argument, saying: “Look, you, if I had a gun in my hands, I’d blow your brains out.”

Battered and bruised

The 5 years that followed the Taylor incident were relatively calm for Higgins. His snooker star had finally begun to fade and his ban and resultant low ranking meant that he was forced to qualify for most events. This restricted him to just one World Championship appearance, in 1994, where he lost 10-6 in round one to good friend Ken Doherty. The Hurricane’s life never seemed to stay quiet for long though and 1997 proved to be a year that would leave Higgins scarred both mentally and physically.

By this time, Alex was involved in an increasingly volatile relationship with a woman called Holly Haise. Both Alex and Holly had their problems and early in 1997 Holly attempted suicide by walking into a local reservoir. She survived but a tragedy looked dangerously close.

Snooker wasn’t providing ‘The Hurricane’ with any respite either when, in August of the same year, he lost 5-1 in a qualifier to Neil Mosley. Higgins didn’t take too kindly to some of the refereeing during the match and got involved in an argument which ended in him getting kicked out of the players lounge. Still reeling from earlier, Alex got involved in another argument later that night at a local nightclub. This time, however, he didn’t get off so lightly and ended up in hospital after being attacked with an iron bar upon leaving the club. The incident never went to court so the motive was never discovered but it’s fair to say that Higgins’ year was not going well. It wasn’t about to get any better either as just a couple of weeks later he was attacked again, but this time the culprit was much closer to home.

Alex had been recuperating from the iron bar attack at Holly’s home in Manchester when, one night, the couple had an argument to end all arguments and Higgins almost his life. It ended in Holly stabbing Alex three times, twice in the arm and once in the stomach. Higgins managed to escape to a neighbours house and was rushed to hospital for the second time in a matter of weeks. Fortunately no permanent damage was done and Higgins refused to press charges but another relationship was over and once again ‘The Hurricane’ was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

A return to calm, perhaps…

Alex’s problems had slowly continued to mount but suddenly another one came along that made all his other issues look like a walk in the park when in June 1998, Higgins was diagnosed with cancer of the palate and throat.

The Hurricane is a battler though and, with the help of friends and family, he survived the terrible disease and continues to play in both exhibitions and the occasional professional tournament. He may not be quite the player he once was and the chances of him adding to his 24 professional career titles may be slim, but, in a way, that doesn’t matter because Higgins never was just about titles, he was about playing passionate and entertaining snooker and about pleasing his fans. In sport and in snooker there will always be winners because somebody always has to win but it’s not every day you see a Hurricane now is it?

Professional Career Titles

  • 1972 – Irish Professional Championship, Park Drive World Championship
  • 1974 – Watneys Open
  • 1975 – Canadian Open
  • 1976 – Canadian Club Masters
  • 1977 – Canadian Open
  • 1978 – Irish Professional Championship
  • 1978 – Benson & Hedges Masters
  • 1979 – Irish Professional Championship
  • 1979 – Tolly Cobbold Classic
  • 1980 – Padmore/Super Crystalate International
  • 1980 – Tolly Cobbold Classic
  • 1980 – British Gold Cup
  • 1980 – Pontin’s Professional
  • 1981 – Benson & Hedges Masters
  • 1982 – Embassy World Championship
  • 1983 – Irish Professional Championship
  • 1983 – Coral UK Championship
  • 1984 – World Doubles Championship
  • 1985 – World Team Cup
  • 1986 – World Team Cup
  • 1987 – World Team Cup
  • 1989 – Irish Professional Championship
  • 1989 – Benson & Hedges Irish Masters