Saturday, July 24, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Alex "The Hurricane" Higgins

The Hurricane is at peace at last. Alex Higgins, the most glamorous, sulphurous and exciting snooker player in the history of the game has finally succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty-one. One generation will feel very old at the news, and struggle to explain their sense of loss to a coming one.

Snooker is not now what it was then. The standard is higher, but the appeal is less. Ronnie O’Sullivan reeling off yet another maximum break doesn’t make the news now, because nobody cares. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it seemed like everybody cared, and it was Alex Higgins that made people care.

In the 1970s and 80s, Alex Higgins was exactly what mothers didn’t want their sons to turn into if they heard young Johnny had started hanging around snooker halls. Nobody approved of Higgins. He drank, he smoked, he chased women, and he even wrangled an exemption from the WPBSA that meant he didn’t have to wear a tie.

Mothers hated Alex Higgins as a supreme bad influence on their boys, while the snooker establishment despaired of a rising generation ruined by Higgins’ unorthodox, cavalier style of play.

Snooker in the 1970s was a staid game played by retired Welsh postmen and policemen. A wide boy drunken Irishman, with a blond on each arm, a bottle of whiskey under his seat, and a tendency to lance the cue ball like a matador applying the coup de grace to a particularly truculent bull was not what the authorities wanted.

Naturally, Higgins then proved to be the best thing that ever happened the sport, because he was that bright flaring light, blazing away in the smoky fug over the baize while the outside world dealt with oil crises and miners’ strikes.

Higgins as a player was probably at his best when he won the first of his two World Championships, in 1972 against John Spencer. But 1982 was Higgins’ masterpiece, and fixed the sport in the popular imagination for the next twenty years.

Snooker, in its days of immense popularity, was never about the game alone. Snooker at its height was soap opera, and 1982 provided melodrama in spades.

The WPBSA had a limit of 128 professional players at the time, and that meant the players were all known, even to casual fans. They were recognisable personalities who appeared over and over again. The grand old men, Reardon and Spencer and Pullman. Steve Davis, the heir to the throne. Kirk Stevens, who was so zany he had long hair and a white waistcoat. Jimmy White, the teenage star whose talent would surely claim the World Championship someday. And Hurricane Higgins. The crazy, drunken Irishmen whose natural talent for snooker was in perpetual battle with his equally felicitous talent for self-destruction.

The 1982 final opened up as a contest when defending Champion and red hot favourite Steve Davis lost in the first round to Tony Knowles. Davis would go onto dominate the game in the 1980s but his early exit in 1982 allowed the final became a twilight of the gods event when Higgins played Ray Reardon, a six time winner whose final great showing at a tournament this was to be. Higgins outlasted Reardon, and the erstwhile Hurricane’s tearful embrace of his wife and child at the end of the match is one of the iconic images of sport in the 1980s.

For both Higgins personally and game of snooker itself, things were never as good again. As the standard of snooker got better in the next twenty years, the drama slowly drained out the game. The players’ talent evolved past the limits of the twenty-three balls on a table to the point where watching snooker became like watching expert craftsman building a wardrobe. You know not everyone could do it, but it’s not very exiting to watch for four hours.

Everything went downhill for Alex Higgins after 1982. He only won one other ranking competition, in 1983, as he slowly faded away as the years went by. The hard living caught up with him, as recent pictures so distressingly proved.

An Spailpín saw Alex “The Hurricane” Higgins in action once, playing a pool exhibition in Sally Long’s bar on in Galway in the early 1990s. He came into the bar surrounded by bouncers fore and blondes aft, played some frames against selected opposition, and took great care not to mingle with the locals at any stage, his attention being concentrated on the ladies instead. It seemed a lonely and empty life.

But Alex Higgins’ worldly troubles are over now. He’ll feature heavily on the news bulletins tonight, and young men will momentarily look up from their wiis or x-boxes and playstations and wonder what all the fuss is about. Sic transit gloria mundi. God have mercy on the Hurricane.