In the same way George Best entertained millions with his countless tricks and creativity, Alex Higgins stunned fans with unthinkable shots and an uncontrollable confidence which re-invented how snooker is played in this day in age.
Both born in Belfast during the 1940’s, both players shared a natural flair for their respective sports which saw them rise to the top, but unfortunately both men battled alcoholism which inevitably helped them sink back down to new lows. George Best passed away aged 59, Alex Higgins was 61.
Best knew how to charm the ladies, as did Higgins, but for the two natural born entertainers, their one demon and lifelong battle wasn’t against a superior opponent, nor was it the sport that made them such house-hold names, it was in fact alcohol.
A thorn for both which proved to be a slippery slope and ultimately proved to be their downfall.
In many ways, Higgins came into this life with nothing. As a child growing up in a deprived area of Belfast, betting in snooker halls and drinking in bars, to his final days in a deprived area of Belfast, betting in snooker halls and drinking in bars.
When you put it like that, you question his achievements in the sport, but one thing that can’t be questioned is his legacy.
Born in Belfast on the 18th March 1949, Higgins grew to become one of the greatest snooker players of all time.
His destiny started at the tender age of 11, as a young, cheeky boy who used to skip school and watch local snooker players in the Jampot Club, South Belfast. Here he learnt how to play the game and soon enough he was beating his seniors.
As his passion for the sport grew, so too did his skill and the youngster was starting to build a small reputation around the area, but he always had a soft spot for horse racing, so much so that he moved to England to become a jockey.
This move however didn’t last long. Whilst away, he demonstrated the type of behaviour which at times overshadowed his career. A comination of drinking and fighting forced Higgins back home and this was when his career on the green baize took off.
At 16-years of age, the Northern Irishman compiled his first maximum break and one year later he was the best amateur player in the whole of Ireland having won both the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championships.
His reputation was on the rise and he famously compared himself to Alexander the Great. People were starting to take note of this young, confident lad from Belfast and his popularity rose to new heights when he won the 1972 Snooker World Championships.
Being crowned the youngest ever Champion earned the Belfast boy £480, but Higgins was making money performing exhibitions across the country, but as his popularity spiralled, so to at times did his behaviour.
He was a heavy drinker and smoked dozens of cigarettes during matches, both habits would come back to haunt him later in life and like George Best he had three agenda’s, gambling, drinking and women.
The Alex Higgins fan-base was getting bigger and bigger. The public enjoyed his unpredictability, shot choice and tricks shots, but he was famed for his speed around the table and this natural ability led to him being nicknamed Alex ‘the hurricane’ Higgins.
“To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel,” described six-time World Snooker Champion Steve Davies.
“But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game. He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated. He was quite a fierce competitor; he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table.”
During the 80’s Higgins developed a strong friendship with another one of snookers more entertaining stars.
Jimmy White shared all the characteristics as Alex, he was fast, entertaining and the crowd loved him, they were a snooker match made in heaven. They seemed to produce their best snooker together and in their 1982 World Championship semi-final, Higgins produced what many, myself included, would regard as the greatest break ever made, a 69 clearance in a must win frame.
It came as quite a surprise to many that it took Higgins ten years before he won his second, much anticipated World Championships title, although he was a beaten finalist in 1976 and 1980.
Up against his old rival Ray Reardon, ‘The Hurricane’ completed his honour with a stunning total clearance of 135, which cued the unforgettable tears with his then wife and daughter.
His life had changed once more, but just as he was flying high one year later he hit a new low when his wife left him and the following year Higgins attempted to commit suicide.
To many, the collapse of second marriage was the start of the end of his downturn.
During the prestigious UK Championships in 1986, Higgins head butted an official for requesting he take a random drugs test. His punishment was a £12,000 fine and a five-tournament ban, which started to push Higgins down the world rankings.
His gambling addiction came into the public spotlight and this combined with his constant drinking binges and money problems sent his career as a snooker player into turmoil.
In 1990, eight years after winning the title in such glamorous style, Higgins was removed by Dennis Taylor in only the second round, a result which sparked death threat from Higgins towards his Catholic rival.
This was the end of his time on the professional snooker circuit. The constant drinking and smoking finally had caught up with Alex in 1997 as he was diagnosed with throat cancer, a disease which accumulated Higgins to lose his teeth, his health, but never his love for snooker.
He continued to hustle in clubs across Belfast and every now and then would appear at an exhibition match. It’s unbelievable to think that Higgins himself felt he still had the game to take on the current players in the top 32 world rankings.
Some would say he should have won more world titles than he actually achieved, but many say that about Ronnie O Sullivan, who idolised Higgins from the age of six and is the one player who has come close to playing in the same, fluent and natural style as the Belfast player.
He told World Snooker, “Alex Higgins was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker. He is a true legend and should be forever remembered as being the finest ever snooker player.”
Although I am too young to have witnessed Higgins’ snooker talent, in fact I wasn’t even born when he won his second world title in 1982, it’s difficult for even someone as young as myself to think of the sport without him ever existing.
His rivalry with Steve Davies in the 80’s helped raised the sport to all time high. His hugely entertaining style of play has never been matched to this day and his unpredictable personality made him of the sport’s greatest ever characters.
Many people down the years had wanted to shut Higgins up, players and professionals alike, and in a way in his final few days they got their wish.
The throat cancer, which he had suffered for ten years, had taken its toll and the ‘people’s champion’ was in a slow decline, demonstrated by his inability to talk in his final weeks.
Ultimately, it was cancer and only cancer that could slow the hurricane down.
Alex Higgins, 18/3/1949 – 24/7/2010