Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins: Two-times world snooker champion whose style of play and wild ways electrified the sport

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The Independent Online

He wanted to be known as Alexander the Great. Instead, he became the "Hurricane", the "People's Champion", or to many, simply the best snooker player who has ever picked up a cue.

There are better claimants to the latter description: Joe Davis, Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry. None, though, were as charismatic, entertaining or downright unpredictable as the boy from Belfast who wanted to become a jockey but turned into the most famous snooker professional of the modern era.

The advent of colour television and the arrival of a skinny, hyperactive and mesmerising Ulsterman in the North of England in the late 1960s are regarded as the catalysts for the resurgence of a game that had stagnated during the previous decade. Higgins made people sit up and take notice, not just by his lightning-quick approach to potting balls but by the scrapes he found himself in away from the table.

He brought a new dimension to the sport, raising its profile from a few column inches on an inside newspaper page to the back (and, in many, cases front) pages as well. He became public enemy No 1 to the snooker authorities: the more they tried to ban and fine him, the greater his popularity and appeal grew with the public.

But there was a dark side to Higgins that his supporters didn't often see. They believed him to be victimised and persecuted by his peers, a belief he himself perpetuated. However, as fame and fortune began to take its toll, his mood swings became harder to predict and control. He railed against "the system", his opponents, the referees, the press, the authorities. In fact anyone and everyone apart from the true cause of his decline in later life – himself.

Higgins is one of an exclusive list of players whose career earnings are in excess of £1m – all the more commendable given that he largely missed out on the big-money paydays. His first world title victory in 1972 was worth £480; his second 10 years later brought him £25,000. This year's winner's purse was £250,000.

But his fortune went on the pitfalls of many a wayward genius: gambling, drugs, drink and women. While his countryman and one-time Northern Ireland team-mate Dennis Taylor secured for himself a lucrative retirement, Higgins was left almost penniless, scraping a bed and a meal from those few people left prepared to give charity in return for little thanks and much abuse. When his body was found in his flat in sheltered accommodation in Belfast, he appeared to have been dead for some time.

Born in Belfast in March 1949, Alexander Gordon Higgins grew up skipping school to play snooker at the legendary Jampot Club, apparently fascinated by the "coloured balls and sticks". However, horse-racing was also a magnet to the teenage Higgins, and at 15 he left home for the first time to become an apprentice at Eddie Reavey's stable at Wantage.

Two years later, the Ulster waif was too tall to fulfil his prime sporting ambition. He returned to England in 1969 and headed for Lancashire, following in Taylor's footsteps. Their paths were to cross many times over the next 30 years, often with explosive results.

Then, the compatriots were on reasonable terms and, along with Jim Meadowcroft, a former professional and now a television snooker summariser, they practised together at the Benarth club in Blackburn. In his book Higgins, Taylor And Me, Meadowcroft wrote: "Alex moved into a flat above a newsagent's, just by the snooker club which was frequented by two fellows who were in partnership in bingo halls. When they saw this kid racing round the tables for all he was worth, either Jack Leeming or Jack McLaughlin was moved to say: 'He's like a Hurricane.' Within a short space of time, they were managing him and dispensing cards advertising the service of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins."

In 1972, he hit the big-time and life was to change forever. Higgins won the world title at Selly Park Royal British Legion club in Birmingham. The crowd sat on seats placed on stacked beer crates to witness Higgins beat another 1970s star, John Spencer, 37-32 with a final burst of six unanswered frames. The following year he lost his title, going down to "Gentleman" Fred Davis in the semi-finals. Higgins left for Australia and was soon in trouble. He called a popular local professional, Norman Squire, "an old no-hoper", and wrote his subsequent apology on toilet paper. He wrecked his hotel room and travelled on to India, where his stay lasted one day. He offended members of the Bombay Gymkhana Club with his drinking, and by removing his shirt. Within hours he was escorted to catch the first plane back home.

These indiscretions, though, were minor in comparison to those that followed. From peeing in a plant pot, to brawls with fellow professionals, to assaulting a 14-year-old schoolboy, Higgins was all too often in the news.

Not even marriage could tame the "wild man of snooker", as he had become known. He married the model Liz Kendall in 1975 but they were divorced five years later. "Her father was a racehorse trainer and so she had lots of money," he is supposed to have told friends.

Higgins married again, to Lynn Robbins, with whom he had two children, Lauren and Jordan. Lynn and Lauren, then just 18 months old, were ushered into the arena at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre in 1982 when a tearful Higgins defeated the veteran Welshman Ray Reardon 18-15 to win his second world crown, closing the match with a clearance of 135. A more modest effort of 59 in the penultimate frame of his semi-final against Jimmy White is often replayed as one of the finest frames of snooker ever seen.

For a player blessed with natural talent, Higgins never won as many titles as he surely should have. The self-destruct mechanism in his psyche ensured that he didn't. On his first day as champion, Higgins attended a disciplinary hearing following a bust-up at the Irish Masters a month earlier. He sent members of the panel 12 bottles of champagne as a conciliatory gesture and in return was fined £1,000.

In 1983, he enjoyed another of his finest hours, recovering from a 7-0 deficit to beat Steve Davis 16-15 in the final of the UK Championship. Twelve months later, his deadly enemy gained revenge in the final.

At the 1986 Mercantile Credit Classic, Higgins appeared with a black eye, which he claimed he had received from a horse called Dreadnought. In fact, his fellow professional Paul Medati had delivered the blow. The tournament director, Paul Hatherall, was on the receiving end of another assault in November 1986. Hatherall was headbutted by Higgins at the UK Championship for asking him to take a compulsory drugs test. Higgins was fined £200 by Preston magistrates and later £12,000 by a disciplinary hearing.

Higgins was also suspended from five tournaments. By now his marriage was over and his career was in freefall, with only occasional highspots. One such came against all the odds in 1989, but as usual nothing was straightforward. An altercation his with new girlfriend, Siobhan Kidd, led to Higgins falling from the first floor of her Manchester flat.He broke his foot in the 30ft drop but insisted on competing at the European Open in Deauville, hopping around the table.

He was still severely handicapped by his injuries when he defeated Jack McLaughlin to take the Irish Professional title. Later, reduced to a hobble, he beat Stephen Hendry 9-8 in the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters final at Goffs, County Kildare. It was to be his last title success.

The beginning of the end came in 1990 at the World Cup. After Northern Ireland had lost to Canada, a drunken Higgins threatened to have Dennis Taylor shot. At the World Championship the same year, he punched a press officer, Colin Randle, in the stomach after a defeat by Steve James, in the process ripping the head off his so-called lucky mascot, Antrim the leprechaun.

He was suspended for the whole of the following season and docked his store of ranking points, dropping him from 14th to 120th in the world. His punishment forced him to qualify for the final stages of the major events where his behaviour became ever more bizarre.

He broke down in tears during a career high-break of 137 against the Thai player Tai Pichit, a former Buddhist monk, claiming that referee John Williams had been "in his line of thought". Against Tony Knowles in the world championship qualifiers, Higgins played the second half of the match while dripping blood on to the green baize. He had adjourned to a local pub between sessions, tripped over a wall and cut himself. Refusing hospital treatment, he patched himself up and went out to complete the unlikeliest of wins.

In August 1997 Higgins, by now having given up his lifetime cigarette habit, played his last competitive match until his abortive comeback three years ago at the summer qualifying school in Plymouth. He lost 5-1 to Neil Mosley and hours later was discovered lying outside a nightclub, claiming he had been assaulted. No assailant was ever brought to book.

A new girlfriend, Holly Hayse, was charged but never tried for wounding and grievous bodily harm as Higgins's health and mental state declined. He received hand-outs from the game's governing body but was thrown out of his hotel for abusing other guests. He lived in a caravan in Ms Hayse's front garden, apparently existing on a diet of antibiotics, pilchards and quails' eggs washed down with lager.

His trips to Northern Ireland became more frequent and it was there in October 1998 that he had surgery to remove a cancerous lymph gland in his throat. Two years earlier, he had had a growth removed from his palate.

In retirement, Higgins hustled for small sums of money around Northern Ireland. He returned to competition in September 2007 at the Irish Professional Championship in Dublin, but was beaten 5-0 by Fergal O'Brien. Last year, he entered the Northern Ireland Amateur Championship but did not turn up for his match.

For all his talent, Alex Higgins laid waste to his career and, ultimately, his life. In his last interview, he said he had considered suicide but added: "I just haven't got the courage to kill myself."

Alexander Gordon Higgins, snooker player: born Belfast 18 March 1949; Northern Ireland amateur champion 1968, world champion 1972 and 1982, UK champion 1978 and 1981, Benson and Hedges Masters winner 1980, Irish Professional champion 1983 and 1989, Benson and Hedges Irish Masters champion 1989; married 1975 Liz Kendall (divorced 1980), Lynn Robbins 1980 (divorced 1985; one son, one daughter); died Belfast 24 July 2010.