Fearless aim at pot of gold

close-up John Higgins : A determined youngster from Scotland is ready to become snooker's next world champion. Andrew Baker reports
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THERE is a kind of force-field around Table One at the Masters Snooker Club, in Dennistoun, Glasgow. When it is not in use it is shrouded in a special cover, and even though the club is crowded and tables are at a premium, no one attempts to play on it. The cover is only removed for one player, the finest player in the club, a player who is one or two matches away from being the finest player in the world: John Higgins.

Last Thursday Higgins spent 10 hours crouched over that table, undisturbed by the noise from the serving hatch into the bar behind him, or by the gentle clack of balls on the surrounding tables. He was concentrating. Days earlier he had lost the British Open on the final black, and he does not want the same thing to happen in the World Championship, which starts in the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield this Saturday.

"John was very disappointed to lose the British Open," his father, John Snr, said. "And the World Championship is very special. But he's a very determined lad, very focused, always has been. He's like Stephen in that respect."

Like Stephen Hendry, that is. It is impossible to consider the one without the name of the other cropping up. Ian Doyle, who manages Hendry, and used to manage Higgins, believes that the pair will share star billing in snooker's most compelling dramas for the foreseeable future. "Hendry and Higgins are going to fight a good many memorable battles over the next four or five years," he declared. "They are on a different planet from the other players."

Higgins first played snooker at the age of nine, on a little table in the family home at Wishaw, near Motherwell. It comes as a surprise to learn that the present world No 2 was not the most talented snooker player in his household. "His brother Jason was better," their father said. "But he got distracted by the football."

John Jnr was a football fan too - he still watches Celtic at every opportunity - but between visits to Parkhead he remained dedicated to the green baize, winning the Scottish Under-16 and Under-18 titles in the same year, something that the often-compared Hendry had never achieved. Then, five years ago, Higgins won the Mita World Junior Championship in Birmingham, and was snapped up by Doyle for his Team Sweater Shop.

The relationship did not last. "Doyle was only interested in Stephen Hendry," John Snr alleged. "And John was not going to play second fiddle to anyone." The argument seems to have been driven, as such disputes often are, by automotive envy. "John only had a little Nova," his father recalled, "and he wanted an Astra. And all the while some of the other players were getting BMWs ..." He remains incredulous at the injustice. His son, now managed by John Snr, seemed to get over it once he acquired a Mercedes.

Despite what Doyle calls "the bust-up" he remains a staunch admirer of the 20-year-old Scot's play. "John is one of the finest young talents in the game," he said. "And contrary to what a lot of people think, I believe that he has more talent than Ronnie O'Sullivan."

Doyle pointed out that O'Sullivan is a natural potter of the ball in the Jimmy White mould. "But being a natural potter doesn't make you the best player in the world. You need more than that. Mental resolve. Application. Dedication. Those are the things that Higgins has." It was another player managed by Doyle, Nigel Bond, who defeated Higgins in dramatic style in the British Open. But Doyle does not believe that his man is mentally stronger than the young Scot. "Last week Higgins didn't play anything like as well as he can. When he missed the crucial snooker in the final frame he had mentally gone. He threw away the title - but Davis and Hendry have done that and won others. It has no bearing on his potential. I have no doubt that those major titles will come for John."

Doyle is equally convinced that Higgins's talent on the table is not best served by his father's management, citing "enormous" deals offered to the Higgins camp by Doyle's sponsors and turned down. "You can't develop the presence you need without top-class management," Doyle said. The implications were obvious.

John Snr's management of his son seems to be focused for the time being on protection rather than promotion. John Jnr is cocooned in the family environment, and feels at home in the cosy sepulchral gloom of the Masters in Dennistoun, where he hones his skills among friends and treats the other young players to McDonald's feasts.

It is not a fun-free existence. He was given a karaoke machine for Christmas, when his girlfriend Denise also bought him flying lessons. "He loves going to discos and having a few beers every now and then," his father reported. There is no danger of this John turning out a dull boy.

But soon the karaoke machine will be left behind as the Higgins clan will travel to Sheffield early, at young John's insistence, to get the measure of the venue and the task ahead. According to his father: "He wants to have a chance before his first game to soak up the atmosphere at the Crucible and to get properly acclimatised."

Higgins will have to work hard to reach the final, as his half of the draw also includes O'Sullivan, Peter Ebdon and Alan McManus. But the form book suggests that a Higgins v Hendry final is the likeliest climax. Higgins is at the top of his form, and if he needs any further spur to his ambition, he need only look around when he arrives in the Crucible Theatre car park, where his Mercedes will be joined by Stephen Hendry's Ferrari.

Snooker's six youngest world champions

Stephen Hendry (champion in 1990). At the age of: 21 years 4 months. When the Scotsman beat Jimmy White 18-12 he became the youngest-ever world champion. But he had come close to being put out in the first round - Alain Robidoux was controversially penalised for a push shot with the score at 7-7.

Alex Higgins (1972). Age: 22 years 11 months. In the pre-Crucible days the volatile Ulsterman beat John Spencer 37-32 at Selly Oak British Legion Hall, and took the title again 10 years later.

Steve Davis (1981.) Age: 23 years 8 months. In the 1980s Davis played in eight finals, winning six. In the first he beat Doug Mountjoy 18-12.

Joe Davis (1927). Age: 26 years 1 month. The first-ever world champion beat Tom Dennis 20-11 at Campkin's Snooker Hall, Birmingham, to win first prize of pounds 6 10s (pounds 6.50p).

John Parrott (1991). Age: 26 years 11 months. The Liverpudlian beat Jimmy White 18-11, two years after he had suffered the biggest-ever world final defeat when he lost 18-3 to Steve Davis.