Matt Gattward: Tales of baize and booze in Hurricane's moving homage

View From The Sofa: Alex Higgins: The People's Champion, BBC 2
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The Independent Online

While England's multimillionaire footballers continue to struggle to win the affections of their supporters, wonderful tributes were being paid to one man who never struggled to find a place in the hearts of the public.

Alex Higgins: The People's Champion on BBC 2 on Wednesday remembered the life of snooker's brilliant showman, who died penniless after a long illness, aged 61, in his Belfast home this summer. The great and the good of the world's snooker halls queued up to eulogise a man who, as Jimmy White succinctly put it, "loved to entertain, loved the buzz".

The programme told Higgins' story using some beautiful old footage of him in his pomp, all cheeky smiles and winks, doffing that unforgettable blue, feathered fedora as he entered the Crucible ready to enlighten another World Championship of the Eighties.

His rise was charted from the Jam Pot Snooker Hall of Belfast, where he hustled older players as a 15-year-old and from where his sisters were told by their mother to "drag Sandy home for his tea"; to his first World Championship victory in 1972, when it was played in a clapped-out theatre in Birmingham and for which he won £400; and to his last few years spent battling illness. Higgins in his final days, with his face pale, pinched and gaunt, could not have displayed a starker contrast to his handsome pomp, which only fuelled the sadness of his decline.

Higgins was credited with reinventing and reinvigorating the game, dragging it out of the stuffy old men's clubs, of which there were some wonderful shots, and adding the glamour. What was apparent, according to those who spoke, was that no man has had a bigger impact on the sport. Indeed, he was credited with the finest clearance witnessed on the baize in his 1982 semi-final against a young White, a break that effectively won him the match and got him to the final. To watch White relive the moment his hero produced his magic was great stuff. Of course, Higgins went on to win that final and then followed one of the sport's most famous scenes, when he tearfully beckoned down his wife and baby. His daughter, now a young woman, emotionally explained her relationship with her father in the programme.

But the documentary didn't, indeed couldn't, ignore Higgins' controversial side, which helped him become "The People's Champion" and not necessarily "The Authorities' Champion", especially in the eyes of the official whom Higgins headbutted at a tournament, the subsequent ban sparking the beginning of the end of his playing days.

Booze had always had a grip on Higgins and there was footage of him staggering to his feet ready to play his next shot clearly intoxicated. "The best player drunk I've ever seen," Clive Everton said. "Alex sober was the most pleasant man you could talk to," as Barry Hearn explained, "but he had that Jekyll and Hyde character which was not nice." Everton: "There was a sense of threat in the air in Alex's company, particularly when he'd lost." And White described him as "the worst loser ever".

Dennis Taylor, a long-term friend from Northern Ireland, told how the pair stopped talking after Higgins insulted a member of Taylor's family and "he said that next time I went home to Northern Ireland he'd have me shot". Not easy to forgive, but Taylor did. And that seems to sum up Higgins.

Or as Hearn neatly put it: "Frustrating, exciting and missed."