Snooker: He's been thrown off a plane for joking around but Higgins can have the last laugh at Crucible

Malta Airport aside, John Higgins has had a season to remember and tells Nick Harris he can reign again in Sheffield
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John Higgins laughed so much that they threw him off the plane. The 30-year-old Scot, a former world No1 and the world champion of 1998, is still mirthful as he recalls one of his stranger experiences in an odd season, which reaches its climax with the World Championship, starting tomorrow at The Crucible.

It happened in February in Malta. He and Ken Doherty, who had beaten him the evening before in the final of the Malta Cup, were catching a flight home, very early. "We'd had a few drinks, but only a few," Higgins said. "We were tired, we'd been on our feet for 24 hours, it all combined. And have you heard Ken's laugh? It's unbelievable. He was in especially good form, it was his first win in years."

The pair were in such good spirits, laughing out loud, that a fellow passenger reported them as a nuisance. "This person said we were too drunk to fly," Higgins says. "Because we were laughing. Unbelievable.

"We were asked to get off. We were so tired, and thought it was such a joke that we did exactly as they said. We got the next flight a few hours later, no problem."

As a diehard Celtic fan who in younger years (before marriage and kids) followed his team home and away to every game, including Europe, Higgins is no stranger to a few wee drinks in the sky. "I've been a lot worse than we were in Malta," he says. "Going abroad watching Celtic, the whole plane would be rocking." He adds that Malta was a "storm in a tea cup" but says: "It was a lesson. I don't think I'll ever take a drink on a flight again."

Talking of flying, his season got off to a storming start, when he won the first ranking event of the season, the Grand Prix in Preston in October, trouncing Ronnie O'Sullivan 9-2. He then won the Masters at Wembley in January, also against O'Sullivan, and reached two more ranking finals, in Malta and in China, where he lost 10-9 to Mark Williams.

The victory in Preston was a record-breaker. At one stage, he knocked in four centuries in a row, a record in any ranking event, and also set a record of 494 unanswered points. What was going on inside his head? "Nothing whatsoever," he says. For those who saw that performance - and some of the most scintillating play in memory - that might be hard to believe.

"I honestly never thought further ahead than the next ball. It was auto-pilot basically."

Should he replicate anything approaching such a state in the coming fortnight at The Crucible, where 888.com take over the sponsors' mantle from tobacco, he may well walk off with the title. "My chances are good," he says. "But I've got the hardest draw you could imagine."

He starts against Mark Selby in the first round, and is then drawn, potentially, to meet Williams (twice champion), followed by O'Sullivan (twice champion), then by Stephen Hendry (seven-times champion), and that would all be before the final.

This year's event has been billed as the most open ever. Higgins says it has been open - with a high-quality field - for years. "Look at the last 10 years," he says. In that time, Hendry, Williams and O'Sullivan have two wins each, with himself, Doherty, Peter Ebdon and Shaun Murphy also getting their hands on the trophy as well. "The standard is now so high across the board," he says.

Much has been made of snooker's woes, post-tobacco, with fewer ranking events and less prize money. Last year's winner, Murphy, argues the game is on the up, evidenced by the lucrative 888.com deal. Last year's loser, Matthew Stevens, said bluntly that snooker "is a bit of a shambles".

"I'd stand somewhere in the middle," says Higgins. "I don't think it's as black as Matt's feeling, but he's not had a great season. But it has been hard, no two ways about it. I've been quite successful but other players aren't making much. It's been the toughest year I can remember, but I don't think it will get worse. Not if we keep attracting new companies in sponsorship and keep looking to expand."

Europe is on his mind, and not just Celtic in the Champions' League. "We're playing better football under Gordon Strachan but Martin O'Neill's sides bullied teams, which you need sometimes. If we try and play Strachan's nice football against the likes of Barcelona..."

Europe, in snooker terms, offers potential, he says. Germany, Belgium, even Switzerland, offer potential markets, helped by new Eurosport coverage of every ranking tournament. "I've noticed I get recognised a bit more in airports since that," he says. And he doesn't just mean Malta.

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