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Snooker: Another fight for Higgins: this time it's for his life

Snooker's fallen genius: The self-styled People's Champion is seriously ill after an operation for cancer of the throat
GENIUS IS rarely robust but this week it has seemed frailer than ever. Paul Gascoigne is in hospital drying out while yesterday came the news that Alex Higgins, snooker's Hurricane, has had an operation for throat cancer. He was described yesterday as "very ill" and his sister Jean is by his bedside in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

Higgins, world champion in 1972 and 1982 and in his eyes and many others a principal reason why snooker is so popular today, revealed earlier this year that he was suffering from the disease and is thought to have had treatment in Manchester before leaving the city that has been his home for three decades to move back with his family in his native Northern Ireland.

He was admitted into the hospital on Monday and had surgery the following day. Typically for a man who has spent much of the last few years threatening litigation, he is said to be "seriously considering" suing one of the major cigarette manufacturers who he blames for his illness.

It is the latest, and most serious, problem for Higgins whose career, life, has plumbed innumerable depths since the days in the Seventies and Eighties when he was one of the most popular and recognised sportsmen in Britain. With justice, he called himself "the people's champion".

Not now, though. His snooker, when he makes it to the table, is a mocking defensive shadow of its vibrant pomp and his private life has been a disaster. The 48-year-old Ulsterman seemed to carry a death wish with him as carefully as other players cherish their cues. Last year a bloodied, twice-married Higgins was rushed to hospital after his girlfriend, Holly Haise, stabbed him during a disagreement at her Manchester home. She admitted knifing him three times in the arm but a police prosecution was dropped because of lack of evidence.

Before then he had been living in a cheap hotel in Cheshire, his rent being paid from a benevolent fund set up by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association to sustain players who had fallen "into genuine hardship". This for a man who admits to blowing around pounds 3m and, true to form, he had upset guests with drunken outbursts.

Once described as being more unwelcome at more hotels in more parts of the world than anyone else, his recent life has been a near constant search for a bed for the night. At the Royal Victoria, he has found one in the gravest of circumstances.

The sad thing is that the public, while respectful of his erstwhile brilliance and distressed by his current plight, seems to have tired of him. They have heard of his scrapes with the law, of his clashes with snooker's authority and were bored with them. He is the man, after all, who threatened to have Dennis Taylor killed eight years ago and the public no longer has the capacity to be shocked by him.

And yet it was once his very irreverence, his refusal to bow to tradition or to others that appealed. He was the grown-up urchin whose tie-less shirt and waistcoat was reminiscent of the Wild West gun slinger. He was a gale of fresh air in world that seemed dominated by older, immaculately dressed men.

"Nobody's as fast as me," he said as he headed towards his first world title. "Nobody's as attractive as me to watch. I'm the Cassius Clay of snooker. The sport needs somebody like me, somebody young, somebody to pull in the crowds."

Except no one was watching and it took his win at the Selly Park British Legion, Birmingham, his exuberance and their happy coincidental meeting with colour television for snooker to take off. Some 18.5 million people stayed up after midnight to watch Dennis Taylor defeat Steve Davis in the world final of 1985 and a fair proportion had first turned on to the game to see Higgins.

Certainly his peers did. Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry admit to watching with awe as "the Hurricane" blew at its strongest and it is hard to find a player who saw him at his peak who was not influenced. But nearly all the people who idolised him from afar found their feelings alter the closer they got to his abominable behaviour.

One close observer of the circuit said that Higgins "clears a room better than any fire drill". Another, Hendry's manager, Ian Doyle, also testified to his boorishness. "There are always tensions in any group," he said. "But with Higgins around the tension quadruples. He poisons the atmosphere. It's always hassles."

Higgins's career is defined by problems. WPBSA fines have cost him a small fortune and the total number of his appearances before the disciplinary committee is close to 50, as many as all the other players put together. Ronnie O'Sullivan is sometimes described as "the bad boy of snooker", but he does not come close.

Still there is a sadness within the sport that knows it owes a debt to the man recuperating in a Belfast hospital this morning and is frustrated that his behaviour has not always made it easy to repay it.

Joe Swaile, who as a fellow snooker player from Ulster living in Manchester can empathise better than most, said yesterday: "He was always an unpredictable character, that was just the way he lived his life on and off the table.

"It is a very sad time for him and his family and everyone involved. I understand exactly what the family must be going to as my mother died of cancer three months ago. But they do miracles these days and hopefully they can get something sorted out and he will pull through."

As the player who provided the most exhilarating potting this correspondent has ever seen when he defeated Jimmy White 16-15 in the semi-final of the Embassy World Championship of 1982, it is a sentiment that will be shared by many. Yet it is probably futile, because Higgins has seemed hell-bent on destruction for years.

As Gordon Burn, author of the classic sports book Pocket Money, put it, Higgins' life has been a "long-drawn, social suicide. Too much wife, manager, fan and substance abuse."