The impression was correct. For Higgins, the winner in 1972 and 1982, the Embassy World Snooker Championship is no longer The Crucible, television and real contention. Instead it is grappling for a place in the tournament among the has-beens and hopefuls in a dogfight for the scraps from the table. In this case 16 tables in a concrete barn of a room inside the Norbreck Castle Hotel.
The grey walls of the claustrophobic boxes surrounding the players enhance the feeling that this is snooker without frills. It is like a punishment cell and it is a hard slog even for the winners, but for Higgins it has been a familiar, depressing scene since he was banned from the 1990-91 season for misdemeanours including a death threat against Dennis Taylor.
That suspension and the stripping of his ranking points dropped him from 14th to 125th in the world and he has recouped only half that fall. At 44, his time has come and gone and he is fighting to recall past glory rather than build a bright future. It is more than two years since he reached the last 32 of an event and when he has progressed to a tournament proper this season he has been devoured by Taylor and Tony Knowles, hardly the epitome of youth.
It is seen as an injustice by the man himself who frequently rages, Lear-like, against it. 'I dragged this sport from out of the billiards halls to where it is now,' is a recurring theme. 'I ought to get an entry into the tournaments proper.' His familiar targets are the sport's governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, and the press. Higgins rarely diverts the vitriol to the chief culprit, himself.
The public can be as blind too. They were queueing up to pay their pounds 1 admission fee to see the self-styled 'People's Champion', hoping to catch the tail wind of the Hurricane who embodied snooker's ambitious new age when he won his first World Championship 22 years ago. Instead of devil-may- care potting, they got safety sealed in a layer of caution.
Just 25 were allowed to watch the old tearaway turned grinder and for that they were used as drinks waiters for Higgins, passing over Guinness to the Irishman while being privy to his stage whispers, which yesterday afternoon more often than not were 'damn' as mistakes laced his play.
The opponent he was hoping and failing to entwine in the defensive web was Colin Kelly, a 24- year-old Liverpudlian typical of the anonymous player - ranked 241st - who now arrives in a match against Higgins with hope rather than fear. The former champion still wins more often than he loses but is unrecognisable from the player who could win a match by reputation alone.
The third frame was typical, a 47-minute trial of patience with Higgins hoping to bore his opponent into an indiscretion. It worked, Kelly succumbing 67-36, but it was mind-numbing to watch, the sort of contest that Higgins would have despised as a youngster and that ultimately proved a tortuous route to success, winning 10-9 on the night.
The applause instead was coming from another place. Ronnie O'Sullivan, the UK title holder but still required to qualify by dint of his pre-season ranking, was producing the sort of excitement that was once the province of Higgins. The balls rattled into the pockets and the sense of wonderment mounted. Those watching Higgins were in the wrong place at the right time. The mantle of the people's champion has passed on.
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