Snooker star Alex Higgins dies

Press Association
Sunday 18 September 2011 14:30

Snooker star Alex Higgins died today after a long battle with throat cancer.

The 61-year-old former world champion was known as the Hurricane by his many fans. Higgins, from Northern Ireland, was diagnosed with throat cancer more than 10 years ago.

Snooker promoter Barry Hearn said Higgins would be remembered as the "original people's champion" and the man who transformed the popularity of the sport.

Mr Hearn said: "I have known him for nearly 40 years. He was the major reason for snooker's popularity in the early days.

"He was controversial at times, but he always played the game in the right spirit.

"We will miss him - he was the original people's champion."

Higgins was discovered at a block of flats in the centre of Belfast. He had been unwell for some time. The player had not been answering his mobile phone and the flat had to be broken into, sources close to him said.

Living in sheltered housing on the Donegall Road in Belfast, Mr Higgins is considered to be one of the finest snooker players of all time. He has had long-term problems with alcohol and smoking since winning the world title in 1972 and 1982.

Despite his numerous fights and rows with referees over the years, he continued to play the game regularly and appeared at the Irish Professional Championship in 2005 and 2006.

Higgins has been an inspiration for many of today's best players, including Ken Doherty, Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Steve Davis played a number of classic matches against Higgins in the 1980s. Tonight he described his former rival as one of the few "geniuses" around the table.

Davis said: "To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game.

"He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated."

As to his own encounters with Higgins around the table, Davis said: "He was quite a fierce competitor, he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table.

"It was a love/hate relationship with Alex Higgins. The thrill of playing him was fantastic, but the crowd that came along were not your usual crowd. They were much more noisy and you had to play the crowd as well. To many people in the 1980s he was the only player they came to watch."

"I used to be quite frightened of him as an individual, he could be quite vexatious. But on the snooker table, my admiration was immense."

Davis added: "No one player has ever been bigger than the game. But he brought a genius quality that possibly hadn't been seen before.

"He was one of two or three people I would put the word 'genius' to when it came to the table."

It is understood Mr Higgins' Sandy Row flat was broken into today after he failed to answer his mobile phone. He played occasionally at the Windsor Snooker Club in south Belfast.

Staff member at the club Toby Tauley said he kept himself to himself but he added he still displayed some of his old magic.

"He played in here one night and he hit a hundred odd break. That is going back a few years," he said.

He said the last time he was in was several months ago.

Former snooker champion and commentator Dennis Taylor told the BBC: "I don't think you'll ever, ever see another player in the game of snooker like the great Alex Higgins."

And he said he had enjoyed some "terrific battles" against the sportsman, adding: "He was a very, very exciting player to watch. He just was totally unique."

Though Higgins "didn't look very well" towards the end of his life, he insisted: "He battled right to the end, did Alex, and that's what he did throughout his whole snooker career."

Sean Boru, who ghosted Higgins' autobiography, described the snooker star as a troubled soul.

"Everybody who knew Alex knew that this was an inevitability, but it's still a shock when it happens," he said.

Mr Boru leased a flat in Dublin during 2006 and Alex would visit him to work on the book.

"The problem with Alex was that he knew he was a great talent but he didn't quite know how to work it," Mr Boru said.

"Alex was a frustrated genius. He had so much talent but he had very little outreach for it. He believed in himself a lot, but he also doubted himself a lot as well."

Mr Boru said Alex always had difficulties handling fame.

"He never really fully got the gist of the fame-game."

Mr Boru said Alex was always "difficult" as a person but said that once you knew him you could work his personality.

"If you knew how to work Alex it didn't make any difference," he said.

Higgins, who was born in Belfast on March 19 1949, started playing snooker at the age of 11 and won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur snooker championships in 1968.

After turning professional he became the youngest World Championship winner at his first attempt, beating John Spencer in 1972.

His record was beaten when 21-year-old Stephen Hendry claimed the trophy in 1990.

Higgins missed out on the glory in World Championship finals in 1976 and 1980 but claimed the title for a second time in 1982.

He was banned from five tournaments and fined £12,000 in 1986 when he headbutted UK Championship tournament director Paul Hatherell.

In 1990 Higgins threatened to have fellow player Dennis Taylor shot and he was banned for the rest of the season after he punched a tournament director at the World Championship.

Higgins underwent surgery to remove cancer from his throat in 1998.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said: "We were called to the scene just before 5pm and he was dead when we arrived.

"He was found dead in bed by someone but they don't know how long he was lying there."

Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson said: "Alex Higgins was a colourful character and one of the most popular players of his generation.

"He will be greatly missed by snooker fans and the wider sporting public.

"Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time."

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