David HartrickComment


David HartrickComment

Friday, 14th May 1982

The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, World Championship Semi-Final

Jimmy White v Alex Higgins

Having watched the blue ball sink into the middle pocket as if pulled by an anchor, Alex Higgins chose to run his teeth over his bottom lip in penance. He was rooted to his chair and facing snooker’s simplest truth; when you’re not at the table, you’re not in control. He had already been given two chances to build something in the frame and taken neither. The match had seesawed throughout but the odds on him being given a third felt so long not even he would have been tempted to take them.

His seated vigil continued as his opponent, Jimmy White, lined up a red from the rest. For a man who often appeared to be at war with his own body Higgins was remarkably still. He moved to pick at an imagined itch on his finger but then returned to his lonely introspection. Despite the changes he’d made, despite listening, despite the promises, despite it all, he was going to lose. Alex Higgins was going to lose.

It had been at this very venue a year previous that he had begun to realise the Hurricane was in control and Alex Higgins was lagging behind. Whilst a mere lift of the Hurricane’s hat could still raise an exhibition crowd from their seats, Alex Higgins had been knocked out of the 1981 Snooker World Championships in the second round by an un-seeded Steve Davis. Davis would go on to have a banner year but courtesy of a bye for the top eight seeds, Higgins had lost his first and only match of the tournament.

It was symptomatic of a relentless life. The constant schedule of exhibitions and competitions left little time for practice but too much room for his vices. After his exit from last year’s tournament was followed by a shambolic Scottish Masters, frequent issues with snooker’s authorities and a tour organised by Barry Hearn that had lurched from one argument to the next, the Hurricane finished 1981 as popular as ever while Alex Higgins was exhausted, alcoholic and now saddled with a burgeoning drug habit.

He had started 1982 as a new father, a relatively new husband and a man at war with his alter ego. His first step to putting Alex back in the driving seat had been two weeks rest in a nursing home. He then fired his management, finally finished the practice room at his new house and made it known to Barry Hearn that he wanted to join his Matchroom stable - a group of very successful players Hearn managed who immediately informed him they wouldn’t allow Higgins in. He did find new management but within a couple of months he was on his own, memorably using the freedom to represent himself at a disciplinary hearing to which he arrived with “a trolley full of Moët & Chandon and a jug of orange juice” for his accusers. Despite offering them the white flag the only way he knew how, they still fined him just as heavily as always.

There had still been the odd lapse, he had picked up far too many demons to simply walk to heaven without ever glancing back, but he’d managed to reconnect with the 22-year old man that won the 1972 World Championship in such revelatory style. The Hurricane had been put to one side and he had earned this semi-final place on his own. But was that enough?

His daughter, Lauren, had become the main love of his life. As Alex sat here watching Jimmy White stare down his cue at the red ball ahead, his hand flickered over the dummy in his pocket, the good luck charm that represented the promise he had made to her to win this World Championship. The Hurricane broke promises to his family all the time. It looked like Alex would too. 

Suddenly the shadows around him filled with noise. The Crucible Theatre held less than a thousand people but as Higgins instinctively rose from his chair whispers of disappointment and excitement were everywhere. It was a familiar sound, one that Higgins had been on either side of. He took the three steps to the table barely registering what had just happened. White had missed his red a mere eight points away from near-certain victory and a World Championship final place. Higgins had his improbable third chance. He was at the table. He was in control.

He glanced at the scoreboard, 59-0 in White’s favour, and then surveyed the baize ahead. Two reds were difficult, one had to be moved, the black ball was marooned up the table. He needed every red, high colours and a full clearance.

He wiped his hands in turn on his waistcoat and drew breath. Each shot was going to matter, position was difficult and if he didn’t win and draw level with White it was all over. He came to one inescapable conclusion before bending to line up his first shot. He needed help. He needed the Hurricane.

“And so Alex breathes again, (Jimmy White is) 59 points in front now… and still enough points on the table for Alex if he can just take his opportunity"

BBC Commentator Jack Karnehm

Alexander Gordon Higgins was born on Friday, 18th March 1949. A happy childhood was spent being doted upon by his parents and three sisters in a severely austere Belfast. As the only boy Alex was adored within his family, nicknamed ‘Sandy’ and allowed certain freedoms his sisters would never earn whilst still living at home. He learnt at an early age he had to find ways to contribute, and this in part led to the birth of The Hurricane.

By the age of ten he was daring to go where he shouldn’t - the notorious Jam Pot Billiard Hall. He had graduated from running his father’s bets to the corners where they would be taken, to keeping score for the Jam Pot’s regulars. At a time where numeracy was a highly cherished skill it had become common for the local children to be employed in this way. So much so teachers at Higgins’ school had taken to calling it the Glue Pot because “their pupils were never out of it”. Higgins observed, did as he was told and due to a mixture of bravado and bluff became popular enough to be trusted to run messages for players and do odd jobs around the hall.

He had also started playing almost immediately (standing on a box and with a broom handle at this point) and by the age of twelve he was hustling “giants” five or six years older than him. He became infamous, the kid holding his own with the adults, before becoming famous, the kid suddenly beating all comers. By his mid-teens he had outgrown the Jam Pot but the notion of becoming a professional was still seen as a pipe dream, particularly when Alex’s heart was with another sport.

His ambition had been to become a jockey and via a mixture of coincidence and cheek he managed to get the chance to learn at the Reavey Stables in Oxfordshire. He left Belfast aged fifteen on a ferry and left behind a family who had been desperate for him not to go. He then spent nearly two years with the stables, a period he described in his 2007 autobiography as “the happiest of my life”, but ultimately a lack of focus and an excess of self-belief not backed up by the required talent saw his dream end.

He returned to Belfast briefly but then moved to London for a year where he rekindled his previous life - an existence entirely planned around a snooker hall and a betting shop’s opening hours. Working at a mill to earn just enough to survive, his gambling and smoking habits required the extra funding only his cue could provide. He returned home to Belfast in 1967 and set about answering the question many had asked - could Alex Higgins, the scrawny kid who never stopped talking, become a professional snooker player?

The Jam Pot was in decline so he headed to the Shaftesbury Club where he found a better class of player. His game was such that he was urged to enter the 1968 Northern Ireland Amateur Championship, which he duly won comfortably. This was the turning point in Higgins’ life as he now had evidence for the two things he had long suspected. Firstly, just by playing his natural game - a mix of bravery, speed around the table and the occasional smile or wink at the audience - he could hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. Secondly, he might just be able to actually do it; he might just be able to make it as a professional.

He continued to play in tournaments with mixed success (often succumbing to the crowd’s urging to take on that shot he knew he shouldn’t) but via exhibition invitations and word of mouth he became the most talked about amateur in Great Britain. The problem with potential is you often have to prove it, and Alex Higgins needed a bigger stage. Regularly invited to play against pros at invitational events, he knew he could compete and despite struggling with money and having no real discernible trade to fall back on if everything went wrong, in 1972 Alex Higgins entered the World Championships as a professional player.

“There’s no way he can clean up from here” I insisted. “He’s gone, I’m telling you. His confidence has gone”

John Virgo, watching from the Player’s Boxes at the Crucible

One red in and already he was up against it. Caught in two minds like a bastard amateur. His first red had been a simple cut to the bottom right pocket but he’d played to go past the pink and leave himself options. As it was he’d under hit the shot and left himself only a blue that was too straight and too long to be confident about taking on, or a green that meant running tight to the blue and then using at least two cushions for position.

He took a pause. He went through the full repertoire of ticks to buy himself the time to weigh and measure both shots appropriately before letting the Hurricane help him pick one. His cue was chalked twice, his hair swept back three times, the table tapped and the scoreboard checked and checked again. One shot in and he had his first make or break pot. One bloody shot and already the Hurricane wanted to take over.

He leaned over and lined up the green. Higgins had blunted his more flamboyant urges but the nerve to take this shot on, in this situation, was going to be a joint effort. The risk was all in the position. A hushed Crucible broke into applause as the green dropped into the pocket but he was watching the white bounce from the bottom cushion.

There had been an angle to come back up the table towards his difficult red, tied to the rail below the middle pocket. The first wave of applause died slightly in anticipation as the collective realisation that the white was in line to move the problem ball took hold. As they touched Alex was off to line up his next red, knowing it had enough pace to have bounced away from the cushion and into play. That was a shot few would have dared to attempt. He had played it, pulled it off and was now busy trying to stifle the Hurricane’s smile.

Adrenaline had him and accordingly he took his next red too quickly and again let himself down on the position. The white had come the full length of the table and now sat and inch or so behind the yellow. Absolute silence returned to the theatre but a cacophony of noise wouldn’t have made any difference to Higgins. In one shot he had given himself a question that went beyond this frame, this semi-final or indeed, this World Championship.

The way the white had fallen left him two options - safety or danger. He could simply roll in tight behind the yellow, go against instinct and cede the table to his opponent in the hope it would come back to him in a more advantageous way. Defend what you’ve got, hope it gets better. Alex Higgins had spent the first five months of the year taking control and despite leaving the table, this was the way ninety-nine out of a hundred professionals would go. He knew this was the safe option. The safe option.

The other way was the Hurricane’s territory - attack. He could take the black on but it had to run two thirds of the table to the bottom left pocket and the white had to hold the little angle it had for the next red. It was potable but with the table as it was there was perhaps only the Hurricane and his current opponent that would have even considered taking it on in a semi-final. It was madness. It was dangerous. But The Hurricane wanted to attack. The Hurricane wanted to be heard.

A few seconds ticked by but the answer was obvious. In truth he had known exactly what he had to do the moment the white finished where it did. As a seasoned gambler he knew sometimes the surest thing to do is to back yourself. Accordingly, the Hurricane lined up for the black.

“I was watching him putting these drinks down and I was thinking well, y’know, this has got to be in my favour somewhere along the line but he… he produced”

Jimmy White talking about the frame in 2010

The 1972 World Snooker Championship was a world away from the Crucible’s relative luxury. Set in a long gone British Legion in Birmingham where the crowd sat around the table on stacked up beer crates, the best of 73 frames final was played out over a week. Alex had beaten a couple of players he respected enormously in the shape of John Pulman and Rex Williams in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, and in the final faced another in John Spencer. One brilliant session gave Alex a six-frame lead and Spencer simply couldn’t close the gap.

Alex’s win had sent shockwaves through the tight-knit snooker community. The game had its greats but now it had its first player with crossover appeal. For as long as anyone could remember snooker had meant dark and smoky rooms, glacially paced frames and pressed suits. Here was a kid who flew round the table, moving from one shot to the next whilst never taking a hand from the baize. Here was a player who played not just the game but the audience, smiling and laughing his way through frames. And here was a poster boy, handsome and a world away from the middle-aged men around him.

Over the next five years Alex’s career blossomed further. By the mid-seventies he was the game’s most recognisable name, several non-ranking titles won but no further majors. His opponents had worked out a plan to nullify him as best they could by puling him back to their level with long-drawn out frames and safety battles. His impatience and subsequent desire to please the crowd would always cost him. But it was exactly those qualities that filled exhibition halls the length and breadth of Great Britain, and he loved their adoration.

Away from the crowd he was developing a reputation for a prickly attitude to authority. Whilst his life was yet to truly leave the rails he had already been fined several times for minor misdemeanours and his capacity for drink was becoming legendary. He was also a heavy smoker and snooker’s relationship with several tobacco sponsors meant he would never be short of cigarettes or matches at which to smoke them. Higgins played fast and lived faster, also adding women and gambling to the list of vices he was prone to. Despite this, as snooker moved into the world of mass entertainment he was to become its biggest star.

In 1977 the World Championships moved to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield with a lucrative new sponsorship deal in place with Embassy. Its single location, three-camera set up was perfect for television and the game moved from the black and white backrooms to the bright lights of the BBC. Higgins’ game was built for a wider audience and of course, he embraced them accordingly.

The Hurricane had already gone primetime, snooker was merely catching up and now he found himself welcome at every bar in Great Britain instead of just “most”. As his star grew throughout the 1970s things began to get away from him. He had never lived a quiet life but suddenly here he was, drunk and running through a 35-room mansion as an equally drunk Oliver Reed chased him with an axe. At an exhibition match in Ilfracombe he threw his cue “spear-like” at a spectator who riled him. He missed tournament games to play more lucrative exhibition games and began drifting from match-to-match losing track of which mattered and which were for show. He was fined continuously for falling out with snooker’s authorities for everything from telling the most experienced referee in the game to “read the fucking rulebook”, to continuing to lick the white ball to clean it even though that had been banned. He refused to wear black knowing he would be fined until black was outlawed as snooker attempted to modernise, at which point Higgins immediately favoured the traditional suit with a black bowtie. He even managed to get himself banned from appearing on Pot Black for being caught urinating in the sink in his dressing room because the toilets were a “fair walk.”

Several nights out with Oliver Reed and Alex Higgins went exactly as you would expect them too, one ending in a sword fight, another with the infamous downed half-pint of Chanel no.5. Practice time went from being elusive to nearly non-existent. He drank with Keith Moon, Ian Botham, Elton John, George Best and everyone in between. By that fateful 1981 World Championships the Hurricane was front and back page news, even earning himself an appearance on This Is Your Life. The wake up call of realising his game now lagged behind was needed as no amount of fines, bans, hangovers or arguments had broken through the hedonistic ice he had surrounded himself in. The Hurricane was a force of nature, Alex Higgins was just a man.

“Never in the history of sporting conflict has there been so much triumph and tragedy as there was in the semi-final of the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield"

Alan Thompson writing for the Daily Express, Saturday, May 15th 1982

In lining up for that black he had not only admitted to himself that the Hurricane was back in control, but he had now told the world. He took the shot and unusually stayed down to watch it, willing it to disappear but also taking in the moment. It drifted towards the pocket, bounced from side to side and dropped to a chorus of cheers. In one shot everything had changed. He chalked his cue, walked round to the next red but looked above the scoreboard to the commentary box. Catching John Spencer’s eye he grinned - he had this, no bother - a moment caught on the live BBC coverage. If the halo had ever slipped in the public’s eye here was a smile that told them not to worry.

His next difficult red was clipped effortlessly into a middle pocket, leaving himself the blue to the bottom right. Position wasn’t easy but he was beginning to feel something. Momentum is powerful but to those who can create it from nothing it becomes a drug, the one high you can’t replace once the sporting lights fade. He took his time to enjoy the feeling, checking the angle but knowing exactly what he wanted to do. He checked the score with both board and referee, and took the blue on. 

The blue dropped but no one was watching. Alex had hit the white with so much side and screw he had moved it across half the table to one cushion, only for it to spin back all the way to the other side and bounce down towards the small pack of three remaining reds. Clive Everton called the shot “extraordinary” and admitted in a 2010 BBC documentary “to this day I have no idea how he got so much spin on the ball.” In the same programme his opponent Jimmy White went for the more succinct but no less apt“ it was just a crazy shot”. Dennis Taylor admitted he’d “set it up a few times and I’ve no idea how he created so much back-spin with a flick of his wrist.” A World Championship semi-final in which he had no margin for error, and he was playing exhibition shots.

From that moment on there was no way he was going to miss a thing. A red travelled the length of the table while the white lined up perfectly for the black. The commentary team were now effusive with their praise knowing this was one of snooker’s greatest ever breaks. Each shot was “tremendous” or “beautiful”, every word taking on a little more meaning as the growing realisation this was going to be played again and again hit home. That red/black combination was followed by another, red taken from the rest to the same pocket that had cost Jimmy White his chance. White watched on from his chair, cue to the side. The game was up. There may have been one frame to go after this but the Whirlwind was spent, blown away by a Hurricane.

Another red and black were potted and Higgins was on the colours, still needing them all to take the frame but by now he was enjoying himself. He moved seamlessly from one to the other. His journey through the reds had been marked by the way he had dug himself out of trouble he had busily made for himself. As he moved through the six colours he was millimetre perfect on each shot, every ball dropping centre pocket, white landing perfectly every time. As he lined up for the black that would give him the 69-59 frame win, there wasn’t a doubt in the room.

The room erupted knowing it had just witnessed sporting genius. Jack Karnehm gave up any pretence of impartiality with a “marvellous!” as the final ball dropped. Higgins himself strode back to his table but not before another glance towards Spencer. He smiled, pointed and said “yeah”. For a man prone to emotional outbursts it was a wonderfully understated gesture, but also one that drained any semblance of confidence Jimmy White may have held onto. Alex “the Hurricane” Higgins was back, whole again and winning. Nothing could go wrong now…

To Be Continued

The break in its entirety can be seen via YouTube here and the mentioned BBC documentary looking back at Alex’s life (and this break) after his funeral in 2010 is here.

David is a co-editor of IBWM, features on the Football Fives Podcast and is @DavidHartrick.