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Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Sunday, 25 July 2010 08:33 UK

Remembering the Hurricane

Alex Higgins
Higgins was one of the most recognisable faces in sport in the 1980s

By Chris Charles

Among the words used to describe Alex Higgins by those who crossed swords with him over the years, it is certain that 'boring' would not have been one of them.

It was, however, the word used by Ronnie O'Sullivan to describe snooker's World Championship two days before Higgins's untimely death at the age of 61.

O'Sullivan was reacting to plans by snooker supremo Barry Hearn for a new single-frame shoot-out version of the game intended to broaden its appeal - a plan which would not have been needed if Higgins had still been around and in his pomp.

I first encountered Alex when I was a spotty teenager, fortunate enough to be taken along to snooker exhibition matches by my grandparents.

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The event in question took place in Peterborough in the early 1980s when Higgins was up against a promising youngster called Jimmy White.

If memory serves, Higgins won the match 2-1 and the moment the final black ball went down, the crowd surged to the front in a bid to get autographs.

Having already secured the signature of White, I added that of the great man himself, but with my nan next in line, he announced "I'm just popping out for a pee" - and never came back.

A few years later I had just started work as a cub reporter for a news agency, having previously done a weekend job as washer-upper at a hotel in Thrapston, Northamptonshire, which was managed by a friend's stepdad, Barry Hill.

One afternoon Higgins arrived unannounced at the hotel for a drink on his way back from another event and upon hearing there was a snooker table, challenged Barry to a couple of frames.

Barry, never one to shirk a challenge, agreed and as the news spread round the building, a crowd of us quickly gathered downstairs to watch.

Alex Higgins wins the 1982 Snooker World Championship

Archive - Alex Higgins wins 1982 World title (UK users only)

Predictably Higgins scored an easy victory, and having asked to borrow Barry's cue for the match, he promptly left the building with it, never to return again.

While the manager lost his cue, I gained a bit of kudos after ringing into the office, writing up the story and selling it to the Sunday People - my first national newspaper scoop.

While Higgins was undoubtedly a bit of a rogue, he was also a true sporting legend - and one of my first real heroes, alongside Kevin Keegan and John McEnroe.

I was yet to discover my passion for the green baize when Alex won the first of his world titles in 1972, but was glued to the screen 10 years later when he saw off six-times champion Ray Reardon.

The abiding memory is of a tearful Higgins with arms outstretched pleading "gimme the baby" before cradling daughter Lauren in his arms. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

In terms of pure excitement, the final was eclipsed by Higgins's thrilling win over young pretender White in the semi-final, when he triumphed 16-15 after one of the greatest breaks of his career.

Yes, TV has witnessed plenty of 147s since then, but his unforgettable 69, when trailing 15-14 and out of position on virtually every shot in the early stages of the break, was played with the instinct and fearlessness of a natural genius.

Alex Higgins

Archive - Higgins pips White to 1982 final

A year later, the mercurial Irishman was 7-0 down to Steve Davis in the final of the UK Championship. Davis, the new star of the sport, was the reigning world champion, and seemingly cruising to an embarrassingly one-sided victory.

But Higgins, brought up in the backstreet clubs of Belfast, was a battler as well as a showman and incredibly clawed his way back into the game before once again winning 16-15 - a memorable victory for man against machine.

These days, the likeable Davis is regarded as a bit of a character himself - a testament to the way the game and its players have changed over the years.

O'Sullivan is seen as Higgins's natural heir but for vodka-swigging, chain-smoking, fedora-wearing theatrics, Higgins was in a league of his own - although occasional physical altercations with snooker officials did nothing to endear him to the neutrals.

My final meeting with Higgins came six years ago, after 48 operations in an attempt to cure him of throat cancer had taken their toll.

I had been invited to attend the premiere of Richard Dormer's excellent one-man play entitled 'The Hurricane'. Higgins was in attendance along with, bizarrely, Darren Day (a handy amateur player in his day) and as part of the deal, I was to take on the real Hurricane in a pool shoot-out after the show.

Recalling Higgins's infamous opening line to Stephen Hendry - "Hello, I'm the Devil" - I foolishly used the same introduction to Alex to try to unsettle him and raise a titter. I failed on both counts.

After leaving me high and dry with four balls still on the table, Higgins became a little more talkative, taking up my offer of a pint of Guinness, while at pains to stress he had cut down on his drinking.

He was keen to bask in memories of his greatest moments, continually pawing me to make sure he had my full attention, but he was quite literally a pale shadow of his former self and it was a bitter-sweet evening for his devoted fans.

But while the bones of his turbulent life will no doubt be picked over during the coming days, I would prefer to remember Alex, like countryman George Best, for his outrageous talent - the like of which will never be seen again.

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see also
An evening with Alex Higgins
28 Apr 04 |  Funny Old Game
Snooker star Higgins dies aged 61
24 Jul 10 |  Snooker
Obituary: Alex Higgins
24 Jul 10 |  Snooker
Tributes paid to iconic 'Hurricane'
24 Jul 10 |  Snooker
Alex Higgins: A life in pictures
24 Jul 10 |  Northern Ireland
Alex Higgins makes bribery claim
09 May 10 |  Snooker
Snooker goes back to the future
19 Apr 10 |  Snooker
Higgins goes back to his roots
09 May 09 |  Snooker
Alex Higgins interview
06 Jun 07 |  Snooker
Alex Higgins 'almost stopped breathing'
16 Apr 00 |  Northern Ireland
Snooker on the BBC
08 Apr 11 |  Snooker
Bad Boys: Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins
11 Apr 03 |  Snooker

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