Higgins, Alexander Gordon [Alex]
- Martin Polley
Alexander Gordon Higgins (1949–2010)
Higgins, Alexander Gordon [Alex] (1949–2010), snooker player, was born at the Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast on 18 March 1949, the first son and fourth child of Alexander Gordon Higgins, labourer, later school caretaker, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Stockman. At the time of his birth his parents lived at 78 Dundee Street, Shankill, Belfast. Growing up in the south Belfast protestant area of Sandy Row, he developed an early taste for snooker. From the age of eleven he was a regular at the Jampot Club off Donegall Road, where he developed his distinctive fast playing style, earning money from backing himself to beat the older players. When he was fourteen he moved to England to work as a stable lad and train as a jockey, but he was unable to keep his weight low enough to race competitively. He jokingly blamed the stable's cook and the quality and quantity of her cooked breakfasts for pushing him over the weight limit. Giving up on racing, he moved to London and took a casual job in a paper mill while developing his snooker talent, funded by side bets, and then moved back to Belfast to immerse himself in the circuit. He soon emerged as a major snooker talent, winning both the Northern Ireland and the All Ireland amateur championships in 1969. He built on these successes by moving to Manchester and turning professional.
In 1972 Higgins qualified for the world professional championships. He wanted to be promoted under the nickname Alexander the Great, but his promoters preferred the alliterative Hurricane Higgins to draw attention to his speed of play: 'Alexander the Great was a figure in history', he observed. 'A hurricane was only a strong wind' (Higgins and Francis, 50). The new nickname stuck, and he lived up to it by beating John Spencer 37–32 in the final at Selly Park British Legion in Birmingham. Not only was he the first qualifier ever to win the title, he was also the sport's youngest world champion.
Snooker at this time was emerging as a popular sport on television. Its low cost to broadcasters, and the growing availability of home colour television sets, made it attractive, and the BBC's programme Pot Black was its showcase. While his first world championship had not been televised, Higgins, always a colourful figure with a less than reverent attitude towards the sport's establishment, became one of snooker's major stars. The title he won in 1972 catapulted him into a celebrity lifestyle, and his frequently abrasive character ensured that, like other sporting mavericks such as his Belfast contemporary, the footballer George Best, he appeared on the tabloids' front pages as often as on their sports pages. His drinking and smoking, both at the snooker table and at the bar afterwards, became heavy as he emerged onto the international snooker scene. While playing in Australia he met and, in April 1975, married Cara Hasler, daughter of a racehorse trainer. However, the marriage collapsed in 1977, and Higgins denied that he was the father of Cara's daughter Christel, born in the year that they separated, though he declined to take a paternity test to prove his case. On 5 January 1980, at the United Reformed church in Wilmslow, he married, second, Lynn Ann Avison, formerly Robins (b. 1953), secretary, daughter of James Avison, a technician in the chemical industry, and former wife of Charles D. M. Robins. They had two children, a daughter, Lauren (b. 1980), and a son, Jordan (b. 1983). In addition, Higgins had a son, Chris, with Joyce Delahunty in 1975.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Higgins won a number of tournaments, including the masters in 1978 and 1981 and the British gold cup in 1980, and he was runner-up in the world championships twice, in 1976 and 1980. However, in terms of trophies he never fulfilled the potential of his arrival in 1972. A glimpse of what could have been came in 1982 when, ten years on, he reclaimed the world championship, beating Jimmy White in an epic televised tournament at snooker's new home, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. His emotional celebration with his wife Lynn and baby Lauren as he received the trophy was one of the iconic televised sporting moments of the 1980s. He declared himself the ‘people's champion’, a label that stuck, and he ended the year as runner-up to decathlete Daley Thompson in the prestigious BBC sports personality of the year competition. This success turned out to be his international swansong. In 1983 he won the Irish championship, and the British championship with a celebrated win over Steve Davis, but he was never again to take the world title.
Higgins's professional and personal lives both suffered from the mid-1980s onwards. His turbulent marriage to Lynn ended in a blaze of tabloid stories in 1985, he dabbled with cocaine, lost thousands of pounds through betting, and became increasingly erratic and violent in his dealings with the snooker authorities. In 1986 he assaulted a tournament official after refusing to provide a urine sample for an in-competition drugs test, an offence for which the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association fined him £12,000 and banned him for five tournaments. Other altercations followed, including an assault on a press officer in 1990, which earned him a year-long ban and the loss of his world ranking position.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s Higgins made occasional comeback attempts, but his health declined, and in 1997 he was diagnosed with throat cancer, for which he underwent surgery. His physical condition deteriorated rapidly, particularly as he lost his teeth during his cancer treatment and was unable to eat solid food. Having lost the estimated £4 million that he had made during his playing days, he moved into sheltered accommodation in Ulidia House, 34 Donegall Road, Belfast. He was found dead in his flat there on 24 July 2010, having died from pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, with undernutrition as a secondary cause. Although he had died alone, his life was celebrated with a large public funeral in St Anne's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Belfast, on 2 August 2010, attended by politicians and figures from the world of sport. He was buried in Roselawn cemetery.
Higgins once said of himself, 'Statistics won't tell you much about me. I play for love, not records' (Higgins and Francis, frontispiece). This view illuminates the mismatch between his immense popularity with the sport's fans as the ‘people's champion’, and the fact that he won the world championship only twice, compared to Stephen Hendry's seven titles and the six each won by Steve Davis and Ray Reardon. His reputation rested not just on his talent, but also on his maverick character and on the rags-to-riches and back-to-rags-again narrative that his career took. Along the way he helped to turn snooker into a popular spectator sport and a staple feature of television schedules beloved of sponsors and audiences alike.
- A. Higgins and T. Francis, Alex through the looking glass (1986)
- J. Hennessey, Eye of the Hurricane: the Alex Higgins story (2000)
- A. Higgins, From the eye of the hurricane: my story (2007)
- G. Burn, Pocket money: Britain's boom-time snooker (2008)
- The Observer (25 July 2010)
- Daily Telegraph (26 July 2010)
- The Guardian (26 July 2010)
- The Independent (26 July 2010)
- Sunday Independent [Ireland] (1 Aug 2010)
- Daily Record (3 Aug 2010)
- Daily Mail (7 Aug 2010)
- Sunday Mirror (8 Aug 2010)
- Irish News (17 Aug 2010)
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- BFI NFTVA, ‘Like a hurricane: the Alex Higgins story’, N. Lord (producer), BBC2, 17 April 2001
- BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage
- BFI NFTVA, sports footage
- BL NSA, interview recording
- photographs, 1972–2010, Rex Features, London
- photographs, 1973–90, Getty Images
- photographs, 1973–2007, PA Images, London
- photographs, 1974–2005, Photoshot, London
- E. McCabe, photographs, 1981, Camera Press, London [see illus.]
- M. Hunter, photographs, 2007, Camera Press, London
- obituary photographs