He was an imperfect human being

Flowers placed on the ground beside a mural of snooker legend Alex Higgins in the Donegal Road area of South Belfast, Northern Ireland.-AP

Alex Higgins leaves little behind except a bunch of disillusioned former friends and memories of the most dazzling snooker of his generation, but those who ignored Higgins in the last 10 years — thinking only that he had brought his plight upon himself — might wonder if they could have helped him more. By Ted Corbett.

I first met Alex “Hurricane” Higgins in the autumn of 1969 in a small scruffy snooker club buried in a railway arch in the northern industrial town of Blackburn.

I wanted to write a piece about this 20-year-old Irishman “who makes century breaks without waiting for the balls to stop rolling” and although that was an exaggeration it was clear that he was a charismatic young star touched with greatness, boasting he would be the next world champion.

Two years later Higgins had reached the championship final and for the next 15 years barely a day went past without me having to deal with his life.

Snooker in the early 1970s was a mess. Half a dozen professionals made a living playing exhibition matches but there were few competitions and money had scarcity value.

The world championship was in such a poor state that when Rex Williams and John Pulman toured South Africa playing seven-match sessions to settle who wore the crown, spectators were rare. Eventually they arrived to find a venue empty and tossed a coin to see who had won 4-3!

Higgins ended snooker's poverty. His rival for the 1972 title was “young” John Spencer — 32 compared with the other pros in their sixties — and they met in a club in Birmingham for a week's match in the middle of a national strike.

Spencer and his wife were stuck in a lift when the electricity failed, the club lighting was powered by a borrowed generator, its large social room, hazy with smoke, had 700 spectators compared with the police limit of 500 and Higgins exhibited all his genius.

On that Thursday night he won all seven frames in 90 minutes, my paper and our main rival vied for his signature and by the end of the week he seemed sure to be one of the sports personalities of the year.

Here was a smart looking, smiling, witty lad just like the footballer George Best, another bright young Irishman, and the public bought into his tall stories about trying to be a jockey and playing in his Belfast club The Jampot.

From that moment snooker grew at speed. The following year the world title was settled at a major tournament in central Manchester, five years later the event moved to the Sheffield theatre that still stages it 30 years on and when TV moved in, millionaires soon followed.

Most of this sudden blossoming was due to Higgins but I have to tell you he was detested by the game's rulers with almost the same fervour that the general public loved him.

It is distressing for me to say now but, for all the brilliance of his potting, Higgins was an imperfect human being.

He drank to the max, he smoked heavily even by the generous standards of the times, and he had a nasty temper. By the end of his glittering career he had played dirty tricks on many of those who only wanted to help him. Yes, that included me.

He had been brought up in Protestant Belfast, left a trail of money problems and proved he was capable of a thousand deceptions.

Half my life was spent checking out stories of his failure to turn up for exhibition dates, listening to him try to talk his way out of problems and being the bad guy in both Australia and India.

Another day... another Higgins row, I used to grumble. Snooker's grandees felt he was soiling a clean-cut game as they first covered up his indiscretions, then fined him and finally lost patience and barred him.

Nothing can take away the glory that was Higgins in full flight at the table although sometimes he had the luck of the devil. “I can stop him potting but I can't stop him fluking,” Ray Readon muttered on his way to another world title.

Higgins won his second world title in 1982 and, tears streaming down his face, captured everyone's heart by shouting to his wife Lynn to “bring on the baby” so that he could be seen on TV cuddling Lauren in his moment of triumph.

These were touching scenes but by the turn of the century his greatest skills — all as unorthodox as the man himself — had deserted him, he had returned to Belfast and been gripped by throat cancer.

He was found dead last month in a flat for the destitute, his money gone missing, and the potential for greatness, for honours even, forgotten. Thousands — including Lynn and Lauren — saw his funeral at Belfast Cathedral, just as huge crowds had said goodbye to the wayward Best.

Once he had hustled his way to dramatic victories, beaten the best opposition and done so as he whirled round the table, eyes blazing, hips as slim as any bull-fighter's, a soldier on the warpath if ever there was one.

Higgins leaves little behind except a bunch of disillusioned former friends and memories of the most dazzling snooker of his generation, but those who ignored Higgins in the last 10 years — thinking only that he had brought his plight upon himself — might wonder if they could have helped him more.

His brilliance allowed them to prosper, his ascent from the scruffy snooker hall under the railway arch to the spotlight on the stage and his ability to draw a crowd that allowed snooker to spread all the way to China.

Higgins paid his debts in full; the stars have still not paid off their debt to him.