Why Alex was the last of the Belfast working class heroes
Sadly , we’re in the middle of yet another period of mourning for a homegrown sporting hero. Do we as a society endure more of these than other places? It would certainly seem so.
Over the last few years we’ve said goodbye to Joey Dunlop, his brother Robert, George Best and, now, probably the most controversial, enigmatic and emotionally-charged figure of all has left the scene in a way not surprising but certainly shocking.
Like all our heroes, Alex Higgins should be enjoying a fulsome retirement, basking in the affection of his sporting peers and his native place, acting as a cultural ambassador abroad, being trotted out for civic receptions, sporting finals, shopping centre openings and for a TV tribute show every few years to remind us all of how great he was. As if he was from Bradford, or Cheltenham or Birmingham, where he won his first title.
But it just hasn’t worked out like that, has it?
Instead, it’s been a saga of shock, tears, regret, floral tributes, iconic images of splendour and decay — all associated with funerals well before their time.
Whatever the particular circumstances — and controversy and debate accompanied all these tragedies — there seems to be something about risk-taking which hypnotises the very best of our sporting legends.
In the cases of George Best and now Alex Higgins, compulsive, spontaneous, high-risk personalities spilled over from the sporting arena into private life with the kind of devastating consequences we are all witnesses to now.
With Higgins, absolutely everything was spectacular. His upbringing in working-class Belfast and his early schooling in the arts of snooker are the stuff of myth. His triumphs — especially the manner of them — were at the highest level of his game and for the first time, thanks to colour TV, fully visible to all of us.
Unlike other heroes of the team games, Higgins stood alone under the lights. Unlike those other gladiators, the boxers, the test of Higgins’s skills included endurance sometimes over whole days, the holding of nerve, a clinical steadiness of the eye and hand, the outworking of consequences not always of his own making.
As a snooker player, that would be thrilling enough. But it was only snooker, after all, a game played with multi-coloured balls.
What made it compelling and riveting and draining and exhausting and nerve-shattering, was what he and he alone could, quite literally, bring to the table — himself.
Those photographs which have become so familiar over the last days — Alex crouched over the table, face set, eyes fixed, aiming down the long route of his cue — exhibit something which is often overlooked in the analysis of how he changed snooker for ever.
Yes he was fast, yes he was irreverent, yes he was young — but he was also extremely lithe, animalistic, attractive. Higgy brought sexiness to snooker, just as Best did in football.
No harm to them, but no one could describe John Spencer as ‘sexy’, never mind Steve Davis, Hendry or Thorburn. But Higgy was Brando and Dean and Elvis rolled into one. Winning over the female viewer was a big part of the TV success of snooker.
Not yet in our teens I and my school-friends suddenly found TV’s Pot Black as unmissable as Top of the Pops — and better. This was no fey member of Duran Duran, but a hard-drinking, chain-smoking bad lad.
Years later, as a young news reporter I landed an exclusive with Alex, thanks to my friend and former colleague Ronnie Harper, who worked in this newspaper’s sports department.
Ronnie had been very good to Alex in his early days and Alex never forgot his generosity. When Alex’s mother died and Ronnie asked him would he talk about it to me, Alex readily agreed to meet at the Europa at 4pm that day.
He didn’t disappoint: emotional, obviously, but also charming, introspective, intelligent and kind. And everywhere we went, for it was a long night, Alex was welcomed, appreciated, adored. In The Crown he signed endless autographs; walking through the city, workmen hung off scaffolding to shout ‘Alex, still the greatest’; in another club a man rushed over to say: “I’m from the other side of the house, my wife died recently, we’ve these Troubles but you, squire, you’ve kept us going.”
So it went on: taxi drivers who refused to take our fare (“Sir, it’s an honour to have you in my car.”) and bouncers who called him by name and saluted him as we walked by. The People’s Champion.
A few years ago, we met up again. Though he’d battled ill health, he was in good form. There were long lessons on the geometry of snooker (“it’s all angles”) and the assertion that he could still beat them all. He could have, too. It was age and infirmity that beat Alex, nothing else.
Higgy’s rise and fall, several times over, was played out during the period when, as a society, we found ourselves in the public eye internationally for horrors and atrocities not always of our own making. His first world championship was won only months after Bloody Sunday; his second — the one which has fixed him forever in our culture — in 1982, which has its own catalogue of hurts and losses.
Somehow, he managed to create his own piece of Belfast wherever he went, a scale model of the city exact in every detail from the good looks, the charm, the rakishness and the genius, right down to the tiny detail of the pig-headed, sometimes stupid, gable-wall uproar.
In the process, and against all the odds, he was taken to the hearts of people everywhere; more than just a star, though he was that till the day he died; more than just a legend, though the tributes pouring in from rivals and proteges alike testify to that status; more than just a hero, though he will always be that wherever anyone has the nerve to watch footage of his play.
More than anyone in the public eye, Higgy was a Belfastman, soaked in the city he was born in. It was that which we recognised here — Higgy made it under the wire of our different religions and allegiances, infiltrating our affections, simply because we knew that if his genius was his own, his flaws were all ours.
We all wished he would be less erratic, more careful, less explosive, more predictable, less angry, more temperate, less drunk, more domestic, less embarrassing, more steady, less lonely, more happy ...
But we didn’t want him ordinary or tepid or dull.
And he was never that. The city of Belfast has lost another son, maybe the last of the old generation who stuck close to the signposts of home, one who brought infinitely more glory than pain.
He may have ended his days, as some have said, as ‘a ghost’ of his former self. (Some ghost! Some self!)
But it’s a ghost with a fedora.