Alex will always be a champion
That remarkable photograph of Alex Higgins taken by Cathal McNaughton has drawn a lot of response from the general public. It is a mesmerising character portrait. At first glance it appears to tell the all too well-known tale of “The Decline of Alex Higgins”.
This doesn’t seem to be the Hurricane of legend, the firestorm that set ablaze snooker arenas around the world. His face looks ravaged and that of an old man, certainly older than his 60 years. This looks like someone who has confronted many a painful battle. The superficial reaction is to say ‘Isn’t it awful what has happened to Alex?’.
But, of course, when you look at it for a little longer — and you do because you can’t tear your eyes away — a different story is suggested. Because it tells the story of Alex Higgins’ survival. Not just in his battle against throat cancer, but in having “thrown it all away”, of having all the gifts that the sporting gods could bestow, spending his talents and his fortune in a reckless way.
This is the face of a man who has survived himself and in that way it is also the face of the Belfast working classes. Put upon but defiant, the surface aggressiveness or defensiveness, call it what you will, giving way to a certain vulnerability; the frankness of the stare shows a man beyond the pettiness of pretences. His life is what it is. Take it or leave it.
The fact is that Higgins has always been a problematic figure for many of the chattering classes, or what passes for chattering classes round here. And his story of the decline and fall has always provided an easy little morality tale for those who forget their place. Loud, raucous, a wild horse, Higgins was an embarrassment to many, and to many from Northern Ireland. He was not the Ideal Ambassador. But then, they explain, what could you expect from someone like him.
He took the limelight, the glory and the adulation as of right. Not for him false modesty and playing it safe. Even the two tone shirts, the refusal to wear a tie, the heroic tableside drinking and tabbing, spoke of a man who had not really moved all that far from the Jampot off Belfast’s Donegall Road.
And many more of his fans loved him for it. The cliche of ‘the people’s champion’ has a certain truth to it. Frustrating as it all was, tortuous as each wilful, high-risk, impossible shot proved to be, they also loved the glory that he blew away. Not for him the grinding caution of a Davis or Hendry, accumulating title after title the way a savings account accrues interest.
No, here is a man who stood on his own genius and on his own terms. Yes, it is a foolhardy philosophy but it is also in some ways a romantic and an heroic one and you can see that heroic quality in McNaughton’s compelling portrait.
So, yes, in some ways Higgins, living in a hostel close to where he grew up in Belfast, back on a snooker legends tour because he admits he needs the cash, can be seen as a figure of failure.
But all those ways happen to be wrong. Higgins is a winner. Against all the odds, even those he stacked against himself, he has come through with a ragged panache, an unmistakable swagger, a fedora in the rain. The fact he is still on the go at all raises a smile in the heart.
Don’t be fooled by the image presented now. ‘Cancer victim’? ‘Alcoholic’? ‘Waster of talent’? Not on your life.
Sporting history occasionally produces geniuses like Higgins, people whose spectacular talent is only matched by their inevitable decline, sooner or later. Some of them come to represent something bigger than sport, maybe even something like the spirit of a people. That’s why, even at the very end, the ordinary Joe and Joanna remembered the likes of Joe Louis and George Best.
Our culture hasn’t produced as many true heroes as we’d like to think. But Higgins is one of them — awkward, gangly, unpredictable. But the sort of guy total strangers roll down their car windows and give the thumbs-up to.
The point is this is a man who has lived life on his own terms and had the good fortune to make his dream come true. Which is more than the vast majority of us can say. There will always be churls who’ll turn up their noses at the very mention of his name. But you won’t find them among those beaten by him. Nor even among those who managed eventually to rank his name among their otherwise anonymous victories.
Twice Champion of the World. If you have a fedora, it’s time to throw it in the air.