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Cliff Thorburn: Everyone thought Alex Higgins and I hated each other but that's not true, I admired him

Almost 40 years after their world final duel, Cliff Thorburn discusses his intense rivalry with The Hurricane

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Crunch time: Cliff Thorburn (left) and Alex Higgins (right) flank referee John Street ahead of the World Snooker Championship final at The Crucible in 1980

Crunch time: Cliff Thorburn (left) and Alex Higgins (right) flank referee John Street ahead of the World Snooker Championship final at The Crucible in 1980

Glory days: Cliff Thorburn celebrates after making the first ever World Snooker Championship maximum 147 break at The Crucible in 1983

Glory days: Cliff Thorburn celebrates after making the first ever World Snooker Championship maximum 147 break at The Crucible in 1983

Cliff Thorburn with the Benson and Hedges Championship title in 1986

Cliff Thorburn with the Benson and Hedges Championship title in 1986

Crunch time: Cliff Thorburn (left) and Alex Higgins (right) flank referee John Street ahead of the World Snooker Championship final at The Crucible in 1980

His name comes up a little earlier in the conversation than planned.

 

"I knew we'd end up talking about Alex, didn't you?" the voice on the other end of the line chides gently.

There was a long stretch when Cliff Thorburn would have rather talked about anything other than Alex Higgins.

Then, when the snooker legend finally found himself keen to discuss, perhaps even needing to discuss, his turbulent times with The Hurricane, nobody asked.

Theirs was the story of one of sport's most combustible rivalries - one where even the clink of an ice cube on a glass could be viewed as an incendiary act - with barbs across baize and bar-room brawls to this day attracting more discussion than the dramatic world championship final they contested forty years ago next month.

While Higgins and his other great adversary Steve Davis were painted as diametrically opposed characters - Higgins once remarking that he'd rather share a drink with Idi Amin, the Butcher of Uganda - he and Thornburn, if not cut from the same cloth, had their similarities.

The Grinder and The Hurricane, as their nicknames suggest, may have had their stylistic differences with cue in hand but both were among the colourful characters of the golden era that brought snooker from the backs of bars to the living-rooms of millions throughout the 1970s and '80s.

I guess it was like when Man United have a good soccer team, it can get people into a frenzy. That's what Alex brought to the game.

By the time Higgins had became the youngest ever winner of a world title at 22-years-old, Thornburn was not yet pro but already making a living from the game as one the best hustlers in Canada. Transfixed by the sport from the moment he first laid eyes upon a table, it wasn't long before he was traversing the country by train, arriving into city after city and leaving with their best guy's money.

"It's something that really sticks out in my mind," he recalls with the kind of clarity only such a formative event can carry over the course of six decades.

"I had went to watch my father bowl, five pin bowling as we have in Canada, and I'd gotten bored and wandered off, following the sound of the clicking of the balls.

"It led me down the stairs and I saw a fella double the black ball in the side pocket. Everybody jumped up and shouted or threw some money down on the table. "Seeing the green cloth and the colours of the balls, the frilly shade over the light, the clouds of cigarette smoke wafting up, it was just a very colourful scene.

"I knew immediately I wanted to do it and once I started to play myself, I couldn't think of anything else.

"But it's not like there were any tournaments in Canada - I would have been 17 before I even knew there was a world championship -  it was just playing for money. That was the yardstick, if nobody would put their money down on the table against you then you were the best player in the place.

"It was a different upbringing than most (players) but maybe that's a help, y'know?

"When you're playing all over Ontario, where it's pretty cold in the winter, you've only got five dollars in your pocket and nowhere to stay if you don't pot the ball, you harden up a little."

Quickly taking up the mantle of Canada's best player from the late George Chenier, a three-date exhibition tour against John Spencer encouraged him to come to the UK and give the pro game a shot in time for the 1973 World Championships. The first match of his new career would be against Dennis Taylor, ultimately edging a tight encounter against the Coalisland man who was also making his first foray in the ranks.

It would be the start of an enduring friendship. Just as meeting Higgins, on his first day in the UK, was to prove the start of an enduring rivalry.

Not long off the plane, the man who once joked he was making the journey to the England because he'd ran out of customers in Canada quickly found one in the shape of the reigning world champion.

While the details of what happened in between this mysterious new arrival's unexpected triumph and the eruption that followed are contended, it is universally agreed upon that things had certainly already gone awry by the time Higgins was at the top of a staircase threatening to fire a snooker ball at his victorious opponent's head.

This first scrap would not be their last.

Higgins, ever the provocateur, possessed an innate gift for making those around him, even close friends, uncomfortable if and when the notion took him.

At 72-years-old Thorburn cuts a relaxed figure, convivial and notably considered in conversation, filling frequent pauses for thought with the phrase 'you know' as he searches for the exact word to convey his meaning.

But, when you hear stories such as the time in one of Canada's less salubrious pool halls that a beaten, but more importantly out-of-pocket, fisherman threatened him with the knife used to gut his catch after an accusation of hustling, it's easy to imagine him as a younger man having little patience for such attempts at verbal jockeying.

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Cliff Thorburn with the Benson and Hedges Championship title in 1986

Cliff Thorburn with the Benson and Hedges Championship title in 1986

Cliff Thorburn with the Benson and Hedges Championship title in 1986

 

He certainly didn't in 1983, flooring Higgins with a punch after the latest profanity-laden invective fired in his direction from the superstar's mouth. Peace in their time had, at least, appeared to be brokered until Thorburn eschewed a handshake in favour of the less diplomatic kick to the groin.

"He had a way to make a moment out of something," Thorburn reflects while knowing it takes two to tango. "There was always some dispute. I think I was one of those people that don't take any crap from people. I'm not an aggressive person obviously, but I would say something.

"Maybe it had worked with a few other people, or maybe I just didn't have the same restraint as the others, but where I grew up and in the era I grew up, that wasn't how you did things."

Falling foul of the original 'People's Champion' had other perils too of course, the Belfast boy always the overwhelming favourite of the crowd when the pair would meet in competition, never more so than with the World Championship on the line in 1980.

People said I was tough to play but, holy smokes, Alex was a bulldog. Every win you had against Alex, you earned, that's for sure.

The crowd in The Crucible had arrived ready to see another Higgins triumph, the sight of him racing into a lead of 9-5 causing the mood in Sheffield to swell further with anticipation.

"The whole thing was new to me," says Thorburn who had lost to John Spencer in the final three years prior. "People clapping when you miss and that sort of thing but that's part of the game I guess. They're not wishing you well by any means but it's not you, they're just rooting for the other person.

"I guess it was like when Man United have a good soccer team, it can get people into a frenzy.

"That's what Alex brought to the game, being such an extrovert, it hadn't been there before. It was great in a way, even for the other guy."

The big stage did little to lessen the needle between the pair. Higgins, incorrectly it would seem, accusing Thorburn of obscuring his line of vision during a shot and Thorburn, justifiably by all accounts, taking umbrage with Higgins' own attempts at distraction.

"He always gave you wonderful incentive to try and beat him," Thorburn laughs as measuredly as he used to weigh up the options between shots.

"I remember that final, I would play a shot from the other end of the table and Alex - The Hurricane, right? - he would run up to the table, and get down to shoot pretty quick. I'd not be able to get back to my seat before he was taking his shot. He shot fast, missed, and turned around and glared at me like I'd shouted out 'hey!' or something.

"I accused him of clinking his glass, so he did the same thing. There was stuff like that going on.

"I missed a pretty easy brown ball and was going to the washroom, and I remember hearing someone say in the crowd, 'you've got him now Alex, he's away to be sick.'

"The guy was wearing an Alex Higgins t-shirt. I went on, looked in the mirror and screamed at myself, it spurred me on.

"He didn't really get a shot the last two games. It was like I was back playing somebody in Thunder Bay, northern Ontario, back when I didn't have any money.

"That's how I felt. That freedom of just potting balls...I did enjoy potting balls despite what some people would have you believe.

"I was clearing up with my last break and I knew I was world champion. That's a pretty neat thing."

The prevailing narrative became that Higgins had blown it and he would later write in his 2007 autobiography that the lost lead was down to him playing to the gallery once ahead, to having a greater desire to please his adoring public than play it safe and secure the win.

It's a reductive notion that does the snooker Thornburn produced a disservice, even if the man himself seems unconcerned.

"He never gave up against me...he never gave up against anybody," he says.

"People said I was tough to play but, holy smokes, Alex was a bulldog. Every win you had against Alex, you earned, that's for sure.

"I've never met anyone who wanted to win as much as he did. You could see it on his face, in his eyes, every time.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but you can't win all the time."

On this occasion, there were to be no fireworks after, indeed so gracious was Higgins in defeat, he posed for pictures in front of the cake his then-wife Lynne had brought with World Champion 1980 emblazoned across it in icing.

"There was always a mutual respect, I certainly respected him," Thorburn says. "The altercations, they're just moments in time. It was awkward at times but we were still always at the same competitions, the same venues, the same hotels...we maybe weren't sharing the same room, but it wasn't like we couldn't be around each other.

"It's not important to talk about what happened in each certain situation but looking back at it all, I guess he became a little bit hot-headed and so did I.

"These things, time takes the edge off anyway.

"But even then I always admired his play. He was innovative. Some of the shots that he created, they're still using today. 

"I wish I'd had a bit more of him in my game, I might have been quite a player then."

If the World Championship is their most famous meeting, for Thorburn, their last was to be the most poignant.

In April of 2010, Higgins had spent the past six days in hospital being treated for pneumonia, checking himself out to take part in what he had called his last chance to get his life back on track - the Snooker Legends tour.

Frail where he was once flamboyant, black waistcoat and trousers hung off a skeletal frame, lacking even the requisite power to manipulate the ball around the table in the manner he saw in his mind's eye. By then he weighed only six and a half stone, treatment for throat cancer having ensured he could stomach only pureed food, and his voice registered little above a whisper. The date at The Crucible was to be the only one he'd make, his final frames.

"When I see those videos, I can't believe we played, I can't believe that he could play," remembers Thorburn. "He looked dreadful.

"It didn't even look like him, not like any way he'd looked at any time of his life.

"It was breaking me up, it was just tragic to see. 

"As soon as I saw him, my appetite to play was gone, I just wanted to give him a hug.

"Then I looked in his eyes and could see how much he still wanted to beat me so that was the end of that. That's how he was, still trying to win just as much as he would have been in the world championship. He was a fighter. That was Alex.

"He was like that Kris Kristofferson song (The Pilgrim), 'a walking contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction.' Larger than life.

"The stories get built up and of course there are stories that you don't hear about him, good stories, bad different stories, indifferent stories.

"But he was a father, a husband, a son. It was heartbreaking to see him like that."

Higgins would pass away soon after, alone and practically penniless in a dingy flat. Discovered by friends on the 24th day of July 2010, it was not known how long his body had been there.

In the usual race to comment, to praise, and to eulogise, Thorburn expected a phonecall that never came.

"I was in Canada when it happened," he says. "Otherwise I would have gone to the funeral, I would have been in Belfast, there's no doubt in my mind.

"I don't know how it would have been appreciated but it would have been something I wanted to do, to pay my respects.

"I found myself really waiting for someone to ask how I felt. Not that it was about me or anything like that - my wife always says 'It's all about you, isn't it Cliff?' - but I was surprised that not one press person asked me how I felt about it or for any memories of Alex.

"Out of sight, out of mind I guess but it was always quite a thing obviously, what people thought about our disagreements, our lack of love for each other or whatever you want to call it.

"Everybody thought it was this horrendous thing, that we hated each other. But I certainly didn't hate him, that's what I wanted to say and if anybody had have asked I would have but nobody did. I always felt a little strange about that."

Thorburn would belatedly get the opportunity to pay his own tribute a year later. Featured in an event at the Waterfront Hall, he and his fellow Canadian Kirk Stevens visited the Royal Bar on Sandy Row, having their picture taken in front of the Higgins memorial mural that adorns the pub's outer wall. Had he looked a little way across the road he'd have seen the flat where his old adversary spent his final days.

Their lives diverged dramatically from that day they shared on the sport's biggest stage four decades ago.

Despite a place in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and having been bestowed with the Order of Canada, Thorburn was always more likely to be recognised on the streets of London, Sheffield or Belfast than at home, as much to do with his famously televised 147 break in 1983 as his world title, his three Masters wins, or even the storied battles with Higgins.

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Glory days: Cliff Thorburn celebrates after making the first ever World Snooker Championship maximum 147 break at The Crucible in 1983

Glory days: Cliff Thorburn celebrates after making the first ever World Snooker Championship maximum 147 break at The Crucible in 1983

Glory days: Cliff Thorburn celebrates after making the first ever World Snooker Championship maximum 147 break at The Crucible in 1983

 

He chose the quieter life, negotiating the often choppy waters of sporting retirement back in Ontario.

He doesn't talk much about the old days now, not with his wife Barbara, their two sons, or his friends. They are, he feels, for old books and even older videos.

He's still just as enthralled by the game as he was that day at his father's bowling alley though, channeling his passion into a role as national head coach of cue sports.

Figuring to have watched, played or spoken with all but one of the other 25 men to have won the world title, he possesses a wealth of knowledge that, when the world returns to something akin to normality, he is itching to pass on once again. It can wait.

Most importantly, he says, he's happy. The grind goes on.

Belfast Telegraph