‘Alex Higgins was a genius who needed three Valium just to sit still’ - Jake O’Kane

The Hurricane was our most famous sportsman after George Best

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

Alex Higgins was world snooker champion twice, in 1972 and 1982. He was also a runner-up in the world final in 1976 and 1980. In addition, he won the UK Championship in 1983 and the Masters in 1978 and 1981  
Belfast-born Alex Higgins, arguably the most naturally gifted player to ever lift a snooker cue, won just £480 for his first world title in 1972

When I was a boy the local snooker hall was called the Patrickville. I was only in it a couple of times as it was a place we were warned to stay out of. According to our Christian Brother teachers, it was a den of gambling and other nefarious activities. Along with, “You’ll end up a corner boy”, the Brothers’ other rebuke was, “Boy, you’ll end your days in a snooker hall”.

This was unfair, of course, as snooker was the working man’s version of golf. Unable to afford golf club fees or the expensive equipment needed to hit a small white ball into holes on a golf course, they instead rented a snooker table for an hour and hit multi-coloured balls into pockets.

The game remained a niche sport up until the 1960s, only occasionally featuring on television, mainly due to television sets being black and white. Dennis Taylor is lucky to be commentating now as back then, every shot had to be prefaced with the colour of the ball being aimed at.

With the arrival of colour television, the popularity of snooker exploded. The only thing which had a bigger impact was a wee man from Belfast’s Sandy Row called Alexander Gordon Higgins, better known as ‘Higgy’ or ‘the Hurricane’. After George Best, Higgins was our most famous sportsman - the fans’ favourite and the biggest name in snooker even before he won the world title.

I contributed to a documentary about him many years ago and summed him up saying: ”Alex Higgins was a genius because everything about Higgy was contrary to what it should have been. He was a twitchy, jumpy nervous character who needed three Valium just to sit still.

Former World Champion, Alex Higgins, passed away on July 24, 2010
Snooker legend Alex Higgins died on July 24 2010

“And he did ridiculous things on a snooker table which nobody else would try. He was a bit like Muhammad Ali in that he knew he was good. He was better than good; he was special, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

“He was also completely unpredictable, to the extent you never knew whether he was going to pot the black or hit the referee, and that kept your interest.”

All this came to mind as I watched local player Mark Allen lose to Scotland’s John Higgins in a nail-biting World Championship match on Monday night. Locked at 12 games each and with Allen having made a break of 62 in the final frame, it looked certain he was heading into the quarter-finals.

Alex Higgins was completely unpredictable, to the extent you never knew whether he was going to pot the black or hit the referee

But snooker is unforgiving and one mistake by Allen allowed Higgins back onto the table, with the Scot playing a brave double into the middle pocket. From there he never looked back, playing one of the greatest shots ever seen at the Crucible by sinking a difficult last red along the bottom cushion.

I felt for Allen, who was magnanimous in defeat and is certain to one day soon lift the World Championship trophy.

It’s anyone’s guess who this year’s winner will be but if I were a gambler – which thankfully I’m not – my money would have been on Ronnie O’Sullivan until he was put out on Wednesday, missing his chance to win a record-breaking eighth title.

Not since Higgins has a player exhibited such natural talent as O’Sullivan; indeed, while it’s never easy to compare across generations, most people would admit O’Sullivan would probably have edged the ‘Hurricane’ at his best.

Tragically, Higgins arrived on the snooker scene too soon, receiving a paltry £480 when he won the first of his two world titles in 1972. In comparison, this year’s winner will walk away with a cheque for £500,000.

Due to his impetuous nature and unreliable temper, Higgins realised his impact on snooker wouldn’t be measured in titles or earnings. He played for the love of the game and was happy to be the ‘People’s Champion’.


Lilian Seenoi-Barr, SDLP councillor for Foyleside. Picture by Mal MCann.
Derry and Strabane's next mayor will be the SDLP's Lilian Seenoi-Barr (Mal McCann)

I don’t want to get too excited but there are distinct indications that we may finally be entering the 21st century.

It’s been announced that a gay man and a black woman are to become mayors of Belfast and Derry and Strabane respectively. Since the announcement, Alliance councillor Micky Murray and the SDLP’s Lilian Seenoi-Barr have received a torrent of online abuse from the homophobic and racist contingent of anti-social media.

I also came under attack for having the temerity to congratulate both councillors online. I’ve noticed a distinct spike in racist abuse originating in the Republic, and hope that both the PSNI and Garda will utilise whatever powers they possess to bring these online bigots to justice.