Evening Standard

John Higgins: ‘It is hard for me to say but this could have been the best thing that has happened. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

There is, as even John Higgins admits, something “rather surreal” about the match he has just played. Here we are in a golf club just outside Billericay. The world No1 has just emerged from the Ryder Room, where he has been playing behind-closed-doors’ snooker — no spectators, just his opponent and the referee.

The Championship League, backed by bookmakers, is only available on their websites. Meant to encourage punters to bet, it is part of the sporting empire of World Snooker’s new supremo Barry Hearn.

“Yes,” says Higgins, as he pours me a coffee. “It takes a lot of getting used to not having any crowd reactions but sometimes your opponent may say it’s a good shot.”

In the last few months, Higgins has had more serious things to worry about than the absence of crowds. For a long time, he worried if his career was over. This followed a sting by The News of the World that alleged Higgins and his then manager, Pat Mooney, had agreed to lose frames for money. The revelations emerged just over a year after he won the last of his three world titles and although Higgins was not charged with match fixing, he was found guilty of failing to report an improper approach, suspended for six months and fined £75,000.

“It was a difficult six months,” he adds. “I did not pick up a cue. It was in the cupboard and I just helped out being a dad, taking my kids to school, things which are normally left to my wife to do when I am away at tournaments. I never thought I would be put in such a position when I first picked up a snooker cue. It was a big learning curve for me. I was worried when I returned that I might be booed or barracked. Nobody has waved fivers at me. I am touched by the reception since I have come back.”

And he is convinced that the whole episode has not damaged snooker.

“It is hard for me to say but it could have been the best thing that has happened to the sport,” he says. “It has brought things to the fore. Somebody like Barry Hearn has come in and brought a new integrity to the game. This tournament and every tournament now have very strict conditions. In the years gone, they were very slack on a few things.”

So how, I wonder, would he react to Steve Waugh’s suggestions for cricketers to have a lie detector test to catch match-fixers? “That”, says Higgins with a smile, “is a pretty drastic step to take.

But if that is what you have got to do to try to say the sport is clean, you have got to do it, embrace it and just get on with it.”

Since his return to the game in November, Higgins has done much to get on. He won the UK Championship last month, regained his top ranking and is in great shape as he heads into his opening match at the Ladbrokes Mobile Wembley Masters, against world No10 Graeme Dott on Monday.

Higgins, who has also decided he will no longer have a manager, supports the Hearn regime but is not comfortable with all the changes that have come.

To make snooker more like darts, players now walk out to music. To honour his sick dad, John, who has cancer, Higgins has changed the tune to his father’s favourite, Needles and Pins by The Searchers, but says: “I’m embarrassed walking on to it. I grew up walking out with no music. I wish I had the bottle to dance on but I can’t dance.”

Nor he is happy about Hearn’s attempt to make the game quicker which has meant that, in some events like the Premier League shown on Sky, a player has to make a shot within 25 seconds.

“I am for it but I don’t like it,” he says. “It is like saying to Tiger Woods, you cannot have a practice swing and you have to hit the ball in 30 seconds. But if that is what it takes for the game to still survive in Britain I am all for it.”

Snooker’s future in this country does concern the 35-year-old and he worries that the game will never regain the popularity it had in 1985, when an incredible 18.5million watched Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the deciding frame of the World Championship at The Crucible.

He adds: “Those days have gone in the UK. However, in other countries, they have an appetite for the game. I played an exhibition with Steve Davis in Berlin. It was packed. And Steve Davis said he was getting the same feeling he was getting in the UK in the early 80s.

“Snooker in this country has failed to break out of its working-class environment. And, to be brutally honest, it may be a higher class of people in Europe who come. Lots of couples come for a night out, they have grown to love the game.”

The Scot, who is very proud of his own working-class roots, then adds: “But this has also made the sport what it is in this country. People fell in love with Alex Higgins, a working-class fellow from the back streets of Belfast. That’s what brought the game alive.”

The game, says Higgins, could do with more characters with the flamboyance of his Irish namesake. “It would be good but how do you manufacture that?,” he says. His own style, though, is set. “Sometimes I wish I could change but I am at the snooker table what I am off the table,” he says. “I’d rather win than be a showman. While many of my friends liked Alex Higgins, I liked Steve Davis.

“Just the way he played and he was winning all the time. It is funny in the 80s, he was the most hated man because of the boring tag, now he gets the most ovations.”

Though being the best player in the world, Higgins also accepts that the gap between No1 and the rest is not as great as it was when Davis had the crown.

He says: “I fear all my competitors. Davis and Stephen Hendry were so good, they were so far in front of the rest. Maybe the standard then was not so high that others could challenge them. Now it is such tough sport to succeed.”

With a dad who played for Motherwell, Higgins might have been tempted by a different ball game.

But it was his father taking him to the local pub as he came home on leave from his work on the Aberdeen oil rigs that made him into a snooker player.

He says: “Dad used to work two weeks on and two weeks off. And, when he came home to Wishaw, just outside Motherwell, he would take us boys down to the pub and that was my introduction to the game.”

There are moments when Higgins feels it would have been easier if he had taken to football. “In darts you throw three darts, then the other person throws three darts and it’s tit for tat,” he says.

“In our sport, you play a bad shot and you sit in the chair for half an hour and the other person racks up two or three frames. You can have one bad shot and be out of the match. And there you are sitting on the chair and the camera pans on you. There is nothing you can do.

“When you are losing matches you feel it would be lovely to be part of a team game so you could hide. But then you win the world title. You’ve done it on your own and it’s very satisfying.”

That is when Higgins, who left school at 15 without taking his exams, knows his gamble of being a snooker player was justified. However, until recently, he did not want his two young sons, Pierce and Oliver, to take to the sport.

He adds: “I did not want my children to be snooker players because I did not see a big future for the sport. We will see radical change come to snooker in the next couple of years.

Barry Hearn is introducing smaller events around Europe. The prize money is not much but it gets everybody playing, brings the fans and makes the game faster. The way things are going under Barry and the new people, I would quite like my children to take up the game.”

But that wish may be too late as both his sons are keen on acting.

And, for all that has happened to him, Higgins has no doubts about his choice of sport. “I am very lucky with all that I have done,” he says.


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