Alex Higgins Dies: 5Live Show Transcript

Following the news of Alex Higgins’ death yesterday there was a phone in show on BBC Radio 5Live featuring John Parrott and Dennis Taylor amongst others. For those of you unable to listen, please find below a transcript of selected highlights from the programme…

You can listen to the programme over at the BBC 5Live website here:

Frances Finn (Presenter): John, have you been thinking about what made him such a special man in the world of snooker?

John Parrott: Erm he just was completely different, there was an old expression that they threw the mould away and that certainly applied to Alex, he was the McEnroe and the George Best of the green baize if you like, he was just a completely mercurial character, you never knew what you were going to get and I think that’s why he put bums on seats.

FF: That’s right there has been a lot of talk already tonight about how much of a draw he was to the game. They say that colour television was one but then it was Alex Higgins.

JP: I always used to watch Pot Black and make sure that I was glued to my seat when Alex was playing and one of the first exhibitions I went to he was involved in it and you walked in the place and the roof came off, he didn’t even have to get his cue out of the case to be excited about it and he was just a maverick of the green baize.

FF: Steve Davis has been talking about the effect he had on his opponent because of how popular he was, crowds would follow him around. Steve Davis said: “They weren’t your usual crowd, they were much more noisy and you had to play against them as well, but that’s what made his games exciting to watch”

JP: Yeah absolutely and the first time I ever got on a television tournament lo and behold I’m playing Alex Higgins, 2,000 people up in the arena, a thousand with Alex, a thousand scouse people with me, unbelievable atmosphere and you know the roar when he started potting balls and clearing was incredible, a bit like playing a match away in Europe I should imagine like a football team, you had to silence the crowd because he got a buzz off that and he played even better.

FF: So you say you were a lad when you started watching him, was he a factor in why you took up the game?

JP: He was one of them, all of the great names of the past, the Reardons, the Higgins, the Spencers the Charltons, all the people I used to sit at home and watch but Alex was the one that if he played at any venue you could guarantee that it was sold out.

FF: John in the game now it is difficult to think of an equivalent isn’t it?

JP: It is difficult to think of an equivalent in ANY sport, I mean he just really was a one-off, we’ll never see the likes of him again. For people who knew him he could be awkward, he could be belligerent, the next minute he could be charming. He wasn’t stupid either he could do a crossword, he could talk about subjects that you wouldn’t dream he would know about, the whole package was mercurial, there’s no other expression for him that sums him up better than that. You never knew what you were getting, I don’t think that he knew what he was getting when he was getting out of bed in the morning.

FF: He was a lovely man wasn’t he John?

JP: Erm he could be awkward, let’s not paint him as a saint…

FF: He was colourful, that’s an often used word of people like Higgins wasn’t it?

JP: Yeah he was very colourful, I don’t think that I’ve met anyone on the planet who could have so many different characters, usually people are a certain way and are middle of the road with it but you never knew what you were going to get with him. For years and years he didn’t really eat properly and he used to drink a little bit, he never drove for years and years and he used to get on the train and have a little drink and by the time he got off the other end of the train through the combination of not eating and then having a few drinks it used to make him a bit tipsy.

FF: The thing that comes to my mind when watching snooker these days is that players are very controlled and yet here is a man who didn’t seem to be much in control of his private life, he was called the hurricane around the table, he was the whole paradox of what snooker was wasn’t he?

JP: Yeah and actually the way he played was a paradox because he did all of the things that we were told not to do in a textbook, he used to hit the ball and jump up in the air, but at the moment of impact he was through the ball absolutely dead straight, you could tell that he was completely self-taught the way he played the game and because he played that way and that style like nobody else it made him like nobody else.

Images(c) david muscroft and snookerlegends

FF: Dennis Taylor is with us tonight. So a sad day, he was 61, he had been battling throat cancer for more than a decade and Dennis you were at the rough end of his more volatile side at one point weren’t you?

Dennis Taylor: Well at one point but what people tend to forget is that I met Alex when he was 18 when he won the Irish Amateur Championship and I won the British Junior Billiards Championship and they brought me back home to play Alex in an exhibition so we have known each other since we were 18 years of age. When he moved to Blackburn I spent thousands of hours practising with Alex, I even managed to find him a little flat, we put a television in and we practised for hour after hour

FF: So he was a man that did practice, he was quit disciplined in that sense wasn’t he?

DT: Oh Alex didn’t just come on the scene and become world champion overnight, he practised ten or eleven hours a day back in Belfast and when I first seen him when he was 18 I thought this is something very, very special here and he proved that. One lovely little story, when he played in the old Post Office club back in Blackburn he made seven century breaks against me one afternoon and the owner hadn’t seen one and he said if he makes one in the next frame he can have free pies and crisps for a week and Alex went on and made his century break and got his free pies and crisps. He was unique Alex, we had our battles and a few fallouts along the way but at the end of the day you have got to remember him for what he did on the snooker table and he did a lot for the game in the early stages of his career.

FF: He was great at those trick shots, for example the one where he got Jimmy White who looked about twelve to lie across the table and he would shoot the white at the black which was in Jimmy’s mouth and the ball would go into the pocket…

DT: Yeah Alex was renowned more for his flamboyant play around the table, not a great trick shot player…

FF: What he was known for was playing a rough shot, getting himself out of position and then pulling out a stroke of genius and getting himself back, that’s what made him so great to watch wasn’t it?

DT: Well yeah he was a bit like John McEnroe, he was always going to be a bit controversial but some of the shots he did pull out, there was one shot against Jimmy White in the semi-final, you could have set the shot up a hundred times and I don’t think that Ronnie O’Sullivan could have pulled the shot off but occasionally Alex would pull off a shot that nobody else could get anywhere near.

FF: When you won the title Dennis it was 1985 so just three years after you had won it, that must have been quite special because you were both from Northern Ireland, to have two champions in such a short time the two of you must have been heroes.

DT: It was very special and the fact that Alex won it in 1972 and I had been playing him a lot then anyway, we used to have great battles in places like the Ulster Hall in Belfast, the Antrim Forum, the Riverside in Coleraine, we had some great battles and Alex winning the title in 1972 almost gave me a little bit of confidence that if I could beat Alex and he was beating the top players in the world then I might have a chance of lifting a world title and sure enough I did manage it in 1985 and to have two world champions from that part of the world was a bit special.

FF: Text coming in, “Higgins the greatest ever player, tosh, sure he was a great character but don’t dishonour Davis, White and so many better players” What do you think Dennis?

DT: Well I do a little thing when I’m speaking and the three greatest players for me that have ever picked a snooker cue up and the order I’ve got them at, Stephen Hendry as the greatest of all time, I’ve got Steve Davis as number two and I’ve got Ronnie O’Sullivan as number three, Ronnie could go on to become the greatest player that ever picked a cue up because Ronnie is total genius on the snooker table. Alex was a genius in his own right but if played Alex at the top of his game you had a chance of beating him but if you play O’Sullivan, Hendry or Davis you can get very little chance against them. Take nothing away from Alex he was a great player but those three were much better players.

FF: John Parrott do you go along with Dennis’ ranking there or would you put Alex higher up?

JP: No Dennis is absolutely right, he knows the game upside down and back to front. Listen we’re talking about Higgins as a genius, he had an unbelievable talent but if you are talking about him playing now against the best frankly he wouldn’t have lived with Ronnie O’Sullivan, O’Sullivan is as good as anyone who has ever picked up a cue, you have also got Davis and Hendry who were prolific winners. They had a different style of play to Alex, Alex probably didn’t win enough because he liked to entertain the crowd more, his own personal satisfaction of taking on special shots, but nobody mentioned him as being the best player in the world, we all liked the shots and the different way that he played, we don’t think he is the best player who ever lived, we haven’t said that

FF: I remember willing him on in 1982…when players have a much reported difficult private life, when they come good like that it is emotional isn’t it?

JP: Yes I’ll always remember it because I had won the Merseyside Championship on the same night, it was a special night for me because I was on my way to being a professional and he was there holding the trophy, special scenes, scenes like you have never seen before, he played fantastically well in that final to beat Ray Reardon.

FF: We have now got Philip Studd on the line, our snooker correspondent…

Philip Studd: I’m not sure what I can really add after all of those stellar names from the game have given their opinions of Higgins, they were a little bit older than me, I came into the Higgins era a little bit…right at the back end really but he was a great player and you played some commentary right at the start of your piece of the break that got him into the final in 1982 against Jimmy White although I completely agree with both Dennis and John that he can’t be ranked alongside the Davis’s, the Hendry’s or even O’Sullivan in terms of what he won or his consistency but that break remains almost 30 years on the greatest break ever made, some people have said that it was so great because it was so bad because he kept running out of position and it was a break that he had to make to stay in the match, Jimmy White was on the cusp of making the final.

FF: Was that the break when he was down something like 59-0 and he had to pot every single ball to stay in the match?

PS: Exactly, White had made a 50 break, played a careless shot with the rest and it was the last chance saloon for Higgins and as I say he ran out of position several times and yet he produced some extraordinary recovery shots and he just did it again and again and again and of course he went on to clear that table to win that frame, win the deciding frame and make the final and arguably that match changed the course of snooker history because who knows how different Jimmy White’s career might have been had he won that match and gone on to play Reardon, many people think that White would have beaten Reardon in that final and gone on to win many world titles but of course as it panned out he never won the big one but that was an encapsulation of Alex Higgins the player, that break I think, it was just so compelling, he had this extraordinarily unorthodox style as John Parrott was saying earlier, he used to move on the shot, his positional play was sometimes awry, he hit every shot as though his life depended on it and yet he had this extraordinary ability to see a pot and to produce something that no other player would even dream of trying never mind achieving and that’s what made him so compelling, he was box office in every sense.

Images(c) david muscroft and snookerlegends

PS: Higgins was not a great winner like Davis and Hendry because Davis and Hendry had this steely determination to dominate the game, to absolutely dominate their opponents, win time and again, week in, week out. Higgins was the ultimate in a mercurial character, he could produce something quite extraordinary on his day but he could be very average if he wasn’t in the mood. He didn’t win anything like as much as Davis and Hendry did but people love a rogue don’t they, they like their anti-heroes, they like their characters who are a bit flawed around the edges and Higgins was most certainly that. Let’s not kid ourselves there were times when Higgins was off the scale and quite unacceptable and as gracious as Dennis Taylor was when speaking earlier he had a very serious run-in with Higgins at one point which led to a lengthy ban for Higgins when he actually threatened to have Taylor killed. It was a very unsavoury incident and there were many like that in Higgins’ career but ultimately here is a man who has just died from throat cancer which he battled for many years and he will be remembered as a true one off, a player that had a unique talent, whether he was more or less talented than other players who went before him is almost an irrelevance as his talent was unique and undoubtedly he put snooker on the map, he was the man who brought the game into the 20th century and made it into the hugely popular sport that it was, particularly during the 1980’s. If it hadn’t been for Alex Higgins then snooker would never have been as popular as it has proved to be.

FF: There is no smoking allowed, no drinking allowed in televised snooker, will there ever be another Alex Higgins in the game of snooker?

PS: Well let’s hope there is in a way because arguably snooker needs characters like Alex Higgins, there is plenty of Higgins behaviour as I’ve already said that we could do without but in terms of his one-off ability, his unique style, his ability to just grip an audience from the first shot to the last with his charisma and his bravado and his arrogance, his talent, he was exceptional and certainly there haven’t been many other Alex Higginses down the years in snooker and indeed in sport and maybe we could do with one or two a bit like him now.

FF: We now have David Hendon on the line. It’s interesting isn’t it, now with professional sport we have gone down the route of absolute professionalism, snooker is a game of control and concentration and therefore the players are controlled and they concentrate, it’s a bit boring isn’t it?

David Hendon: I dread to think what Alex would have been like with a sports psychologist, the psychologist would have needed a psychologist of his own!

FF: One a week

DH: Absolutely, the point about Alex is he made the professional circuit as we know it now, when he won the world title for the first time it was played in the British Legion function room, he earned £480. When he won it for the second time ten years later it was live on television, at the Crucible in Sheffield, he won £25,000 and the winner this year Neil Robertson won a quarter of a million. The professional circuit grew off the back of the popularity of Alex Higgins in the 1970’s.

FF: And what are your memories David, what makes him memorable to you?

DH: I think it was just that he was so unpredictable, he did play in an extraordinary way, shots that nobody else would take on, the style of his play was so different, particularly in the seventies. Snooker back then was not in good shape, it was quite a staged game, the players were all sort of gentlemen, it didn’t really appeal to younger spectators. Alex Higgins brought all of those in and although he behaved appallingly the public always seemed to forgive him. Even at the very end, his last appearance was earlier this year at the Crucible for an exhibition, it was a packed house and they were all on their feet applauding him, the public never left him, he was always to them the people’s champion.

FF: For a long time you viewed his snooker through clouds of smoke, smoking was allowed, almost encouraged to promote Embassy.

DH: Well yeah snooker was bankrolled by tobacco firms in the 70’s and 80’s and through the 90’s until it was banned. Alex Higgins did eventually develop throat cancer and at one point tried to sue the tobacco companies but he carried on smoking as well, that was Alex he was uncompromising right to the very end. The best way to describe him really was that I don’t think that any sport would want two Alex Higgins’ but snooker was very lucky to have one.

FF: He had the talent that when it was there and emerged in his game that would have been unrivalled and perhaps if he had played at his best consistently he would be ranked up there amongst Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry.

DH: That’s right but he seemed almost to have that self-destructive gene where he had to go to the brink of winning it all or losing it all, it’s just how he was. He didn’t have the dedication that the players you mentioned had but he was a real fighter, very, very difficult to beat, really clung in there and he wasn’t all attacking snooker, he was a great safety player as well but he made the professional circuit as we know it now and whatever anyone’s opinions of him as an individual and he could be an awful individual at times, snooker owes him a huge debt of gratitude for what he did for our sport.

FF: It’s funny how sport in general when you think about tennis for instance, Alex Higgins has been likened to John McEnroe, the fiery temperament, always brooding underneath, those characters were there in tennis at the time as well and now I mentioned this professionalism, they are very well behaved and hawkeye has come in and there are very few arguments and I wonder whether that lack of spice in televised sport is a bit of a bad thing really?

DH: Well in snooker we have Ronnie O’Sullivan who is not always particularly well behaved and he’s from the same lineage as Higgins and White, these self-destructive characters although O’Sullivan won a lot more than Higgins did but of course it’s a professional sport, it’s a profession and like anybody’s job, if you went into work and behaved badly you probably wouldn’t be there very long so the players of today have a television sport, money up for grabs and they do their best to behave in a professional manner but there’s always room for the odd maverick and the odd rebel and Alex was certainly that.