Monday, 26 November 2018

1983 UK Championship: Alex Higgins

Turbulent could be one way to describe the start of Alex Higgins’ 1983/84 snooker season. First round defeats in both the International Open and Professional Players Championship illustrated his struggles on the green baize, with the situation in his domestic life hardly helping matters.

An overdose whilst on holiday in Majorca was then followed by a short spell in a mental health hospital, as Higgins’ life spun out of control. Separated from his wife Lynn for three months, it appeared as if Higgins was taking his troubles to the table.

Higgins had reached the final of the UK Championship during the previous season, but judging by his form, the chances of a repeat seemed slim. Predicting anything with the Hurricane was never straight forward, though. Practising for ten hours a day, Higgins was determined to make his mark in Preston.

Another early exit looked a distinct possibility when Higgins lost the opening four frames to Murdo MacLeod. Yet a fine comeback resulted in a 9-6 win, and as the tournament progressed, the Hurricane began to gain momentum. A 9-1 win over Paul Medati, and a 9-5 victory against Tony Knowles, set up a semi-final meeting with Griffiths.

During the Griffiths match, Higgins announced that he was back with his wife, and his improved mental state was reflected in his impressive 9-4 win. Playing a rocky steady safety game when needed, Higgins’ flair was evident when he capitalised on errors from Griffiths. After two previous final defeats, Higgins was now hoping it would be third time lucky in the UK Championship.

Inevitably, it would be Steve Davis that awaited in the final. Winner of the Scottish Masters and International Open already in the season, the reigning world champion had little trouble at Preston, losing only 12 frames in brushing aside Geoff Foulds, Willie Thorne, Tony Meo, and Jimmy White.

Davis knew of the dangers that his opponent posed. “If he plays as well as he has been I shall have to step up a gear,” although the early exchanges on the Saturday suggested that Higgins’ juggernaut was coming to a juddering halt.

In what looked like becoming a huge anti-climax, Davis came out the traps flying, taking all seven frames in the first session, and leaving Higgins stunned. With sponsors Coral quoting odds of 16/1 for Higgins to win the best of 31 final, the Hurricane was in need of inspiration.

Golfer Andrew Chandler would play a key role. A close friend of Higgins’, he explained his course of action after that disastrous first session. “I made sure he went back to the hotel, and he had a meal and that we talked about everything under the sun except snooker. I think he now realises which approach is more beneficial. I can't tell him how to win snooker matches in terms of skill - but I do understand the mental process.”

Higgins returned a changed man. Winning the opening three frames of the evening session was the ideal riposte, and although Davis won the next, Higgins took the last four frames on the Saturday, to leave the final in the balance with Davis 8-7 in front.

“Higgins’ performance on Saturday was said by those of experience to be almost without parallel,” wrote Sydney Friskin in the Times, adding that the Hurricane “demonstrated an exceptional resolution under pressure.” The final that everyone had hoped for was now a reality.

Later, Davis would admit that Higgins’ Saturday night display was vital to the outcome of the final. “When I was leading 7-0 I was flying, but he changed his mood, and was trying desperately to get back into the game. I never really recovered once he did.”

Higgins continued his fine run on the Sunday, winning the opening frame to level the match, as the final slowly developed into an epic. First Davis responded, taking the next two frames, only for Higgins to win three of the next four. With the evening session remaining, the final was locked at 11-11.

The two continued to trade blows like the great snooker heavyweights that they were, as BBC audiences and the 1,200 sell-out crowd remained on the edge of their seats. Remarkably, Higgins took the lead for the first time when closing out the opening frame, and when he hit a break of 86 in the 26th frame – the highest in the final – Higgins was 14-12 up and on the brink of a miracle.

A lot of players may well have drowned as the relentless Higgins wave crashed towards them. But Davis was no ordinary mortal. Winning three frames on the bounce, the reigning world champion put himself one up with two to play. Higgins was on the ropes once again.

Digging deep, Higgins sent the match into a deciding frame, before completing “the greatest escape act snooker has seen” to use the words of the Express’ David Emery. Taking the clinching frame 77-0, Higgins was immediately congratulated by plenty of well-wishers who had made their way towards his seat. He truly was the People’s Champion.

“It was very important to me to beat Steve to show the public how good I am,” Higgins explained afterwards. “The outcome is a very happy ending. I owe much to my good lady for the help and encouragement she gave me.”

Davis tried his best to put on a brave face, but it was hard for him to hide his disappointment. “I enjoyed it as a game. It was good for snooker. The only person it wasn't good for was me.” Understandably the defeat hit him hard, many commenting on his shocked and glazed appearance come the conclusion of the classic final.

“I remember looking across at Steve during the presentation and thinking he looked like a little boy lost,” Higgins wrote in From the Eye of the Hurricane. In April 1985, we would again witness a drained Davis, pale and gaunt, on the receiving end of another great comeback at the hands a man from Northern Ireland.

Preston 1983 was a time when everything slotted into place perfectly for Higgins, “a period of romantic revival - a stabilisation of mind and heart,” to use Friskin’s words. “This is the best week of my life,” Higgins admitted. “We're [Higgins and his wife] back together, it's my daughter's birthday and I'm the UK champion. What can beat that?”

It could have been the start of something big, but Higgins reveals in his autobiography that his UK Championship triumph was in fact the beginning of the end. “I knew I had triumphed in one of the greatest comebacks in snooker history. I was back on top, and nothing was going to get in my way. How wrong I was.” Sadly, it wouldn’t be too long before his career and marriage were both beyond repair.

But that was in the future. Higgins’ performance in that 1983 final deserves to be celebrated in isolation, a frightening achievement considering the man he was up against. “It's one of the most enthralling finals ever,” Higgins said in the immediate aftermath. “Everybody saw two master craftsman at work.”

Spare a thought, though, for Bill Martin of Millwall. Staking his life’s savings on a Davis win at 4/6, Martin must have already been counting his winnings after the first session of that final. But you had to learn to expect the unexpected with the genius that was the Hurricane.

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