Snooker superstar Alex Higgins brightened our lives

Irish sport lost another hero of past glories on Saturday when Alex Hurricane Higgins was found dead in the Belfast home he lived in courtesy of a local charity.

The announcement of his untimely death at 61 years of age after a long battle with cancer ensured that another part of many of our childhoods died with him.

As someone old enough to remember the colorful Ulsterman in his pomp and prime, it was another sad day for Irish sport.

Alex Higgins was an enigma -- and a superstar who belonged to a different era, another time.
You have to be of a certain age to understand this next sentence but, like George Best, he was one of the few Ulster sportsmen who could bring Ireland together some 40 years ago.

Higgins and Best were Protestants by birth, but that didn’t matter in the 1970s when they added color to a very dull landscape on this island.

Life was black and white back then. We had arms trials, unemployment, atrocities on both sides of the border few dared to cross, and little of a sporting nature to bring the island together.
This, don’t forget, was the era before Billy Bingham’s Babes, Barry McGuigan and Mr. Eastwood, Stephen Roche or Jack’s Army.

So when George Best opened his lungs and exposed his dancing feet to the world, the Irish took notice and on both sides of the border.

When the man who would become Alex Hurricane Higgins won the world snooker title for the first time in 1972, it was a big story north and south.

By the time he lifted the crown again in 1982 he was big news all across the world, and the pictures from Sheffield commanded column inches all around the globe. His pop star lifestyle demanded as much.

Alas, like Best, Higgins was also a tortured soul whose exploits made as many headlines on the front pages as they did on the back.

He once head-butted a referee, punched an official and was banned more times than any other player in the history of professional snooker.

Higgins even managed to threaten to get his lovable compatriot Denis Taylor, one of his successors as world champion, shot for God’s sake.

Higgins abused himself and those around him for many years, and paid a heavy price when cancer finally caught up with him in 1998.

By then the tales of him hustling for a fiver a game in pubs and clubs all across Ireland, and the stories of his marital break-ups and homelessness were well documented.

His life hit rock bottom with the same speed that made his career as snooker’s most loveable rogue in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was different but he was class.

If Alex Higgins was a rock star he’d have been Shane MacGowan. If he was in a song he’d be the main man in the “Fairytale of New York.”

His final days are gone now, but his glory days will never be forgotten nor should they be. He brought color to a very dark world in the ’70s and ‘80s, and for that he should always be remembered.
French Losers Get Their Comeuppance

New York import Thierry Henry announced his retirement from international football just as some idiot with the Red Bulls decided to give the world’s biggest cheat a king’s ransom to play out his career in a second rate league.

The decision to opt out of French football was a wise one from the Hand of Frog who, sadly, won’t get to feel the wrath of new France manager Laurent Blanc.

Just in case anyone had any doubts about Blanc’s ability to stand up to the prima donna prats, Henry included, who let France down at the World Cup finals, he proved his mettle early this week.

Blanc’s first game in charge of France will see Les Bleus take on Norway in a friendly on Wednesday of next week -- and not one World Cup squad member will be involved.

Irritated by the players’ lack of passion in South Africa and their pathetic decision to go on strike before they went home with just one point and one goal to show for their dowdy efforts, Blanc has suspended the entire squad for the Norway game.

As a result, Henry’s tantrum cohorts will all be missing when the new international season kicks off for the World Cup failures.

Anelka, Evra, Ribery et al will be miles away when France take on Norway, and Blanc hasn’t promised them an early return.

He will give the 23 players who do feature against Norway a fair crack at the whip as he looks to restore national pride and worldwide honor for French football.

Blanc’s stance is to be commended. In a world where football’s multi-millionaires seem to think they can do as they please and treat their national teams with disdain, it is refreshing to see the manager take such a stand.

It’s just a pity that Brian Kerr and the FAI weren’t brave enough to take a similar stance when Mick McCarthy left the Irish job in 2002, and a certain former captain was subsequently welcomed back with open arms by a manager desperate to prove he was up to the job, but I suppose that’s an old story now.

Laurent Blanc may not win the World Cup as a manager like he did as a player, but already he has won the respect of right thinking football people for kicking Evra and Co. where it hurts.
It’s just a pity Henry doesn’t get to share their humiliation as he counts the money for old rope in New York and the MLS.
Sideline Views

HURLING: The Galway manager John McIntyre summed up the mood in the camp after Sunday’s All-Ireland quarterfinal defeat to Tipperary when he said his dressingroom was a scene of “absolute devastation.” That may well have been the case after a one point defeat to Tipp, but the reality is that Galway have now failed to deliver twice coming from the Leinster championship, and McIntyre may well pay the price for that failure with his job. That’s the cruel world he lives in, and he will know it better than anyone.

SOCCER: The Shamrock Rovers players won’t get to play in Turin’s magnificent Stadio Olimpico for the second leg of their Europa League game next Thursday -- thanks to U2! The Dubliners, with Bono fit again after his recent back injury, are booked to play in the famous stadium the day after Rovers meet Juventus so the pitch is unavailable. Instead the Hoops will play in the nearby town of Modena in a ground with a capacity of just 19,000, which seems a bit of a shame.

SOCCER: The World Cup is only just over and already the new soccer season is upon us. Giovanni Trapattoni named his squad for the forthcoming friendly with Argentina at a Dublin press conference on Tuesday, but even Trap knows the real work starts in September. Team Ireland has to qualify for the next European Championships or Trap and the FAI can throw their hats at it.

RUGBY: Nice touch by the new Connacht rugby coach Eric Elwood who’s brought his charges off to the Aran Islands for their pre-season training camp. The rugged landscape and the remote setting will do the Connacht players a world of good and it might send a message to any potential prima-donnas in their squad into the bargain.
HERO OF THE WEEK

The GAA need a successful Dublin team to fill Croke Park and the Dubs badly need a new generation of heroes. Step forward young striker Eoghan O’Gara, whose two goal first half strike against Louth last Saturday night effectively decided the All-Ireland qualifier before it was even up and running. O’Gara is a rookie, but it looks like he has the same scoring ability with his boots as his rugby namesake Ronan. Dublin won’t be strong enough to beat Tyrone this Saturday but they may well have found a new hero this summer and that can only bode well for their future.
IDIOT OF THE WEEK

The Limerick football boss Mickey Ned O’Sullivan habitually blames the referee whenever his team lose a big match and it was no different on Saturday night when they were well beaten by Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers. O’Sullivan’s gripe was that match official Padraig Hughes didn’t award an early penalty to Limerick. Considering the game went to extra-time, the Limerick players had plenty of time to make amends for that mistake by the ref so O’Sullivan might be better advised to look closer to home for culprits -- if he’s still in the Limerick job next season that is. I doubt he will be.

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