FOR decades, football fired youngsters’ imaginations by turning working-class lads into millionaire superstars. But in the Eighties it was eclipsed by, of all things, snooker.
Ramped-up TV coverage made it a dream ticket to fame and fortune, while footie was marred by hooliganism.
A new BBC2 show, produced by documentary maker Louis Theroux, shows how snooker’s star turned to sex, drugs and booze as they struggled to cope with their new-found fame and fortune.
Gods Of Snooker has unique access to greats of the baize including Jimmy “Whirlwind” White, who provides a shocking account of how players’ winnings fuelled indulgence.
He says: “Cocaine was absolutely everywhere. It was like the devil’s dandruff — but crack is like sucking the devil’s d**k. It’s evil.
“I tried smoking it and got completely addicted. I remember I had £35,000 in an account and I drained that on crack.
“Before I knew where I was, I’d see my best friend crawling around the floor trying to find little bits of rock and seeing someone who you trust with your life get a bit of a rock and hide it in his pocket.
“That’s what crack did to you. It was a dark time.”
Jimmy, whose speed and flair as a player earned him the nickname “Whirlwind”, was one of the sport’s most popular and gifted stars.
His addiciton started by drinking copiously to celebrate or commiserate after matches.
Booze led to drugs. Jimmy, 59, says: “We were partying all the time. Peter Stringfellow had a club called the Hippodrome and he used to have a champagne bar.
“So he got all the girls round us and he was giving bottles of champagne away. I had a blast.
“I had loads of drug dealers all over the place too. I knew all of them. Cocaine had come into my life.
“I couldn’t believe that you could take this drug and it would straighten you up and you could start drinking again.”
DRUGS & BOOZE
Jimmy admits his habit affected his performance. He reached six World Championship finals — including five in a row between 1990 and 1994 — but lost them all.
That didn’t stop him becoming rich thanks to a game that took off with the growth of colour television in the Seventies.
It really boomed in the Eighties, with some matches gaining viewing figures that would compete with football’s biggest games.
The son of a coalman from Tooting, South London, Jimmy was typical of a generation of lads from humble origins inspired by seeing stars on TV. He earned millions but blew six-figure sums on drugs and booze.
The three-part documentary, from Theroux’s new company Mindhouse Productions, has rare access to giants of the game including Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Dennis Taylor, Cliff Thorburn and Ray Reardon.
One of the era’s greats missing from the doc is Alex “Hurricane” Higgings. The Northern Irish hellraiser and double world champ died in 2010 of throat cancer aged 61.
The working-class lad from Belfast was always a rebel. But when he started winning tournaments in the Seventies, he suddenly had the money to feed his love of booze, women and, later, drugs.
Alex, a friend of hard-living actor Oliver Reed, once said: “I like all the things a fella likes, including my wine, women and song. I don’t think I should be deprived of that sort of thing just because I play snooker.”
He quickly became “the People’s Champion” and claimed the game’s biggest prize, the World Championship, in 1972.
But Higgins was also volatile, often having bust-ups with officials, fellow players and even spectators.
The controversy helped him become one of the game’s first real celebrities, with a profile on a par with musicians and movie stars.
Sports promoter Barry Hearn said: “Alex was dangerous — but that was also what made him exciting.”
BURGUNDY FLAIRS & MATCHING FEDORA
He would turn up for matches wearing burgundy flairs and a matching fedora — in stark contrast to the traditional black trousers, waistcoats and bow ties.
John Virgo, as a player a contemporary of Higgins and later a respected commentator, says: “It kept the game on the sports pages.
“That’s the bottom line about what Alex did. Prior to that, you’d be lucky to see a little column on snooker.
“I always remember him arriving at the City Hall in Manchester. He had a green suit on and he’s got a couple of girls on his arms, real rock’n’roll.”
But Higgins would also get himself into fiery rows.
Former player Rex Williams, 87, then chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, says of Higgins: “He could cause a riot in 30 seconds. He was a complete loose cannon.
“We went to Australia once and after I left, apparently the police came round in the early hours of the morning because he’d pulled a gun on two girls in a bedroom.”
Higgins seemed to briefly calm down when he married his second wife, Lynn Avison, in 1980.
They had daughter Lauren the same year. But Higgins’ manager Harvey Lisberg maintains he was always a handful.
He says: “We decided we wanted to clean him up, so we put him in this hospital — this nursing home — to dry him out.
“Apparently people used to bring him vodka and God knows what. And he tried to get off with the nurses.”
But Higgins cleaned up his act enough to win his second world title in 1982, a decade on from his first.
But in 1990 the troubled star quit the game, telling the world in a press conference: “You can shove your snooker up your jacksie. I’m not playing no more.”
Higgins thew his support behind his “hellraiser heir” Jimmy White.
In a match between Jimmy and Steve Davis, whom Higgins viewed as dull, Higgins took his protege to aside and advised him: “Shove the f***ing cue up the ginger c***’s a***.”
Jimmy and Alex weren’t alone in their extreme behaviour. Canadian Kirk Stevens, 62, admitted spending £250,000 on his cocaine addiction.
Suave Tony Knowles, who is also interviewed in the new documentary, was a pin-up known for enjoying the company of the opposite sex.
Tony, now 65, posed with half-naked women in photoshoots alongside headlines like: “Why girls call me the hottest pot in snooker.”
After one kiss-and-tell story claimed he enjoyed wearing women’s underwear.
He issued a public statement assuring the world he had no such fetish. But even Davis — lampooned as “the Romford Robot” due to his emotionless demeanour and conservative style of play — enjoyed the trappings of fame.
On occasions, the six-time world champ was booed by crowds for bored of his success.
But a staggering 18.5million viewers tuned in for the climax of his 1985 World Championship final against Dennis Taylor.
As Steve lost the final, decisive frame of 35 in a match that remains the game’s high-water mark, he was suddenly human again. He became the UK’s richest sportsman at the time and the first player to clinch a seven-figure sponsorship deal.
But looking back, Steve, 63, doesn’t think the money men then driving the game left a positive legacy.
‘WE’VE LOST SOME GREAT PERSONALITIES, IT'S SAD’
Steve, another working-class London lad also nicknamed “the Nugget” for his ginger hair, said: “I don’t think the world’s a better place now because of it.”
Fittingly, the man who dominated the game in its golden era won his sixth and final world title in 1989.
A year later, spurred by England’s success at Italia 90, football begun the resurgence that led to its dominant position today.
Three Lions hero Gary Lineker is among the talking heads on Gods Of Snooker. The Match Of The Day presenter is a huge snooker fan and recalls how the sports’ fortunes switched following the football World Cup in 1990.
Gary says: “You wouldn’t ever imagine snooker would become as popular as football but it did. It usurped it. After snooker’s massive popularity in the Eighties, there was suddenly a little switch again.
“Snooker started to get slightly less interesting and football kind of re-emerged. We had Italia 90 — and that transformed things.
End Of The Line
Cocaine use is reaching epidemic levels in Britain, with the UK branded the ‘Coke capital’ of Europe.
Use has doubled in the last five years, and with young people the numbers are even worse.
A staggering one in five 16-to-24-year-olds have taken cocaine in the last year.
That’s why The Sun has launched its End Of The Line campaign, calling for more awareness around the drug.
Cocaine use can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and paranoia, while doctors have linked the rise in cheap, potent coke to an increase in suicide rates.
People from all walks of life, from builders and labourers to celebrities like Jeremy McConnell – who is backing our campaign – have fallen foul of its lure.
It’s an issue that is sweeping the UK and, unless its tackled now, means a mental health crisis is imminent.
“Sport doesn’t go on for ever. That’s the problem. We’ve lost some great personalities. There’s a kind of sadness when you think that way.
“But at the same time, there’s some joy in what they gave us during those magical times.”
- Gods Of Snooker begins on BBC2 on Sunday at 9pm.
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