pot luck Miracles can happen - the fact Jimmy White is still here, aged 59, dreaming of Crucible glory proves it
The miracle after a life that so frequently burst into flames of anarchy is that Jimmy White is around to tell his tale.
His doomed old compadre Alex Higgins met the end for which the unruly symphony of his existence was always destined, dying penniless, emaciated, cancer-ravaged and alone in a tiny Belfast flat.
Yet for all the addictions that besieged his talent – booze, cocaine, gambling, crack – White somehow walked through the firestorm and emerged, on the other side, relatively unscathed.
To see the beguiling gunfighter in Tommy Tiernan’s studio on Saturday, weeks shy of his 60th birthday yet still dreaming Crucible dreams, was to be propelled back across the decades to when snooker ruled the world.
It is hard to overstate how wildly popular the game was back in the 1980s and 1990s, rising above its smoky club culture to attract a BBC TV audience that peaked at more than 18 million for the epic post-midnight 1985 Sheffield shoot-out between Steve Davis and Coalisland’s Dennis Taylor.
Soap opera and sport, front and back page, at once gargantuan and grubby, an essential part of the national conversation.
A song about the game, Snooker Loopy, which matched the Cockney wide-boys Chas and Dave with some of the world’s top players, peaked at number seven in the UK charts in 1986.
Higgins and White were the game’s untamed rebels, twin creative wonders, their impulsive appetite for excess as compelling as their ability to quicken the audience’s pulse with the brilliant flamboyance of their potting.
The Hurricane and The Whirlwind rolling the roulette wheel like a pair of desperadoes with only a day to live.
In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, White recounted a Bacchanalian afternoon in the company of Higgins that eloquently explains their reputation as the Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole of the green baize.
“We were drinking all day and I decided to drive after two gallons of wine – for which I apologise. I crashed into a wall. The windscreen flipped out and Higgins, who never wore a seatbelt, flew out.
“Higgins stands up and he’s shouting, ‘I’ve got nine lives, baby’. I’m feeling sober now and I drive to my house…the windscreen wipers are attacking us. I drive into the garage and the engine falls out. If we’d been driving, we could have been seriously hurt. But Higgins is flying, saying, ‘This is great!’”
As those of us who covered tournaments back then and had access-all-area passes to witnesses some of the crazier rushes of debauchery, here was the Wild West transported to the 21st Century, Higgins and White the outlaws riding night after night into Dodge.
Whenever they walked into an arena, cues unholstered like Colt 45s, a charge of electricity surged through the air, their fearlessness the perfect counterpoint to the functional thrust of Ray Reardon or John Spencer or, most notably, the 'Romford Robot', Davis.
Their bleached countenance was that of men who rarely saw the sun, who played and partied with an insatiable thirst, retreating to the bed at a time when most of the population had clocked in for another day at work.
If they shared an appetite for excess, White’s personable charm was in marked contrast to Higgins, the natural-born hustler whose frequent toxic behaviour emphatically violated the minimum standards of decency.
Higgins won two world titles – in 1972 and ’82, beating White in a semi-final of the latter with an epic closing frame clearance, all those watching understanding that they were witnessing something immortal – but could not escape his stygian shadows.
White, famously, lost six Crucible finals (five of them in successive years from 1990), indisputably the best – and certainly the most popular – never to have won the one title by which greatness was measured.
I will always remember a montage BBC put together before the final session of play in the 1994 final when White held a commanding lead over Stephen Hendry and appeared certain to finally cross the champion threshold.
To the soundtrack of Queen’s 'These Are the Days of Our Lives', it tugged at the heartstrings as it mapped White’s journey from teenage wonder of self-expression to veteran on the verge of fulfilment. It was beautiful, Freddie Mercury’s lyrics like a perfectly pitched biography of the snooker survivor from Tooting, South London.
'Sometimes I get the feelin’,
I was back in the old days long ago,
When we were kids when we were young,
Things seemed so perfect – you know,
The days were endless we were crazy we were young,
The sun was always shinin’,
We were having fun.'
It was set up for one of the great stories of redemption. Until Hendry potted the decisive ball of the 35th frame and White had lost another final, 18-17.
To see him sitting with Tiernan – the bleary, balding, bloated figure of his late prime replaced by a still lived-in but more clear-eyed face, trimmer and with a full mop of transplanted hair – was to marvel at humanity’s resilience.
He spoke openly about his multiple addictions – he has been clean for six years – and if it is perhaps a tad delusional, it was still thrilling to hear him reject the idea that his pursuit of a world title was entirely a historical notion.
White turns 60 on the second day of March and has a three-year plan that he believes will, after a lifetime’s chase, yield the game’s greatest prize. It may be far-fetched, but there is something magnificent in his conviction.
If he has accumulated more than his fair share of regrets along the way, if he still yearns for a shot of Sheffield glory, still he appears content with his lot.
He considers Higgins, compares their fates, and knows that with every inhaled breath, he has beaten his departed sibling in the game of life.
Still, he would love, just one more time, to unfurl the gunfighter brilliance that electrified The Crucible.
To hear Freddie Mercury’s voice float over the years from snooker’s gilded age and tell the story of Jimmy White and his unbending passion for the game that carried him from the streets to the stars.
'Those days are all gone, but one thing’s still true,
When I look and I find,
I still love you...,
“I still love you.'
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