Desmond Kane

John Higgins interview: ‘Tabloid sting will follow me to grave..so will four world titles’

John Higgins and family celebrate a fourth world title

A 50kg German bomb once penetrated the terrace roof of London's Royal Automobile Clubhouse - the upholstered scene for the press launch of this year's World Snooker Championship - during World War II, causing a fire that took hours to extinguish.

It was a £261k News of the World stink bomb that splintered the whiter-than-white shell of the sport's world champion John Higgins two years ago. It sparked a fire that the player himself concedes has yet to be fully doused.

Like the slightly snooty committee room of the RAC club in Pall Mall where we are standing, Higgins has lived to tell the tale, but a lot has happened to both the accused and his accuser in the intervening 24-month period.

The News of the World has disappeared from the face of the earth in disgrace after the phone-hacking scandal while Higgins has made considerable personal gains by last year ratifying a fourth World Championship. It was won courtesy of a formidable 18-15 win over Judd Trump at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, a success that left his fellow multiple world champion Steve Davis heralding the Scotsman as the greatest all-round figure to brandish a cue. Amid such telling times, mixed with large dollops of undulating raw emotion, Higgins, one of Wishaw's finest sons, has had to contend with the death of father John Senior after a battle with cancer.

In such circumstances, Higgins has had to prove himself of stern stuff with or without his cue. Made in Scotland from girders, one might say.

His career seemed to be on the verge of collapse in May 2010 when Higgins was caught on film in Kiev with former manager Pat Mooney allegedly accepting £261,000 from an undercover News of the World reporter in return for fixing matches by throwing frames. It was a claim strenuously denied by Higgins.

Higgins was cleared of all match-fixing allegations made against him, but suspended for six months and fined £75,000 for bringing the sport into disrepute for failing to report the meeting with the tabloid reporter to the game's governing body.

In retrospect, the News of the World was proven to be a discredited organ, a newspaper so tainted that it was wound up such was the stench left in the wake of hacking the phone of a murdered teenager among other wretched acts to boost circulation. Mooney was banned from snooker for leading his client down a shadowy path, but Higgins continues to have to deal with the repercussions from that fateful meeting in the Ukraine.

John Higgins signs autographs for snooker fans in China

Mud tends to stick and there will always be those out there only too willing to cast aspersions on his character - a figure shouted "how do you swallow 300,000, John" during last year's World Championship semi-final with Mark Williams - but Higgins has not let the barbs of his detractors affect him since he returned to the sport.

"John has suffered a devastating blow to his career and reputation, but he can come back from it," said World Snooker's chairman Barry Hearn after the verdict clearing Higgins was announced in September, 2010.

The predictions proved correct. Higgins returned in style winning the UK Championship, Welsh Open and World Championship last season. This season has not been so productive, a run to the last four of the Masters remains his most protruding sequence of results, but he is far from an also-ran in the running for a fifth world gong. Trump, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Neil Robertson are marginally ahead of him in the betting. It is difficult to imagine he did not take to the Crucible on his first visit there in 1995.

Whiling away the hours between tiffin and tea-time drinks at the RAC club seems like a pleasant of diversion. There appears to be portraits mounted of Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. There are no images of Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis or Ronnie O'Sullivan. Not even a Joe Davis in sight.

Like Hendry, Davis or O'Sullivan, Higgins, now 36 and world champion in 1998, 2007, 2009 and 2011, is a work of art on the green baize. His masterpiece may yet be a fifth World Championship.

DK: What sort of condition is your game in?

Higgins: My game has been in pretty poor condition. Mentally, I am not quite there but I have been enjoying practising. The only upside of it is that I'm going to be the best prepared of any event all year. I've not strung a week's practice together for any event all year so that is the only silver lining. That is what I have got to hang onto.

DK: Why has that been?

Higgins: Family, and a few other bits and pieces. Snooker was coming second and third to a lot of the those things in my mind. I've not really enjoyed the season because I've not been much of a runner in any event. I'm getting a snooker room built at my house and looking very much to the future. I have to think of the calendar we're going to be playing over the next few years and try to work around that. I really need to put more effort into my practice.

DK: It was perhaps natural that you weren't going to have such a good season after last year? Perhaps the only way to go was down?

Higgins: I suppose you can look at it that way. I know the reasons why I haven't been doing much. If I don't put the work into my practice game, I probably know I can't compete with the players I need to beat. I need to have good practice behind me to know I can compete in tournaments. That is maybe the reason I haven't been doing so well.

DK: I was reading somewhere your eyesight may be going?

Higgins (smiling): I don't know where that is coming from. I think someone suggested to me that maybe your eyesight goes or something when you get older. I think it is still okay.

DK: Obviously, there were those allegations (by the News of the World) shadowing you when you came into the tournament last year. You got over those and won it. Do you have a different mindset coming in this year?

Higgins: I tend to only look back on the event. Obviously, it was a special tournament to win. Every world title is special. In every match, I was just trying not to lose. I was determined not to lose rather than thinking about winning. That is probably what got me through. Who knows? But I certainly did not play my best snooker. I just hung in there, and managed to turn it round in some matches.

DK: Did you feel like you had a point to prove with that (the NOW allegations) hanging over before you went into it?

Higgins: I didn't feel I had anything to prove going into it..just a burning desire to try to win the event. That what is it.

DK: But it is a different you that is coming in this year?

Higgins: I've played there other times when I wasn't expected to win it - like in 2007 - when I wasn't expected to win it and came through. That is probably the same situation this year. There are probably other people better fancied.

John Higgins after being cleared of match-fixing in 2010

DK: What has the reaction been like over the past year since all the events off the table? Has there been a good reaction from the fans?

Higgins: You know what? I think it has just been normal really. It (the match-fixing allegation) will always hang over me until my dying day and when I stop playing snooker. That is the way it is. The reaction from the fans and things..I suppose I have never been the fans favourite by any stretch of the imagination, but I still feel like I get good support when I'm playing.

DK: How do you rate your four world titles compared to the seven of Stephen Hendry and the six of Steve Davis? Davis last year said you were the best all-round player to play the game after winning it.

Higgins: I think it is easy for players to say things in the heat of the moment. When that comes from someone like Steve Davis, that probably means more to you than any of your titles being brutally honest. If a player you've looked up to all your career, who is your hero in snooker..and to say a thing like that..it means a lot. You can throw all your titles away when someone of that stature pays you such a compliment. It makes you very proud.

DK: Unlike Davis in the 1980s and Hendry in the 1990s, you have won the world title in three different decades. Your four stands up quite well in that regard?

Higgins: Four does stand up well when you think Ronnie O'Sullivan has only won it three times. People would have expected Ronnie to be challenging Stephen's seven with the amount of talent he has got. Four stands up well, but it is not near six or seven. I think seven is a step too far and six is probably a step too far...

DK: Five would be nice?

Higgins: Five would be really great, but we will wait and see.

DK: Who would you pick out as your tips for the tournament?

Higgins: It is so difficult to predict. I think when Neil Robertson won it a couple of years ago, I was tipping him all the way up to the tournament because he was playing at such a high level. I think the same about him this year. He is playing to a very high level. He has really worked on his tactical game, and he has to be a big threat for everyone.

DK: You have to have a solid B game when you are not playing at your best. You seemed to have that when winning it last year?

Higgins: Maybe my B game is my A game nowadays. That is maybe where I am at. If I can continue to play my B game, I have a chance. It is when I go down to my C and D games that is when I find problems.

John Higgins after winning his first World Championship in 1998

DK: What is your aim over the next few years in the game?

Higgins: I have never had aims in my life. All I've done is go out to play to try to win. I've not really got any aims over the next five years. I think what drives you on is maybe a fear that you will fall down the rankings and fall out of the top 16.  There is a day when that will come. You just have to stave it off as long as possible.

DK: Do you admire players like Davis and Hendry for sticking with the game when their best days are behind them?

Higgins: What the two of them have done is incredible, but especially Steve (now in his 50s). For him still to be competing is incredible. I'd love to hang around because it is the only thing I am good at, but to be playing at the level Steve Davis is playing at these days..I don't think that is possible. I don't think it would be possible for a player in the modern game to continue at the level Steve has managed. We have too many losses and too many battle scars these days whereas Steve has remained pretty much untouched throughout his career.

DK: Did you feel a snooker player eventually becomes blighted by mental scars?

Higgins: I think mentally you can become driven to distraction. I think mentally you just fail to handle the pressure. I think when you get older, pressure becomes a bigger factor when you are playing snooker. It doesn't make sense, because in the past few years I have managed to win the big events, but this is when I have felt the highest level of pressure that I have ever felt as a snooker player.

DK: Why is that?

Higgins: I think when people get older, their ability to handle the pressure is tested. I think that is why they can't produce the goods. When you were 20, you didn't have a thing to pressure you. It is just stupid things. You used to get on a plane and not think much about it. Now you get on a plane and hope it doesn't crash. I think it is a similar mindset on the snooker table.

DK: Do you maybe not see shots as clearly as you get older?

Higgins: I think you sometimes look at the table and look for ways things can go wrong. That is maybe the reason why it gets harder as you get older.

DK: What about the format of the World Championship? Do you think that should remain untouched?

Higgins: I think it should remain a long frame format, but as Barry Hearn says, a three-day semi-final can become very draining when you are playing in it. I always feel that there is loads of time at the start of the World Championship, but your rushing about like an idiot at the end of it between sessions to get the tournament finished. It doesn't make sense, but as Barry pointed out, it is an institution and a tournament that has stood the test of time. Why change if it is successful?

DK: It has been said in a few finals that the players aren't firing on all cylinders when they reach the final because it is so demanding..you and Judd seemed to come up with the goods for the public last year in terms of level of play and excitement?

Higgins: I think that was down to Judd Trump. He is such a fast, flowing player. I just got carried along on the wave with him. That is why we finished earlier, and we also started an hour earlier. It is one of those things that might be looked at in the future, but Barry has no plans to touch it just now.

DK: Do you think snooker is becoming a tougher sport to commit to full-time for players with families? Do you sympathise with Ronnie O'Sullivan's situation?

Higgins: I understand Ronnie's predicament. I have been asked a few times what player I would expect to retire first from the game of snooker? That player could be Ronnie O'Sullivan. I sympathise with his situation. He has the outside pressures he has to deal with of not being in a settled marriage and seeing his kids only for a certain amount of time. It must be soul-destroying for him when he has to go and play in tournaments when he has the chance to go and see his kids. It is a tough one for Ronnie. No doubt about that.

DK: How do you think the game is progressing with more events outside of the UK?

Higgins: I just think it is childish when I hear players moaning about going to play in China. It is ludicrous really when you think players can go there and earn £75,000 for a week's work. It is stupid. People have the right to air their views. Of course, there are times when you don't enjoy it and are going through a tough time privately, or whatever, but if you think of the chances we are getting under Barry Hearn...it is a good job to be doing if you are doing it well. There is no point in crying about it now. If you don't get on Barry's ship, you are going to be left in a dinghy trailing at the end. The waves will crash over you. He has no time for passengers and rightly so. He is a successful businessman. It is up to us as players to juggle our lives to coincide with the new season. It is tough, but let me tell you it is a great choice to have.

John Higgins begins his defence of the World Championship against Liang Wenbo on Saturday morning. Follow LIVE coverage of all 17 days on British Eurosport, British Eurosport 2 & Eurosport HD