Belfast mourns famous son 'Hurricane' Higgins
Published 26/07/2010 | 14:26
The people of Belfast paid warm tribute to hometown hero Alex "Hurricane" Higgins today as a book of condolence was opened for the tragic snooker legend.
Young and old queued up at City Hall to pen their own personal reflections on the life of the maverick showman of the table.
The troubled sporting genius was discovered dead in his sheltered home near Belfast city centre on Saturday after years battling throat cancer.
Locals and tourists alike paid their respects at the grand old civic building amid calls for the city to stage a funeral on the scale of the one which marked the death of fellow Belfast man George Best five years ago.
Friends of 61-year-old Higgins have already vowed to send the enigmatic two time world champion off in style, using £10,000 raised for his medical treatment to fund a lavish funeral.
Local man Martin Murphy was among the first to sign the book this morning.
"I thought he was a legend of snooker - a genius just like George Best," he said. "I have always admired him for his stand and for the things that he done.
"We all have dark issues in our life that we have to deal with and unfortunately maybe he couldn't come to terms with them."
Pensioner Hazel Whitley said Higgins was the reason she started watching snooker.
"He was just so special," she said. "There is no sparkle in the game anymore - he was the sparkle."
Glaswegian Jamie Doran, who was in Belfast on holiday, brought his four young children down to City Hall to pay their respects.
"I was 11 in 1982 when he won the world championships and that was my first real memory of snooker," he said.
"He was the greatest as far as I was concerned. He made snooker what it was - he was interesting and exciting to watch and he was a legend."
Lord Mayor Pat Convery, who said it would be the family's decision as to how the funeral would be conducted, said the book of condolence was a fitting gesture.
The SDLP representative added: "I think it is important that the citizens of Belfast are given this opportunity to write something in memory of a sporting legend that they felt was one of their own and helped to put Belfast and this country on the map."
Despite squandering his snooker winnings in a life blighted by drink and gambling, those who knew Higgins best are adamant that he will be given a proper send-off.
Some £10,000 raised to help Higgins receive medical treatment prior to his death will go towards his funeral, it was revealed yesterday.
Higgins' friend and former personal assistant Will Robinson said the remaining money from an auction and Manchester fundraising dinner would be used to give the snooker star a "great send-off".
"There was £15,000, there's probably about £10,000 in total when we get everything in. Now that's going to pay for a great send-off," Mr Robinson said.
Funeral details have not yet been finalised and Mr Robinson said there may be a delay to allow Jimmy White to return from Thailand.
"He's asked to hold things up until he gets back. That's the plan and the family have agreed to that," Mr Robinson said.
Higgins' body was discovered after concerned friends broke into his flat having failed to contact him by phone.
It is not known how long he had been dead inside the sheltered accommodation apartment in the Sandy Row area where he grew up.
It was a humble end for a former champion considered to be one of the finest snooker players of all time.
Last night, Jimmy White said his friend had died from lack of nourishment after refusing to eat properly,
White said the star was surviving on Guinness and small amounts of pureed food towards the end of his life.
He told the Daily Mirror: "In the end it wasn't cancer that killed him, the cancer had gone, he died from lack of nourishment, how sickening is that?
"His sister Jean would bring food round, make a roast dinner and put it in a blender, but it was hard work to get him to eat anything. Higgins was in a catch-22, he didn't like food very much and couldn't eat because he had no teeth."
Taking up the sport at the age of 11, Higgins won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur snooker championships in 1968.
After turning professional he became the youngest World Championship winner at his first attempt, beating John Spencer in 1972. The record was eventually beaten when 21-year-old Stephen Hendry claimed the trophy in 1990.
Higgins claimed the title for a second time in 1982.
A controversial figure, Higgins was banned from five tournaments and fined £12,000 in 1986 when he headbutted UK Championship tournament director Paul Hatherell.
In 1990, Higgins threatened to have fellow player Dennis Taylor shot and he was banned for the rest of the season after he punched a tournament director at the World Championship.
But despite his numerous fights and rows with referees, he continued to play the game regularly and appeared at the Irish Professional Championship in 2005 and 2006.
He inspired a generation of players to take up the game, with his influence seen in the style of later crowd favourites such as White and Ronnie O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan was one of the many players paying tribute to Higgins yesterday.
In a statement on his website, the three-times World Champion said: "Alex was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker. He is a true legend and should be forever remembered as being the finest-ever snooker player."
Former world champion Steve Davis also paid tribute to his former rival.
Davis said: "To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game.
"He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated."