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Tuesday 25 April 2017

Raucous tribute fitting for snooker's Hurricane

Wolf-whistles and raucous cheers would be considered highly inappropriate at a traditional funeral.

At the thanksgiving service for Alex Higgins, the rabble-rousing maverick who lifted the game of snooker to unimaginable heights, they seemed entirely fitting.



The reception given to the Hurricane's coffin as it made its way through the streets of his hometown of Belfast today was like the one he received every time he strode defiantly into a packed arena with a cue in his hand.



Bemused tourists, who now flock to a city emerging from the violent past that haunted Higgins' youth, just had to look at the words on a huge floral tribute to explain the unusual reaction to a passing cortege.



"The People's Champion!"



The thousands who lined the pavements as the horse-drawn hearse passed slowly by had grown up watching the two time world champion stalk the snooker table like an actor in a Shakespearean epic.



Today they gathered one last time as the game's greatest character finally left the stage.



"He just had something that no-one else ever had," said Drew McClean outside the service at St Anne's Cathedral.



The Glengormley man, who counted Higgins as one his all time heroes, held a sign with the letters SHAMAT cryptically emblazoned upon it.



"It stands for Sometimes Higgy Achieved Miracles Around the Table," he explained.



Earlier the troubled legend's closest friends and family gathered in his sister Jean's neat semi-detached house off the city's busy Donegall Road for a private funeral.



Inside Higgins' six-year-old great niece and namesake Alex Mitchell sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow to the small group of mourners, who included fellow snooker greats Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty.



White, who emerged from the house with tears streaming down his face, helped carry the coffin on the first leg of its long journey to the cathedral.



As the cortege made its way out of the cul-de-sac and onward into the close-knit Sandy Row community where Higgins was raised, the enduring impact the Hurricane made on his community was clear to see.



Pensioners and young children joined the hundreds who flanked each side of the road.



Bakers from a local factory stood in dazzling whites while medics from the nearby City Hospital emerged to pay their respects as the carriage passed.



The horses were brought to a gentle stop at the top of Abbington Drive, the street where Higgins grew up and where a mural commemorating his two world title triumphs adorns a gable wall.



Pensioner Elizabeth Musgrave lived close to the young boy who would become a star.



"He was always on the move as a child," the 82-year-old said later outside St Anne's "Always up to something.



"He was the reason I started watching snooker, I watched all his matches. I just wanted to pay tribute to him."



By the time the sombre procession reached the heart of Sandy Row the crowds were ten deep. The carriage turned left just before it reached the sheltered housing block where Higgins lived out his final lonely days.



The entrance to the building has now become a temporary shrine to the champion, with its centrepiece an intricate floral snooker table, hoisted on the wall in between two cues.



The Royal Bar opposite the flats was one of Higgins' regular watering holes and locals stood outside today to raise a glass to their friend and hero as his coffin made its way past.



Beside the pub a freshly painted mural of the master of the green baize gleamed in the sun while scrawled graffiti on a wall across the road conveyed the same sentiment.



"Higgy you were a legend!"



The crowds filed in behind the cortege as it passed through Sandy Row, swelling the funereal walk to even greater size as it turned toward the city centre.



The main roads had been sealed off to accommodate the event but there was no sign of frustration on the faces of the motorists stuck in jammed side streets as the carriage wound its way to the old cathedral.



Hundreds were already packed into Writers Square awaiting its arrival and as the horses appeared round the corner the place erupted in the loudest cheer of the day.



It was as if the curtains leading into the Crucible Theatre had been suddenly pulled back to reveal that swaggering genius from Belfast who played the game like no one else dared.



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