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Proud Belfast gives People's Champion a fitting send-off

THE floral wreath that accompanied Alex Higgins on his final journey through the streets of Belfast displayed just three words: 'The People's Champion'.

Sporting icons generally fall into two categories: there are those who achieve greatness through their achievements. And there are those who are remembered for the style and the excitement they could generate.

Higgins was part of that select group who ticked both boxes, transcending his sport during the 1970s and 1980s.

It was why many of the great and good of snooker gathered yesterday for his funeral, but also why the people of Belfast turned out to deliver a sustained but spontaneous round of applause for one of their most gifted citizens.

That applause began shortly after 9.15am as the funeral cortege, led by a horse-drawn carriage, left the family home in south Belfast and made its way to St Anne's Cathedral. For about an hour, this most complicated but fascinating of cities was united in quiet respect for a snooker player.

The people of Belfast understood, and had often seen at first hand, the volatile personality traits that ultimately harmed Higgins. Yet they clearly felt proud and protective.

Comparisons with George Best, the former Manchester United winger, are natural. Both flawed, both geniuses. Yet there were big differences, not least in their relationship with Belfast.

Whereas Best had greater global fame and chose to live his later years in England, Higgins was a far more visible day-to-day presence in his native city.

So while people from the North talked about Best with a certain distant pride, most people from Belfast have their own personal story -- whether funny, sad or just plain outrageous -- about Higgins.

He was a man who went out often. To pubs, hotels, snooker halls, nightclubs and bookmakers. Higgins never drove and so was also a frequent user of public transport and taxis.

Most often, though, he would be in the Royal Bar on the Donegall Road opposite the flat in which he died and which has become a focal point for flowers and handwritten tributes. Yesterday's procession paused in the Sandy Row district of Belfast where Higgins was born and again as it went past the Royal, where a new mural has been painted next to the words: "Higgy: Simply The Best."


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Jimmy White, who tried so hard to help Higgins following the diagnosis of throat cancer in 1998, yesterday recounted stories of drinking and gambling sessions that had lasted several days. "He was electrifying," said White. "He was the only snooker player who, when he was playing a match, would have half the other professionals in the audience to watch what he did."

Higgins once memorably tried to psyche out Stephen Hendry by describing himself as 'The Devil', but the winner of seven world snooker titles showed his class by making the journey to Belfast yesterday.

"The players before were stuffy but he blew them away -- he made snooker what it is," said Hendry.

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