Accrington has been remembering its adopted ‘People’s Champion’ Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, who died last weekend aged 61.
Charismatic snooker legend Higgins lived in the town for five years during the 1970s, making his name as the youngest world champion ever in 1972, at just 23.
The enigmatic Northern Irishman was perhaps the brightest and most naturally gifted star the game has produced, yet he died alone in a Belfast flat, having to rely on handouts.
He had suffered from throat cancer following decades of heavy smoking and hard living, and his weight had plunged.
Three-time Observer Cup champion Tony Sowden prefers to remember the youthful Higgins whom he first saw play in Bolton in 1968, when the teenager ‘brought the house down’.
Tony, formerly of Manor Street, said: "I was sat with the world champion John Pulman, who had never seen anything like it before. Alex was one of the innovators of potting at speed, using so much spin, and his control of the cue ball was absolutely marvellous for one so young."
After moving to Accrington, the ‘Hurricane’ as he was nicknamed for his lightning play, quickly gained infamy in the town’s clubs, in particular the Elite and the Canine Club.
Tony recalls a Saturday lunchtime when he and Higgins went in the Canine, which only had one table, and there was a long list of players on the slate waiting for a frame.
When Higgins walked in, dazzled regulars were only too happy to point him straight to the table.
The ‘wonder boy’ Higgins progressed rapidly, defeating former world champion John Spencer at the Accrington Drill Hall in March 1970.
And after turning pro at 22, he stunned the snooker world by winning the world title at his first attempt, defeating Spencer 37-32.
It was 10 years before he would re-discover the focus to repeat the feat, beating Ray Reardon in the final after a spectacular 69 clearance against good friend Jimmy White in the semis.
Despite his brilliance on the baize, Higgins was as well-known for his off-table antics.
One Canine Club regular claims to have left him reeling on the ground in a pool of water after a dispute over a taxi, while another quipped that he ‘smoked more embassies than the SAS’.
He is also famously known for living in a row of condemned terraced houses, moving from house to house each night as they were demolished one by one.
Higgins is widely credited with the explosion of the sport’s popularity in the modern televised era but in his early career, even the top players earned only modest sums from the game.
At the Elite, he played in the same team as 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor, and fellow pros Jim Meadowcroft and Steve Longworth.
John Harrop, who joined the Elite in 1973, said: "They used to drive to matches in Manchester and they would set off from Accrington in Steve’s old car with the doors tied on to keep it together.
"Alex never had any money so he would go in to the club and give a guy a 100-point start and if he beat him, he bought him breakfast."
Higgins briefly lived in Church and Hapton, and punters in the Heys pub, just yards from another former home on Catlow Hall Street in Oswaldtwistle, also remember him.
Trevor Stephens, 72, said: "The first time I saw him he was at the Tanpits club and I just saw this little bloke cleaning all the balls.
"He also used to play down at the Pioneer club doing exhibitions. Every time he came in he would play about four of us – and he would always let one of us win. He was the best player I’ve ever seen. He was brilliant."
In May 1981, a year before his second world title, Higgins returned to the borough to take on old rival Dennis Taylor at a Hyndburn Sports Centre exhibition, raising £2,000 for charity.
He is fondly remembered at Cuemasters in Church, one of the few surviving snooker halls in the Accrington area.
Owner Asaf Khan said: "Alex was supposed to be coming down for a Paul Hunter Foundation event recently, but sadly he was too ill so he couldn’t make it. All the league players knew him and he used to play against a lot of them even when he was winning big tournaments."
World number 35 Ian McCulloch, who used to practise at the Elite in Great Harwood, described Higgins as ‘a great person’.
McCulloch is a close friend of Lee McLoughlin whose late father John was Higgins’ first manager when he arrived in Accrington.
McCulloch said: "Alex used to say to me that John was the best person who looked after him.
"Many years ago John had booked Alex into a week of exhibitions in the Isle of Man. John drove him to Blackpool Airport, got him on the plane and Alex was waving at him from the plane. That night John got a call from Blackpool Police saying that they had Alex in the cells. Halfway down the runway he had decided he’d had enough and he’d stopped the plane."
McCulloch organised a series of comeback exhibitions for Higgins in Lancashire three years ago.
He added: "Obviously he wasn’t well, but I’m glad I did it. It wasn’t so much about the standard of play, it was about the man.
"When I first started playing in about 1987 he was still a force in the game and we all loved him because he was a bit daft and didn’t play like everyone else.
"It is a great loss of somebody I had a lot of time for."