Jimmy White: Alex Higgins deserves a landmark built in his memory
As the Coral Northern Ireland Open 2016 snooker tournament gets underway, contender Jimmy White fondly recalls his pal and rival, Alex Higgins
Snooker star Jimmy White, who's in Belfast hoping to pocket the first-ever Alex Higgins Trophy, has called for the city to honour his late friend with an even more substantial and lasting memorial. And The Whirlwind said he wants The Hurricane to be remembered with a statue, or even a road named after him.
"You've got an airport called after George Best. And Alex was up there among the greats. So, it would be nice to see something being done to keep his name alive," said Jimmy, as he prepared to take part in the revived Northern Ireland Open snooker tournament at the Titanic Exhibition centre.
"Alex was an inspiration to lots of snooker players and it's because of him that we are all here today, enjoying the success of the game."
The 54-year-old Englishman, who counted Belfast-born Higgins among his best friends, added: "It's great to see the trophy with his name on it - it's a start. But I feel that the city and the province could be doing more to pay tribute to him."
Jimmy insisted that it was impossible to over-state the importance of Alex to snooker - and to Northern Ireland in general. "Without him, the game would never have progressed the way it did. He was a flamboyant player, who could draw the crowds and stir the passion for snooker like no one else."
Jimmy was one the pall-bearers at 61-year-old Alex's emotionally-charged funeral in Belfast in August 2010, a week after the Donegall Road man was found dead in bed in his Sandy Row flat.
"And the thousands of people who thronged the streets underlined the affection that Belfast had for him," said Jimmy. "Yes, he had his problems, but he was still idolised here and, indeed, around the world. No matter where I go to play snooker, the fans are always asking me about Alex.
"I still miss him as a mate. I can't believe that he's gone, even though it's six years now. But his spirit will never die. His birthday falls on the day after St Patrick's Day and we all raise a glass in his honour."
Jimmy, who has famously never won the world title despite being in the final six times, acknowledged that following in Alex's footsteps wasn't easy.
"If it hadn't been for him I would definitely have won more tournaments. We may have been great friends, but we also wanted to beat each other."
Jimmy, who took a few leaves out of the Higgins' stylebook in the way he played the game, said he was delighted to see the return of big-time snooker to Northern Ireland after a gap of eight years.
"This place has always been a hotbed for snooker. Just look at all the greats who have come from here. It is great to see that the city is back on track again. I play exhibition matches here all the time and they are always packed out."
Jimmy said his close affinity with Belfast wasn't solely because of Alex Higgins, adding: "I love Belfast, because of the way that people here love their snooker. And I won my first professional tournament here in 1981. It was at the King's Hall and I beat Doug Mountjoy in the final. That victory will always be pretty special for me."
That triumph came at the height of the Troubles. But Jimmy White wasn't scared off by the violence.
Alex Higgins kept him right and, for Jimmy, playing his pal in front of his home crowd was amazing. "I was still quite young and he was at his very best. The atmosphere was electric. They are times I will never forget."
Jimmy and Alex also enjoyed themselves away from the green baize and their colourful exploits are still recalled by former regulars of a nightclub at the top of the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
"Yeah, he took me there, I remember that," laughed Jimmy, who is looking forward to having another home-grown and convivial guide to Belfast's social scene this week in the shape of broadcaster Colin Murray.
The Dundonald presenter is covering the Northern Ireland Open for Eurosport, which is broadcasting the tournament to a huge audience all over the continent.
"Colin has promised to take us out on the town to show us what the city has to offer," said Jimmy. "He's been a great friend to snooker on Radio 5 Live and Eurosport."
Jimmy is disappointed, however, that some of snooker's finest players haven't come to Belfast for the Open.
"I think that some of them are getting a bit burnt-out by all the travelling and they're picking and choosing their tournaments. But I'm surprised that some of them didn't come to Belfast, which should be a perfect build-up for the UK finals."
Jimmy admitted that the punishing travel schedules used to get him down from time to time. "I might have been sitting in an airport, wondering what I was doing there, but now I just switch off and get on with it."
More than 100 snooker players from around the world are battling for the Alex Higgins trophy and the £70,000 that goes with it in the NI Open, which is one of a series of four events forming part of a new Home Nations competition.
Any player who manages to complete a clean sweep of all the tournaments stands to win a bonus prize of £1m.
Organisers of the competition are hoping that a member of Alex Higgins' family will present the trophy, which has been named after him, to the eventual winner, which Jimmy White said he hoped would be him.
Jimmy also added that thinking of Alex's daughter, Lauren, reminded him of another trailblazing moment created by his late friend who, he said, was the first sportsman to turn a victory into a family affair.
That came as a weeping Alex held the then baby Lauren in his arms after he regained his world snooker title in 1982.
"Alex broke new ground with that. Nowadays everybody does it - golfers, footballers, the lot," said Jimmy, who revealed that snooker is experiencing an explosion of interest worldwide. "China is massive. Thousands of people there are fanatical about the game and, within a few years, you will have eight Chinese players in the top 16 - they are that good.
"And Brazil is another country where the game is big. And Iran is getting more and more snooker clubs all the time. I haven't been there yet, but I would go there. I like visiting new places where the game is opening up. In Brazil, we were getting crowds of over 1,000."
Jimmy said he has no immediate plans to hang up his snooker cue. "I'm still enjoying myself. Snooker isn't a physical game, so as long as my eyesight is okay and I still have the enthusiasm to practice, I think I can carry on for another three or four years."
Jimmy hopes, however, to find more time to devote to his other sporting love - golf.
But he confessed: "I'm useless at it. I play with some of my mates, but they are just as bad as me.
"We enjoy having a drink after a round of golf and then we play a game of darts and we're terrible at that too."