South Belfast pensioners Jim and Isobel love sitting outside their favourite cafe on Sandy Row, sipping cappuccinos, smoking a cigarette and watching the world go by.
The couple are fixtures on the street most days and would have often noticed Alex Higgins pass by on his usual route from his nearby flat to the bookmakers.
“We hadn’t seen him since Wednesday, that was the last time,” Isobel said.
Above the cafe are The Player’s Lounge Snooker Rooms, filled with photographs of “the legend” where he once played.
The couple and other locals spent yesterday reminiscing about the days when Alex was a star — and taking in the sadness of his death at the age of 61.
“I remember him playing snooker. When he became a champion, the place was better than the Twelfth,” Isobel said.
“His mother and father lived in Abingdon Drive. They opened their doors to everybody, there was Champagne, it was a great atmosphere.”
While the streets were deserted, a large crowd gathered inside The Royal Bar opposite the Ulidia House Hostel, where Alex lived in recent times and died alone.
Close friend Terry Morrison pointed to a chair in the smoking area at the back of the pub: “He used to sit there. He drank in here everyday. He did his horse racing bets and then he would watch the races on the TV inside.”
There were signed pictures on the wall of Alex in his glory days. Terry pointed out the ‘smiley’ face which he would scribble with his autograph and there was a hint of his sense of humour with one signed ‘PS. I was sexy then...’
“Some people said he was grumpy and ignorant but the fella’ was ill,” said Terry. “Towards the end he couldn’t speak. He would scribble messages on bookie dockets. I kept them all. I read one last night and cried. We all knew some day he would come back here, to the place he was born and reared. He was one of us — a corner boy.”
On the corner opposite the pub, a bouquet of flowers was attached to the railings outside Alex’s flat with a card signed by the pub’s patrons, “To Alex, simply the best”.
A larger tribute was scrawled in graffiti on nearby shop shutters.
“We all loved him and miss him — he was part of the furniture,” Terry said.