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Snooker legend and former Strictly star Willie Thorne, 66, dies in hospital in Spain surrounded by his family after suffering ‘septic shock’ following respiratory failure

Former snooker and Strictly Come Dancing star Willie Thorne has died in hospital in Spain after suffering ‘septic shock’ following respiratory failure.

The 66-year-old was surrounded by his family at Torrevieja Hospital, near his rented Alicante flat, when he died at 1.55am, his carer Julie O’Neill said.

Thorne, who announced he was battling leukaemia in March, was taken to hospital last week with dangerously low blood pressure and was put on a ventilator in an induced coma on Sunday.

Ms O’Neill said on a GoFundMe page he was not responding to treatment – including three types of antibiotics for three different infections – so doctors decided to ‘turn off the machines’.

The sporting legend, who was married to former Miss Great Britain Jill Saxby until last year, was first admitted to hospital on May 2 and had three blood transfusions, treatment for a virus, MRI scans and heart checks.

Ms O’Neill wrote: ‘I was with him all the way to his end and reading out messages to him from people. He passed away very peacefully and without pain listening to his children saying they love him that gives me some comfort in this difficult time.

‘Over here in Spain everything happens very quickly so today myself and his family will he making plans and will inform you accordingly.’

She added she was grateful for everyone involved in the former snooker player’s care and the £17,000 raised would go towards his funeral.

Thorne turned pro in 1975 and went on to reach two World Championship quarter-finals, winning his only ranking title – the Mercantile Credit Classic – in 1982. He became popularly known as Mr Maximum for holding the record for the most maximum 147 breaks.

He starred as part of snooker’s ‘Matchroom Mob’ and went on to become a BBC commentator and appear on the 2007 version of Strictly Come Dancing, coming 12th with professional partner Erin Boag.

While he was married to Ms Saxby they lived in Broughton Astley, Leicestershire, until they split after 24 years  mainly due to the sports star’s gambling addiction, which saw him borrow up to £1million.

Ms Saxby had been trying to make their relationship work, but his addiction had made it impossible. Days after the couple split, Thorne’s home was repossessed after reports the mortgage had not been paid.

The house, which had been shared by the couple, had fallen into disrepair while the pair were living in Spain. In 2015, the sport star revealed how his wife stopped him from killing himself over the £1million gambling debts.

He had taken a knife to a hotel and written letters to family members – only to be found by Ms Saxby in the nick of time.

The snooker player, who retired from the sport in 2002, previously told of how money lenders threatened to chop off his wife’s fingers and take her jewellery to pay off loans.

He said in 2015: ‘I couldn’t see a way out. I’d caused so much grief to so many people. It’s so cowardly. I’ve three children, two stepchildren and grandchildren and life in a nice house with a loving wife… yet I couldn’t see a way through it.’

Former England and Tottenham footballer Gary Lineker – who was close friends with Thorne – lead the legions of stars to pay tributes this morning.

Lineker tweeted: ‘Deeply, deeply saddened to hear that my friend Willie Thorne has passed away. One of life’s great characters. A marvellous snooker player and a lovely man, who’s potted his final black much too soon. RIP Willie.’

Fellow BBC presenter Gabby Logan posted: ‘So sad to hear about the death of Willie Thorne. I loved watching his career, we made friends on Strictly Come Dancing where he was the loveliest ”team mate”.’

Scottish former professional snooker player Stephen Hendry said: ‘Very sad news today,Willie was one of my favourite people in snooker. I know he had faults and weaknesses(we all do) but he was one of the games greatest ever characters,I’ll miss him.’ Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White added: ‘Rest in peace Mr Maximum man.’

World darts champion Keith Deller put: ‘Sad news that our friend Willie Thorne has passed away. Willie was a very charismatic person. RIP Willie.’

Ex footballer Mark Bright wrote: ‘RIP The Great WT. Very saddened to hear the news that Willie Thorne has passed away. A warm and charming person, a great time to be in Leicester when he won the Classic in 1985.’

Retired Wales captain John Hartson posted: ‘Sad to hear that Willie Thorne has passed away, was with him just before the lockdown he was in great form.. thoughts and condolences are with the Thorne family. RIP Willie.’

And TV presenter Richard Osman added: ‘So sorry to hear of the death of Willie Thorne. Spent lots of time with him in Sheffield, and came back with so many funny, but unrepeatable stories. RIP.’

Thorne previously said he started gambling during his snooker career, but upon retiring in 2002, found it harder to fund his habit.

He said he had struggled to cope after giving up the sport, where he had once reached number seven in the world rankings.

He began to accept money from lenders who knew he could not resist borrowing money in the hope of being rewarded with a big win.

In his 2011 autobiography, Taking A Punt On My Life, Thorne spoke of his love of horse racing, and how it left him with huge debts.

He revealed in the book he had tried to take his own life in March 2002, a few days after his 48th birthday, by taking sleeping pills but was discovered by his step-son, then aged 11, and treated in hospital.

‘It was a terrible thing to do,’ he said of the 2002 attempt in his autobiography. I was taking the easy way out and leaving her [Ms Saxby] to to mop up the mess I had created.’

He suffered a mild stroke in 2010, in the middle of a thank you speech at a charity event, which he believed may have been due to stress from his gambling addiction.

Thorne was able to get his betting under control but when his mother Nancy died in 2013, he fell back into it. He was being encouraged by professional gamblers and went from staking around £1,000 to betting up to £20,000 on a single race.

In 2016 the sporting icon was photographed on gambling machines known as the ‘crack cocaine’ of casinos as he tried to clear his £1million debt.

He was seen playing games at a casino in Sheffield where he has been covering the World Snooker Championships for the BBC as a commentator.

Thorne has been seen on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) which earned their ‘cocaine’ nickname because they are so addictive – allowing bets of up to £750, according to the Sunday Mirror.

He told the newspaper: ‘It’s not a big deal. It was only 20 quid and I was just passing some time. There’s no problem at all.’

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