Mark Allen: Can Northern Ireland Open 2021 champion emulate Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins by winning world snooker title?
Mark Allen’s 9-8 victory over John Higgins in the Northern Ireland Open final was oddly symbolic of his career. The likeable Antrim man was in command before losing control as all looked lost before raw fighting spirit saw him claim glory against the odds. If Allen can meet the demands of such a raucous home crowd in Belfast, he has the ability to challenge for a world title, writes Desmond Kane.
Late crowd drama as Allen wins Northern Ireland Open
There was something strikingly familiar about it all. A popular, mercurial and outrageously talented Northern Irish crowd-pleaser, cradling his daughter and trophy before a raucous, animated and riveted audience, splendidly celebrating the most emotional victory of his career with the name of Higgins again a pivotal part of the narrative.
When Higgins – the ultimate working class hero from Sandy Row in Belfast – finished off Ray Reardon 18-15 with a hectic break of 135 in the final frame in Sheffield 39 years ago, he famously held his baby daughter Lauren and his second world title in perfect harmony.
The likeable and loquacious Allen warmly clasped his daughter Harleigh alongside the Alex Higgins Trophy, a title fittingly named after the celebrated ‘People’s Champion’ as a tribute to his hall of fame achievement, popularity and contribution to the growth of snooker during the advent of the professional game's televised boom of the 1980s.
The Antrim man – nicknamed 'The Pistol' since he turned professional in 2005 – achieved a pioneering moment for Northern Irish snooker even by modern day standards in shooting for the stars.
Despite such moments of sporting folklore, Alex Higgins never managed to achieve such a rousing ranking tournament success in his home city of Belfast during his rampaging 26-year career that saw him lift the Irish Masters with a 9-8 victory over Stephen Hendry at Goffs across the border in 1989.
Neither did the 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor, who completed several wins over the Hurricane at the gone but not forgotten Irish Professional Championship in Belfast.
“I can’t actually believe it,” said Allen. “I really wanted to play John because, especially here in front of my home fans, he is one of the all-time greats.
“It’s just a pleasure to play against him and any win against John is a big win. To do it here is a dream come true for me.
I have tried to play it down all week, but I know what this means to me, and I know what it means to the people here, so to win this trophy is a special moment that I will never forget.
Just like the Hurricane, a true sporting hell-raiser, in his pomp, the locals were hooked on every stroke and run of the ball at the Waterfront Hall when all looked lost for their local idol in trailing 8-6 from 6-5 clear and appearing to be down and out as Higgins bobbed and weaved his way majestically to 4-4 with one of the most splendid 48 clearances you will witness.
'He's done it the hard way' - O'Sullivan praises Allen after Northern Ireland Open win
Just like the Hurricane’s understated ability to mix up attacking instinct with thoughtful tactical adroitness, Allen chipped away at his opponent with some inspired matchplay combat. He dominated a scrappy 15th frame with Higgins appearing to stumble in his thought process at the key point after making breaks of 59, 64 and 136 to brilliantly assume control.
Two shots probably contributed to the rejuvenated Scotsman’s downfall. A missed black off the spot from a tough angle with white close to a side cushion leading 31-0 when a telling safety seemed the more logical shot choice in the 16th frame was key, enabling Allen to contribute 58 on his way to restoring parity at 8-8.
His decision to roll in a green in the death throes of the decider and go for a longish red that he butchered leading 28-27 was arguably another self-harming error. A snooker behind the green may have yielded more rewards at such a taut point of the contest with only three reds remaining and adding the pressure of opting against an obvious percentage shot.
Watch one of the greatest clearances in snooker history from Higgins
For Allen, it does not matter. All that counted in final analysis was showing the character and discipline to succeed where his teak tough opponent unusually faltered. For that reason alone, it was hard to dispute the point that Allen was not a worthy winner of an event that has tortured him over the years.
Astonishingly enough, Allen’s greatest performance until this week at the Northern Ireland Open was reaching the last 16 in 2019. For a player of such obvious natural ability and inimitable shot-making instinct, it is a record that is bewildering, but one that is matched by his shortcomings at the World Championship.
Allen’s most poignant run at the Crucible was reaching the semi-finals in 2009 when he lost 17-13 to John Higgins from 13-3 behind with quarter-final appearances in 2010, 2011 and 2018 other noteworthy but slightly disappointing highlights for a figure boasting such vitality.
There are similarities between the Hurricane and the maverick quality of Allen in having unusually short, sharp and engaging techniques, but also in coping with turmoil away from the baize.
Judging by his efforts in Belfast, he is still potting too.
He started his campaign by compiling the 170th 147 maximum in snooker history and finished it with the title. He was 3-0 behind the world number one Judd Trump, but clawed his way back into the light with a 5-3 victory in the quarter-finals.
Like the Hurricane, Allen – a six-times ranking winner who is 11th on the all-time century list with 500 ton ups to his name – can be an unstoppable force when the mood takes him.
This is a bloke who once lifted the Scottish Open in 2018 while downing lager all week with a 9-7 final win over Shaun Murphy a week after losing 10-6 to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the UK Championship final with Eurosport analyst Jimmy White amusingly suggesting a few curers in the final session to improve his mood.
Perhaps he will be inspired by John Higgins’ ability to lose some weight in recent months to improve his own sense of well-being, but that is all down to personal choice.
Allen’s ability as a true snooker titan has never been in doubt having lifted the Masters in 2019 and the Champion of Champions trophy last season.
Making good on his early season and early career promise is the challenge.
Consistency of stroke and concentration rather than shot selection are attributes that have arguably eluded him and plenty of his peers over the years, but not in Belfast when it mattered most. Not when the Pistol was staring down the barrel.