Allen ready to star on Crucible stage
Mark Allen will enter the hallowed halls of the Crucible this weekend with a new set of pressures on his young shoulders.
In the past a pairing with seven-times World Champion Stephen Hendry would have been looked upon as something of a hiding to nothing for the Antrim man.
But the snooker world is changing and while Hendry's star is on the wane, Allen's sparkling form this season has made him a real force to be reckoned with.
Throw in the fact that he will be tackling his boyhood hero at the home of snooker and the clash between the two is rightly regarded as the tastiest of the first round battles in the 2008 888.com World Snooker Championship.
The event gets under way tomorrow, defending champion John Higgins setting off on what he hopes will be a fortnight of action at the Sheffield arena.
Hendry and Allen lock horns on Sunday in a best of 19 frames opener which will reach its conclusion on Monday afternoon.
Northern Ireland's other representative is Joe Swail, twice a semi-finalist at the Crucible but unlike Allen not enjoying the best of seasons.
While the provisional rankings see Allen at 16 in the world, Swail has slipped to 21 and needs a strong finish to the season to keep his place up with the elite of the game.
He has a tough opener against Stephen Lee tomorrow afternoon. The Englishman is a gritty and consistent performer on the tour and his never-say-die attitude makes him a dangerous opponent.
And Hendry will certainly be thinking that as he looks to shake off his own indifferent form against a man who came out on top in their last meeting.
That was in last year's UK Championship, with Allen, a former World Amateur Champion, coming out on top by nine frames to four.
A miserable 5-1 defeat to Barry Hawkins in the season's penultimate ranking tournament, the China Open, will not inspire Hendry's legion of fans that the good times are about to return.
But having lifted the famous trophy on seven occasions, the last being in 1999, and with an incredible 36 ranking tournament victories to his name, he is a man you write off at your peril.
"I've never once thought I'm finished. I still believe in myself totally and I'm motivated to win things again," he said, after reaching the semi-final of the Welsh Open this year - his 80th in world-ranking events.
"The standard of the top players isn't any better than when I was world number one and winning all of those tournaments.
"The difference is the strength in depth. There are more players regularly producing good stuff these days but I know I've still got it in me."
Ken Doherty and Michael Judge are also in action, up against Liang Wenbo and Ryan Day respectively, while 'bad boy' Ronnie O'Sullivan is scheduled to play Liu Chuang but given his recent run-ins with the snooker authorities it may be a result if he appears in Yorkshire.
Stephen Maguire and Shaun Murphy are the men to look out for in the bottom, and distinctly weaker looking, half of the draw, with the pair scheduled to meet at the semi-final stage.
What odds on one of them meeting Allen in the final? Well, that would be the ultimate end to what's shaping up to be a dream season.
888.com World Snooker Championship draw: John Higgins v Matthew Stevens; Ryan Day v Michael Judge; Ding Junhui v Marco Fu; Stephen Hendry v Mark Allen; Ronnie O'Sullivan v Liu Chuang; Mark Williams v Mark Davis; Stephen Lee v Joe Swail; Ken Doherty v Liang Wenbo; Shaun Murphy v Dave Harold; Ali Carter v Barry Hawkins; Mark Selby v Mark King; Peter Ebdon v Jamie Cope; Neil Robertson v Nigel Bond; Stephen Maguire v Anthony Hamilton; Steve Davis v Stuart Bingham; Graeme Dott v Joe Perry.