Mark Allen will take his battle against depression to one of sport’s most unforgiving arenas when he attempts to win the World Championship at the Crucible.
Allen was diagnosed with depression last month but has ruled out any possibility of ducking out of the bearpit that is Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, the legendary home of the game.
The Antrim cueman faces the most important match of his career — amid the most important battle of his life — when he takes on Matthew Stevens on Tuesday and Wednesday night, after the £1.1m tournament opens today.
Defeat for Allen could see him slip out of the world’s elite top 16 which could have a massive bearing on his future career.
But the 25-year-old’s family are keen to underline that the first round match is very much of secondary importance to the player’s health.
World number 11 Allen has yet to win a major tournament — losing in six semi-finals — and that, coupled with the long lonely hours that are the life of the snooker professional, appear to have taken a toll on his mental health.
After a glittering amateur career, Allen entered the pro ranks billed as the natural successor to Ulster legends Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Dennis Taylor.
But he has struggled to live up to the tag — so many ‘next George Bests’ have suffered the same fate.
Depression in snooker is not a new phenomenon — former world champions Ronnie O’Sullivan and Graeme Dott have both suffered the condition, but have emerged to enjoy success on the table.
“Mark will definitely play at the Crucible,” confirmed the player’s father Ronnie Allen.
“It’s an important match — but Mark’s health is by far the most important thing.
“I am going over to the Crucible with some of his friends and we will be meeting up with some of his friends from England to cheer him on.
“Mark is now getting the treatment he needs to get through this and I know that he will get through it because he is a strong character.
“Mark is very strong willed. He wants this dealt with and he wants it fixed.
“He won’t let this beat him — he’s dealing with it head on.
“We’ve known for about a year that something wasn’t right. It’s been building up and building up. He is now receiving counselling.
“He had good days and bad days but now we know what is behind it.
“He’s not really affected when he’s playing. It’s more the time in between — the travelling, the hanging around airports.
“It was actually at an airport that it all came to a head. He was about to board a flight and he felt physically sick. He couldn’t board the plane.
“Mark has basically been travelling since he was 13 and the travelling involved in snooker is increasing all the time.
“Snooker is his job and he will be at the World Championship.
“There are more people going over this year to support Mark than maybe there would have been in previous years.
“So far there are about a dozen going over from Antrim as well as some from Ballymena, Co Down and Co Tyrone.
“There are also about 14 coming up from the Midlands where he used to live.
“Obviously Mark doesn’t want to go there and lose. If he wins his first round match he stays in the top 16.
“If he loses he could be out of the top 16 depending on other results.
“Depression is one of those things in sport that a lot of people don’t like to talk about.
“If it’s a physical illness, people are prepared to talk about it.
“Mark’s treatment has basically only started. But there’s no such thing as a quick fix.
“Mark will give the World Championship his all but he is not as worried about losing as he has been in the past.
“If he wins, he wins — but it’s not the end of the world.”
Although Mark Allen did not want to speak specifically about his illness in this early stage of his treatment, he said: “The way I had been playing was getting me down. I was not playing as well as I could or as well as I should.
“I’d lost my enjoyment of playing because I was underperforming. I was getting down on myself when I thought about how good an amateur record I had and how many tournaments I had won.
“To then go through a long period in the professional game without winning a tournament can be very frustrating.
“Snooker is not the be all and end all. It’s what pays my bills but it won’t be there forever so I have to give it my best shot now.”
Mark Allen heads to the Crucible with life in perspective.