Mark Allen: This couple met over the green baize, now it's cue love
Northern Ireland's greatest snooker hopeful Mark Allen reveals how he got back on top of his game after meeting his wife and beating depression.
The girl who helped save our greatest snooker hopeful from a spiral of depression is nervous about having her photograph taken.
In spite of Kyla McGuigan Allen's beautifully sculpted bone structure, porcelain skin and exotic eyes, she's worried about the fringe "not sitting right" in her long dark hair and not having enough make-up on.
The photographer assures her that the low lighting in the cavernous Antrim snooker hall is flattering.
"He means it's that dark in here, nobody'll be able to see the state of you anyway," quips her husband, Mark Allen, who has posed patiently for the last 20 minutes, cracking jokes with players at the other side of the hall and generally enjoying himself.
Putting away her bejewelled smartphone and cigarettes, Kyla rolls her eyes and joins him reluctantly by the green baize - and turns out to be a natural in front of the camera.
"I'm not used to this at all," she protests to the photographer. "Make sure you Photoshop my hair and take these two big fangs out!"
The youthful-looking pair married in a civil ceremony at the four-star Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan in May 2013. They first met in Madden's nightclub in Antrim two years ago.
"It wasn't exactly love at first sight - it was more a gradual thing," says Kyla during a coffee break.
"I knew Mark from being around locally. He knows my brother, Barry - he did boxing, but he's not the boxer Barry McGuigan, by the way. I wouldn't say Mark was a local legend, but I recognised him all right."
She winks at the girl behind the club's coffee counter.
"And I stalked him here for a while, didn't I?" she jokes. "He can tell you the rest - I'd rather he did the talking; I'd be afraid of saying something wrong!"
Not having watched snooker since the heyday of Alex Higgins, I had that apprehension myself going to meet Mark, having been warned he has a bit of a temper and does not suffer fools gladly. I bumped into him in the car-park, at two minutes past the appointed hour and he boomed "How dare you be late!"
But he had a big smile on his baby face and I liked him straight off.
Instead of the slightly aggressive character I'd expected, there was a well-mannered charmer with a good sense of humour. Pleasantly chubby, with big round eyes and enviably long lashes, he looks like a cuddly overgrown toddler from a distance.
Close-up, by the flashing slot machines in Antrim's 147 snooker club, he's still remarkably fresh-faced and boyish for a 28-year-old.
And he is obviously in love with Kyla, a full-time mother to 10-year-old Robbie from a previous relationship, and describes her on Twitter as his biggest fan.
"Robbie's got into snooker with me and he's getting into the under-16s," he says, cherubic face lighting up. "It's brilliant playing with him; I really enjoy it. More kids? I don't know. Never say never, but not at the minute."
It's hard to believe that someone who looks about 12 also has a nine-year-old daughter. Lauren was born in 2009, when Mark was 20 and in a relationship with women's snooker world champion Reanne Evans.
"I don't see my little girl ... it's complicated; not good," he remarks, with a bit of sigh.
We're sitting in the corner of the hall under the famous shot of Alex Higgins holding his baby daughter after he won the 1982 World Snooker Championship.
Currently ranked No 11 in the world, the Antrim man known as "The Bullet" agrees that his playing style is comparable to the Hurricane's - and admits he's an emotional person, a trait that has got him into trouble with the snooker authorities more than once.
The most outspoken player on the circuit, he was ordered to undergo media training after accusing Chinese player Cao Yupeng of cheating and unsporting behaviour in not owning up to a foul, after losing to him at the 2012 World Snooker Championship.
Although he attributed the deception to the "perceived cultural differences" between Chinese and British, he was fined a hefty £11,000 by Barry Hearn, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), who claimed Allen's comments had left him "speechless".
I was more concerned about the media training leaving the player colourless. Thankfully, he has only had the one session and seems as frank as ever, especially when it comes to talking about the depression that engulfed him following the breakdown in his relationship with Reanne Evans.
"I was away a lot and struggling financially and my relationship was getting really strained and it all mounted up," he shrugs, surprisingly quietly-spoken.
"I wouldn't always answer the phone and wouldn't follow through with plans. Friends would make arrangements and I couldn't be bothered to go out. I'd avoid them. Sometimes I couldn't get out of bed."
The sensory numbness that comes with the onset of depression gave way to despair in 2010.
"I did feel numb, but don't get me wrong, I did lie there and cry for no reason sometimes," he says, slightly abashed.
"Relationships are a big thing for me and I didn't feel like doing anything with anybody, even playing golf with friends.
"And snooker is one of the most psychological games you can play, and I was in a very dark place. My results became very poor."
Eventually, Mark sought professional support from a Holywood-based psychotherapist.
"It was very good just to talk to him, to explain things about certain people and situations to a third party. I didn't want to take tablets and be reliant on them, but I could go there and vent, and get it all off my chest. It took a big weight off my shoulders.
"I'm a lot happier in my private life now and I'm enjoying snooker again. I wasn't enjoying practising a few years ago."
He speaks warmly of Kyla. As neither is religious, the couple chose to get married in a civil ceremony, as did boxing champ Carl Frampton, who follows Mark on Twitter.
"To be honest, I don't know what Kyla is - Catholic or Protestant," he says, fleetingly puzzled. "We never talk about it. I think she might be mixed. Dunno.
"But Northern Ireland's moved on from all that now. We got married in a hotel, so there was no religious service involved."
Although it took a little while for Kyla to fall head over heels, Mark admits it was love at first sight for him.
"We get on really well; we're fun people and I needed that at the time. My last relationship had been too serious.
"We feel very young at heart, not too sensible yet. We enjoy ourselves, going out and socialising."
"Actually, it feels a bit weird being married," he adds. "We had our honeymoon in Las Vegas - I loved it; Kyla just chilled out. I like a gamble and we really let our hair down, but we didn't do the club scene.
"I'm a big movies person. When I'm away, I spend most of the time in my room. I might go for dinner, but I don't choose to socialise and I watch a lot of DVDs, so it was great to spot all the locations from The Hangover and Oceans 11, and see where Brad Pitt and George Clooney stood and to go to Caesar's Palace.
"I'm nostalgic about things like that; Kyla would rather lie in the sun. I prefer golf and a bit of a flutter and a drink."
He grins mischievously, and although it's hard to imagine him cross, there is a fierce concentration in those saucer eyes when he's lining up the cue ball.
I wonder what he thinks of being called the "John McEnroe of snooker".
"I heard a few [nicknames], but not that one yet," he says, eyebrows raised. "I am quite fiery, but snooker was always seen as a gentleman's sport.
"It's so much slower than tennis and there's no diving for fouls like in football, but at the same time the game needs its characters and I'm one of them. Too many players are all prim and proper.
"I play best when I'm on edge. A bit of nerves gets you going, a bit of a buzz."
Maybe "the new Hurricane" would be a more appropriate title. He met Higgins once, when the former champion arrived at an exhibition match 15-year-old Mark was playing with Jimmy White.
"The door swung open and there he was in his top hat, saying 'I'm playin'," he recalls, relishing the story. "He was quite funny and in a good mood. I played him in three frames and beat him every time - he wouldn't have been in the best of health at that stage.
"Then people were queuing up to ask questions and get autographs and he charged a fiver per person! I'll never forget that, but you know, it was very impressive for him to win in 1972 and then come back and do it again in 1982.
"I'd say I'm like him most in my playing style, but hopefully not as unpredictable and inconsistent. I am emotional like him, but in private, not as openly."
Tellingly, he admires golfing champion Rory McIlroy for his level-headedness. A keen golfer himself, he sympathises with the Holywood-born player for the flak he received for saying, while playing for Ireland, that he feels more British, or Northern Irish, than Irish.
"It's hard for him playing golf for the north and south of Ireland. Members of the Northern Ireland golf clubs belong to the Golfing Union of Ireland, so he had to play for Ireland, but he is Northern Irish, or British, so it is hard for him, especially when he's put under pressure by the media to talk about it.
"In the end, no one cares. Some of my best friends are Catholics. I'm not religious myself - I've never been to church in my life. At least, I don't think I have."
His father Ronnie and mother Lynne, a former Tesco worker, have evidently instilled good manners in their youngest son (he has two older brothers). He brought me a cup of tea before we started to chat, and offers another before I have to leave to avoid a parking fine, admitting he gets tickets all the time. He's in no rush to halt the interview, though, and I'm left thinking that he doesn't really deserve all those official censures.
"Yeah, my problem was the way I said things - because of the way I made a point, the meaning got overlooked. I was made a scapegoat and an example was made out of me when I was only saying what everybody else was thinking.
"Steve Davis said, 'There's too much dishonesty in the game' and he's right. There's also possibly an element of political correctness gone mad. It's the way the world is. You can get labelled a racist, or a sexist, very easily."
He's off to Berlin next week for the German Masters, then Sheffield in April. While the cost of flying beyond Great Britain is prohibitive for Kyla and Ronnie - who taught his son to play snooker - they'll both be at the World Championships.
"My dad was a good player - he used to beat me all the time, but I overtook him when I was 14 or 15," he recalls, walking me to the door.
"He had a heart attack nine years ago and it's like, your dad's your rock, and that startled me. I want him to see me do my best. I would love to be ranked number one, but I'd rather be the world champion.
"It's a bit of a dream, but I'm going in the right direction."
Inside the mind of snooker hotshot Allen
Q: What does it take to be that good at snooker; do you practise awkward shots over and over again like David Beckham?
Mark Allen: I'm not that methodical, but I try to practise shots from as many different angles that I can. I'll do the same 10 shots in a row, but you only get one go in a match.
It's all repetition at the end of the day and muscle memory. Actually, I struggle with my balance for certain shots; I'm not as steady as I should be sometimes.
Q: What's going through your very intense looking head during matches?
MA: I'm thinking as little as possible, apart from about how to deal with the next shot. Like most snooker players, I'm my own worst critic; I worry about technique.
I suppose I am a perfectionist and beat myself up after matches over mistakes, but Terry Graham, who's the top coach in the world, in my opinion, reassured me after the last one that I had done myself credit.
Q: Does being a left-handed player have any benefits?
MA: Strangely, I play with my left, but use my right for the rest. I'm predominantly right-handed, but the first time I played snooker, I picked up the cue with my left hand. Using the rest with my right hand puts me at a bit of a disadvantage as I'm at the wrong side of the table.
Q: What would you have done if you hadn't been good at snooker?
MA: I got my 11-plus and I had a talent for maths at Antrim Grammar School, but I wasn't interested in school. I played football and had a chance of playing in the Milk Cup in the Northern Ireland Under-14 team, but there was a snooker tournament in Scotland to turn pro on the same day. I chose that. I don't really know why.
I wouldn't be the right shape to play football now and, anyway, I'm too competitive: I'd be tackling all round me and getting injured like I did at school!
Q: Do you still feel you don't earn enough from snooker?
MA: Travelling to events is expensive and I've 30 matches coming up. Barry Hearne has got the prize money up through sponsorship and that's great if you win, but it's very dear for everyone else.
I was able to fly business class before free; now my expenses have tripled. It costs a grand if I want to take Kyla to Chinese tournaments. I've got a good accountant now, though!
Q: Your prediction that sponsors would eventually start pulling out of Chinese tournaments seems to be becoming reality.
MA: There's still a big focus on China but some are pulling the plug - it's such a big market. I'm surprised there hasn't been an attempt in the game to branch out into mainland Europe. Snooker's huge there.
Q: Who are your sporting heroes?
MA: I think the greatest-ever snooker player is Stephen Hendry and I love Tiger Woods. I'd love to see him play Rory.
How The Bullet shot to the top and didn't mince his words
Born on February 22, 1986, Mark Allen won the World Amateur Championship in 2004 (pictured left). The following year he entered the Main Tour and took only three seasons to reach the elite top 16.
A brilliant break-builder, Mark has compiled more than 200 century breaks in professional competition.
At a Press conference after his first round win in the 2011 UK Championship, Allen called for WPBSA chairman Barry Hearn to resign, accusing him of reneging on his promise not to alter the structure of any of the major snooker tournaments in the calendar when he was appointed chairman in June 2010.
Allen added that the crowd atmosphere within snooker was turning into that of one usually associated with darts and that the tradition of snooker was "going to pot".
He then swore when talking about Hearn at a Press conference. The WPBSA announced that Allen would face a disciplinary committee. Hearn responded by saying he was "far too busy to worry about silly little boys making silly little comments".
The pair held a meeting in January 2012, to settle their differences ahead of the forthcoming Masters tournament. Allen was fined £250 for his actions by the WPBSA later in the month.
Two months later, at the World Open in Haikou, China, Allen tweeted that the conditions were "horrendous", adding: "Journey a nightmare. People are ignorant. Place stinks. Arena's rubbish, tables poor, food is horrendous. Other than that I love China." He deleted the tweet, but told critics of it that they should "get a life". He was fined £1,000 for his criticism.
Following his formal warning and £11,000 fine over his comments at the 2012 World Snooker Championship (see above), Allen said the focus on events in China was pricing players out of competing, pointing out that since Hearn took over, players now have to pay for their own flights, which can incur extra expenses of £10,000-£15,000 per season.
He has competed in 10 finals, winning seven. He has played in a further 10 semi-finals and his highest break to date is 146, which he has achieved twice: in the 2007 UK Championship qualifiers and at the 2010 World Snooker Championship.