Belfast Telegraph

Allen set to home in on more sporting glory in NI Open

By Steven Beacom

Mark Allen is as down to earth as they come. Just before our interview at the 147 Snooker Club in Antrim he's asking me if I fancy a cup of tea. No airs or graces with this guy. Never has been. Never will be. The 30 year-old is a genuine soul and a brilliant snooker player.

He's also great to interview because he is so open and honest.

Sometimes maybe too open for his own good as his straight talking and controversial comments in the past have led to him being fined by snooker's world governing body.

The Ulsterman can be good value on and off the table and although he might dispute it, he's an inspirational figure to many having admitted five years ago that he suffered from depression and continued to talk about coping with the illness.

"If I can help anyone unknowingly then that's great, but I did it for myself at the time and I'm happy to speak about it now and I know speaking openly really helped me through it," he says during our chat as part of a promotional day for next month's Northern Ireland Open.

"I went and saw a psychiatrist and then I spoke about it to my friends and family, which was the best thing I could have done.

"So if anyone is struggling out there, it's never as bad as you think and if you're fortunate to have a good family circle or friends around you then you'll always find a way through it.

"From my own experience sometimes living out of a suitcase and staring at hotel walls all the time and you're constantly at airports, things like that, it's hard sometimes. People don't appreciate that side of what we do as professional sportspeople.

"They just see the glamour of playing on TV with millions of people watching and there's good money on offer when you're doing well, but there's a downside to it too. There's a lot of alone time, there's a lot of time to get into your own head which sometimes is not where you want to be.

"It's important you have a good foundation of family and friends around you and I'm fortunate that I had that.

"They all know now to look for those little triggers in my life and it's good that they're there supporting me and they'll always be there as I would be for them as well.

"Once I opened up it sort of calmed me down and put me in a good place."

He is still in that 'good place' helped by the love of his life, wife Kyla McGuigan, who he wed in 2013, and stepson Robbie who is fast becoming a snooker sensation himself.

"He's 12 and he's already represented Northern Ireland three years in a row," says Allen, with a great sense of pride.

"He made an 83 break there the other day. He's absolutely flying and if I can tell him all what not to do it might stand him in good stead for the future!

"I'm obviously biased because he's my stepson, but I think he's as talented a junior as Northern Ireland have right now. I go with him to a lot of the junior events and, with the greatest of respect to the others who are a bit older than him, Robbie is head and shoulders, talent-wise, above the rest of them.

"He can do things at his age that the others are struggling to do at 17 and 18. As long as as he keeps his feet on the ground, keeps practicing hard and listens to me along the way, hopefully I can point him in the right direction."

Allen is a multiple winner on tour, ranked number eight in the world.

He tells me he is playing well this season but running into opponents at the top of their game or "steam trains on better days" as Allen puts it and getting knocked out of tournaments early on.

Mark, a big Manchester United fan, believes that will change when the £366,000 Northern Ireland Open takes place at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast from November 14-20.

There will be plenty of support for the popular left hander. Half of Antrim will probably be there roaring him on in an event which will have all the top names including Ronnie O'Sullivan, who Allen describes as "box office".

Jimmy White, another big favourite in these parts for his talent and friendship with the late, great Alex Higgins, will also compete as will Mark's countrymen Patrick Wallace, Jordan Brown and Joe Swail, currently enjoying a renaissance after laser eye surgery.

Allen is relishing having such a fantastic tournament in his own backyard.

"I don't feel like a big result is too far around the corner," says the one time World Amateur champion.

"I feel like I could win the tournament and people will think that's a big shock because he's done nothing all season but I feel like my game is in good enough shape to win tournaments. It's great that we have got an event in Northern Ireland.

"I expect good crowds all week, not just for my games, there's obviously Joe Swail as well, Jordan Brown from the same club here has qualified for it and Patrick Wallace is a former Crucible quarter-finalist.

"That's four home players to support and hopefully we can give the fans something to shout about all week.

"It's going to be a great spectacle, you're going to see the world's best players on show.

"This is massive for Northern Ireland. I think it's been eight, nine years since there's been an event like this here even though there's a strong snooker following in Northern Ireland.

"So to give the public what they really want, a tournament on home soil, it's hopefully the start of big things to come, not just for professional snooker in Northern Ireland, but hopefully grassroots snooker can push on at that level as people can see what they can aspire to.

"Going to see the top players play on their own doorstep will hopefully inspire them to practice harder and get into amateur tournaments that are around the country and push on and become the next professionals from Northern Ireland."

While focusing on upcoming events like the Northern Ireland Open, Allen makes no bones about his ultimate dream to win the World Championship at the Crucible one day, following in the footsteps of Hurricane Higgins and Dennis Taylor to bring even more sporting glory to the country.

Allen, whose closest friends in snooker are Swail, Shaun Murphy and Stephen Maguire, says: "Sport in Northern Ireland is amazing at the moment. The football team were at the Euros, Carl Frampton is World champion, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes are now in the professional ranks, we have a strong Ulster Rugby team and Rory McIlroy is the main man in golf.

"For such a small country we do so so well, and I want to do my bit too. All the success is great to see. We have such a small country and we should all pull together."

  • Tickets for the NI Open are available through Ticketmaster.

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