How Mark Allen bounced back from dark days of depression to master his demons
NI's latest sporting champion Mark Allen battled depression and homesickness to lift the £200,000 Dafabet Masters title in London ... and his first priority on arriving home was to honour a long-standing commitment to play an exhibition in a Shankill Road hall. Ivan Little reports
Northern Ireland's newest sporting champion, Mark Allen, who's been savouring his first major triumph in snooker, has vowed to friends that he won't fall into the same traps that wrecked the life of his boyhood hero, Alex "Hurricane" Higgins.
And on his return home to the province yesterday evening, Mark said he hoped his victory would breath new life into snooker here.
At Belfast International Airport, he said he was overjoyed to have been confirmed as part of Ulster's snooker elite following in the footsteps of Higgins and Dennis Taylor.
Allen (31), who pocketed a £200,000 cheque for winning the Dafabet Masters after a tense weekend final against Kyren Wilson, also said he believed his dark days of depression on the "lonely" snooker circuit were behind him.
And his first priority was to honour a long-standing commitment to play fellow Northern Ireland professional Joe Swail in an exhibition match at the Trinity Snooker Hall on Belfast's Shankill Road.
Minutes after becoming the first Northern Ireland man to win the Masters since Taylor in 1987, Mark's celebrations with his young family were uncannily similar to how Alex Higgins marked his victory in the 1982 World Championship Final at the Crucible in Sheffield, where he was joined after the trophy presentation by wife Lynn and daughter Lauren.
Mark also has a daughter called Lauren, who was in his arms in 2011 in the Crucible arena after he won a game there.
Mark and Lauren's mother - women's snooker ace Reanne Evans - broke up in 2008 after a three-year relationship.
And last week, the ever-candid Mark admitted in an interview that he regretted he hadn't been a better father to Lauren.
Mark, who married Kyla McGuigan in 2013, also revealed that:
• a psychotherapist has helped him with problems in his past;
• he has had to contend with "unfair" racism accusations after he condemned facilities for a snooker tour of China;
• he partied too hard and enjoyed the single life too much in his younger days;
• he still hates being away from home and;
• he thought he should have won more than 10 tournaments by this stage of his career.
Immediately after his triumph at Alexandra Palace on Sunday night, Mark was his usual sporting self - commiserating with the man he beat.
Englishman Wilson, the world number 14, was in floods of tears, but Mark told him he had a great future in the game.
He said: "He's also the nicest guy. Kyren will have many more days like this. I know what it feels like being in that seat, when I lost to Judd Trump in the 2011 UK final."
One of the first people to hug Kyren was the victor's father, Ronnie Allen, a former snooker player himself.
Like his son, Ronnie hopes Mark's first success in one of snooker's 'Triple Crown' events will be a stepping-stone to more glory days, especially at the World Championships later this year.
Mark said that it was Ronnie who taught him how to play snooker in an Antrim social club. He said he was useless at the start, but soon improved, racking up scores of 100-plus before too long.
Mark was also a keen footballer and eventually had to make a choice between the two sports.
Mark picked the green baize over the green football fields and he has thanked Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor for inspiring young snooker stars of the future like himself and Joe Swail.
Mark won all before him at junior and senior level in the amateur game in Northern Ireland and also scooped European and World titles before turning professional.
"I was very confident," he said.
His first pro tournament was in his own backyard in the televised Northern Ireland Trophy.
It was a dream start - he beat the legendary Steve Davis and John Higgins to reach the semi-final where he lost to another snooker icon, Stephen Hendry.
Mark learnt a salutary lesson: the next time he played Hendry he never looked at him, because he had been so starstruck the first time around.
As quickly as Mark's career took off, it nearly crash landed just as fast.
He said in a podcast interview recently that he and his ex-partner Reanne weren't ready for the arrival of a child.
And he said that he was "in such a bad place mentally" that his form plummeted and he could have been dropped from the snooker tour.
However, Mark's game recovered and he won his way into the top 16 of the sport after qualifying to play at the "holy ground" of snooker, the Crucible, and he said the thrill of going there every year had never left him.
What never came his way - until now - was a significant title.
He lost eight semi-finals in a row, but he said the "nearly man" jibes in the Press didn't annoy him.
"I always felt that a tournament win was not far away," he said.
A huge fillip came with his win in the Haikou China Open. He loved the success - but hated the place.
He said the accommodation, the food - and the discovery of a dead cat - made the place the worst he'd ever seen.
Mark was fined over his views, which he claimed were shared by many of his less-outspoken snooker colleagues.
Mark said in the recent podcast chat with Dave Hendon that some people on social media still tarred him with the racism brush.
"But that's not who I am," he insisted.
Mark has had other run-ins with snooker officials down the years, but he said he stood by most of his comments.
After his Masters win, he told the TV audience that he and snooker impresario Barry Hearn hadn't always seen eye-to-eye and he once swore about him at a Press conference.
But he said that Hearn encouraged him to criticise him more because the publicity was "great".
"A lot of what I said was true. Some people don't like the truth," he added.
The China experience brought home Mark's dislike of being away from home.
"That's the hardest part. The rewards are great, if you're doing really well, but I would question if you're not part of the top 16 is it worth that sacrifice?"
Mark has also talked openly in the past about his battle with depression.
He said he never contemplated suicide, but he did feel low at times when he was living on his own, sitting in the bedroom of the house he'd bought "listening to sad music".
He said talking openly to a psychologist - a stranger - was good for him and enabled him to speak more freely to friends and family.
"They know the signs to look for if I ever have a relapse type of thing, but I don't feel that is ever going to happen again. I'm very, very settled off the table and my snooker's in a good place. Everything's going well now."
Mark said he now socialised on tour with other players, whereas in the past he preferred to live "in his own bubble".
Mark said there were players that he didn't like, including Mark Joyce, but he added that they'd had a few drinks together and tried to put the past behind them.
Mark said that he was almost at the point where he believed there was too much snooker on the circuit.
"It's very, very hard. Me and my wife have just had another little girl - she's only five months. I hate being away from home and missing her grow up.
"My massive regret to do with Lauren is that I don't really see her at all. Part of that is to do with snooker and part of that is to do with me - I wasn't a good father."
Mark said he would like to spend more time at home, but the rewards from snooker were now greater than ever.
He said he understood the prize money from 25 worldwide tournaments was around £12m. But the travelling was gruelling and he would welcome a reduction in the number of competitions.
At Alexandra Palace, Mark was roared on to victory by a huge contingent of fans, including members of the Green and White Army from a Northern Ireland football supporters club from London.
But Mark still took the time after the Masters to thank everyone in the crowd - not just his own fans.
He later partied long into the night and said that he anticipated more celebrations back home in Northern Ireland.