Now talent does the talking - at last Mark Allen is proving he can be a worthy successor to the legendary Higgins
Mark Allen wasn’t always enamoured at being compared to Alex Higgins.
Back in 2004, and just after he’d received his Belfast Telegraph Young Sports Star of the Year award at a packed Ramada Hotel in Belfast, the then 17-year-old was asked by compere Jackie Fullerton if he saw himself as the new Higgy.
His reply: “Well, no — I’m not an alcoholic...”
Let’s just say it was a rather awkward moment.
The expected answer — that, yes, he was flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as The Hurricane and would of course strive to emulate him — never materialised.
Instead, we got a teenager saying exactly what he was thinking — and an early indication of what was to come.
Today, it remains tempting to invite comparisons between Northern Ireland’s top snooker player and his illustrious late predecessor.
Charismatic, check. Maverick, check. Entertainer, check. ‘Bad boy’ label, check. Anti-authoritarian, check. Tormented by inner demons, check. Daughter called Lauren from failed relationship, check.
The ‘bad boy’ one is laughable, of course.
Mark may have made ill-advised remarks about China and the World Snooker governing body, but there’s no evidence that he has ever head-butted an official, urinated into a plant pot, played while hammered, or high — or both — threatened to have an opponent shot, or been decked by a fellow professional who, some remarked at the time, was merely at the front of a long queue waiting for the opportunity.
While it’s no secret that Higgins wasn’t exactly Mr Popular among his peers despite being the ‘People’s Champion’, the opposite can be said of his modern-day compatriot.
Straight-talking Allen has many friends, both around the green baize and away from it. Fellow snooker players respect him for saying what they’re thinking but afraid to say, and even World Snooker chief Barry Hearn appreciates the legendary Allen ‘feedback’, if not the method of its delivery.
But this is a sport, not a popularity contest.
And, of the myriad of adjectives used to describe the 1972 and 1982 World champion Higgy, ‘genius’ is still the one that pops up most often.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that an emotional Allen would speak of his pride at finally emulating the iconic Belfast cueman (below) by bringing the Masters trophy home to Northern Ireland.
You might even say that, 14 years on from that night in the Ramada, the wheel has come full circle.
Hopefully, there will be something cathartic in Sunday night’s victory for 31-year-old Allen who, despite spending so much of his formative years in dark snooker halls, didn’t believe he was the best junior player in Antrim town, let alone further afield.
But his parents, Ronnie and Lynne, believed in him, so much so that they remortgaged their home to bolster their colourblind — no, really — son’s dreams.
With a cheque for £200,000 banked from the Masters triumph and around £2m in career earnings to date, the gamble has paid off.
It’s hard to imagine, though, that Allen is motivated by money.
For someone who has been blighted and debilitated by depression in his adult life, there’s little doubt that sustained contentedness remains the principal goal.
It’s something he once believed he’d found with Reanne Evans, a star of women’s snooker and the mother of his oldest daughter Lauren, who was born 11 years ago.
The demise of that relationship plunged Allen, then in his early 20s, into a terrifying bout of depression where he curled up in bed, watched movies all day and refused to speak to friends or family.
You never know when that sort of nightmare can come knocking on the door again but Allen, like so many sufferers of the condition, is now well aware of the state of his own mental health and the triggers that could send him slipping back towards the abyss.
With wife Kyla, whom he married in 2013, and baby daughter Harleigh bringing love and stability into his life, it’s hard to imagine the new Masters champion being any happier than he is now.
Other goals remain, though.
Despite his many tournament wins over the past 13 years, it’s likely that ‘The Pistol’, amateur world champion in 2004, will feel he has missed too many big targets.
The Masters was his first capture of a hallowed ‘triple crown’ title (the others being World and UK).
You won’t be surprised to learn that Higgins won all three, and that compatriot Dennis Taylor, the 1985 world champion, laughed off the Hurricane’s threat to have him shot by bagging a Masters as well.
And, in modern-day snooker, ‘conquering the world’ has a different meaning.
The game may not be as popular in the UK as in the ‘80s, when 18.5m stayed up to watch Dennis defeat Steve Davis to take the world title, but global audiences have never been bigger thanks to snooker’s burgeoning popularity in China.
That’s the same China that Allen once described thus: “People are ignorant. Place stinks. Arenas rubbish, tables poor, food is horrendous.”
That didn’t stop the World No.8 garnering a huge following in the Far East — and lucrative contracts with the Chinese.
If Allen makes it all the way to a first world title this year, over 100m will be watching.
Showman Higgins would certainly have raised a glass to that.