The 2009 Masters tournament saw some fantastic snooker from the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby, Stephen Maguire and John Higgins, but it was the run of Antrim’s Mark Allen that really caught my eye. Click below to read why…
Having burst onto the scene with a stack of prestigious amateur titles to his name aged just 19, Mark Allen was already being touted as a future world champion before he had even played a professional match. While a lot of young players can struggle early on however, when Mark lined up at the season opening Northern Ireland Trophy he was to have no such trouble and defeated former world champions Steve Davis and John Higgins to reach the quarter-finals of this invitational event.
There though he was to meet Stephen Hendry, arguably the greatest player of all-time and importantly, Mark Allen’s snooker idol. Though Allen was perhaps a little overawed by this, eventually going down 5-1, he learned a lot from the week and in his first season did enough to keep his place on the main tour for another year – no mean feat given the tour structure at the time.
Continuing to rise up the rankings and learn about what being a pro was about, it would be the climax of the 2006/7 season which really saw Mark make an impression on the snooker world as he reached the last 16 of the World Championship at the famous Crucible Theatre. Having come through a number of tough qualifying matches he found himself paired with a former world champion and provisional world number one in the form of Irishman Ken Doherty, certainly not an easy starter in anyone’s book.
I was there on the front row for that match, supporting Ken and if truth be told I did not really consider the possibility that he might lose the match before it started as for as good as Allen’s record was, 21-year old debutants don’t put former world champions out in the first round at the Crucible do they?
As things turned out however it did not take long for me to reconsider as Mark immediately looked comfortable, like he had been playing there for years and it was Ken who looked to be unsettled. More importantly perhaps, Mark appeared to be fearless – a quality that his idol Stephen Hendry had in abundance and used to great effect. Mark just had a swagger and a confidence around the table that I had never seen before at a live event from one so young.
Ending the session 6-3 up all was looking good for him but the next morning it was predictably Ken who made the better start, recovering to 6-6 and then 7-7 with a sublime break of 135, the highest of the tournament so far. At that point in the arena it just felt like that was it, Ken had got him and surely now the youngster would wilt, but the reality was somewhat different as Mark stuck to his task and won the next three frames to secure a famous victory.
While he bowed out in the next round to Welshman Matthew Stevens, Mark had made a real name for himself and the jubilant scenes outside the Crucible after his round one win showed just how much it meant to him. He was now in the top 32 after just two seasons and already knocking in the door of the top 16.
In 2007/8 his rise continued as he reached his first ranking semi-final at the Northern Ireland Trophy, before defeating Hendry in the first round of the UK Championship at Telford to record what must have been a really special win for him.
However, the season was not without its troubles as first there was an incident at the Grand Prix which led to a usually mild-mannered Doherty describing Mark as a ‘disgrace’. As a result of this incident and his supreme confidence around the table that I previously made reference to, his popularity amongst certain snooker fans was not exactly high, though his usual army of friends from Northern Ireland always ensure that he feels at home at the major events.
A year on from his breakthroug win against Doherty, Mark again qualified for the Crucible and again was paired with the great Stephen Hendry in which was for me undoubtedly the tie of the round. Stephen was really struggling for form at this stage and with Mark needing just one win to secure a place in the top 16 for the first time, it was a match that was just impossible to call.
After the first session it looked like Allen was in complete control at 6-3 and when he left Hendry needing two snookers at the start of day two, like he was destined for the biggest win of his career to date. Stephen though has not won seven world titles for nothing and hung in there brilliantly, getting the snookers that he needed to take that frame and eventually winning a thrilling match 10-9 and breaking Mark’s heart in the process.
Tears were reportedly shed and understandably so, Mark in his eyes had just thrown away a place in the all-important top 16 and would have to wait another year. However, with Joe Swail’s 13-12 defeat to Liang Wenbo in the second round, Mark was given a reprieve and just snuck in at number 16 meaning that he could put this loss to Hendry out of his mind much quicker than he would otherwise have been able to and continue his progression in the game.
Make no mistake, to be a member of the top 16 after just three seasons is a fine achievement and one that I feel has gone rather un-noticed as the likes of Wenbo and the even younger Judd Trump have stolen the headlines in recent months. The start to this season however had been a rather inconsistent one, with good results again at his home event in Northern Ireland, but bad ones soon to follow.
At the Masters last week however, Mark reminded everyone just how good he could be as having beaten Trump for the second time this season, he defeated Ryan Day in the last 16 to reach the his first Masters quarter-final. He did not just beat Ryan though, he absolutely destroyed him 6-1 and barely missing a long pot. After such a good win some might have expected him to struggle in his next match against defending champion Mark Selby and at 2-0 down they looked to be right, but Allen showed his bottle and fought back to win the next four frames with some fabulous snooker before eventually losing the match 6-5.
In the light of his behaviour against Doherty during that Grand Prix tie and his reaction having lost to Hendry at the Crucible, I wondered just how Mark would take such a close defeat as this, would there be tears? Would there be a tantrum? In fact I was very impressed to see that Mark’s comments were gracious, composed and positive, perhaps a sign of increasing maturity that comes with experience and even just growing up. It is easy to forget sometimes that he is still just 22 years old, it feels like he has been around for years now!
So what does the future hold for Antrim’s finest? For me he remains one of the brightest prospects in the game at present and up to 10th in the latest provisional rankings, his seemingly relentless progress in the game continues at a rapid rate. The next step for him has to be a ranking event final now, or even a title if the circumstances are right and then his ranking will take care of itself. If he can get into the top eight next season and secure better seedings into the events then his chances will be only be improved.
There are a lot of good players in the game right now all knocking on the door for their first ranking event title, some of whom have reached finals like Ali Carter and Ryan Day, while Joe Perry has also looked to be in great shape. Something though just tells me that with Mark’s tremendous long-potting, break-building, fearlessness and confidence, that he might well win that maiden title before any of them.
Time will tell…