There was something strikingly familiar about it all. A popular, mercurial and outrageously talented Northern Irish crowd-pleaser, cradling his daughter and trophy before a raucous, animated and riveted audience, splendidly celebrating the most emotional victory of his career with the name of Higgins again a pivotal part of the narrative.
Mark Allen’s enthralling and wildly undulating 9-8 victory over the four-times world champion John Higgins in the final of the Northern Ireland Open at the magnificent Waterfront Hall in Belfast on Sunday evening invoked the spirit of his fabled compatriot Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins by claiming first prize amid some uniquely manic goings on.
All at once, it brought back some stirring memories of the Hurricane conquering the Crucible in 1982.
Northern Ireland Open
'One of the all-time greats' - Allen pays tribute to Higgins after Northern Ireland Open win
18/10/2021 AT 07:45
When Higgins – the ultimate working class hero from Sandy Row in Belfast – finished off Ray Reardon 18-15 with a hectic break of 135 in the final frame in Sheffield 39 years ago, he famously held his baby daughter Lauren and his second world title in perfect harmony.
The likeable and loquacious Allen warmly clasped his daughter Harleigh alongside the Alex Higgins Trophy, a title fittingly named after the celebrated ‘People’s Champion’ as a tribute to his hall of fame achievement, popularity and contribution to the growth of snooker during the advent of the professional game's televised boom of the 1980s.

'Pioneering moment'

The Antrim man – nicknamed 'The Pistol' since he turned professional in 2005 – achieved a pioneering moment for Northern Irish snooker even by modern day standards in shooting for the stars.
Despite such moments of sporting folklore, Alex Higgins never managed to achieve such a rousing ranking tournament success in his home city of Belfast during his rampaging 26-year career that saw him lift the Irish Masters with a 9-8 victory over Stephen Hendry at Goffs across the border in 1989.
Neither did the 1985 world champion Dennis Taylor, who completed several wins over the Hurricane at the gone but not forgotten Irish Professional Championship in Belfast.
“I can’t actually believe it,” said Allen. “I really wanted to play John because, especially here in front of my home fans, he is one of the all-time greats.
“It’s just a pleasure to play against him and any win against John is a big win. To do it here is a dream come true for me.
I have tried to play it down all week, but I know what this means to me, and I know what it means to the people here, so to win this trophy is a special moment that I will never forget.
Just like the Hurricane, a true sporting hell-raiser, in his pomp, the locals were hooked on every stroke and run of the ball at the Waterfront Hall when all looked lost for their local idol in trailing 8-6 from 6-5 clear and appearing to be down and out as Higgins bobbed and weaved his way majestically to 4-4 with one of the most splendid 48 clearances you will witness.

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Just like the Hurricane’s understated ability to mix up attacking instinct with thoughtful tactical adroitness, Allen chipped away at his opponent with some inspired matchplay combat. He dominated a scrappy 15th frame with Higgins appearing to stumble in his thought process at the key point after making breaks of 59, 64 and 136 to brilliantly assume control.

'Downfall'

Two shots probably contributed to the rejuvenated Scotsman’s downfall. A missed black off the spot from a tough angle with white close to a side cushion leading 31-0 when a telling safety seemed the more logical shot choice in the 16th frame was key, enabling Allen to contribute 58 on his way to restoring parity at 8-8.
His decision to roll in a green in the death throes of the decider and go for a longish red that he butchered leading 28-27 was arguably another self-harming error. A snooker behind the green may have yielded more rewards at such a taut point of the contest with only three reds remaining and adding the pressure of opting against an obvious percentage shot.

Watch one of the greatest clearances in snooker history from Higgins

For Allen, it does not matter. All that counted in final analysis was showing the character and discipline to succeed where his teak tough opponent unusually faltered. For that reason alone, it was hard to dispute the point that Allen was not a worthy winner of an event that has tortured him over the years.
Astonishingly enough, Allen’s greatest performance until this week at the Northern Ireland Open was reaching the last 16 in 2019. For a player of such obvious natural ability and inimitable shot-making instinct, it is a record that is bewildering, but one that is matched by his shortcomings at the World Championship.
Allen’s most poignant run at the Crucible was reaching the semi-finals in 2009 when he lost 17-13 to John Higgins from 13-3 behind with quarter-final appearances in 2010, 2011 and 2018 other noteworthy but slightly disappointing highlights for a figure boasting such vitality.

'Engaging technique'

There are similarities between the Hurricane and the maverick quality of Allen in having unusually short, sharp and engaging techniques, but also in coping with turmoil away from the baize.
Allen has suffered relationship break-ups, mental turmoil and declared himself bankrupt a few weeks after losing 13-7 to Mark Selby in the World Championship last 16 in May. Back in the day of the snooker craze, he would have made for classic tabloid fodder like Higgins, but he is still standing.
Judging by his efforts in Belfast, he is still potting too.
He started his campaign by compiling the 170th 147 maximum in snooker history and finished it with the title. He was 3-0 behind the world number one Judd Trump, but clawed his way back into the light with a 5-3 victory in the quarter-finals.
Like the Hurricane, Allen – a six-times ranking winner who is 11th on the all-time century list with 500 ton ups to his name – can be an unstoppable force when the mood takes him.
This is a bloke who once lifted the Scottish Open in 2018 while downing lager all week with a 9-7 final win over Shaun Murphy a week after losing 10-6 to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the UK Championship final with Eurosport analyst Jimmy White amusingly suggesting a few curers in the final session to improve his mood.
Perhaps he will be inspired by John Higgins’ ability to lose some weight in recent months to improve his own sense of well-being, but that is all down to personal choice.
Allen’s ability as a true snooker titan has never been in doubt having lifted the Masters in 2019 and the Champion of Champions trophy last season.
Making good on his early season and early career promise is the challenge.

'Muscle memory'

Consistency of stroke and concentration rather than shot selection are attributes that have arguably eluded him and plenty of his peers over the years, but not in Belfast when it mattered most. Not when the Pistol was staring down the barrel.
“You would think over the years, that shots are always in your locker,” Allen once told me at the Crucible. “Maybe even through muscle memory.
I think snooker is the most mental game going, you’ve so much time alone with your thoughts. And that isn’t a good place to be.
“But it is easy to get on a roll. I sometimes have to remember that I’m a good player, and have done well in the game so far. Sometimes you have to go back to basics, and enjoy it for what it is.
“For too long, I was working on so much, and I would forget to hit the shot. I’m going to go out to do what I did as a younger player, be aggressive and see where it takes me."

Watch clearance from ‘toughest yellow since Thorburn in ‘83’ as Allen shows huge ‘bottle’ in 147 bid

Snooker remains a game that can be mastered, but always only momentarily. Even by the game's greats such as John Higgins. It is extending the moments you crave that matter.
"Mark will have one of the best memories of his life," said a magnanimous Higgins after what was a sore defeat.

'Mark will have one of the best memories of his life' - Higgins pays tribute to Allen

Where Allen’s voyage goes from here, he will always remember the time when he won before his home crowd. The night when his dreams came true in Belfast in the autumn of 2021.
At the age of 35, in snooker terms at least, he is still in the summer of his dreams.
He may argue he would not swap the Northern Ireland Open triumph for anything, but he would. A world title is not beyond his grasp if he wants it badly enough.
Desmond Kane

How the Pistol fired to claim Belfast title

  • Round 1: 4-1 v Si Jiahui (Chn)
  • Round 2: 4-2 v Peter Devlin (Eng)
  • Round 3: 4-1 v Matthew Stevens (Wal)
  • Last 16: 4-3 v Stephen Maguire (Sco)
  • Quarter-final: 5-3 v Judd Trump (Eng)
  • Semi-final: 6-3 v Ricky Walden (Eng)
  • Final: 9-8 v John Higgins (Sco)
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